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Life and art in the sky, Part 3 – more thoughts on Aboriginal astronomy

As I write this the full(ish) moon sinks large and bright into the west and Venus the morning star shines from above a lightening band of the faintest blue to the east.

For me this couple of hours before dawn is the best time of day – the stars are at their brightest, the air is cool and clear, the Pied Butcherbirds get an early start on the morning chorus with their mellifluous calls and all the pleasures of the day wait ahead.

In two previous posts here I have explored the work of the Warlpiri artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites and the wonderful work in the exhibition of paintings by people of the Wajarri Yamatji language group from Western Australia’s Murchison region and their exhibition entitled “Ilgarijiri – things belonging to the sky“. Both of those posts illustrate the importance of the Seven Sisters – the Pleiades – in Aboriginal cosmology.

I want to wander through a few further links that I’ve found that reveal what I suspect is just small part of the enormous body of knowledge that Australian Aboriginal people have of our night skies and the wonderful things that live there.

As I’ve said previously – and this may arise from 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy – there seems to be a greater willingness to engage with, or a broader interest in, Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge among the mainstream astronomical science community than there is in many other scientific disciplines – and this could include my own area of interest of ornithology.

But back to the stars!

Questacon provides a popular entry point for the general public to a variety of areas of Australian scientific enquiry and research and has a page dedicated to Aboriginal Astronomy, from which this story of Barnimbir (Venus) the Morning Star from the Yolngu language group of north-east Arnhem land comes:

One day a yam leaf was blown across the warm waters of the sea, north of Australia. It floated from the east, from where the Sun and Morning Star came. A man named Yaolngur found the leaf. The yam plant was very special to him and he decided to travel to the country where it came from – the land of the Morning Star.

He made a very large canoe and told his wives to collect great numbers of water lily bulbs for food and fill many coconut shells with water for drink during his long journey. He rested that night in his home camp and early next morning he set out. He paddled for seven days, sometimes sleeping on small islands, sometimes sleeping at sea. On the last night of his journey he paddled and paddled – he could hear waves crashing on the rocks. Then the sky lit up, the Morning Star rose in the sky and Yaolngur saw land.

He had arrived at the home of the Morning Star. The island was the home of the spirits, home of the Mokois. He had arrived at the island of the dead. Because he was in a strange land, he wanted to make himself strong. By rubbing the sweat from his armpits onto his arms, legs and chest, he made himself powerful. He also rubbed his sweat in his spear thrower.

Carrying his weapons, he went to seek the Morning Star. He had only walked a short way when he saw the ghosts – so many in number that they stood shoulder to shoulder so many that there didn’t seem room for any more. The spirits looked at the decoration of sea gull feathers on his spear thrower and recognised him as a friend. He sang and danced and then said, “I want to see Barnimbir, the Morning Star.”

He walked and found the old woman Marlumbu, who kept the star. At first she didn’t want to it to him, but he sang magic songs and he assured her that he only wanted to see if it was the same as the one his group used in their Morning Star ceremony. Marlumbu took it out and showed him the parts made from seagull feathers and jungle yams. Yaolngur was pleased the Morning Star was the same as his people used.

He handed the Morning Star back to Marlumbu, who released it into the sky. She controlled the flight of Barumbu by holding the string and allowing the Star to travel all over the islands. She cried out directions to the Star to tell it where to travel. Suddenly the string started to hum. It was the sign that the Sun was coming up.

You can find more of the stories if the rich heritage of Aboriginal astronomical observation and story telling at the Questacon Aboriginal Astronomy site.

These stories can also be found in Questacon’s book The Emu in the Sky, a collection of Aboriginal astronomy stories from all around Australia that is available from Questacon for the bargain price of $AU4.30.

The Emu in the sky

The Emu in the sky

Another widespread story is the popular and widespread story of the “Emu in the Sky“.

As this page at Wikipedia notes, the Emu in the Sky story is a:

…tradition that is widespread in Australia…a ‘constellation’ that is defined by dark nebulas (opaque clouds of dust and gas in outer space) that are visible against the milky way background, 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 to Scorpius.

Just north of Sydney, in the Kuringai National Park, are extensive rock engravings of the Guringai people who live there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. An engraving at Elvina Track shows an emu in the same pose and orientation as the Emu in the Sky. constellation. On autumn evenings, the emu in the sky stands directly over her portrait, just at the time when it’s time to gather emu eggs. To the Wardaman [people], however, the Coalsack is the head of a lawman.

Macquarie University Adjunct Professor Ray Norris runs a website dedicated to Aboriginal Astronomy.

In the overview to the comprehensive site he says:

The southern sky is striking compared to that of the Northern hemisphere, often dominated by the magnificent river of the Milky Way weaving across the zenith, crossed by numerous dust lanes. For those living in Australia before the advent of streetlights, the night sky would be an important and integral part of their understanding of the world. Naturally, they would notice that particular stars or patterns are seen only at certain times of the year. Furthermore, since many chose to travel in the cool of the night, they would quickly find that stars are useful for navigation.

Across Australia are many different rich and vibrant Aboriginal cultures, each with its own astronomy. But there are common threads. Many have stories of a female Sun who warmed the land, and a male Moon who was once a young slim man (the waxing crescent Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon). But then he broke the law, and was attacked by his people, resulting in his death (the new Moon). After remaining dead for 3 days, he rose again to repeat the cycle, and continues doing so till this day. The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory say that he grows fat at each full moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey the tribal laws.

Some Aboriginal people use the sky as a calendar to tell them when it’s time to move to a new place and a new food supply. The Boorong people in Victoria know that when the “Mallee-fowl” constellation (Lyra) disappears in October, to “sit with the Sun”, it’s time to start gathering her eggs on Earth. Other groups know that when Orion first appears in the sky, the Dingo puppies are about to be born.

And you can find an interesting introduction to many aspects of Aboriginal astronomy, links to other articles,  audio programs and events at the ABC’s Big Aussie Starhunt page.

Further north in the Northern Territory, the fascinating accounts of the Astronomical knowledge of the Wardaman language group, who have country to the west and south of Katherine in the Northern Territory, are revealed in the book “Dark Sparklers“, written by Hugh Cairns and Bill Harney, with whom I’m doing some work on my project on Aboriginal bird knowledge.

I don’t agree with many of the statements that Hugh Cairns makes about some aspects of the traditional knowledge of the Wardaman people but notwithstanding those and other reservations the book represents the most comprehensive account of the astronomical beliefs of a single Australian Aboriginal language group that I have been able to find. Dark Sparklers also contains many wonderful stories of other aspects of Wardaman knowledge and belief systems.

A Wardaman rock painting

A Wardaman rock painting

I’ll leave each of you to make up your own mind about Dark Sparklers but encourage you to forward any further information you might have on projects and research being undertaken elsewhere.

And finally, while it is mainly directed at teachers wanting to use Aboriginal astronomical knowledge in the classrooom there is a great educational resource entitled “Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People” prepared by Adele Pring and produced by the South Australian Education Department that is available as a PDF document here.

Don’t let the educational content put you off – it contains a wealth of information about Aboriginal astronomical knowledge from all over the country.

There is a lot more that I haven’t been able to cover here but I’d be happy to extend the discussion and would welcome your suggestions or links to further information.

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  • 1
    Will
    Posted September 6, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Bob–How about this? Johnson, Dianne. Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia: A Noctuary. Oceania Monograph, 47, Sydney: University of Sydney, 1998. Also Ray Norris, et al. “The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia” in a recent CSIRO publication–mostly Yolngu/northern, but with an interesting bibliography.

  • 2
    Bob Gosford
    Posted September 6, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Will, thanks for reminding me of Dianne Johnson’s work – it is a most useful survey – though I’m mainly looking at this material, for now anyway, for bird references. And I think that Ray Norris’s work (both in this paper and generally) is interesting in that it promotes links between the astronomical profession and Aboriginal people on the ground – as per the art exhibition from the Geraldton area discussed in part 2 of this group of posts.
    And I welcome any other references or suggestions of other material I’ve not come across yet.

  • 3
    KylieW
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I saw Bill Harney and Ray Norris at the Darwin Festival. They were awesome. I bought their Emu Dreaming book their (see http://www.emudreaming.com)- it’s got some really cool stuff in it, and totally opens your eyes to all the stuff we werent taught at school, but should have been!

    Bob, I love ur blog – you’re doing a wonderful job!

  • 4
    Bob Gosford
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Kylie, I don’t have a copy of the book but I’ll look out for it – and I don’t know about ray but Bill is a great man and a wonderful story-teller.
    And hopefully without sounding too smug, I think that school is a place to teach you how to learn things – something we should be doing for the rest of our lives.
    Sadly too many people think that learning stops the moment you get your piece of paper and walk out the door.

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