The final piece of the puzzle was the actual readings of the star myth stories. I spent time looking on the web for stories told in the first person, and found few. The solution was to rewrite the myths myself. I looked up primary and secondary sources for various constellations, selected a character to tell the story, decided how to present that character, and then started writing. Given the initial venue for the installation, I didn't feel the need to stick strictly with classical interpretations of the myths, and made some non-traditional choices in creating the characters and giving them voices. For example, Callista (Ursa Major) is a bitter skater grrl that Zeus raped and Hera turned into a bear. Phoenix shows up as kind of an immortal beat poet. Cupid's a valley girl (Pisces), and Draka (Draco) is an old Bronx queen. A couple of the stories were written by friends or used directly in the form found on the net.

I buttonholed many of my friends into doing the voiceover recordings, bringing by a portable studio, and coaching them through the reading. If errors were made, we'd just back up a bit and keep going, without stopping the recording. I was then going to edit the recordings later. True to the burning man spirit, the editing didn't quite get done in time, and for the first few days, many of the stories sounded like humourous outtakes. Several of the people listening asked me to leave it that way and not do the edits.

In the end I managed to record 28 constellation stories: Andromeda, Auriga (told in three versions), Cancer, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Delphinus (two versions), Draka, Eridanus, Hydra, Ma'iio: Coyote (a Native American myth, retold by Kaytlynn Dunnigan), a couple of southern African myths about how the stars and the milky way were created, Orion, Perseus, Phoenix, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Sirius, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Virgo, and Zeta Tauri, one of the horns of Taurus, told as the Hindu myth of Svaha.


The Story of Phoenix

It ain't easy being immortal. You live for a long time, sure, but you make friends, and they don't last long. Sure, you could just hang out with Anubis or Ra, Enoch, Gil-Galad, or maybe Artemis. They're grand. They know things from way back. But they're no Louis Armstrongs. None of 'em could sing like Ella. Man you don't know the joy of chatting up a tortured artist like Michaelangelo. Something about that short life concentrates all that Chutzpah into a few short years. That's where the party is!

Yeah, but you get attached to them, and they disappear before you know it. And if you take on their form and live with 'em, you don't age, they get onto you. Think you're a witch or a demon, get scared. Try to burn you.

So I figured it out. I learned how to age. Sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Didn't matter. When I got too old, I'd always revert back to my own form: a crimson, gold, and purple bird with sweeping tail and jeweled eyes. My wings would grow heavy and I'd fly to the western horizon where I'd burst into flames and fall in a little heap of ashes.

The Egyptians were the first to see me do this. They called me the Bennu, and built a whole set of mythology around me.

I am the Bennu, the soul of Ra,
and the guide of the gods in the Tuat;
let it be so done unto me that I may enter in like a hawk,
and that I may come forth like Bennu, the Morning Star.
Yeah, that's from the Egyptian book of the dead. They thought that if they made that prayer at the right time, their soul would merge with the Great Bennu and their immortality would be assured. Didn't work. Fun, though. And all these pictures of me as a great green heron.

But you've probably heard of me from a later time. In Greece they called me Phoenix. Yeah, same gig. Hang out with the artists till I got bored or they figured me out, turn back into the fire bird, fly west, burn up, new body. You get it by now.

Once in Rome, there was this emperor Heliogabulus. Named himself after the sun god. I wonder if he knew about Phaeton? He loved to eat. Bird brains and tongues. That was his specialty. Hired cooks from all over the place.

So one day, he decides he wants a phoenix dinner. Thinks it'll make him immortal if he could eat my brain. So he sends his men out to find me. Of course I'm right there in the palace, so I find out about the plan. And since I was getting tired of that gig, I decide it's time to fly west. They see my long sweeping tail feathers, put me in a cage and take me to the emperor. "Brilliant!" he cries. "Cook it and let us feast!" So they kill me, saute me up and he has his meal. Yeah, just about then the process kicks in and I start burning. Lotta good that does the emperor. They found him the next morning with his face twisted in a horrible rictus. If they had autopsies back then they would have wondered at his charred insides, or at the little bird that hopped out when they buried him.

These days I'm hanging out on seventh street in Oakland with all the fire artists. Maybe I'll go head out to the desert in Nevada.

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