When the Pleiades come to earth – the seven Yunupingu sisters of Yirrkala

It is unsurprising that across Aboriginal Australia the Pleiades - and their heavenly companions in Orion's Belt - are very much alive as actors in culture, life and the seasonal calendars that provided essential relationship between the lived here-and-now and the journeys and adventures of the heroic ancestors.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.


Mokuywu buku djinawangur!

Yaka Yolngu nhangu!

Two weeks ago I travelled to Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem land to witness a truly inspiring confluence of art, culture, ethno-astronomy and legend come to life on Earth on the walls of the local art centre’s exhibition space. The Buku Larnggay Mulka* art centre is the community controlled art centre at Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal township on the northeastern tip of the Top End of the Northern Territory, approximately 700km east of Darwin.

As night fell – and the heavenly stars came out – we saw local stars of our own before us at the opening of a remarkable exhibition – Seven Sisters – that was part tribute to a loving relative recently passed, part celebration of the interconnectedness of all things on earth and in the sky and a solemn recognition of shared and universal ancestry and ancient – and contemporary knowledge.

The exhibition catalogue describes the project far better than I can:

Seven Sisters celebrates the ancestry of the seven Yunupingu sisters. The sisters come from Nhulunbuy in North-east Arnhem Land. Their clan is Gumatj. Their father is Munggurrawuy Yunupingu (deceased), former tribal leader of the Gumatj people of Yirrkala. He was a politician, a singer, dancer and an artist.

The Yunupingu family has also distinguished themselves as Yolngu leaders in politics and the arts. Other siblings include Australians of the Year Galarrwuy and Mandawuy Yunupingu.

The following story is told from the perspective of the recently deceased and deservedly famous Yolngu artist – and one of the seven Yunupingu sisters – Ms. G (Djotarra) Yunupingu.

The Djulpan story is about seven sisters who went out in their canoe called Djulpan. During September onwards, they go hunting and always come back with different types of food; turtles, fish, freshwater snakes, yams and berries.

They can be seen in the sky of a night, seven stars that come out together.

Known in English as the Pleiades, the stars come in season when the food and berries come out, the stars will travel through the sky during that month until the season is over and they don’t come out until the next season.

Yunupingu’s father told her about these seven sisters in a canoe, and the three brothers who came behind them, following them (Orion’s belt).

They travel west. There are special stars in the sky which Yolngu call wishing stars. They give Yolngu bush tucker; they multiply the foods in the sea – that’s why Yolngu are happy to see them. That’s what Yunupingu’s father told her.

The Djulpan make it to their home over the northern horizon and then cook their food. The smoke from their fires is sometimes visible. This appears to be a reference to actual visibility of such extreme events in Irian Jaya as volcanoes, dust storms and severe bushfires.

Smoke or dust from such rare events is also mirrored in certain cloud formations that appear after the Sisters have left the sky. It is only then that the Yolngu of this dimension can set their customary annual fires.

If fires are lit before this the Djulpan will become sad and jealous and cry. Their tears in the form of un-seasonal rain will extinguish the presumptuous fires.

When she looks at the stars, Yunupingu thinks about the universe, all around, and about every tribe, every colour. In every corner of the world people can look up and see the stars. This is Yunupingu’s vision – in her art, she focuses on the link between all people everywhere.

The link between people on earth and stars in the sky – it’s real.

The major proponent of this story in art history is Munggurrawuy Yunupingu who painted it on bark. He was a legendary artist and political leader and father to these seven sisters as well as two Australians of the Year – Galarrwuy and Mandawuy Yunupingu. 

For mine it is unsurprising that across Aboriginal Australia the Pleiades – and their heavenly companions in Orion’s Belt – are very much alive as actors in culture, life and the seasonal calendars that provide evidence of the essential relationship between the lived here-and-now and the journeys and adventures of the heroic ancestors.

Philip Clarke is an anthropologist at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide and has written widely on Australian cultural geography and knowledge.

In his very useful paper “An Overview of Australian Ethnoastronomy” he notes the widespread similarities in the various accounts of the travels of the Pleiades from across the Australian continent:

In most ethnographic accounts of the Plieades constellation (or an asterism of it, since it is unclear which observers recognised all seven stars) the stars are a group of youg women, sometimes accompanied by a young boy.

The element most versions share is that a group of young women/girls are fleeing from either a single man or a group of men.In parts of the Kimberley Aboriginal people consider that an “old man,” the planet Venus, chases the youngest of the Plieades sisters across the night sky. (Clarke at p. 51)

Clarke examines some earlier research by the anthroplogist Norman Tindale and the apparent universality of the the Pleiades as cultural icons:

Tindale surveyed fifty different versions of the Plieades mythology from across Australia and commented that”most of the stories recovered from west of a line drawn across Australia from just north of Cape Jervis in South Australia to the Leichhardt River on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland link these women with dingo dogs.

The widespread similarities in beliefs concerning the Pleiades, both across Australia and betweenAboriginal and European cultures, has led to an abundance of popular literature concerning the Seven Sisters … Among the large variety of myths concerning the Pleiades are several mechanisms for their ascension into the Skyworld.

 As you may have gathered this was a truly wonderful show and set of artworks.

It is modest – there are only eight pieces – one from each of the seven sisters and one collaborative work – but as a whole there is an undeniable and forceful unity of common purpose, shared knowledge and respect and recognition for all things physical and metaphysical.

To find out more about the work of the artists of Yirrkala and north-east Arnhem land have a look at the Buku Larnggay Mulka website. All of the prints are available as a set in a limited edition run – but be quick, they are selling fast.

* “Buku Larnggay Mulka” means “the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun (i.e. facing East)” [Buku-Larrnggay] and “a sacred but public ceremony” [Mulka]

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3 thoughts on “When the Pleiades come to earth – the seven Yunupingu sisters of Yirrkala

  1. Bob Gosford

    This story comes from near Balgo in Western Australia.

    Nakarra Nakarra (Seven Sisters) Dreaming

    The Nakarra Nakarra Dreaming or Seven Sisters narrative exists in many forms throughout Aboriginal Australia. The story and artistic representations of it extend from the north near Balgo (Wirrimanu) in Western Australia to as far south as the Ngarrindjeri people of the River Murray in South Australia.

    In this Dreaming story there are seven young sisters with the same skin-name Nakarra (diminutive of Nakamarra). The Seven Sisters are Creator Beings who move through the ancestral landscape, creating natural phenomena and involving themselves in ceremonial life, including “young men’s business” or initiation ceremonies.

    In the Balgo region, the Nakarra Nakarra song cycle follows the flight of the seven sisters from their ‘wrong skin’ lovers; their ceremonial role in the initiations for boys and other rituals; their use of tools to procure and process food; their being swallowed, together with men, by a snake; their stealing of sacred objects; and their transformation into sacred sites.

    In the Kukatja kinship system (as is the case in the Warlpiri kinship system) there are eight relationship terms which are subsections determined by where one’s mother fits into the kinship system. Each of the eight subsections have a male and a female iteration. One of these names/subsections for women is Nakamarra.

    Within the kinship structure there are many regulations, including a preferred marriage partner for members of each subsection. Some sexual relationships are considered incestuous regardless of whether or not there is a biological relationship between the two people who make a couple. Whether or not such a relationship is permissible is determined by the kinship system.

    The Nakarra Nakarra Dreaming is about the seven Nakamarra sisters and their pursuit by a man who wishes to have a non-sanctioned relationship with them. The man who is lusting after the beautiful young women is chasing them across the country – and they are endlessly on the run trying to escape his unwanted advances. This man is in the “wrong skin” relationship to the sisters and therefore is not a suitable marriage partner for them under Kukatja law. Such a union would be considered incestuous and therefore very wrong. While he never catches them, and never fulfills his illicit desires with them, the sisters can never rest.

    The man’s pursuit of these young women is permanently “engraved” onto the night sky itself in the form of the cluster of stars known in English as the Seven Sisters (Pleiades). Interestingly, in Greek mythology this cluster of brilliant stars is also thought to comprise seven sisters, believed to be the seven mythical daughters of Pleione and Atlas.

    The story reveals Aboriginal people’s knowledge of the night sky as well as the strict moral and social codes within which they operate. In the case of the Nakarra Nakarra Dreaming from near Wirrimanu (Balgo), women have particular rights and responsibilities in relation to the narrative and paintings whereas in some other Aboriginal communities others may have greater custodial rights.

    The seven sisters are also seen as seven notable hills in the plains beyond Yagga Yagga, a small community located 80 kilometres south of Balgo in the Great Sandy Desert.

  2. Bob Gosford

    Another Pleiades story, this time from Inawinytji Williamson – “Kungkarangkalpa – Seven Sisters Story”:

    Ina’s painting describes the epic Tjukurpa (dreamtime) story which is central to Anangu cosmology. The story is about the Seven Sisters’ journey across the land, being pursued by Wati Nyiru (a man called Nyiru).

    This painting illustrates the rockholes and claypans that the Seven Sisters create. Between the rockholes the women travel along a dry creek bed and dance as they go.

    They sisters flee earth to the skies where they can still be seen as the Pleiades constellation. Wati Nyiru chases them and can still be seen pursuing them across the skies in the constellation of Orion.

    Inawinytji’s paintings are often influenced stylistically by Milpatjunany – drawing in the sand, which is a way of passing on traditional knowledge about law and culture as well as about country. Survival meant knowing and understanding every aspect of living off the land and in particular the food and water sources. Visual representation through sand drawings give clarity to the stories through images.

    The circles in this painting represent rockholes and the lines between them the dry creekbeds used as paths by the sisters.

    You can see the image for this painting here: http://www.aboriginalartcoop.com.au/aboriginal-art/inawinytji-williamson/kungkarangkalpa-seven-sisters-story.php

  3. Bob Gosford

    From Frank Baarda at Yuendumu comes this story that goes with the artwork by Molly Napaljarri Jugadai: “The Napaltjarri sisters descend from the seven sisters constellation in the sky, at evening time. As they fall, dew collects on the grass and makes the flowers and bush tucker grow. The sisters roam the earth collecting bush tucker, goanna and bush turkey and vegetables.”

    You can see the artwork here: http://www.aboriginalartcoop.com.au/aboriginal-art/molly-napaltjarri-jugadai/seven-sisters-2.php

    And Frank has another version of this story which is that when there is dew on the ground it is because the seven Napaljarri sisters had a piss …

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