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The Drowning Man

“silhouette photography of person in dim light” by Eidy Bambang-Sunaryo on Unsplash

On a clear and dark night, look to the southern part of the sky. Seek the Gourd, and then, just below its lower right star, is the tip of the finger of the Drowning Man constellation. Follow the finger as it extends downward another four stars, as it joins a wavy belt of six other stars representing the ocean. According to historians, the finger that makes up the Drowning Man is a middle finger, an archaic gesture of disrespect. And like most constellations, the Drowning Man has a legend of its origin.

A long time ago, a rich man and his daughter were walking across a river bridge. They were continuing an argument that began weeks ago. The daughter wanted some extravagant gift — some say a horse, others say a pile of jewelry — for her upcoming birthday. The father, who was wont to capitulate to his daughter’s whims, staunchly refused. They went on and on, neither side budging, until the daughter leaned against the railing and fell into the river. The rich man didn’t hesitate and jumped into the water to rescue his daughter.

But it was a deception. The daughter pushed her father’s head under the waves, held him there as his thrashings became less forceful and then ceased. The rich man drowned at the hands of his daughter.

In the struggle, the rich man’s arm got caught upright on a rock. When his daughter rose onto the muddy banks, thoughts of her inheritance dancing in her eyes, she turned one last time out to the river. There, where her ghastly deed was done, shot up her father’s arm like a litmus, the middle finger extended — a final gesture damning her from beyond the grave.

Legend says that the rich man’s spirit ascended that evening, soared to the heavens and spread out across the night sky as stars. Why is this myth of one man’s fate important to us?

We tell this tale and other stories to remind us that the stars are more than pretty lights against the night skies. We tell stories to honor our ancestors and to heed their warnings. We tell stories to connect our present to our past, just as the stars connect us to the universe beyond.

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