Murdoch Independent editor Carmelo Amalfi explores the undiscovered country that is Aboriginal astronomy.
INDIGENOUS Australians have interpreted objects in the night sky for tens of thousands of years.
They observed the stars and composed stories handed down by their ancestors through song and dance and images recorded on bark paintings and rock walls.
The more accurately they knew the position and movement of the Sun, Moon and stars, the better they could predict when to hunt, harvest and call the tribes together.
They used the stars to navigate and find food. They consulted the constellations where their ancestors camped. And they moved between land and sky.
Unfortunately, many of these oral traditions have been lost since European settlement in the late 18th century.
Aboriginal poet Kath Walker grew up on Stradbroke Island where she says she recognised a group of stars as ‘Mirabooka’ – a good man who was carried into the sky by the Great Spirit Father so he could look after his people.
She says when the Europeans came to Australia they changed the name of this group of stars to the Southern Cross: “They not only stole our lands but also our sky.”
Objects in the sky were, and still are, associated with Dreamtime ‘dramas’ which deal with the values and morals of the community.
“The heavens, equally with the earth, are of the Dreamtime drama, where stars are allotted tribal classifications and are personified as mythological characters,” according to the late Perth Observatory honorary historian Muriel Utting.
Utting quotes B.G. Maegraith, whose 1932 book, The Astronomy of the Aranda and Luritja Tribes, described two great ‘camps’ separated by the Milky Way, which is a great river or creek.
“The aborigine has gone beyond the stage of merely mapping out the stars into groups and painting fantastic stories in the sky,” Maegraith states.
“In a way, he may be said to have tried to analyse the physical features of the stars and to have noted such attributes as their motion and degree of magnitude.”
This is why astronomers today are interested in the indigenous stories of the night sky. Whether Indigenous Australians were the first astronomers remains open to debate.
THE night sky exists as a distinct ‘Skyworld’ that obeys the same laws as those on earth.
Its existence is echoed in the words of Yamaji artist David Prior, whose display Celebrations depicts the moment when land and sky worlds meet: “Greeting and celebrations of the sky spirits as they welcome the great rainbow serpent into their sky space, as it entered the sky world.”
South Australian Museum researcher Philip Clarke has found in many parts of the country where the impact of European settlement was greatest, the accounts of Aboriginal astronomical beliefs were based mostly on early 19th century sources.
Unfortunately, this information was unreliable and compiled by observers unfamiliar with indigenous southern sky relationships.
The existence of the heavens as an image of the terrestrial landscape was common.
In central Australia, Dr Clarke notes ‘tribal’ and linguistic boundaries are reflected in a cosmic landscape where the ancestors of living people dwell – linking astronomical objects to the Aboriginal kinship system.
“The Skyworld was perceived as a place where great knowledge could be attained,” he says. “Aboriginal ‘doctors’ and ‘sorcerers’ in the early years of European settlement frequently claimed to have visited the Skyworld, often by climbing a tree or a large hill.”
The Skyworld is no more or less sacred than the Earth.
According to Dr Clarke’s ethno-astronomy studies, the Milky Way dominates the sky. It is a great river filled with fish and lily ‘sky people’ and its banks are lined by their ancestors’ fires.
The Pleiades or seven sisters collected roots and vegetables that grow around it. Gaps in the constellations also were thought to harbour waterholes, lagoons and billabongs where dangerous ‘beings’, or demons, dwelled.
According to Albert Calvert’s The Aborigines of Western Australia, 1894, “Mullion” is a wicked being who lives in a big tree and seizes ‘black fellows’ to eat in the Milky Way.
People of the Warburton Ranges in WA saw a great totem board in a long line of dark patches along the Milky Way between Alpha Centauri and Alpha Cygnu. The board was made by two ancestral heroes, the Wati Kutjara, while accompanying the seven sisters.
Around Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, people tell of the legend of two brothers who drown while canoeing. Their bodies represent the two dark patches in the Milky Way in the constellations of Serpens and Sagittarius.
The canoe is a line of four stars near Antares.
Colour, too, was important. The Aranda people of central Australia distinguish red stars from white, blue and yellow stars.
In eastern NSW, the red star Aldebaran represents the story of a man who stole another man’s wife and hid in a tree that the angry husband set fire to. The flames carried the adulterer into the sky where he still burns red.
Studies of Indigenous astronomy offer great insights into important ceremonial cycles and mythological beliefs of the Aboriginal people in Australia.
According to Think.com, which is part of ThinkQuest, a learning platform for teachers and students, indigenous astronomy is, ‘like the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals’.
David Prior ‘s Celebrations is a window to the Skyworld.
GERALDTON artist Charmaine Green says the land and sky are connected in many ways which all connect back to the culture of Yamaji people.
“My mother and aunties taught us kids about the sky and how we can read it to tell us about bush tucker, especially when emu nesting time was near,” she says.
“Our families would then go out from Mullewa for the day. On these trips my mother’s brother (my uncle) would lead all us smaller kids and teach everyone (girls and boys) how to track the emu for eggs.”
Charmaine says as they got older they were expected to hand this information on through the generations.
“I paint to keep these stories alive and to remind everyone of the responsibilities we have in this changing world towards our cultural knowledge,” she says.
The late Kimberley elder David Bungal Mowaljarlai, who during World War Two helped American forces to find shot-down Japanese airmen and brought leprosy sufferers to Derby, has said everything is written twice – on the ground and in the sky.
Aborigines made no measurements of space and time nor did they apply even the most basic mathematical calculations.
Though the Sun and the feel of the wind were used for directions, the stars were not. They almost universally represent totemic ancestral beings, with the knowledge of their existence passed on by the ‘old men’ of a tribe.
For Australia’s early stargazers, patterns were more important than brightness.
They often identified a small cluster of obscure stars while ignoring more prominent stars.
South Australian astronomer Paul Curnow, who teaches and lectures on ‘Australian starlore’, says Aboriginal people used the night sky as a storyboard, reinforcing tribal laws and legends.
“Indigenous Australians prefer the term ‘Dreaming’ because the word ‘Dreamtime’ often implies a set time in the past, however, to Aboriginal people there is no set time in the Dreaming, it is an ongoing process,” he says.
The Dreaming exists in the present as well as the past so that land, sky, animals, plants and humans are united spiritually through the presence of their stellar ancestors.
University of New South Wales English Professor Roslynn Haynes has found that traditional Aboriginal culture paid no attention to the two basic Western concepts of numeracy and temporality.
They were not interested in positional astronomy, “their understanding of the constellations was relational rather than mathematically based”.
For example, Venus is the sister of the Sun and wife of Jupiter. Other groups call Venus the ‘Laughing Star’, an old man who once said something improper and has been laughing at his joke ever since.
MODERN astronomy has only one creation story of the universe, the Big Bang, while Aboriginal people have many stories of how the universe formed.
The Wandjina figures of WA’s Kimberley region made the universe, including the fauna, the flora, the rain and the rivers, before they disappeared from the world. They left an imprint of themselves on the walls of caves.
Indigenous Astronomy in Australia includes many mythological figures associated with the creation of the sky and constellations.
The Boorong people of western Victoria believed the sun ‘Gnowee’ was made by Pupperimbul, one of the Nurrumbunguttias, or old spirits of men and women, who were removed to the heavens before man was created.
The Nurrumbunguittas were cold at night so they made fires to warm themselves and cook their food.
The earth had been in perpetual darkness until Puppcrimbul threw an emu egg into space where it burst and flooded the sky with light.
When the great flood came, many Nurrumbunguittas were drowned while others were carried off into the sky where they became stars and gods.
The Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains believe celestial bodies such as the stars once lived on the earth, where they lived partly as men and partly as animals. Eventually, they ascended into the stars.
Aborigines across Australia shared a similar cosmology in which the universe had four tiers. Earth is a flat disc surrounded by water and covered by a solid sky dome.
Beyond the dome is a land of beautiful flowers that never fade, abundant food and rivers where the spirits of the dead are carried. Observers on the earth see them as stars shining through holes in the cover.
The nature of the sky dome varies. People from the Great Australian Bight area told Australian anthropologist Daisy Bates that the sky was held up by a great tree, Warda.
Other groups believe it is supported by trees, guarded by an old man or held from above by the stars and the emu, whose nest sits in the Coal Sack.
Beneath the earth is a lower world through which the sun travels on her nightly journey from west to east. People from the Great Australian Bight area in South Australia believed this lower world was the place where the spirits or unborn children lived.
Far from being a medieval hell, the underworld is believed to consist of two high stony ranges separated by a deep valley along which the Sun-woman travels on her journey from west to east.
When the floodwaters receded, the children of the star gods went back to the earth and became the first men and women.
The old spirits of the Nurrumbunguttias are still alive. It is because of them that there are storms, darkness and evil spirits in the world today.
IN Greek mythology, the constellation of Orion is a great hunter. In Australia, it is referred to as the ‘saucepan’ or ‘shopping trolley’.
For the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory, it is a canoe, Djulpan. The three stars on Orion’s Belt depict three brothers from the kingfish clan, one of whom was so hungry he ate a forbidden kingfish believed to contain the spirits of his Dreamtime ancestors.
Seeing this, the Sun-woman Walu created a waterspout that blew the brothers and the canoe into the sky.
Above the three star-brothers is the forbidden fish and the two stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel, are the bow and stern of the canoe.
The Kuwema people near Katherine in the Northern Territory knew dingoes would start to mate when Orion rose in the early morning sky in winter.
The pups are an important food source for the Kuwema.
The constellation of Orion also represents an emu.
For many Aboriginal groups, the Coalsack, the dark cloud next to the Southern Cross, is associated with the ‘emu in the sky’.
The Coalsack itself is the head of the emu, or to some tribal groups, a possum in a tree. The neck, body and legs are the dust trails stretching across the Milky Way.
A story from Papunya in the Northern Territory recounts how an old blind man speared a huge emu and banished it to the Milky Way after the emu killed the man’s wife when she tried to take eggs from the emu’s nest.
The emu in the sky has featured in Aboriginal stories for thousands of years. Different language groups have their own interpretation of not only the emu, but sharks, stingrays, mallee fowl, parrots, fish, hunters, men, women, girls and boys.
For WA artist Margaret Whitehurst the emu in the sky is a sign to go hunting for emu eggs: “As children, it was always a competition to see who could find the first nest and the most eggs.
“Then we went home where mum always made a cake out of the first egg and the others were made into omelettes.
“The emu egg is like gold to our people.”
Several Aboriginal groups describe how the Pleiades are a group of seven sisters chased by a young man or men in the constellation of Orion.
For the Pitjantjara tribe in the Western Desert, the appearance of the seven sisters in the dawn sky in autumn signalled the start of the dingo breeding season.
The sisters are also known as the Maya-Mayi and desired by every man who saw them. A warrior, Warrumma, kidnapped two sisters who found their chance to escape when they climbed a tree growing towards the sky.
Warrumma was helpless and stayed behind on Earth while the two sisters rejoined the other five sisters at their camp in the sky.
In Melville and Bathurst islands in northern Australia, the Pleiades are a group of kangaroos eternally chased by a pack of dingoes, which are represented by Orion.
Some groups describe the star cluster as a group of women called Makara. Ground frost was associated with icicles dropped by the women as they moved across the sky.
“We need the Sun. The sun is our warmth and light.”AMONG the Murray River people, the birth of the Sun is linked to the tossing of a giant emu egg into the sky where it struck a heap of dry wood and burst into flames, bringing light to the dark world.
The Great Spirit Baiame saw how muce world was improved by the light and decided to rekindle the woodpile each day.
Most stargazing civilisations from the Greeks to the Quechua Indians of Peru designated the Sun as male and the Moon as female. Nearly all Australian Aboriginal peoples regarded the Sun as female and the Moon as male.
The people of southwest Tasmania regarded the Sun as male and the Moon as his wife Vena. The Karruru people of the Nullarbor Plain regard the Moon as the wife of the Morning Star, Venus.
In other versions of the story, the Sun-woman’s daughter wants to accompany her mother, who refuses because two suns in the sky would set the land on fire.
The Yolngu people of the Northern Territory say Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning (the dawn). She paints herself with red and yellow ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds to create the sunrise.
She then lights a bark torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating the daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of the ochre falls on the clouds to create the sunset.
She then puts out her torch and travels underground through the night to return to her camp. This underworld journey was important in the designation of the Sun as female, whose torch bringing warmth and fertility to the interior of the Earth, causing plants to grow.
In the Milingimbi legends of Arnhem Land, the Sun sets in the sea so that she becomes a great fish and swims under the Earth to return the next morning. The Moon also becomes a fish and passes beneath the Earth during the day.
As in other cultures, the Moon is linked with fertility. Young girls were warned they would become pregnant if they stared at the moon.
In Central Queensland, the Moon is the eye of a man who lost his other eye after the mythical swamp creature, the Bunyip, hit him with a frog when he tried to rescue his woman.
In Western Australia and Arnhem Land stories, staring at the moon may bring death. Other groups linked it with immortality – he dies every month and is then reborn.
One of the many lunar origin stories includes the creation of the ‘light boomerang’ (crescent moon) to guide people at night.
Many Aboriginal groups saw the Southern Cross as a stingray pursued by two sharks – Alpha and Beta Centauri.
In the Western Desert, people saw in the kite shape of the Cross a footprint of Waluwara, the wedge-tailed eagle while the pointers represented his throwing stick and the Coalsack his nest.
The Aranda people of central Australia also referred to Waluwara, whose talons include the four brightest stars in the Cross.
The Borong people see in the Cross a possum in a tree.
The Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong and Murray Valley region of South Australia saw the Cross as a stingray, Nunganari, pursued by two sharks, Ngarakani.
THE Yolngu people describe Ngalindi, the Moon-man, as fat and lazy.
The Moon was once a young slim man (the waxing crescent moon), who grew fat and lazy (full moon).
Breaking the law, he was attacked and killed by his people (new moon).
Three days later, he rose again to repeat the cycle.
The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory say he grows fat at each full moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey tribal laws.
The Yolngu tell of his wives who chopped him up with their axes (waning moon). To escape, he climbs a tall tree towards the Sun, but dies from his wounds (new moon).
At Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land and on Groote Eylandt, when the Moon is new or full and sets at sunset or sunrise, the tides are high. When the Moon is in the zenith at sunrise or sunset, the tides are low.
The Aborigines believe the high tides, running into the Moon as it sets into the sea, make it fat and round.
When the tides are low, the water pours from the full moon into the sea and the Moon becomes thin.
UNPREDICTABLE, eclipses were regarded as a source of great fear – and love.
The Aranda people of central Australia explained it as the Arungquilta, an evil influence that arrived from the west and attempted to set up camp in the Sun to shut out its light.
The Ngadjuri people of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia regard solar eclipses as two lizard men killing an old woman and her dogs.
The Sun is returned when one of the lizard men throws a boomerang to the east.
In northwest Arnhem Land, solar eclipses occur when the Moon-man copulates with the Sun-woman and temporarily obscures her light.
A lunar eclipse is caused when the Moon-man is pursued and threatened by the Sun-woman.
A solar eclipse is interpreted as the Moon-man uniting with the Sun-woman.
THE appearance of meteors and comets were interpreted differently among Australian Aboriginal groups.
In northeastern Arnhem Land, because of their speed and unpredictability, they are believed to be a sky canoe carrying the spirits of the dead.
The debris trails that follow them indicate the dead person has left a big family.
Others say they are souls returning to Earth.
Among the Yarralin people of the Northern Territory and the Kwadji people of Cape York, shooting stars signal the passage of a dead person’s breath or spirit to his own land.
To the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville islands, meteors represent the eyes of the one-eyed spirit men, Pipinjawari, “who steal bodies and suck the blood of their victims”.
Most stories are linked to tragedy or an imminent death signalled by already deceased relatives.
Comets were widely believed to be flaming spears hurled across the heavens by ancestral figures. The Pitjantjatjara people of the Western Desert associated them with a powerful sky hero who flung his spear across the sky.
Aborigines living near Adelaide told explorer Edward Eyre that a particularly spectacular comet was an omen that sorcerers from the north were about to destroy them.
The Gosse Bluff impact crater near Alice Springs is said to have formed when one of the ancestral women dancing in formation as the Milky Way put down her baby in a bark coolamon or food carrier. The baby and carrier fell from the sky and created the crater.
The mother and father, the morning and evening stars, are still looking for their child.