Australian Aboriginal astronomy

Australian Aboriginal astronomy

Australian Aboriginal astronomy is a name given to the indigenous Australian cultural traditions of astronomical study. There is a diversity of traditions in Australia, each with its own particular expression of cosmology. However, there appear to be common themes and systems between the groups.

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 three 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 Australians 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.

The stars are also law-books, telling people how to live on Earth. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land say that the constellation of Orion, which they call Julpan, is a canoe. They tell the story of two brothers who went fishing, and caught and ate a fish that was forbidden under their law. Seeing this, the Sun sent a waterspout that carried the two brothers and their canoe up into the sky where you can still see them.

When Yolngu people die, they are taken by a mystical canoe, "Larrpan", to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where you can see their camp-fires burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is sent back to earth as a shooting star, letting their family on Earth know that they have arrived safely in the spirit-land. At a beautiful and important ceremony, the Yolngu people gather after sunset to await the rising of Barnumbirr, or Morning Star, which Europeans call Venus. As she approaches, in the early hours before dawn, she draws behind her a rope of light attached to Earth, and along this rope, with the aid of a richly decorated "Morning Star Pole", the people are able to communicate with their dead loved ones, showing that they still love and remember them.

The Pleiades also figures in the Dreamings of several language groups. For example, in the central desert region, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion. The close resemblance of this to Greek mythology is believed to be coincidental - there is no evidence of any cultural connection.

Two contemporary painters from the Western Desert, daughters of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, have the seven sisters as one of their Dreamings. Gabriella Possum and Michelle Possum paint the Seven Sisters Dreaming in their paintings. They inherited this Dreaming through their maternal line.

Another astronomical story which is widespread in Australia is that of the "Emu in the Sky", which has a black head (the Coalsack, next to the Southern Cross), and a body and dark legs trailing our along the Milky Way to Scorpius. Unlike European constellations, this constellation consists mainly of Dark Clouds of dust in the Milky Way.

Just North of Sydney, in the Kuringai National Park, are extensive rock engravings of the Guringai people who used to live there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. 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.

Many other stories exist where the heliacal rising or setting of stars or constellations are used to tell Aboriginal Australians when it's time to move to a new ground in time for a new food source.

An interesting question is to what extent Aboriginal people were interested in the precise motion of the Sun, Moon, planets or stars. While there is not yet a definitive answer, it has been suggested that some of the stone arrangements in Victoria may have been used to track the equinoxes and/or solstices.

ee also

* Indigenous Australian art
* Pleiades %28star cluster%29

Further reading

* [ Australian Aboriginal Astronomy]
* [ Dark Sparklers] Cairns, H., & Yidumduma Harney, B., 2003. Privately published.
* [ The Emu in the Sky] story at Questacon
* Johnson, D., 1998, “Night skies of Aboriginal Australia : a Noctuary”. Sydney, N.S.W., University of Sydney.
* Haynes, R.F., et al., 1996, “Explorers of the Southern Sky”, CUP.
* [ The Astronomy of the Boorong] , Morieson, J., World Archaeological Congress, June 2003 (PDF)

ee also


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