Saturday, June 18, 2016

Impact Craters in Aboriginal Dreamings, Part 2: Tnorala

By Duane Hamacher

In the previous post, I discussed Arrernte oral traditions relating to the Henbury crater field in the Central Desert.  As I said, Henbury is not the only impact crater in Arrernte country with an associated Dreaming.  Let us now travel 175 km west of Alice Springs, where we see 5 km-wide ring-shaped mountain range that stands 150 metres above the desert, representing the remnant central uplift of an eroded 22 km-wide complex crater (Figure 1).  The scientific explanation is that this structure formed from a comet impact some 142.5±0.8 million years ago.  The Western Arrente call this place Tnorala and consider it sacred.  Arrernte Elder Mavis Malbunka (Figure 2), wife of Herman Malbunka, the Traditional Custodian of Tnorala from Ntaria (Hermannsburg), explains the origin of Tnorala in Arrernte traditions and its importance today:

Figure 1: Gosse's Bluff, called Tnorala by the Western Arrernte.

In the Dreaming, a group of sky-women danced as stars in the Milky Way.  One of the women, who was carrying a baby, grew tired and placed her baby in a wooden basket, called a turna or coolamon. As the women continued dancing, the turna fell and the baby plunged into the earth. The baby struck the earth and was covered by the turna, the force of which drove the rocks upward, forming the circular mountain range we see today. The baby's mother, the evening star, and father, the morning star, continue to search for their baby to this day.  She continues:
Figure 2: Mavis Malbunka talking about Tnorala.  ABC's Message Stick, 19 July 2009.  
Click on the image to see the video clip.

"We tell the children don't look at the evening star or the morning star, they will make you sick because these two stars are still looking for their little baby that they lost during the dance up there in the sky, the way our women are still dancing. That coolamon, the one the baby fell out of, is still there. It shows up every winter."  The coolamon (Figure 3) may actually be the "galactic bulge" - the largest and brightest region of the Milky Way, which represents the center of our galaxy and looks similar in shape to a turna or coolamon. It is seen in the region bordering Sagittarius and Scorpius and is prominent in the winter night skies (see Figure 4). The motif of the dancing stars (women) may be attributed to the Phi Sagittariids, a meteor shower that radiates from the center of the galactic bulge between 1 June and 15 July, when the Milky Way is high in the winter night sky (although this is speculative).

Figure 3:  A coolamon from Central Australia.  Image from

Figure 4: The galactic bulge in the Milky Way as seen from Victoria, Australia. 
Image by Dr. Russell Cockman, reproduced with permission (

Mavis warns visitors to "Be careful at night. These two stars are looking for their child, Tnorala." Still today, that evening star comes at night with big lights. The white man call it Min Min light, but we know it as the bright light of the mother looking for her child”.  

The famous Min-Min lights, which are an unexplained atmospheric phenomena or optical illusion, are frequently reputed to be the baby’s parents. "We were chased by a bright light, and the old man, my husband, realised what it was and told them that it's from the Dreamtime and it's still looking for the child. The mother must have thought that she had found her little child. Then we saw the star go up to the heavens”.  Although they are identified as the “morning star” and “evening star”, they are not explicitly identified as Venus.  Mavis notes “that was the last we saw of it, but with this big summer, we might get to see the two stars again. They don't show themselves all the time. No! Only every now and then.”

There is a long history to Tnorala that goes well beyond the stars. Cosmic impacts, murders and land rights are a component of Tnorala’s turbulent past.   To learn more, watch the full video, which you can purchase from the CAAMA.

We respectfully acknowledge the Arrernte people and the custodians of Tnorala, Herman and Mavis Malbunka.

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