Australian Aboriginal astronomy

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Black sky with a wide diagonal streak of bright blue stars, partially hidden by a silhouetted tree
Many Aboriginal groups interpret the Great Rift in the Milky Way as a river in the sky. Other groups identfy it as the Rainbow Serpent.

Australian Aborigines were some of the first people in the world to develop ideas with astronomy. It is possible that their interpretation of astronomy is the oldest still alive today.[1] Studying astronomical subjects – such as the Sun, Moon, stars and planets – and the way they appeared to move was used as a way to find and explain the relationship between people, nature and the sky.[2] The ideas that came from this contributed to their basic perception of the universe (their cosmology), and still form an important part of traditional culture and knowledge.[3] Many legends, art forms, music and ceremonies originate from interpretations of astronomical phenomena and objects in the sky. Many Aboriginal groups give spiritual or mythological meanings to these things. Some groups used their knowledge of the movement of objects across the sky to develop practical tools like calendars.

Australian Aboriginal culture is an oral tradition, so knowledge of astronomy has been passed down through stories, song and dance.[2] A lot of knowledge is kept secret, only passed to those who have been initiated. As in all aspects of Aboriginal society, some things are only known to men, other things are only known to women.[3] The earliest written account of Aboriginal astronomy was published in 1857. It was written by William Edward Stanbridge, an Englishman who became friends with the Boorong people of Victoria.[4]

Astronomy is part of Aboriginal people's social, cultural and religious knowledge. It has little relation to the scientific theory of Western thinking. There are many different Aboriginal groups in Australia, and each interpret the sky in different ways. The interpretations all developed along the same lines and share the same basic themes, but can be very different in meaning. Most objects and phenomena are interpreted as figures or events in the Dreaming. Unlike in other ancient cultures, these legends and beliefs are still part of modern life for Australian Aborigines.[3]

Sun and moon[change | change source]

In most Aboriginal cultures, the Sun is regarded as a woman, and the Moon is a man. Tradition in Arnhem Land says that each morning, the Sun wakes up and lights a fire at her camp in the east. She then gets up and carries a torch across the sky from east to west, creating daylight.[2] The Yolngu call her Walu, and believe that at sunrise and sunset her ochre body paint is brushed onto the clouds. At night, she is said to travel under ground back to her camp in the east. Similar stories are used to explain the phases of the Moon.[5] For example, the Kuwema people say that at each full moon, he grows fat by eating the spirits of those who disobey tribal law.[6] Some coastal peoples, such as the Yolngu, clearly saw the connection between the Moon and the tides.[4] In other groups, the Moon is linked with fertility due to the similar pattern of the lunar cycle and the female menstrual cycle.[2]

Solar and lunar eclipses were widely explained as the male Moon and female Sun mating with or marrying each other.[2][4] Several astronomers note that these explanations show Aborigines understood that eclipses are caused by the paths of the Sun and Moon crossing each other. Norris (2009) argues that early Aborigines must have had a very good understanding of this in order to identify a lunar eclipse as being caused by the alignment of the Sun and Moon (since the Sun does not actually appear in the sky).[4]

Constellations[change | change source]

In his study of the central desert peoples, anthropologist Charles P. Mountford wrote that most, if not all, of the stars seen in the southern hemisphere had Aboriginal myths associated with them.[7] Most groups distinguish red, white, blue and yellow stars. Stars are often grouped together in unique ways – some groups classify stars using social kinship systems. So many of the constellations known to Aboriginal groups are different to those known to Western astronomers.[3]

The broad band of the Milky Way that runs across the sky at night is commonly interpreted by Aboriginal groups as a legendary river. Several groups in the central desert believe the river divides two tribes of ancestor spirits who live on either side. To some groups, the stars along the river represent fish; other groups, such as the Yolngu, believe the stars are the campfires of their ancestors.[5][8] Other groups identfy the Milky Way as the Rainbow Serpent, a major creator being.[5]

Emu[change | change source]

The "Emu in the sky" constellation. In Western astronomy terms, the Southern Cross is on the right, and Scorpius on the left; the head of the emu is the Coalsack.

The Emu is a constellation known to many Aboriginal groups in Australia. It is not a constellation in the usual sense, because it is defined by areas of dark shadow between the bands of the Milky Way (caused by dust and gas clouds in space), rather than by stars. The emu's head is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross. The body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way and across the Scorpius constellation.[4][9]

This shape in the sky is said to have influenced the style of the emus drawn on rock art. Where it appeared in the sky during the course of the year indicated when ceremonies should be held.[9] Just north of Sydney is a well-known set of rock engravings, one of which is an emu in the same pose and orientation as the emu in the sky. In autumn, the emu in the sky will stand directly over her portrait on the rock, indicating to the Kuring-gai people that it is time to gather emu eggs.[4]

The Southern Cross and the Coalsack.

At the head of the emu, the Southern Cross is easily spotted in the sky, and there are many different interpretations of this constellation across Australia.[3] Several groups identify it as an eagle, a sky god, or both. For the Arrernte, it represents the foot of Waluwara, an eagle spirit – the four bright stars mark his talons, and the Coalsack is his nest. To the Ngarrindjeri of South Australia, the Southern Cross is a stingray being chased by two sharks.[10] The sharks, which is a sacred totem to the Ngarrindjeri, are represented by Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri.[3] In Victoria, the Boorong people identified the Southern Cross as the possum Bunya hiding from an emu spirit whose outline could be seen in the Coalsack nebula.[10] To the Wardaman, the Coalsack is the head of a "law man". In 1972, the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal wrote of the Southern Cross as the hands and feet of a wise leader named Mirabooka, who was given eternal life as a spirit in the sky.[3]

Orion and the Pleiades[change | change source]

Aboriginal interpretations of the constellations Orion and Pleiades are very similar to the stories about them in Greek mythology. The stars of Orion are widely associated with young men – usually fishermen or hunters – while the seven stars of Pleiades are usually seen as young women.[4] The two constellations often appear in legend together, and are part of the Dreamings of several language groups.

Painting of the Greek Pleiades (1885) by Elihu Vedder.
The Greek myth of the Pleiades, a group of seven sisters who were transformed into a cluster of stars, is very similar to Australian Aboriginal legends about the same cluster. In both mythologies, the seven stars are young women being chased by a man seen in the Orion stars. This same theme is also found in Māori mythology.

In the central desert region, the Pleiades are said to be seven sisters running away from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion. In Pitjantjatjara legend, the Pleiades represent the Kungkarungkara, a group of seven ancestral sisters. They are guarded by a pack of dingos from Njiru, the hunter, who is the stars in Orion's Belt. Njiru is said to have raped one of the sisters, who then died and became the darkest of the Pleiades stars. The sisters transformed into birds and fled to safety in the sky, but Njiru still chases after them.[4] Other legends are less harsh: the Adnyamathanha, for example, believe the Pleiades are the wives of the stars in Orion. Tiwi people see them as a group of kangaroos being chased by a pack of dingos.[3]

The similarity between these legends and the Orion and Pleiades of Greek mythology is believed to be a coincidence (by chance) – there is no proof of any cultural connection.

Yolngu people see the constellation of Orion as a canoe. They tell the story of three brothers who went fishing, and one of them ate a fish that was forbidden under their law. Seeing this, the Sun blew the three brothers and their canoe up into the sky. The three stars in the constellation's centre, which form Orion's Belt in Western mythology, are the three brothers. The Orion Nebula above them is the forbidden fish, and the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the front and back of the canoe.[4] In this example, the astronomical legend has a clear message about a moral that people would follow on Earth. Aboriginal myths such as these are often focused around moral lessons, such as reminders of whether it is alright to eat certain types of food.[4]

Tagai[change | change source]

The constellation of Tagai, important to Torres Strait Islanders. The fisherman is made up of the Western constellations Centaurus and Lupus. His canoe is the top part of Scorpius. His fishing spear, in his left hand, is Crux. In his right hand, he holds a fruit made up of Corvus.

Tagai is a large constellation made up of Scorpius, Lupus, Centaurus, Crux, Corvus, with part of Hydra and one of the stars of Ara. In the culture of the Torres Strait Islanders, Tagai is a legendary sea hero. He is depicted as a fisherman standing in a canoe. His crew is represented by the six stars of the Pleiades and six stars of Orion. In the legend, Tagai's crew eats all the food and water that had been prepared for their journey. Tagai punishes them by tying them together and throwing them into the ocean. The stars in the sky are said to be their reflection.

The islanders used this constellation to tell the seasons. This calendar organised their cycle of fishing and farming, as well as their rituals and social activities. The appearance of the Pleiades told them that it was turtle-mating season, time for travelling and to prepare for planting before the rainy season.[3]

Comets and meteors[change | change source]

Unexpected new arrivals in the sky, such as comets and meteors, were widely associated as omens of death or bad spirits. Ngarrindjeri people of the central desert say that a meteor is an omen of deathly disease. Tiwi-speaking people in New South Wales and the Kuninjku in Arnhem Land both interpreted meteors as the eyes of evil spirit creatures running across the sky hunting for the souls of the sick and dying. The idea of comets and meteors bringing misfortune and death was also shared by many other cultures around the world.[4]

Impact events are also described in Aboriginal legends, including in creation stories about particular landforms. An example is the Arrernte story about the creation of Gosse's Bluff, an impact crater said to be nearly 150 million years old. According to the Arrernte legend, this was created by a baby's cradle that fell from the sky world. The baby's mother and father are the evening and morning stars (Venus), still searching for their baby. Several other legends from across Australia tell about falling stars that bring fire to the earth.[4]

Practical uses[change | change source]

Aborigines traditionally used the stars to navigate to where they wanted to go. This is still the case in the remote outback, where there might not be any other signs or landmarks. They also use the Sun, the Moon and the stars to tell the time.[10][11] Aboriginal calendars are usually more complex than those from Western culture. Many groups in northern Australia use a calendar with six seasons, and know what season it is by what stars can be seen during that period.[5] In 1857, an Englishman named William Edward Stanbridge published the first written account of Aboriginal astronomy. He wrote about the Boorong people of northern Victoria, and how they used astronomy to better understand seasons. They thought of the constellation Lyra as a malleefowl (which they called Neilloan). It disappears from the southern sky in October, and this event told the Boorong that the bird's egg-laying season had begun.[10]

Other groups know that when Orion first appears in the sky, dingo puppies are about to be born.[12] When Scorpius appears, the Yolngu know that the Macassan fisherman would soon arrive to fish for sea cucumber and bring goods to trade.[4][12] For the Pitjantjatjara, the rising of the Pleiades at dawn (in May) marks the start of the cool season,[4][5] when some animals in the desert go into hibernation.

References[change | change source]

  1. Roslyn D. Haynes (1992). "Aboriginal Astronomy". Australian Journal of Astronomy 4 (3): 127–40.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Joseph A. Angelo (2009). Encyclopedia of Space and Astronomy. Infobase Publishing. p. 44. ISBN 9781438110189 . http://books.google.com/books?id=VUWno1sOwnUC&pg=PA44.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Ragbir Bhathal (October 2006). "Astronomy in Aboriginal culture". pp. 5.27–5.30. http://www.uws.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/16130/Astronomy_in_aboriginal_culture.pdf.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 Ray P. Norris; Duane W. Hamacher (May 2009). D. Valls-Gabaud & A. Boksenberg. ed. "The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia". The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture (International Astronomical Union) (IAU 260): 39–47. arXiv:0906.0155v1. http://arxiv.org/pdf/0906.0155v1.pdf.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 "Aboriginal Astronomy". Robyn Williams (presenter); Ray Norris (guest). Ockham's Razor. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. RadioNational. 3 January 2010. Transcript.
  6. Charles E. Hulley (1996). Dreamtime Moon: Aboriginal Myths of the Moon. Chatswood: Reed Books. ISBN 9780730104919 . http://books.google.com/books?id=ZEt7OwAACAAJ.
  7. Charles P. Mountford (1976). Nomads of the Australian desert. Rigby. p. 449. ISBN 9780727001405 . http://books.google.com.au/books?id=M9wJAQAAIAAJ.
  8. H. Selin (1997). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Westen Cultures. Springer. pp. 105–8. ISBN 9780792340669 . http://books.google.com/books?id=raKRY3KQspsC.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Questacon. "Aboriginal Astronomy: the Emu". The ScIslands. Australian Government, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. http://www.questacon.edu.au/starlab/the_emu.html. Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Bridget Brennan (28 May 2010). "Aboriginal astronomers: world's oldest?". Australian Geographic (97). http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/indigenous-belief-enlightens-astronomers.htm/. Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  11. "Before Galileo". Miriam Corowa (presenter); Grant Leigh Saunders (reporter). Message Stick. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC1. 1 November 2009. Transcript.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Australian Aboriginal Astronomy at the CSIRO site. Accessed on 2009-08-02.

Further reading[change | change source]