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.

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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Vacation Scholarships in Aboriginal Astronomy

The Research Centre for Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Astrophotonics at Macquarie University in Sydney is offering up to five vacation (summer) scholarships in related areas of astronomy, including observational astronomy, theoretical astrophysics, astrophotonics, instrumentation, astronomy education, and Aboriginal astronomy. The Centre is part of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, but also includes the School of Education and the Department of Indigenous Studies.

These scholarships are for undergraduate and honours students in Australia that are in their second year of university or higher to research a topic in astronomy.   We have opportunities for students to undertake projects in Aboriginal Astronomy. Indigenous students are encouraged to apply.

Time Duration: 6-7 weeks during January and February 2012

Stipend: $650 per week, tax free (this has recently been increased from $500). Successful applicants outside the Sydney metro area will receive financial support for return travel to Sydney to take up the scholarship.

Eligibility: Must be in 2nd year of undergraduate program or higher. Selection will be based on academic merit and suitability. Students with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, maths, computing, and engineering are preferred, but candidates from other backgrounds will be considered for projects in Aboriginal astronomy (such as the humanities and social sciences).

Deadline: Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Application Form: Click here for PDF. Click here for a Word file. If you are interested in a project in Aboriginal Astronomy, write "Astronomy - Aboriginal Astronomy" in the line provided.

Supporting Documentation:
1) Cover letter
2) Copy of your academic transcript
3) Curriculum Vitae (CV)
4) Contact details
5) References from two academic referees

Terms of Award: Click here for PDF

Selection Process: Click here for PDF

Application Submission Address: Amanda Manypeny, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Macquarie University, NSW, 2109.


Telephone: 02 9850 4244

Monday, August 8, 2011

Adnyamathanha Night Skies (Part II)

by Paul Curnow (BEd)

...continued from last week.

Our magnificent southern night skies feature two misty white patches known as the Magellanic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds (below) are two satellite galaxies orbiting our own and the light from these two irregular shaped galaxies can be seen naked eye under dark skies. These misty white patches first came to the attention of Europeans when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan recorded them during his journey south in 1519. The Large Magellanic Cloud, which contains around 10,000 million stars, lies approximately 170,000 light years away and the Small Magellanic Cloud lies approximately 230,000 light years away.

As recorded by Tunbridge (1988), the Adnyamathanha call the Magellanic Clouds Vutha Varkla and they are seen as two male lawmen also known as the Vaalnapa.  In Aboriginal society, strict marriage laws are observed and most groups within Australia are divided into two ‘moieties’.  For example, Adnyamathanha society is divided into the Mathari and Arraru moieties. This means that if you are a Mathari person that you are not permitted to marry another Mathari person. Also, if you are an Arraru person you cannot marry another Arraru individual. Therefore, in Adnyamathanha society you must marry someone of the opposite moiety.

Consequently, the Adnyamathanha speak about the two Vaalnapa, or ‘two lawmen’ (below).  These ‘two mates’, the Vaalnapa, had created a fire and are believed to have travelled up into the heavens on the sparks coming from this fire in order to watch over the people and now appear as the two Magellanic Clouds. Furthermore, where some of the sparks from their fire came down to the ground this was an explanation of how gold deposits were formed and where the ashes came to rest on the ground this is believed to have formed lead.

In addition to appearing as the two clouds of Magellan, the lawmen appear as various topographical features in the Flinders Ranges and are also believed to be responsible for the creation of some of these magnificent geographical features. Thus, even to this day, the ‘two lawmen’ still gaze over the Adnyamathana Nation as they have done for aeons assuring that marriage laws are still adhered to.

Interestingly, when missionaries first ventured to the lands of the Adnyamathanha in the hope of converting them to the Christian faith in the 1800’s they told the Adnyamathanha that if they were bad that ‘god’ resided in the sky and that they could be punished. To which the Adnyamathanha would reply, “Yes we know there are two of them,” referring to the two lawmen watching over them.

Additionally, like many early cultures across our vast planet the open star cluster the Pleiades is seen as a group of maidens. As recorded by Mountford (1939), the Pleiades are known to the Adnyamathanha Peoples as the Makara, and are seen a group of marsupial-like women with pouches.  These marsupial women are viewed as a group of ‘ice maidens’ for as the Pleiades make their first appearance before the sun (heliacal rising) and slowly journey across the sky, it is believed that their pouches are filled with ice crystals.

These ice crystals fall from the pouches of the Makara and also stream from their eyes and ears as they travel and the result is the morning frost being spread across the ground. When this takes place the younger members of the group rub these ice crystals on their bodies. It is believed that this will enable the males to grow long beards and become strong, and that the young females will become healthy and fertile. This also coincides with the Wundukara releasing their long beards down from the sky to the surface of the Earth.

The Adnyamathanha also believe that the region is home to the giant serpent Akurra. It is believed that the serpent (or sometimes serpents) formed many of the topographical features of the ranges. For example, it is believed that the Akurra drank all the water from Lake Frome. In fact, the Akurra drank so much water from Lake Frome that his stomach became very swollen and as he crawled up through the creeks he formed all the gullies with his swollen body.

As recorded by Tunbridge (1988), there is another story that relates to the Pleiades. The Pleiades were also known as Artunyi a group of maidens. One of the giant serpents had swallowed up the Artunyi, however, shortly after there came a great flood and the Akurra died. The floodwaters grew higher and higher and slowly reached up to the sky above. The body of the serpent was floating on top of the water and had become swollen as the body decayed. Eventually, the water became so high it nearly touched the sky and the decaying body of the Akurra burst open flinging the Artunyi into the sky where they remain to this day.

To conclude, the boastful hunter in the sky Orion was known as the Miaridtja to the Adnyamathanha. The Miaridtja is a group of men returning to camp after a day’s hunting. The Pleiades set before the stars of Orion and it is believed that the Makara travel below the horizon before the Miaridtja to prepare a fire in order to cook the food that the men will bring back to camp. It is worth noting that the Kaurna who come from the Adelaide Plains of South Australia and the Boorong of north western Victoria also see the stars of Orion as a group of men.


Bakich, M. (1995).  The Cambridge Guide to the Constellations, Cambridge University Press.

Cawood, M. & Langford, M. (2000).  The Australian Geographic Glove Box Guide to the Flinders Ranges, Australian Geographic Pty Ltd: Terrey Hills, NSW.

Mountford, C.P. (1939).  Anyamatana Legend of the Pleiades, Victorian Naturalist: Melbourne.

Pring, A. (2002).  Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People (draft), DETE: Adelaide.

Ridpath, I. & Tirion, W. (2000).  Collins Guide to the Stars and Planets 3rd Edition, Collins: Glasgow.

Tunbridge, D. (1988).  Flinders Ranges Dreaming, Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra.

Warrior, F.; Pring, A.; Knight, F. & Anderson, S. (2005).  Ngadjuri: Aboriginal People of the Mid North Region of South Australia, SASOSE Council Inc: Adelaide. URL


This blog was originally published as Adnyamathanha Night SkiesBulletin of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, June Issue, 2009 , pp. 12-14 by Paul Curnow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Adnyamathanha Night Skies (Part I)

by Paul Curnow (BEd)

Aboriginal Australians have been viewing the night skies of Australia for some 45,000 years and possibly much longer. During this time they have been able to develop a complex knowledge of the night sky, the terrestrial environment in addition to seasonal changes. However, few of us in contemporary society have an in-depth knowledge of the nightly waltz of stars above.

Much of the vast wealth of stellar knowledge accumulated by Indigenous Australians over tens of thousands of years, has now sadly been lost to antiquity.  Nevertheless, because of the thoughtfulness of a small number of individuals and the ongoing oral tradition of many Aboriginal Australians, some of this knowledge has been preserved.

Before we venture into the stellar realm of one such group, it must be noted that before the European occupation of Australia began in 1788, there were several hundred distinct Aboriginal languages in Australia.  Accordingly, along with language diversity between groups, other aspects of cultural diversity such as astronomy can vary widely.

The Adnyamathanha Peoples (sometimes spelt Anyamatana) come from the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia (image below). The Flinders Ranges is located approximately 480 kilometres north of Adelaide. These ranges extend for some 420 km and are named after the British explorer Matthew Flinders, who sighted them during his mapping of the Australian coastline in 1802.

The Flinders Ranges is a timeless place of solitude as well as being the site of the incredible Ediacaran Fossil finds and, thus, a geological wonderland.  When the great civilizations of Babylon, Ancient Egypt and classical Rome were flourishing, the Aboriginal Peoples of the Flinders had already lived in, hunted, and roamed the area for thousands of years.  Over time, the various groups who now make up the Adnyamathanha Peoples developed a close relationship with the natural world through their ‘Dreaming’.

The name Adnyamathanha means ‘rock people’ or ‘hill people’, and contemporary Adnyamathanha are made up of a confederacy of the Kuyani, Ngudlawara, Walypi, Yadlhiauda and Barngarla Peoples (sometimes spelt Pangkala).  Much of what we know about their view of the celestial ballet of stars has been passed down through Adnyamathanha Elders the extensive work of Charles Percy Mountford (1890-1976).

Mountford (below) was born in Hallett, South Australia and was an anthropologist who first joined the Anthropological Society of South Australia in 1926, shortly after the passing of his beloved wife in 1925.  He worked with many Aboriginal Cultures in remote areas of Australia during his extensive career.  Furthermore, many agree that Charles Mountford collated an unmatched ethnographic record of the Adnyamathanha Peoples, which included many of their beliefs relating to the nightly movement of stars above.

In the magnificent sky world of the Adnyamathanha there are many ancestral beings.  For example, the Adnyamathanha believe that there are two women in the sky called the Maudlangami (ngami means ‘mother’), whose breasts the spirit children originate from to later become the future children of the group.

Interestingly, this is not the only celestial mammary narrative.  The Ancient Greeks have an account of how the Milky Way came into existence that involves the same pieces of female anatomy.  They believed that the goddess Hera had squirted breast milk across the heavens to create the Milky Way - the name we give our galaxy to this day.

The Adnyamathanha also believe that there are two men in the sky known as the Wundukara, who have long beards that they can release down to the ground. Only a small group of ‘wise men’ in the Adnyamathanha are believed to be able to communicate with and see the Wundukara.  Unfortunately, it was never recorded whether the Wundukara correspond with a visible celestial object or objects.

Continued next week...