Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Magellanic Clouds

by Duane Hamacher

Unlike their Northern hemisphere counterparts, Southern hemisphere observers have a rich tapestry of celestial objects above their heads.  of the thousands of visible stars, clusters, planets, and nebulae are three galaxies: the obvious plane of the Milky Way, and two small satellite galaxies.  Although visible for tens of thousands of years before European voyages, these clouds were eventually named after the famous Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521).  The first written account of the Magellanic Clouds was by the Persian astronomer Al Sufi and were observed by two Italian explorers at the end of the 15th century.

The clouds of Magellan.  Photo by the European Southern Observatory.

The dwarf galaxies, about 20 degrees apart in the night sky, are known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, or LMC and SMC.  The LMC is about 14,000 light years across and contains the mass of 10 billion suns - 100 times less massive than the Milky Way.  The SMC is about 7,000 light years across and contains the mass of about 7 billion suns.  At a distance of 200,000 light years, it is one of the farthest objects that can be seen with the naked eye.

The LMC and SMC have a rich tradition in the cultures of Aboriginal Australians. It is featured in the oral traditions of most all Aboriginal groups.  Below are a handful of Aboriginal accounts of the LMC and SMC:

  • In the Northern Territory, Ngalia spirits (called the Walanari) live in the Magellanic Clouds and throw hot stones to the earth in anger if someone reveals secret knowledge.
  • In Western Australia, the Magellanic Clouds represent the camp of an old couple who can no longer obtain their own food. The Large Magellanic Cloud is the camp of the old man while the Small Magellanic Cloud is the camp of the old woman and a nearby star represents their fire. This story represents a celestial model of respect for elders and the need to share food with those who need it.
  • In Arnhem Land, the Magellanic Clouds represent an old man and woman by a campfire.  You can find a story from South Australia here.
  • The Adelaide people called the Magellanic clouds 'Ngakallamurro', said to literally mean "paroquet-ashes". Being white, they represent the ashes of the Blue Mountain lorikeet. These birds were assembled there by one of the constellations and were later treacherously roasted.
  • The Magellanic Clouds were known in the Lower Murray as Prolggi, which was translated as "cranes". The Yaraldi considered that there were two Prolggi in the sky, having got there after fighting with the emu spirit, Pindjali, who also became a heavenly body.
  • The Yaraldi people tell a story about two cranes who, knowing that the emus would hunt them and kill them, flew up into the air, circling around, higher and higher, until they reached the sky. They found it to be a good country to live in, so they stopped there. You can see them in the heavens at night, "in the form of two patches of clouds, like wisps of smoke, at the end of the Milky Way." The Aboriginal people's belief is that when anyone of them is knocked down and left bruised and unconscious on the ground by a person from another tribe, the brolgas comedown, lift him up and guide him home.
  • The Gundidjmara people held that the larger cloud was a 'gigantic crane', the smaller cloud being the female equivalent. A similar version has also been recorded in the Kamilaroi language of northern central New South Wales. As with their terrestrial counterparts, these celestial spirit beings migrated according to the season. In the winter sky, the cranes are seen lying to the southeast and then south of the Milky Way. In summer they shift towards the western side.

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