Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Djulpan - The Celestial Canoe

The stars that comprise the constellation of Orion are prominent in the astronomical traditions of many Aboriginal communities.  This brief account is from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
In Figure 1 you can see the stars of orion as visible from Australia.  The line of three stars represent the belt of Orion in classical Greek mythology represent. Above them is the famous Orion nebula, only 1,000 light-years away from us, where new stars are being born.  Greek mythology says this is Orion's sword, which is above his belt because he is standing on his head when seen from Australia!  This asterism is commonly called "the Saucepan" in Australia and New Zealand.  To the bottom right is the red giant star Betelgeuse and bottom left is the blue star Bellatrix, and to the top left is the blue giant star Rigel and top right is blue star Saiph.  These are Orion's hands and feet respectively.

Figure 1: The stars of Orion as seen from the Southern Hemisphere.  The top image shows the common names of the constellation while the bottom image shows the outline of "the saucepan" asterism.  Photo source
A traditional Yolngu story tells how three brothers of the King-fish (Nulkal) clan went fishing, but all they could catch were king-fish.  Because they were in the king-fish clan, traditional lore forbade them to eat these fish, and so they had to throw them back into the water.  Eventually, one of the brothers became so hungry that he decided to break the law, and caught and ate a king-fish. The Sun-woman (Walu) saw this, and was so angry at him for breaking the law that she created a waterspout that lifted them right up into the sky, where you can still see them.  The three brothers are the three stars across the centre of the canoe, and the Orion nebula is the fish trailing on its line in the water (Figure 2).  Thus this constellation is a reminder that you'd better not break the law!

Figure 2: The constellation Djulpan from the astronomical traditions of the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory.
The Kuwema people, near Katherine in the Northern Territory, knew that when Orion rose in the early morning in winter, then the Dingoes would start mating, producing puppies which were an important source of livelihood for the Kuwema people.

We respectfully acknowledge the Yolngu Elders and communities.