Stories in the sky: Indigenous Astronomy
The stars hold great significance for Australia’s indigenous people.
The sky is a textbook of morals and stories, retold from generations to generations.
Through their Dreamtime legends, these stories have been the stages to their existence for thousands of years.
Let’s start our journey with Australian poet Stella P. Bell’s poem Man Of This Land, which takes us into Australia’s starlit outback.
A Silhouette, stark against a red evening sky
Motionless, standing with chin thrusting high
He looks so majestic, alone there he stands.
Not a blink of an eye, or a move of his hands.
The sun, it is sinking. The wind turning cold
He stands there surveying this land that is old
In one hand he’s clutching a spear, long and slim
The other is holding a shield close to him.
He listens and hears all the sounds of the night
He knows of the dingo and what bird is in flight
He hears the sea pounding on the cold empty shore
And suddenly, silently he is there no more.
On a clear night, looking up with our naked eyes, we can see about three thousand stars.
Indigenous people of this sun-kissed-land have been gazing at the Southern sky for tens of thousands of years.
In there, they had their own zodiac, or the meanings taken from movements of the sun, moon and planets.
Indigenous astronomical traditions are very different from other traditions.
The constellations that can be seen from other parts of the world appear different in the sky over the Southern Hemisphere.
University of Western Sydney Astrophysicist, Dr Ragbir Bhathal uses Indigenous astronomy to teach students about engineering physics.
He says there are many examples of how Indigenous people use the constellations of the stars in their everyday life.
“They used the stars for telling them the seasonal supply of food, when to plant and how is the crop, and for transmitting the morals of their society. They identified the system of stars with their own zodiac. In Victoria, the Southern Cross is identified with a ring-tail possum, while the long neck tortoise is identified with the star called Pollux. We also find, in Victoria, that the star Taurus showed them where to find the pupa of the wood ant. While the star cluster, called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters informed the people in the western desert region that the annual dingo season was starting. And so they would descend to where the dingo stays and then catch their little pups and have a good feast. On the Torres Strait Islands the appearance of the stars the Tagai told them that it was time to start preparing the land for planting.”
Indigenous people see the glowing star-filled band of the Milky Way galaxy as a river full of fish.
The duo of gaseous galaxies known as the Magellanic clouds are an old man and a woman.
Where stars have different colours; white, blue and red, Dr Bhathal says Indigenous people have explanations for all of them.
“The red star Aldebaran or Karambal is used to illustrate a warning to people that they should not commit adultery, so their bible was written in the sky. Thus when Karambal ran away with his mate’s wife and hid himself and the lady in a tree to escape from the angry husband, the husband set the fire to the tree so they were carried away into the sky with the smoke and now you see both of them in the sky and Aldebaran is the red star that you can see in the night sky.”
Dr Bhatal says eclipses and shooting stars are regarded as good or bad omens.
“On Stradbroke island for instance, the Southern Cross is seen as Mirrabooka, he was an old man, who when he died was taken up by Biami a spirit ancestor, into the sky to look after his people. In Queensland the appearance of shooting stars, was usually seen as a bad omen. It was said that someone who was sick in the camp would die, so just like in other cultures comets were seen as bad omens.”
Dreamtime stories also look up to the sky.
There’s a traditional Indigenous story from Central Victoria, called “How the Sun Came To Be”.
“Early in the Dreamtime, before the sun had begun to shine, there was a young woman who decided to leave her group because the elders would not allow her to marry the lover of her choice.”
Another legend from the Northern Territory explains “How The Moon Came To Be”.
“Japara lived in the Dreamtime and was an excellent hunter. He had a wife and a little son whom he loved dearly. One day, when Japara was out on the plains hunting, a man called Parukapoli visited Japara’s wife. He was a lazy man who preferred telling stories to hunting.”
CSIRO astrophysicist and Macquarie University’s Professor Ray Norris spent 10 years studying Indigenous Astronomy.
Professor Norris says there are some 400 distinct Indigenous cultures in Australia and each of them has special mythology, ceremonies and art forms.
He says most cultures have a strong astronomical component.
“We’ve always known that there were stories about the sky, we’ve known that they’d been stories of the emu and the sky, which is a big constellation you can see right across Australia, what I had not expected, was that they had a very deep understanding of the stars, in the sky, and the motion of planets, the sun and the moon, and things like this. One of my friends, who is an Aboriginal elder, he knows the name of almost every star you can see in the sky, and I don’t think any present day astronomer could do that. He can tell stories about most of them as well.”
Indigenous people also use their knowledge of the stars to navigate across the country.
The stars are a compass, a clock and a calendar.
When a particular star had risen, it was time to move to another camp.
Professor Ray Norris says Dreaming for Indigenous people means telling the creation of Earth, the sun, and the stars.
He says the Dreaming means the beginning of the world but it is also yesterday, today and forever.
“I think it tries to capture two different things. Firstly there is this time, and just this ancient time, long long ago. It is not a real time, you can’t say ten thousand BC, or 50 thousand BC. It is just this ancient time. Once upon a time, in the beginning, and that’s when the creative spirits were around, and sometimes they’d would be an animal, sometimes they’d be a human, sometimes they might be a planet or stars or something. The dreaming also means now, so it’s this other world, a parallel universe, that’s going on in parallel with the universe of the world, we see and touch. There’s this hidden world which is full of creative spirits and mystical things going on.”
Dr Ragbir Bhathal says while Indigenous cultures around the world construct their own meanings from the stars, there are some similarities.
“Ever since the humans begun walking on the earth, they have watched and studied the stars, each culture has built its own star system, and given the stars constellations and planets their own names and meanings. So in a way each star system is unique to the particular civilisation. It’s also interesting, to note, that the clusters of stars called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters is known as a group of sisters throughout all the civilisations on the Earth. And this tells us that we belong to one big family which came out of Africa a long, long time ago and spread ourselves all over the face of the Earth and this I find as an amazing fact of life. “
He says different stars often have different meanings to Indigenous groups around Australia.
In Arnhem Land, the Southern Cross is a shark chasing a stingray.
But for another group of Indigenous people the Southern Cross is a white ghost gum with two yellow-crested cockatoos trying to roost in its branches.
In European culture the star Orion is often represented as a hunter but in Indigenous culture, it’s an emu.
Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the Australian National University, Ian Farrington, says academic interest in astronomy in Indigenous cultures around the world is growing.
“There are people, like myself, who are then looking at that, pushing that back further in time by looking at the archaeological background. Its good, that its becoming more popular, one of the great difficulties is that people don’t necessary always interpret it very well, and that there is kind of a understanding that it’s kind of a bit um ‘how did they do that?’ kind of question.”
Researchers are studying astronomy in the Ancient Chinese and native American cultures while Mr Farrington’s research is focused on ancient Peruvian culture.
Peru’s ancient Incan capital today is called Cusco.
The word Cusco originates in the Quechuan language phrase “qusqu wanka”meaning “rock of the owl”.
Mr Farrington spent three decades investigating Cusco and its surroundings, gathering a comprehensive amount of archaeological data.
“The city sits at the head of a long, relatively strait valley, this was the capital of Tawantinsuyu, which was the largest empire of South America, indeed in some respects the largest empire in the world, stretching from central Argentina, central Chile, as far north as the Ecuador, Columbia, about 4 thousand kilometres.”
From the plaza at Cusco you can see every sunrise all throughout the year.
Mr Farrington says two nearby mountains mark the December and June solstices.
He says this landscape is full of symbolism.
“They had some very interesting understandings of their place in the Cosmos, linked to their landscape, in the Stories of Origin, with the stories of the sky. The landscape included into the Sky. Therefore they absorbed of the major rising and settings of the Sun, the Moon, particular planets, particular stars, particular constellation, and they had a very rich folklore about it.”
Let’s return back to Australia.
There are special roles of the sun and moon in Australian Indigenous astronomy as well.
Professor Norris explains.
“In nearly every Aboriginal culture, the sun is a woman, and the moon is a man. The sun is a nice person, she gets up in the morning, she lights the stringy bark tree, decorates herself with ocha. Some of the ocha comes off and goes on the clouds, you can see the beautiful sunrise, sets fire to the stringy bark tree, carries across the sky, giving everyone light and warmth, and then in the evening she comes down, in the west, takes the red ocha off, which is why you see that at sunset, extinguishes her stingy bark tree and then she travels under the ground, back to her camp in the east, so that’s what the sun is doing.”
But the Moon is a bad man.
In many cultures he is the person who brings death to the world.
Professor Norris tells the story.
“He refused to get any food for his clan, he is fat and lazy, and his wife and his son got so annoyed with him, because he is such a nasty person, they started attacking him with their axes, and they chopped bits of him, which is why you get the phases of the Moon. So the round fat moon becomes the half moon and the crescent and eventually he died and he stayed dead for three nights, that’s when we have the new moon, and he came back to life, and he cursed the world, ‘so now on I am going back to life every month’.”
Professor Norris says these stories reveal the depth and complexity of Indigenous cultures which are not widely appreciated by outsiders.
While some cultures see eclipses, when the sun and moon block each other, as signs of imminent danger, Australia’s Indigenous people have a human take on the event.
“The moon man and the sun woman get together to make love, and when they make love, his body covers hers, that’s when you get the eclipse, and of course that’s technically completely correct, that’s exactly what happens, – the moon covers the sun, the story is built on Aboriginal Culture, its actually scientifically accurate and correct.”
For Indigenous Australians, the stars don’t just light the night sky.
They are sources of meaning.
Stories of people, traditions, culture and history.
The First Contact Network Event premieres Tuesday 18 November, 8.30pm on SBS ONE and NITV and continues Wednesday and Thursday
Stories in the sky: Indigenous Astronomy
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