Indigenous astronomy in Australia includes many mythological figures associated with the creation of the sky and constellations.
The Boorong people of western Victoria believed the sun ‘Gnowee’ was made by Pupperimbul, one of the Nurrumbunguttias, or old spirits of men and women, who were removed to the heavens before man was created. The Nurrumbunguittas were cold at night so they made fires to warm themselves and cook their food. The earth had been in perpetual darkness until Puppcrimbul threw an emu egg into space where it burst and flooded the sky with light. When the great flood came, many Nurrumbunguittas were drowned while others were carried off into the sky where they became stars and gods.
The Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains believe celestial bodies such as the stars once lived on the earth, where they lived partly as men and partly as animals. Eventually, they ascended into the stars.
Aborigines across Australia shared a similar cosmology in which the universe had four tiers. Earth is a flat disc surrounded by water and covered by a solid sky dome. Beyond the dome is a land of beautiful flowers that never fade, abundant food and rivers where the spirits of the dead are carried. Observers on the earth see them as stars shining through holes in the cover. The nature of the sky dome varies.
People from the Great Australian Bight area told Australian anthropologist Daisy Bates that the sky was held up by a great tree, Warda. Other groups believe it is supported by trees, guarded by an old man or held from above by the stars and the emu, whose nest sits in the Coal Sack.
Beneath the earth is a lower world through which the sun travels on her nightly journey from west to east. People from the Great Australian Bight area in South Australia believed this lower world was the place where the spirits or unborn children lived. Far from being a medieval hell, the underworld is believed to consist of two high stony ranges separated by a deep valley along which the Sun-woman travels on her journey from west to east. When the floodwaters receded, the children of the star gods went back to the earth and became the first men and women. The old spirits of the Nurrumbunguttias are still alive. It is because of them that there are storms, darkness and evil spirits in the world today.
Early Aboriginal people associate objects in the night sky with ‘beings’ and animals with which they have shared the continent since the Dreamtime.
For many Aboriginal groups, the Coalsack, the dark cloud next to the Southern Cross, is associated with the “emu in the sky”. The Coalsack itself is the head of the emu, or to some tribal groups, a possum in a tree. The neck, body and legs are the dust trails stretching across the Milky Way.
A story from Papunya in the Northern Territory recounts how an old blind man speared a huge emu and banished it to the Milky Way after the emu killed the man’s wife when she tried to take eggs from the emu’s nest. The emu in the sky has featured in Aboriginal stories for thousands of years. Different language groups have their own interpretation of not only the emu, but sharks, stingrays, mallee fowl, parrots, fish, hunters, men, women, girls and boys.
For WA artist Margaret Whitehurst, the emu in the sky is a sign to go hunting for emu eggs: “As children, it was always a competition to see who could find the first nest and the most eggs. Then we went home where mum always made a cake out of the first egg and the others were made into omelets.
The emu egg is like gold to our people.”
Among the Murray River people, the birth of the sun is linked to the tossing of a giant emu egg into the sky where it struck a heap of dry wood and burst into flames, bringing light to the dark world.
The Great Spirit Baiame saw how much the world was improved by the light and decided to rekindle the woodpile each day. Most stargazing civilisations from the Greeks to the Quechua Indians of Peru designated the sun as male and the moon as female. Nearly all Australian Aboriginal peoples regarded the sun as female and the moon as male. The people of southwest Tasmania regarded the sun as male and the moon as his wife Vena. The Karruru people of the Nullarbor Plain regard the moon as the wife of the Morning Star, Venus.
In other versions of the story, the Sun-woman’s daughter wants to accompany her mother, who refuses because two suns in the sky would set the land on fire. The Yolngu people of the Northern Territory say Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning (the dawn). She paints herself with red and yellow ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds to create the sunrise. She then lights a bark torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating the daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of the ochre falls on the clouds to create the sunset. She then puts out her torch, and through the night, travels underground to return to her camp. This underworld journey was important in the designation of the sun as female, her torch bringing warmth and fertility to the interior of the Earth, causing plants to grow.
In the Milingimbi legends of Arnhem Land, the sun sets in the sea so that ‘she’ becomes a great fish and swims under the earth to return the next morning. The moon also becomes a fish, passing beneath the earth during the day. The moon, as in other cultures, is linked with fertility, young girls warned they would become pregnant if they stared at the moon.
In Central Queensland, the moon is the eye of a man who lost his other eye after the mythical swamp creature, the bunyip, hit him with a frog when he tried to rescue his woman.
In Western Australian and Arnhem Land stories, staring at the moon may bring death while other groups linked it with immortality, ‘he’ dies every month and is then reborn. One of the many lunar origin stories includes the creation of the ‘light boomerang’ (crescent moon) to guide people at night.
The appearance of meteors and comets were interpreted differently among Australian Aboriginal groups. In northeastern Arnhem Land, because of their speed and unpredictability, they are believed to be a sky canoe carrying the spirits of the dead. The debris trails that follow them indicate the dead person has left a big family. Others say they are souls returning to earth. Among the Yarralin people of the Northern Territory and the Kwadji people of Cape York, shooting stars signal the passage of a dead person’s breath or spirit to his own land.
To the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville islands, meteors represent the eyes of the one-eyed spirit men, Pipinjawari, ‘who steal bodies and suck the blood of their victims’.
Most stories are linked to tragedy or an imminent death signaled by already deceased relatives.
Comets were widely believed to be flaming spears hurled across the heavens by ancestral figures. The Pitjantjatjara people of the Western Desert associated them with a powerful sky hero who flung his spear across the sky. Aborigines living near Adelaide told explorer Edward Eyre that a particularly spectacular comet was an omen that sorcerers from the north were about to destroy them.
The Gosse Bluff impact crater near Alice Springs is said to have formed when one of the ancestral women dancing in formation as the Milky Way put down her baby in a bark coolamon or food carrier. The baby and carrier fell from the sky and created the crater. The mother and father, the morning and evening stars, are still looking for their child.
Many Aboriginal groups saw the Southern Cross as a stingray pursued by two sharks – Alpha and Beta Centauri. In the Western Desert, people saw in the kite shape of the Cross a footprint of Waluwara, the wedge-tailed eagle while the pointers represented his throwing stick and the Coal Sack his nest.
The Aranda people of central Australia also referred to Waluwara, whose talons include the four brightest stars in the Cross. The Borong people see in the Cross a possum in a tree. The Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong and Murray Valley region of South Australia saw the Cross as a stingray, Nunganari, pursued by two sharks, Ngarakani.
The Yolngu people describe Ngalindi, the Moon-man, as fat and lazy. The moon was once a young slim man (the waxing crescent Moon), who grew fat and lazy (full moon). Breaking the law, he was attacked and killed by his people (new moon). Three days later, he rose again to repeat the cycle. The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory say he grows fat at each full moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey tribal laws.
The Yolngu tell of his wives who chopped him up with their axes (waning moon). To escape, he climbs a tall tree towards the Sun, but dies from his wounds (new moon). At Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land and on Groote Eylandt, when the moon is new or full and sets at sunset or sunrise, the tides are high. When the moon is in the zenith at sunrise or sunset, the tides are low. The Aborigines believe the high tides, running into the moon as it sets into the sea, make it fat and round. When the tides are low, the water pours from the full moon into the sea and the moon becomes thin.
The Yolngu people say there is a rope hanging from Venus, which is never far from the sun. The rope keeps the planet in orbit around the sun. The Yolngu start singing songs from sunset of the previous night, describing the passage of Venus across Australia.
The ‘songline’ serves as a navigational tool because it describes particular features over which Venus passes. When Yolngu people die, a mystical canoe takes them to the spirit-land of Baralku in the sky, their campfires burning along the edge of the great river, the Milky Way.
The canoe is sent back to earth as a shooting star, letting their family know they have arrived safely in Baralku. At a special ceremony, the Yolngu people gather after sunset to welcome the rising of the morning star, Venus.
Editor, Freo Streetwise
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