Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Solar Eclipses (Part II)

By Duane Hamacher

Read Solar Eclipses Part I

From the following accounts, it seems many Aboriginal groups had a firm understanding that during a solar eclipse, an object was covering the sun, although many explanations were presented as to what that object was and why it covered the sun. However, these explanations were dependent upon the person recording and translating these descriptions, which were nearly always non-Aboriginal people, typically recorded as a passing observation with little detail provided to the reader.

In Euahlayi culture, the sun woman, Yhi, is constantly pursuing the moon man Bahloo, who has rejected her advances. Sometimes Yhi eclipsed Bahloo, trying to kill him in a jealous rage. However, the spirits that held up the sky intervened and drove Yhi away from Bahloo. The Yolngu people of Elcho Island in Arnhem Land provided a similar, but less malevolent, explanation for a solar eclipse: it was an act of copulation between the sun woman and moon man.  The Wirangu of South Australia believed the solar eclipse on 21 September 1922 was caused by the hand of maamu-waddi, a spirit man that covered the earth during the eclipse for the privacy of the sun woman and moon man while they were guri-arra – “husband and wife together”.  Near Eucla, South Australia, the Yircla Meening believed solar eclipses were caused by “the Meenings of the moon, who were sick, and in a bad frame of mind towards those of Yircla”.

Artistic interpretation of Yhi, the sun goddess.
Image from 

Among other communities, it is clear that the people understand something was covering the sun during a solar eclipse, but attributed that “something” to various objects or actions, including a large black bird called tia to the Arrernte or spun possum fur to the Luritja (both of Central Australia). To some Aboriginal groups in southwestern region of Western Australia, a solar eclipse is caused by mulgarguttuk (sorcerers) placing their booka (cloaks) over the sun, while to some other groups they move hills and mountains to cover the sun. A similar view is held by (unspecified) Aboriginal people of the Central Desert who call a solar eclipse bira waldurning and claim it is made by a man (waddingga) covering the sun with his hand or body.

A black bird covering the sun.  From

During an eclipse of the sun on 5 April 1856, a Bindel man claimed that his son covered the sun and caused the eclipse in order to frighten another person in the community. An earlier Arrernte account attributes a solar eclipse (Ilpuma) to periodic visits of the evil spirit Arungquilta who takes up residence in the sun, causing it to turn dark. The Pitjantjatjara of the Central Desert believed that bad spirits made the sun “dirty” during a solar eclipse while the Wardaman believed a solar eclipse was caused by an evil spirit swallowing the sun. The Wheelman people of Bremer Bay, Western Australia told a story about how one day the sun and moon fell to earth, splitting it in half. The lazy people were separated from the rest of the community to the other side of the sun.  Sometimes they got bored and wanted to see what was happening in this world.  As they tipped the sun on its side to have a peek, several of them would gather, blocking the sun’s light, causing a solar eclipse.  They only do this for a short time – just long enough for each of them to have a look, which explains why the eclipse does not last long. The informant claimed that "Yhi (the sun) hide him face and Nunghar look down," when storms come or the sky becomes dark in the daytime (solar eclipse).

Not all causes of solar eclipses were attributed to an object covering the sun. According to a community in Turner Point, Arnhem Land, a solar eclipse was caused when a sacred tree at a totemic site was damaged by fire or carelessness. As such, sitting under the tree or even seeing it is reserved solely for initiated elders. One final account provides no insight to the cause of the eclipse, but provides an interesting account of how tangible and nearby some Aboriginal people thought the sun to be. When astronomers in Goondiwindi, Queensland were observing and recording the total solar eclipse of 21 September 1922 in order to test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, some Aboriginal people present thought the astronomers were trying to catch the sun in a net.

This photograph is of the scientific expedition led by Walter Gale to
Queensland to view the 1922 solar eclipse.

Given the low probability of witnessing a total solar eclipse in Australia, we expected to find very few accounts of total solar eclipses. And since a partial eclipses can pass without notice because of the sun’s intense brightness, and because of the damage to the eye that can result from directly looking into the sun, we did not expect to find many accounts of partial eclipses, either. Of the four accounts that we can attribute to a specific solar eclipse, three of them are partial eclipses, with some obscuring as little as 75% of the sun’s surface. We also find a number of Aboriginal words and descriptions of solar eclipses, despite our initial predictions. This shows that Aboriginal people did observe some total and partial eclipses and the memory of these events remained strong in many areas. We cannot attribute any partial eclipses that covered less than 75% of the sun’s surface to oral traditions and would use this as an estimated lower limit to what people could reasonably notice, although observing the sun even when 75% is eclipsed would still cause retinal damage.  However, other factors can reveal partial eclipses, such as diffraction by tree leaves, sufficient cloud-cover, or low-horizon partial eclipses, where the intensity of the sun’s light is reduced.

A partial eclipse in Kalgoorlie seen on the ground through tree leaves.  Image courtesy of CSIRO.

The evidence shows that Aboriginal people understood the mechanics of the sun-earth-moon system and the relationship of lunar phases to events on the earth. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land provide the most complete ethnographic evidence, in that their oral accounts demonstrate that they understood that the sun and moon move in an east to west motion, the moon goes through repeated phases that affect the ocean tides, the earth is finite in space, and the moon covers the sun during a solar eclipse. Some interpretations presented here are solid examples of “Aboriginal Astronomy” in that they clearly display an understanding of the motions of the sun and moon and their relationship with eclipses.

Previously: lunar eclipses.

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