Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Solar Eclipses (Part I)

This week is the start of a two part series about the sun and moon in oral traditions, with an emphasis on solar eclipses.

Aboriginal Oral Traditions of the Sun and Moon

In most Aboriginal cultures, the sun is female and the moon is male. While the specific details vary between groups, many Aboriginal communities describe a dynamic between the sun and moon, typically involving one pursuing the other across the sky from day to day, occasionally meeting during an eclipse. Many stories explain why the moon gets progressively “fatter” as it waxes from new moon to full moon, then fades away to nothing as it wanes back to new moon. For example, the full moon is a fat, lazy man called Ngalindi to the Yolngu of Arnhem Land. His wives punish his laziness by chopping off bits of him with their axes, causing the waning moon. He manages to escape by climbing a tall tree to follow the Sun, but is mortally wounded, and dies (new moon). After remaining dead for three days, he rises again, growing fat and round (waxing moon), until his wives attack him again in a cycle that repeats to this day.

Lunar Phases.
Because the lunar month is roughly the same length as the menstrual cycle, the moon is sometimes associated with fertility, sexual intercourse, and childbearing. In some communities, young women were warned about gazing at the moon for fear of becoming pregnant. The Ngarrindjeri of Encounter Bay, South Australia saw the moon as a promiscuous woman became thin and wasted away (waning moon) as a result of her numerous sexual encounters. When she became very thin (crescent moon), the creator being Nurrunderi ordered her to be driven away. She was gone for a short while (new moon), but began to eat nourishing roots causing her to fatten again (waxing moon). A similar account is given by the nearby Jaralde people, except the waxing moon represents the moon-woman coming to term in pregnancy. Several other Aboriginal groups associate the moon with love, fertility and intercourse, including the Koko-Yalanyu of the Bloomfield River, Queensland and the Lardil people of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The moon and the sun have a gravitational influence on the ocean, causing tides. High (spring) tide occurs when the sun and moon are aligned or opposed while low (neap) tide occurs when the sun and moon are at 90ยบ to the earth, damping each other’s gravitational effects. The Yolngu understand the relationship between lunar phases and the ocean Yolngu of Arnhem Land and the Anindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt, when the tides are high, the water fills the moon as it rises at dawn and dusk (full and new moon, respectively). As the tides drop, the moon empties (crescent) until the moon is high in the sky during dusk or dawn, at which time the tides fall and the moon runs out of water (first and third quarter).

Spring and Neap tides.

In addition to describing the lunar phases and their relationship to tides, some Aboriginal groups identified that the earth was finite in expanse. The Yolngu tell how the sunwoman Walu lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn. She decorates herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the red sunrise. She then lights her torch, made from a stringy-bark tree, and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. Upon reaching the western horizon, she extinguishes her torch and starts the long journey underground back to the morning camp in the east. When asked about this journey, a Yolngu man explained that “the Sun goes clear around the world”, who illustrated this “by putting his hand over a box and under it and around again”. Some Aboriginal astronomers (elders who studied the motions and positions of stars and celestial objects) seem to know the earth was round, as a particular reference to a “day” meant “the earth has turned itself about”.

These accounts reveal that Aboriginal people were well aware of the motions of the sun and moon and their effect or correlation with events on the earth, such as tides. Given that Aboriginal people survived in Australia for over 40,000 years, this conclusion is not surprising. Understanding this relationship is a major step to determining the causes of eclipses.

Reactions to Solar Eclipses

Much like other transient celestial phenomena, such as comets and meteors, many Aboriginal groups held a negative view of solar eclipses. They could be a sign of a terrible calamity, an omen of death and disease, or a sign that someone was working black magic. According to colonist accounts, solar eclipses caused reactions of fear and anxiety to many Aboriginal people, including Aboriginal people near Ooldea, South Australia, the Euahlayi of New South Wales, the Yircla Meening of Eucla, Western Australia, the Bindel of Townsville, Queensland, the Wirangu of Ceduna, South Australia, the Ngadjuri of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, the Arrernte and Luritja of the Central Desert, the Kurnai of Victoria, the people of Roebuck Bay, Western Australia and Erldunda, Northern Territory. One colonist noted seeing Aboriginal people run under the cover of bushes in a fearful panic upon a solar eclipse. The Mandjindja people of South Australia called an eclipse of the sun on 30 July 1916 “Tindu korari” and were struck with great fear at first, but were relieved when the eclipse passed with no harm having come to anyone.

Path of annular solar eclipse of 1916.
To many Aboriginal communities of southeast Australia, the sky world was suspended above the heads of the people by various devices, such as trees, ropes, spirits, or by some magical means. In Euahlayi oral traditions, the sun is a woman named Yhi who falls in love with the moon man, Bahloo. Bahloo has no interest in Yhi and constantly tries to avoid her. As the sun and moon move across the sky over the lunar cycle, Yhi chases Bahloo telling the spirits who hold the sky up that if they let him escape, she will cast down the spirit who sits in the sky holding the ends of the ropes and the sky-world will fall, hurling the world into everlasting darkness. To combat this omen of evil, some communities employed a brave and well-respected member of the community, such as a medicine man or elder, to use magical means to fight the evil of the eclipse. This typically included throwing sacred objects at the sun whilst chanting a particular song or set of words. This practice was shared by Aboriginal communities across Australia, including the Euahlayi, whose medicine men (wirreenuns) chanted a particular set of words and the Ngadjuri who threw boomerangs in each cardinal direction to avert the evil. Similarly, medicine men of Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara communities would project sacred stones at the eclipsing sun whilst chanting a particular song – always with success. The act of casting magical stones at the sun strengthened the medicine man’s status in the community since he was always successful in bringing the sun back from the darkness, averting the evil and saving the people. A nearly identical practice is performed in the event of a comet, which yields the same result. Among the Wardaman of the Northern Territory, the head of the sunclan is a man named Djinboon. He can prevent or rescue the earth from an eclipse of the sun by magical means, or allow it to occur and frighten the people if laws are broken or if he does not receive the gifts he desires.

However, not all Aboriginal communities viewed solar eclipses with fear. The Aboriginal people of Beagle Bay, Western Australia were unafraid of solar eclipses. Aboriginal people near Erldunda, Northern Territory reacted with a combination of fear and joy to a solar eclipse that occurred on 21 September 1922, with some calling out “jackia jackia” while others sang, in a fearful tone, the song “You want to know what is my prize”.

Total solar eclipse of 1922.

Previously: lunar eclipses.

To learn more, read "Eclipses in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy" by Duane Hamacher and Ray Norris.

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