But, does the Milky Way have milk?

A childish question perhaps. However, the word galaxy is derived from gala, the Greek word for milk, because in ancient times, it was believed that the cloudy whitish circle around the horizon (now know to be a light milky zone, consisting of billions of stars and cloudy stellar material) was made from milk (or was milk-like).

Plutarch (1) gives the etymological interpretation of the universe: “called the galaxy because of its whitish hue”. To ancient eyes, it seemed like a road leading to mystery. According to one myth, the “illuminated path” was created by the sun on its daily course (solar path). Other myths view the “star dust” of the galaxy (the path of Phaethon) because of the catastrophic charioteer Phaethon (2). The myth explaining the etymology of the galaxy is that of Hera, who breast-fed Hercules so that he would become immortal. However, when she discovered Zeus’ infidelity, she abruptly stopped breast-feeding and her milk was spilled in the universe.

The Romans, influenced by the Greek term called the “Milky circle”via lactea (Eng.: Milky Way). Ovid (3) believed that the road led to the palace of Zeus. The Milky Way stirred the imagination of the ancients. I imagine them wondering: “Where does this road lead?”, “What is behind it?” You see, it is impossible that they did not have their fair share of stellar gazers.

Galileo was to overturn the simplistic version of the “milky mist” and determined that it is a bright whitish band, which consists of billions of stars.

The word passed on, as it was (gala > milk, latte…) or translated in all Western languages:

English: Galaxy or Milky way

Italian: galassia or via lacteal

French: Galaxie or voie lactee

German: Galaxie or Milchstrasse


  1. Plutarch (On those who like philosophising, 892e)
  2. Diodorus, Ε, 23
  3. Ovid, Metamorfosi Ι, 168

George Damianos

Text translated from Greek