At European contact there was no single, homogeneous Aboriginal society. Groups differed in aspects of their cultural and social organisation, and in the Northern Territory alone, over 100 different languages were spoken. It is estimated that pre-1788 there were approximately 700 languages spoken in Australia and the Torres Strait.

Existence of widespread social networks meant that people had to be multilingual to communicate. The Arrernte group of Central Australia for example, could speak up to 10 languages / dialects.

Likewise, music and dance, kinship systems, art forms and ceremonies differed dramatically between regions. Yet these differences were probably less important than the underlying similarities which brought groups together for ceremonies, for trade, to intermarry, and which allowed the maintenance of myths, and song lines and exchange cycles that extended over hundreds of kilometres. Even today regional variations remain; there is no one Aboriginal society and people in different regions tend to emphasise their own distinctness and identity.

Aboriginal names and stories about particular stars vary from place to place in Australia Read More
At European contact there was no single, homogeneous Aboriginal society. Groups differed in aspects of their cultural and social organisation, and in the Northern Territory alone, over 100 different languages were spoken. It is estimated that pre-1788 there were approximately 700 languages spoken in Australia and the Torres Strait.

Existence of widespread social networks meant that people had to be multilingual to communicate. The Arrernte group of Central Australia for example, could speak up to 10 languages / dialects.

Likewise, music and dance, kinship systems, art forms and ceremonies differed dramatically between regions. Yet these differences were probably less important than the underlying similarities which brought groups together for ceremonies, for trade, to intermarry, and which allowed the maintenance of myths, and song lines and exchange cycles that extended over hundreds of kilometres. Even today regional variations remain; there is no one Aboriginal society and people in different regions tend to emphasise their own distinctness and identity.

Aboriginal names and stories about particular stars vary from place to place in Australia. Stories from the coastal areas are mostly about fishing because that is the main food source, while stories from the central desert are more often about birds, hunters or tribal heroes. For example, near the coast the Southern Cross is often represented as a giant sting ray being pursued by a shark (the two Pointers) but in the Central Deserts it is often described as the foot print of a giant eagle.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

Untitled

Indigenous Australian Sky Stories

Veronica Patlas

© Veronica Patlas


Taparra the Moon Man

Indigenous Australian Sky Stories

Glen Farmer Ilortaminni

Natural ochers on linen
71 x 85 cm
© Glen Farmer Ilortaminni


This is a story about a group of women, their dingoes, and the hunter who chases them.

Amongst the Pitjantjatjara people of the western desert in Australia the constellation depicts women, and a man chasing them. The women are called the Kungkarungkara and they keep a pack of dingoes as protection against the man Nirunja who is also a hunter and who chases them across the desert. Nirunja catches one of the women (the faint star in the Pleiades) but he is still not satisfied. Eventually the women turn into birds and fly into the sky to escape from him. But even then, he defies their dingoes and follows them across the sky where he can be seen, with his spear, in the stars of Orion’s Belt pursuing the Pleiades. The Pleiades appear in the dawn sky in autumn, which is the time of year when dingoes mate, so the Pitjantjatjara people sing the story and perform fertility dances for the dingoes.

This story tells of the dangers of living near the Australian coast where there are often tropical storms.

At Yirrkala, on the coast of Arnhem Land in Australia, Orion and the Pleiades are associated with the dangers of living near the coast where there ar Read More
This is a story about a group of women, their dingoes, and the hunter who chases them.

Amongst the Pitjantjatjara people of the western desert in Australia the constellation depicts women, and a man chasing them. The women are called the Kungkarungkara and they keep a pack of dingoes as protection against the man Nirunja who is also a hunter and who chases them across the desert. Nirunja catches one of the women (the faint star in the Pleiades) but he is still not satisfied. Eventually the women turn into birds and fly into the sky to escape from him. But even then, he defies their dingoes and follows them across the sky where he can be seen, with his spear, in the stars of Orion’s Belt pursuing the Pleiades. The Pleiades appear in the dawn sky in autumn, which is the time of year when dingoes mate, so the Pitjantjatjara people sing the story and perform fertility dances for the dingoes.

This story tells of the dangers of living near the Australian coast where there are often tropical storms.

At Yirrkala, on the coast of Arnhem Land in Australia, Orion and the Pleiades are associated with the dangers of living near the coast where there are often tropical storms and cyclones. There, the constellation of Orion is said to be a canoe full of fishermen while their wives, the Pleiades, are in a second canoe. All have arrived from another land further east. On their way the men caught a turtle and the women two large kingfish, but as they were nearing the shore, a heavy storm overturned the canoes and drowned all the people who have now become stars to warn later generations of fishermen. The two canoes, the men and women, the turtle and the two fish (adjacent clusters of stars in the Milky Way) are all visible in the sky for the whole of the wet season. In its basic form this legend carries a warning against the dangers of fishing at a time of sudden storms, but in north-eastern Arnhem Land the local story also has a moral message: the fishermen are drowned as a punishment for catching the kingfish, which their tribe is traditionally forbidden to eat.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

The Pleiades

Sometimes, especially in the later stages of a star's infancy, a few remaining wisps of nebula reflect the light of their stellar offspring: These are known as reflection nebulae.

Robert Gendler

Robert Gendler © 2002


The planet Venus is often thought of as a star - the first one to appear at night (so it is often called the Evening Star) and the last one to fade in the morning sunlight (so it is also called the Morning Star). Because of this, the planet has been part of the legends of many different cultures. It was also an important sign to the Aboriginal people of Australia, who arose at dawn to begin their hunting or fishing. They usually thought of it as a girl.

This story features the Morning Star who lives on the Island of the Dead.

In a story from Arnhem Land (in the far north of Australia) the Morning Star is named Barnumbir and she lives on an island called Bralgu, the Island of the Dead. Because she was so bright, her people often asked her to come out in their boats when they went fishing in the early morning, so that they could see better. But Barnumbir was so afraid of drowning that she always refused to go with them on the sea. Finally two old women of the tribe solved the problem. They tied a long string around her waist so that they could pull her back to Bralgu and keep her safe in a woven basket during the day. Because she is tied to the string she can Read More
The planet Venus is often thought of as a star - the first one to appear at night (so it is often called the Evening Star) and the last one to fade in the morning sunlight (so it is also called the Morning Star). Because of this, the planet has been part of the legends of many different cultures. It was also an important sign to the Aboriginal people of Australia, who arose at dawn to begin their hunting or fishing. They usually thought of it as a girl.

This story features the Morning Star who lives on the Island of the Dead.

In a story from Arnhem Land (in the far north of Australia) the Morning Star is named Barnumbir and she lives on an island called Bralgu, the Island of the Dead. Because she was so bright, her people often asked her to come out in their boats when they went fishing in the early morning, so that they could see better. But Barnumbir was so afraid of drowning that she always refused to go with them on the sea. Finally two old women of the tribe solved the problem. They tied a long string around her waist so that they could pull her back to Bralgu and keep her safe in a woven basket during the day. Because she is tied to the string she cannot rise very high in the sky and always keeps near the horizon - as Venus does. In the bark painting Barnumbir is pictured as a shining light tied by a string to the woven basket on the Island of the Dead.

In Arnhem Land, because of this connection with the Island of the Dead, the morning star is an important part of the ceremony for the dead. It is represented by a totem stick to the top of which is tied a cluster of white feathers or down, denoting the shining star, and long strings ending in smaller bunches of feathers to suggest the rays. The spirit of the dead person is believed to be conducted by the star to its last resting place on Bralgu.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

Venus

Venus

NASA

© NASA / JPL


Nearly all Indigenous Australians thought of the Milky Way as a river in the sky. The big stars in it were fish and the small stars were lily bulbs (also good for food).

Learn about the tribal hero Priepriggie, famous for his songs and his hunting ability.

In Queensland the Aboriginal story about the Milky Way featured a tribal hero called Priepriggie. He was as famous for his songs and dances as for his hunting. When he sang, the people danced to the rhythm until they dropped with exhaustion and declared that if Priepriggie wished he could make even the stars dance. One morning Priepriggie got up very early, before anyone else was awake, to go hunting. Far away from the camp he found a tree full of flying foxes hanging down asleep from the branches. Although they are small, they make a tasty meal when there is nothing bigger, so he speared the largest one to take home. Unfortunately it was the leader and the rest of the flying foxes awoke and descended upon Priepriggie in great anger. As punishment, they carried him up to the sky.

Back at the camp, his people woke up but could not find Priepriggie. After searching everywhere in vain they decide Read More
Nearly all Indigenous Australians thought of the Milky Way as a river in the sky. The big stars in it were fish and the small stars were lily bulbs (also good for food).

Learn about the tribal hero Priepriggie, famous for his songs and his hunting ability.

In Queensland the Aboriginal story about the Milky Way featured a tribal hero called Priepriggie. He was as famous for his songs and dances as for his hunting. When he sang, the people danced to the rhythm until they dropped with exhaustion and declared that if Priepriggie wished he could make even the stars dance. One morning Priepriggie got up very early, before anyone else was awake, to go hunting. Far away from the camp he found a tree full of flying foxes hanging down asleep from the branches. Although they are small, they make a tasty meal when there is nothing bigger, so he speared the largest one to take home. Unfortunately it was the leader and the rest of the flying foxes awoke and descended upon Priepriggie in great anger. As punishment, they carried him up to the sky.

Back at the camp, his people woke up but could not find Priepriggie. After searching everywhere in vain they decided to perform his dance in the hope that he would return and join them, but they found that without his singing they could not remember the rhythm or keep in time. When evening came they were still shuffling around, all out of step and despairing of ever remembering the traditional songs and dances. Suddenly they heard faint singing coming from the sky. As the song grew louder and the rhythm stronger, they began to get into step and remember the song. Then the stars, which had been scattered across the sky without any pattern or order, also began to twinkle and dance to Priepriggie's song. Gradually they arranged themselves in a wide, glittering ribbon across the sky - the Milky Way. So the Milky Way reminds them constantly that the tribal hero should be celebrated with the proper ceremonies and that they should never forget these traditional songs and dances.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

The Milky Way

Half a billion stars are represented in this panoramic view of the Milky Way seen edge-on, from within. The Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, two neighboring galaxies, appear as faint smudges in the lower right.

2MASS (2 Micron All Sky Survey) / CALTECH / MIT

© 2MASS / CALTECH / MIT


Amongst the Murray River people of South Australia the origin 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 a golden flame, the colour of egg yolk, bringing light to what had formerly been a dark world. The Great Spirit Baiame, seeing how much the world was improved by this flood of golden sunlight, decided to re-light the woodpile each day.

The Sun is a Sky Woman who has her camp in the east. Each morning she wakes up and lights a bark torch that she will carry across the sky during the day.

Early in the morning, Sky Woman decorates herself with crushed red ochre. Some of this ochre falls as dust, coloring the sky and clouds pink; hence the sunrise. Her daughter wants to come with her but the Sun Woman always refuses, because two suns in the sky would be so hot that they would set the country on fire. By evening the Sun Woman has traveled to the western edge of the world. Here she renews her body paint, producing the glow of sunset before starting on her long journey under the earth back to the east. In some stories she changes into a wallaby and hops through a long underground tunnel. Read More
Amongst the Murray River people of South Australia the origin 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 a golden flame, the colour of egg yolk, bringing light to what had formerly been a dark world. The Great Spirit Baiame, seeing how much the world was improved by this flood of golden sunlight, decided to re-light the woodpile each day.

The Sun is a Sky Woman who has her camp in the east. Each morning she wakes up and lights a bark torch that she will carry across the sky during the day.

Early in the morning, Sky Woman decorates herself with crushed red ochre. Some of this ochre falls as dust, coloring the sky and clouds pink; hence the sunrise. Her daughter wants to come with her but the Sun Woman always refuses, because two suns in the sky would be so hot that they would set the country on fire. By evening the Sun Woman has traveled to the western edge of the world. Here she renews her body paint, producing the glow of sunset before starting on her long journey under the earth back to the east. In some stories she changes into a wallaby and hops through a long underground tunnel. While she is traveling under the ground, her bark torch warms the earth and makes the plants grow.

Like many stories, this one points to the close connection between the sky and the earth.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

The Sun

The Sun

NASA / Extreme UV Imaging Consortium

© NASA / Extreme UV Imaging Consortium


Because the Moon grows from a new moon to a full circle and then appears to die back to almost nothing, he is associated with both fertility (producing new life) and death. There are also many stories that try to account for this waxing and waning of the Moon.

The people of Milingimbi in Arnhem Land in Australia believed that at the time of creation the Moon Man, Alinda, had two wives who each gave birth to a son. One day when the wives were out gathering roots and berries, Alinda sent the boys out to catch some fish for him. The boys went down to the lagoon but they could not find any fish. However, they did catch a whistling duck. Being very hungry, they quickly decided that, since they had not actually been asked to bring home a duck, they could eat it themselves and not tell their father. When they returned home and their father asked for fish they said they hadn’t caught any. However, he noticed the duck grease on their fingers and asked them how it came to be there. Fearing a punishment they refused to admit catching the duck. Alinda, who was also hungry, was furious. He pushed them into a carrying bag which he tied up and loaded into his canoe. Then he pad Read More
Because the Moon grows from a new moon to a full circle and then appears to die back to almost nothing, he is associated with both fertility (producing new life) and death. There are also many stories that try to account for this waxing and waning of the Moon.

The people of Milingimbi in Arnhem Land in Australia believed that at the time of creation the Moon Man, Alinda, had two wives who each gave birth to a son. One day when the wives were out gathering roots and berries, Alinda sent the boys out to catch some fish for him. The boys went down to the lagoon but they could not find any fish. However, they did catch a whistling duck. Being very hungry, they quickly decided that, since they had not actually been asked to bring home a duck, they could eat it themselves and not tell their father. When they returned home and their father asked for fish they said they hadn’t caught any. However, he noticed the duck grease on their fingers and asked them how it came to be there. Fearing a punishment they refused to admit catching the duck. Alinda, who was also hungry, was furious. He pushed them into a carrying bag which he tied up and loaded into his canoe. Then he paddled into the centre of the lagoon and dumped the boys overboard.

When Alinda got home the wives asked where their sons were. Alinda said they had gone hunting and would return at evening. When the boys failed to come home for a meal their mothers became suspicious. They followed the tracks of Alinda and the heavy bag he had dragged along beside him to the edge of the water, and they soon worked out what had happened. Filled with grief and rage they ran and set fire to the hut where Alinda was sleeping, rejoicing at his cries of pain as he burned to death. But, even as they watched, the women saw his body come to life again as a thin crescent which slowly grew into a large sphere and climbed into the sky. From there Alinda announced that from that time the whole of the creation would die, and once dead, would never live again - except for himself. He would die for three days each month but would always come to life again. At full moon the Aboriginal people point to dark marks across his middle - the scars from the burns he received in the hut.

The Moon’s many disguises.

The formation of a ring or halo around the Moon usually indicates to Aboriginal people in Australia that rain is coming and the ring is interpreted as the Moon-man building a shelter around himself as protection before the downpour. The Tiwi people of Melville Island believe that a ring around the Moon shows the Moon-man is taking part in a kulama ceremony such as they themselves perform: the ring is the circle of heaped-up earth around the ceremonial ground and inside it the star people are dancing and singing the kulama songs just as the Tiwi are doing. This story points very clearly to the unity of earth and sky, where the same rituals and orderly procedures are being followed.

There are other characteristics of the Moon which are also explained in stories. An eclipse of the sun is usually interpreted as indicating that the Moon Man is uniting with the Sun Woman. Aboriginal peoples in coastal areas ofAustralia noted the connection between the phases of the Moon and the movements of the tides. At Yirrkala in Arnhem Land and on Groote Eylandt, the Aboriginal people believe that the high tides, running into the Moon as it sets into the sea, make it fat and round again. On the other hand, when the tides are low, the water pours back into the sea from the full moon which then shrinks to a thin crescent.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

The Moon

Gravity holds the Moon in orbit around the Earth.

NASA / U.S. Geological Survey

© NASA / U.S. Geological Survey.


The Southern Cross is a constellation specific to the southern hemisphere consisting of four bright stars placed as if at the points of a cross.

A tree flies into the sky to become the Southern Cross.

There are many legends in Aboriginal cultures of Australia about things that are not permitted, such as eating certain foods or marrying people who might be too closely related. In these stories the characters who do not obey the rules are punished. Sometimes the good characters are turned into stars to remind the people of what they should do. In one such story the Great Spirit Baiame created two men and a woman and taught them what plants to eat and how to dig for roots. Baiame also told them not to kill animals. But when a drought came and the plants died, the woman tried to persuade the men to go and hunt an animal for food. One man agreed and went off to kill an kangaroo but the other man refused to eat any of Baiame’s creatures. He went off into the desert and fell exhausted beneath a white gum tree. While he slept, the Yowi, spirit of death, reached down and dragged him up into the tree, disturbing two white cockatoos that were nesting there. Then Read More
The Southern Cross is a constellation specific to the southern hemisphere consisting of four bright stars placed as if at the points of a cross.

A tree flies into the sky to become the Southern Cross.

There are many legends in Aboriginal cultures of Australia about things that are not permitted, such as eating certain foods or marrying people who might be too closely related. In these stories the characters who do not obey the rules are punished. Sometimes the good characters are turned into stars to remind the people of what they should do. In one such story the Great Spirit Baiame created two men and a woman and taught them what plants to eat and how to dig for roots. Baiame also told them not to kill animals. But when a drought came and the plants died, the woman tried to persuade the men to go and hunt an animal for food. One man agreed and went off to kill an kangaroo but the other man refused to eat any of Baiame’s creatures. He went off into the desert and fell exhausted beneath a white gum tree. While he slept, the Yowi, spirit of death, reached down and dragged him up into the tree, disturbing two white cockatoos that were nesting there. Then the whole tree flew up into the sky to form the Southern Cross. The four stars of the Cross are said to be the eyes of the man and the Yowi, while the Pointers are the two cockatoos trying to fly back to their home in the gum tree.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross

Centre of the Universe (CU)

© Centre of the Universe (CU)


Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Be able to relate stories from indigenous Australians about objects in space
  • Appreciate the importance of astronomy to indigenous peoples of Australia
  • Comprehend and interpret stories communicated through text, images, and audio media

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