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To the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia, the night sky is of great significance. For the night sky could serve many purposes, some practical and some more spiritual in nature. Few of us today have the same connection that early cultures did to the wider environment around us. For example, most of us spend more time under roofs than outside. Even many keen astronomers probably don’t spend the same amount of time looking at the sky as our early predecessors did. One of the reasons for this is that the night sky just isn’t considered as significant as it once was by many early cultures.
Monitoring the changing positions of stars in the sky by Aboriginal cultures was often essential for a group’s survival. If you didn’t keep track of the seasonal availability of food sources, you and your group would most certainly perish and what better clock is there than the motion of the stars. Therefore, stellar knowledge and the apparent movement of the sky were of paramount importance to many Australian Aboriginal groups, and their knowledge of the night sky was often extensive. As the Ngarrindjeri Elder & renowned Australian scientist David Unaipon (1872-1967) once commented, “The Aborigines have a myth connected with nearly all the constellations and bright stars in the Heavens.” However, stories passed on to younger generations often reveal that Aboriginal People prioritise cultural and spiritual interests, when talking about the celestial dance of stars above – rather than scientific endeavour.
Sadly over time many stories have been lost. However, in recent years a resurgence of interest by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has taken place. Often we are just left with snippets of information, but slowly more information of the view of the sky as seen by our early ancestors in Australia is beginning to emerge. The value of these stories cannot be underestimated. I quote Prof. Dr. Dieter B. Herrmann (2009), the former Director of the Berlin Planetarium in Germany, “for the reason that traditionally living Indigenous peoples of Australia have not made use of written language systems, the archiving and publication of their stories is of foremost importance for the understanding of their view on the processes in the sky. Many scientists have worked on this task; however, there is still a lot to be discovered. Therefore, every contribution is important – not only to understand the cultures of Australia’s Indigenous peoples but to get a grasp of the forming and development of science in general.”
One such group that prided themselves in having more knowledge of the night sky than any other group in their region was the Boorong People. The Boorong once occupied the Mallee country in small numbers around Lake Tyrrell in north-western Victoria. In recent years the area has been the subject of a number of archaeological and palaeo-anthropological studies. Tyrrell (also spelt Tyrille) is a Boorong word that means ‘space’ or ‘sky’ and Lake Tyrrell is situated quite close to the modern day township of Sea Lake. The salt-encrusted Lake Tyrrell is approximately 180 square kilometres in size, making it the largest salt lake in the state of Victoria. In addition, it is located 382 km north west of Melbourne, 7km out of the township of Sea Lake on the Calder Highway.
Historical evidence suggests that Lake Tyrell was regularly visited by a number of groups as they passed through the area, however, the Boorong were the local clan and they spoke the Weirgaia language. Sadly today no one has been able to reliably track down the direct descendants of the Boorong, but knowledge of how they viewed the cosmic dance of stars above has survived to the present like few other groups. The primary source of this information comes from William Edward Stanbridge Esq. (1821-1894) who was the first non-Indigenous licensee of Tyrrell Station (1847-1873). In 1857, Stanbridge delivered an address to the Philosophical Institute in Melbourne on the night sky as seen by the Boorong People of northwestern Victoria. His address was entitled On the Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria. The early pioneering foundations in understanding the celestial views of the Boorong were further described extensively by the researcher John Morieson (1996).
In addition to the writings of Stanbridge, neighbouring groups shared similar beliefs to the Boorong so a clearer picture of how the Boorong saw the night sky has emerged over time. However, to better understand their beliefs we need to start with their cosmogony.
In the beginning, the Boorong believed that the Earth was a flat featureless plain in darkness until Pupperrimbul in the form of a small bird with a red patch above its tail made the Sun. Pupperrimbul was one of the old ancestral spirits known as the Nurrumbunguttias, who had then inhabited the Earth. The Nurrumbunguttias had the all-important possession of fire which was a necessary aid to cook food and keep warm. The cosmos was considered a result of their creation.
Eventually, the Nurrumbunguttias were transformed into various forms in the sky from which they exerted influence over the Earth and the affairs of humankind. Furthermore, evil spirits were said to emanate from them while storms, rain and other natural environmental occurrences were attributed to the influence of the Nurrumbunguttias. For example, if the spiritual representative of Pupperrimbul in the form of a small bird with a red patch above its tail was killed the Boorong believed there would be a fearful fall of rain.
Gnowee was the name given for the Sun and it is believed to be an Emus’ egg that was cast into the sky by Pupperrimbul. The sister of Gnowee was Chargee Gnowee which is the name that was given to the planet Venus. Today we know that the planet Venus is approximately 108 million kilometres from the Sun and appears as a conspicuous bright starlike object often referred to as the ‘morning’ or ‘evening star’. It is the third brightest object in the sky and comes closer than any other planet to the Earth. Therefore, not surprisingly it features prominently in the mythologies and Dreaming of many cultures.
Chargee Gnowee is married to Ginabongbearp which is the name given to the planet Jupiter by the Boorong. Ginabongbearp was also one of the Nurrumbunguttias or ‘old spirits’. The Moon was called Mityan and was believed to have been in a fight over someone else’s wife. He was beaten, ran away and has been wandering through the heavens ever since. The band of the Milky Way was known as Warring and is believed to be the smoke from the campfires of the Nurrumbunguttias as they move across the sky. The Southern Cross which features prominently in the stories and lore of many southern hemisphere cultures was associated with a fleeing hunter who became a possum. An emu called Tchingal was pursing Bunya and in great fear Bunya laid his spears at the base of a tree and ran up it to avoid his pursuer. According to Stanbridge (1857), Bunya can still be seen as the top star in the cross which contemporary astronomers call Gacrux.
Gacrux (or Gamma Crucis) is a close red giant star that is located at a distance of approximately 88 light years and appears with an apparent magnitude of 1.6. There have been some wider interpretations of the shape of Bunya that include other parts of the Southern Cross. However, one needs to be mindful of placing western interpretations on Aboriginal stars and their patterns. Furthermore, in the writings of Stanbridge he quite clearly states that Bunya is the top star in the cross and no wider interpretation is given.
The body of Tchingal is represented by the ‘Coalsack Nebula’ a dark cloud of dust located some 600 light years away. The nebula is primarily located within the borders of the constellation Crux (the Southern Cross), however; it also spills into the neighbouring constellations Musca (the Fly) and Centaurus (the Centaur). The Pointer stars (Alpha & Beta Centauri) located in the constellation of Centaurus are said to represent two brothers the Berm Berm-gle often referred to as the brothers Bram Bram-bult by neighbouring groups. The two brothers had heard about Tchingal chasing Bunya up a tree. According to neighbours of the Boorong, Tchingal was a giant and aggressive emu with a voracious appetite. The brothers had come across the emu before and were out to kill the beast. They speared Tchingal and the star Acrux (Alpha Crucis) located in the Southern Cross represents a spear point that passed through the neck of the emu. The star Acrux is a bluish-white star located approximately 321 light years away. The star Mimosa or Becrux (Beta Crucis) represents the spear point driven through the rump of the celestial emu. Mimosa is a blue giant star located some 353 light years away.
According to neighbouring groups one of the brothers was angry at what he considered to be the cowardly act of Bunya dropping his spears and making a dash up the tree. Once the emu had been killed the same brother called for him to come down but he was too frightened. Angered at his cowardice, Bunya was cursed to remain a possum and remain in the tree where possums are still seen to this very day.
It is interesting to speculate on the origins and inspiration for Tchingal. Genyornis newtoni was a giant species of ‘Thunderbird’ that lived in Australia some 45,000-55,000 years ago. It was once thought to be related to the emu and looked somewhat like a giant emu, although, modern scientists now believe it is more closely related to the goose or duck family. If the stories about this giant marauding emu were inspired by Aboriginal contact with Genyornis, it would be a testament to the great antiquity of the story.
The Boorong also saw two Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) in the sky. The first and brightest is represented by the star Sirius located in the constellation of Canis Major which they called Warepil. The second is the star Rigel in Orion which the Boorong called Collowgulloric Warepil. These two celestial eagles soar high into our skies and Warepil is considered to be one of the Elders of the Nurrumbunguttias.
Located at a distance of 8.6 light years Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is the brightest star in the sky with an apparent magnitude of -1.44. Almost all early cultures have attached importance to this sparkling stellar beacon. Collowgulloric Warepil, better known to us as the blue-white supergiant star Rigel (Beta Orionis), sits at a distance of 773 light years. Moreover, the star Canopus in Carina was seen as the brother of Warepil named War or Wah (pronounced like the noise a crow makes). This white supergiant star is located at a distance of approximately 313 light years.
Various indigenous groups throughout Australia often feature crows prominently in their stories and mythologies. The Boorong believed that War was the first to bring fire down from space (named Tyrille = space or sky) and give it to the Aboriginals. Fire was of prime importance to early cultures. Apart from offering light during the dark nights, it was necessary to be able to keep warm and to cook, before this time it was believed the Aboriginals were without fire.
During the colder Australian months the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy is displayed high in the sky. Nearby this region is the constellation Scorpius. The brightest star in this constellation is the red supergiant Antares (Alpha Scorpii) located at a distance of 604 light years. This star was called Djuit and the stars either side Alniyat (Sigma Scorpii) and Tau Scorpii are his two wives. Djuit’s mother is the 4th brightest star in our skies, the orange giant star Arcturus (Alpha Boötis), located in the constellation of Boötes some 37 light years away. This star is called Marpeankurrk and she is considered an important ancestor of the Boorong because she taught them how to find the larvae of the Wood Ant which they call Bittur. Stanbridge (1857) said “they subsist almost entirely upon it during part of the months of August and September.”
Also in Scorpius are the stars Shaula (Lambda Scorpii) and Lesath (Nu Scorpii). Shaula is a blue-white star roughly 703 light years away and Lesath is a blue star lying some 519 light years away. These two stars are seen as a male and female falcon called Karik Karik. The Boorong spoke the Wergaia language and some of their neighbours further south are the Dja Dja Wurrung, who according to (Tully, 1997) used the term Karick Karick to describe the Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides). It is likely that the Boorong were also referring to the same species.
One of the most prominent constellations during the southern hemisphere’s warmer months is Orion the hunter. The belt stars of Orion, along with the stars in his sword, were seen as a number of young men dancing in a corroboree. The Boorong called these stars Kulkunbulla and they were being watched over by the star called Gellarlec, which astronomers now call Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri). Gellarlec was seen as an old man chanting and beating time to the Kulkunbulla as he watched them perform. Also, watching and playing to this event were a group of young women known as the Larnankurrk which is the Boorong name for the Pleiades or ‘Seven Sisters’.
The Pleiades (M45) is a bright open cluster of stars situated within Taurus. They are located 378 light years away and 100+ stars are associated with this cluster of young blue stars is believed to be only around 50 million years old. Although this may sound old, this is young in star years because our sun is 4.6 billion years old. As a further example, if you were a dinosaur and looked into the sky you wouldn’t have seen these stars because they didn’t exist when the dinosaurs joined the extinction list some 65 million years ago. It is also is interesting to note that in addition to the Boorong so many first nation cultures see these stars as a group of young maidens.
William Stanbridge (1857) also recorded that the constellation of Aquila the eagle was associated with a Dreaming ancestor named Totyarguil. It is likely that he was more specifically referring to the brightest star within the constellation named Altair, because he says “the stars on either side are his wives.” Altair is a white star situated quite closely to us at a distance of only 17 light years has two companions sitting either side, the stars Tarazed (Beta Aquilae) and Alshain (Gamma Aquilae). The Boorong believed that Totyarguil was eventually killed while bathing by a number of creatures known as Bunyips. However, his remains were later recovered by his uncle Collenbitchick, who is represented in the sky as the double-star Algedi (Alpha Capricorni).
It is interesting to note that there are a number of stories that are told along the River Murray (the Boorong Millee) that talk about an ancestral hero who is pursuing his fleeing wives. This character has many exploits and neighbouring Aboriginal groups tell similar stories, though, they have different names for their hero. In South Australia, the people of the Coorong region call him Ngurunderi and it is likely he is also the star Altair with Tarazed & Alshain as his two wives. It also is likely that he and Totyarguil are one and the same. The people of the Kulin Nation in southern Victoria refer to this star as Bunjil, who is their creator being.
Additionally, the learned William Stanbridge records that Won is a boomerang thrown by Totyarguil. He refers to it as being ‘Corona’, giving no indication to whether it is the constellation ‘Corona Australis’ or ‘Corona Borealis’. But, based on the historical records of other local groups in the vicinity it is most probable that he was referring to ‘Corona Australis’ as the boomerang.
The mother of Totyarguil is Neilloan, who is believed to be the discoverer of ‘Loan’ (also spelt Lowan) eggs. Stanbridge records Neilloan as “a Loan flying” and that she is the constellation Lyra, however, it is quite likely that she may be the star Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. Additionally, the neighbouring Dja Dja Wurrung used the word Lowan (Tully, 1997) to describe the Mallee Fowl (Leipoa ocellata). Therefore, Neilloan is likely seen in the form of a Mallee Fowl, though, in his 1857 paper, Stanbridge gives no indication to whether other stars may be involved in her shape. Some may remember that Vega is the star featured in Carl Sagan’s 1997 book ‘Contact’ and is a blue-white star 25 light years away.
Stanbridge was clearly an enlightened individual for his time. He recorded the stellar knowledge of the Boorong at a time when many settlers and government officials viewed Indigenous Australians as a nuisance destined for extinction. He passed away in 1894 in the township of Daylesford, Victoria and is buried in a family vault in the local cemetery. I was able to visit his resting place in early 2009. I sat there thinking how I would have loved to been able to speak to this man and hear about his extensive knowledge on Aboriginal Cultures; even more so – how I would have loved to be able to speak to the Boorong one to one. To be able to talk about their beliefs – their insights and to be able to share in their magnificent view of the cosmic dance of stars above.
[Speed of light approximately 300,000 km per second or accurately 299,792.458 metres per second]
Herrmann, Dieter B., 2009, (astronomer) personal communication.
Howitt, A. W., 1904 (Reprint 2001), The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
Llyod, Keva, 2009, (historian) personal communication.
Morieson, John, 1996, The Night Sky of the Boorong (draft-unpublished), University of Melbourne.
Parker, Langloh, K., 1905, The Euahlayi Tribe: A Study of Aboriginal Life in Australia, London Archibald Constable & Company Ltd., London.
Ridpath, Ian, & Tirion, Wil, 2007, Collins: Stars and Planets 4th Edition, HarperCollins Publishers, London.
Simpson, Ken, & Day, Nicolas, 2004, Simpson & Day: Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (7th Edition), Penguin Group (Australia) Ltd, Victoria.
Stanbridge, Wm. Edward, 1857, On the Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria, Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute, Melbourne.
Tully, John, 1997, DjaDja Wurrung Language of Central Australia, John Tully Publisher, Dunolly, Victoria.
Paul Curnow [B.ED], is the Vice President of the Astronomical Society of South Australia (member since 1991) and a former council member of the Field Geology Club of South Australia. He has been a lecturer at the Adelaide Planetarium since 1992 and was the recipient of the ASSA editor’s award for 2000; 2010; and then again in 2013. In 2002, he served as a southern sky specialist for visiting U.S. and British astronomers who were in Australia for the total solar eclipse. He is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on Australian Aboriginal night sky knowledge; and in 2004, he worked in conjunction with the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center Planetarium in Ohio, on the creation of a show that features Indigenous Australian stories of the night sky. In addition, Paul runs a number of popular courses for the general public that focus on the constellations, planetary astronomy, historical astronomy and ethnoastronomy, which primarily deals with how the night sky is seen by non-western cultures. He appeared as the keynote speaker at the inaugural 2010 Lake Tyrrell Star Party in Sea Lake, Victoria and in 2011 was a special guest speaker at the Carter Observatory in Wellington, New Zealand. Since 2012 Paul has taken the role of Lecturer for the Astronomy & Universe course (EDUC2066) for the School of Education at the University of South Australia. Paul appears regularly in the media and has authored over 50 articles on astronomy.