Australian Aboriginal astronomy
Australian Aboriginal astronomy is a name given to indigenous Australian culture relating to astronomical subjects — such as the Sun and Moon, the stars, planets, and the Milky Way, and their motions on the sky.
Some Aboriginal groups use the motions of celestial bodies for calendar purposes. Many attribute religious or mythological meanings to celestial bodies and phenomena. There is a diversity of astronomical traditions in Australia, each with its own particular expression of cosmology. However, there appear to be common themes and systems between the groups.
Interpreting the sky
Emu in the sky
A constellation used in Aboriginal culture in Australia is the "Emu in the sky", 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 near the 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.
Canoe in Orion
The Yolngu people of northern Australia say that the constellation of Orion, which they call Julpan, is 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 carried the two 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 two brothers; the Orion Nebula above them is the forbidden fish; and the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the bow and stern of the canoe. This is an example of astronomical legends underpinning the ethical and social codes that people use on Earth.
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.
However, stars were commonly used to measure time and the seasons and to regulate daily activities before written culture, and long after in some cultures. The myths of the Australian Aborigines are, as around the world, to do with moral lessons and various reminders such as when to eat certain types of food, which is itself a cultural connection in the general form of the stories. Therefore the study of the stars is probably the oldest knowledge on earth, such that it remains an intriguing possibility that aboriginal star knowledge does contain some fragments of a much older original culture. Aborigines came to Australia from Asia 50,000 years ago (well before Greek culture formed 3-4,000 years ago), and presumably the Aborigines originally came from Africa. While there is no hard evidence of a cultural connection, the possibility should not be written off and the door is open to research to construct models of older human cultures, through the tracing of these narratives and other means such as linguistics.
The Milky Way
The Yolngu people believe that when they die, they are taken by a mystical canoe, Larrpan, to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where their camp-fires can be seen 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.
Sun and Moon
The Yolngu say that Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn. She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the sunrise. She then lights a torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of her ochre paints again rubs off onto the clouds, creating the sunset. She then puts out her torch, and throughout the night travels underground back to her starting camp in the east.
The Yolngu tell that Ngalindi, the Moon-man, was once young and slim (the waxing Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon). His wives chopped bits off him with their axes (the waning Moon); to escape them he climbed a tall tree towards the Sun, but died from the wounds (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.
The Yolngu also associated the Moon with the tides.
The Warlpiri people explain a solar eclipse as being the Sun-woman being hidden by the Moon-man as he makes love to her. This explanation is shared by other groups, such as the Wirangu. On the other hand, a lunar eclipse is caused when the Moon-man is pursued and threatened by the Sun-woman.
In the Kuringai National Park there are a number of engravings showing a crescent shape, with sharp horns pointing down, and below it a drawing of a man in front of a woman. While the crescent shape has been assumed by most researchers to represent a boomerang, some argue that it is more easily interpreted as a solar eclipse, with the mythical man-and-woman explanation depicted below it.
The rising of Venus marks an important ceremony of the Yolngu, who call it Barnumbirr ("Morning Star and Evening Star") They gather after sunset to await the rising of the planet. As she approaches, in the early hours before dawn, the Yolngu say that she draws behind her a rope of light attached to the island of Baralku on 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.
Aboriginal calendars tend to be more complex than European calendars. Many groups in northern Australia use a calendar with six seasons, and some groups mark the seasons by the stars which are visible during them. For the Pitjantjatjara, for example, the rising of the Pleiades at dawn (in May) marks the start of winter.
The Boorong people in Victoria know that when the Malleefowl 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. When Scorpius appears, the Yolngu know that the Macassan fisherman would soon arrive to fish for trepang.
It is not known to what extent Aboriginal people were interested in the precise motion of the Sun, Moon, planets or stars. However, it has been suggested that some of the stone arrangements in Victoria such as Wurdi Youang near Little River, Victoria may have been used to track the equinoxes and/or solstices. The arrangement is aligned with the setting sun at the solstices and equinox, but the age is currently unknown.
There are also rock engravings by the Nganguraku people at Ngaut Ngaut which, according to oral tradition, represent lunar cycles. Unfortunately, most of the Nganguraku culture (including their language) has been lost because of repression by Christian missionaries over a hundred years ago.
In contemporary culture
A great deal of contemporary Aboriginal art has an astronomical theme, reflecting the astronomical elements of the artist's culture. Prominent examples are Gulumbu Yunupingu, Bill Yidumduma Harney, and Nami Maymuru, all of whom have won awards or been finalists in the Telstra Indigenous Art Awards. In 2009 an exhibition of Indigenous Astronomical Art from WA, named Ilgarijiri was launched at AIATSIS in Canberra in conjunction with a Symposium on Aboriginal Astronomy.
Other contemporary painters include the daughters of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who 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.
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- Extensive reading list on Aboriginal Astronomy, intended as a resource for researchers