Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evil Meteor Spirits of Aboriginal Astronomy

Halloween is upon us once again.  Incidentally, Halloween is my favourite holiday and a great chance for me to merge the spooky world of All Hallows Eve with Aboriginal Astronomy by discussing the evil celestial beings that permeate through the Aboriginal Dreamings of Arnhem Land.

Look out on a dark clear night, and you just might see one of these beings streaking across the sky.  But be careful! Aboriginal groups across northern Australia believe this flash of light, which Westerners call a meteor, is the eye of an evil spirit with a ferocious demeanour.  This spirit has many names – Thuwathu, Papinjuwari, Indada... They streak across the sky with their long claws, searching for the souls of the sick or dying.  In Arnhem Land, this being is called Namorrorddo or Namorrodor.

Namorrorddo - a profane spirit
by Samuel Namunjdja  (2010).

According to Pamela Weston, the legend of the Namorrodor is handed down by grandparents through many generations. The presence of Namorrodor, a flying serpent and a man-eater, is signaled by a shooting star in the night sky. Namorrodor lives in a cave and goes hunting at night for food.  At dusk it begins moving in the cave, preparing to go out hunting.  It makes noise like wind, it has long claws and a head like a kangaroo or horse.

Namorrodor - the evil falling star spirit.

Meat must never be cooked at night, because Namorrodor smells it, meat attracts it to the camp.  It hides in the bushes watching, moving closer by jumping from tree to tree.  Namorrodor’s favourite prey is small babies, when it finds them it rips out their heart and takes it away. Babies that sleep in the bush always lie face down or sideways to protect their hearts. They are always well covered. When a shooting star is seen in the night sky, it signals to people that someone has died.

Namorrodor is a shooting star.  It transforms into a terrifying spirit creature that hunts for babies.  It is known to eat their hearts.  Two of this story’s main messages are that babies should not sleep unprotected in the bush, and that meat should not be cooked on the fire at night.  The smell of meat cooking at night attracts Namorrodor, as well as centipedes, scorpions, ants and other biting insects. The story is told to children to encourage them to behave and go to sleep.

Bark painting by Arnhem Land artist Samuel Manggudja (1960).

It is said that the only person who can kill Namorrodor is a medicine man (or witchdoctor) who has as much strength as the spirit creature. This man can only kill Namorrodor at a certain time of the night, and with a spear, which has been shaped over a fire while certain words are sung.  It is also said that when Namorrodor dies it makes a terrible scream.

Watch a film about Namorrodor below.

Click on the image to go to the video.  Video by Dust Echoes.
Happy Halloween!!!

Dreaming on the Stars

Our blog has recently been featured in the Campus Review, entitled Dreaming on the Stars.  The full text of the article is given below.

By Jennifer Bennett (19 October 2011)

The Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Blog, which highlights the thousands of years of sky gazing of the original inhabitants of this country England has Stonehenge and Peru has the Nazca Lines, strange standing stones and carvings that are all that are left of ancient astronomical observations, but what many people may not know is that Australia has its own equivalents. Macquarie University PhD candidate Duane Hamacher runs the Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Blog, which highlights the thousands of years of sky gazing of the original inhabitants of this country.

Hamacher, who is originally from the United States, studied in Australia for a period as an undergraduate and loved it so much he returned to complete a research masters in astrophysics at the University of NSW.  After that though he decided he wanted to do something a little different and started looking at the intersection of astronomy and Aboriginal culture. He said that while it was an area that had been studied for a long time, the first paper on the topic came out in the 1850s, there was still much to learn.

“Compared to how big Australia is, and just the sheer volume of time people have been here, over 50,000 years, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge to learn,” he said. “When you look at it on a grand scale, it’s just not been researched very much and I found it to be completely open territory.”

The blog (described as a “loose collaboration”) features both work Hamacher has been directly involved in, as well as research by his supervisor and other astronomers in the field. “One of the things that we’ve found with a colleague is that an Aboriginal group in Victoria, the Boorong, actually noticed the eruption of the hyper-giant variable star Eta Carina in the 1840s and incorporated it into their rituals, and it’s the only indigenous account from all over the world that we have,” he said.

The blog, which has been running since late last year, is almost at 20,000 hits, many of which come from overseas. “Astronomy is arguably the most famous of all the sciences and the one that generates the most public interest, so I think when you cross astronomy with culture, you’re going to generate a lot of interest,” Hamacher said.

One site that should pique the public interest is Wurdi Youang, a complex arrangement of stones in a secret location between Melbourne and Geelong. It can be used to mark solstices and equinoxes and is made from some 100 basalt stones of about waist height.

“We have no idea [what it was used for],” he said.  “The problem is that when the British came through Victoria they drove a lot of people from their lands, and what Aboriginal people were left there had their languages and traditions banned, mostly by missionaries. We’re in contact with the local custodians, though, and they are very interested in learning more too … so it’s interesting to put together these bits of information.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kaurna Night Skies (Part II)

By Paul Curnow

...Continued from last week.

In many ancient and primeval cultures the sun is nearly always seen as male and the moon is viewed as female. For example, to the ancient Greeks the sun was the god Helios who daily drove his fiery chariot across the sky westward and the moon was the goddess Selene. In addition, in ancient Egypt the sun was known as the supreme god Ra and to the Aztecs of Mexico as Huitzilopochtli both male deities. However, in many but not all Aboriginal Australian cultures, our sun is often viewed as female and the moon as male. For the Kaurna People this is also the case. The Kaurna called the sun Tindo and the moon was named Kakirra. Although, Wyatt (1879) claims that Kakirra is male, not female. When the moon was full it was called Kakirramunto. Kakirra was believed to have a benevolent affect on human affairs, however, Tindo (sometimes written as Teendo) was considered to be more malevolent in nature.

Accordingly during the hours of darkness the Kaurna believe that Tindo sat in her Wodli (wurley) and ate fish. Furthermore, the Kaurna People believe that Tindo was originally created by an ancestral being named Monaincherloo, who was also known by the name Teendo yerle which meant ‘sunfather’. Wyatt (1879) had recorded that the Kaurna believed that Teendo yerle had created the sun, moon, stars, men and “plenty of things.”

Jamie Goldsmith, Steve Goldsmith, Paul Curnow and Karl Telfer

The Kaurna called the constellation of Orion Tiinninyarra (also sometimes written as Tiinninyarrana), and the Tiinninyarra are a group of young men who are hunting emu, kangaroo and other game of the celestial plain known as the Womma. They are hunting this game by the banks of a river, which they called Wodliparri (wodli=hut and parri=river). Therefore the band of the Milky Way from the Southern Cross through to the constellations of Orion, Auriga and Taurus is seen as a giant river in the sky world, and along the edge of the river are reeds and huts. Neighbours of the Kaurna to the south the Ramindjeri People who live around the Encounter Bay area also saw the band of the Milky Way as a river in the sky world with huts along the edge.

Additionally, along the edge of the Wodliparri, a group of women are collecting reeds and berries and they are known as the Mankamankarrana who many astronomers know today as the ‘Seven Sisters’ or the ‘Pleiades’ cluster. The Pleiades are an open cluster of stars which formed approximately 50-60 million years ago and are located some 378 light years away from our sun.

The Pleiades.  Image from

In addition, the dark patches along the band of the Milky Way are known as Yurakauwe (yura=monster or magnificent creature and kauwe=water). These dark patches are seen as waterholes, lagoons and billabongs where a very dangerous ‘being’ is said to reside. The Kaurna believe that if you were to wander too close to - or swim in these areas you would be dragged down under the water and killed by this creature.

Dark patches (dust lanes) in the Milky Way.  Image from

Prominent in the skies of Australia is the majestic Wedged-tailed Eagle Aquila Audax. Eagles and other Australian Birds feature strongly in many stories told by Indigenous Australians and the Kaurna have an eagle constellation known as Wilto.  Unfortunately, there do not seem to be ethnographical recordings of which particular stars that the constellation of Wilto was comprised. However, I personally believe the Kaurna were referring to the Southern Cross as Wilto. I have a number of reasons for believing this.

A wedge-tailed eagle.  Image from

The Ngadjuri People who lived in the Barossa Valley and Clare Valley region north of the Kaurna People had a constellation they called Wildu. The Ngadjuri People viewed the Southern Cross as the footprint of the Wedge-tailed eagle Wildu.  Furthermore, there are many words that are similar in the Ngadjuri and Kaurna languages in addition to some similar stories. To me, Wildu and Wilto are very similar in sound and they both refer to an eagle. Furthermore, one needs to be mindful that the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia did not use a written language, so many of these names have been recorded by early ethnographers who often spelt the word the way it sounded to them.

Accordingly, as we journey further north through the different Aboriginal Groups in South Australia other peoples also saw the Southern Cross as a Wedge-tailed eagle.  Like the Ngadjuri People, the Adnyamathanha People of the Flinders Ranges also called the Southern Cross Wildu and it was seen as the footprint of the Wedged-tailed Eagle Aquila Audax. In addition, the Aranda People who come from the far north of South Australia and part of the Northern Territory saw the Southern Cross as a Wedgedtailed Eagle that they called Waluwara. The two pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centauri are his throwing stick and the Coalsack Nebula is his nest in the sky. The four brightest stars in the Southern Cross are Waluwaras talons.

The Aboriginal Groups of Australia shared a close relationship with their environment and the natural world for 45,000+ years. Today we are left with just a taste, of the incredibly complex knowledge and understandings that the Kaurna People and other Aboriginal Peoples of Australia have developed over these thousands of years. This early drive to understand the night sky still fires the passions of many contemporary astronomers. Hopefully, efforts will continue to preserve these remaining snippets of stellar knowledge for future generations of Indigenous descendants and night sky enthusiasts.


Amery, Rob, 2000, Warrabarna Kaurna: Reclaiming an Australian Language, Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers, Netherlands.

Clarke, Philip, 1990, Adelaide Aboriginal Cosmology, Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, Adelaide.

E.D.S.A., 1989, The Kaurna People: Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains, Education Department of South Australia, Adelaide.

Pring, Adele, Warrior, Fred, Knight, Fran, & Anderson, Sue, 2005, Ngadjuri: Aboriginal People of the Mid North Region of South Australia, SASOSE Council Inc.

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

Ridpath, Ian, & Tirion, Will, 2000, Collins Guide to the Stars and Planets 3rd EditionCollins, London.

Willis, Roy, 1995, The Hutchinson: Dictionary of World Myth, Helicon & Duncan Baird Publishers, Oxford.

Simpson, Jane, & Hercus, Luise (Editors) et al, 1998, History in Portraits: Biographies of nineteenth century South Australian Aboriginal People, Southwood Press, Sydney.

Wyatt, William, 1879, Some Account of the Manners & Superstitions of the Adelaide & Encounter Bay Aboriginal Tribes with a Vocabulary of their Languages, Names of Persons and Places etc, E.S. Wigg & Son, Adelaide

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kaurna Night Skies (Part I)

Before Europeans first came to colonise the Adelaide Plains in 1836, the night skies would have been truly dark by today's standards. There was no street lighting, no security lighting and no industrial pollution to obscure the view of our galaxy.  However, within a short period of time of just over 150 years we have managed to create a large metropolis of approximately 1 million people with industries, communities and lots of street lighting. Although, Adelaide’s skies are still quite good by world standards this light pollution has managed to obscure the faint light, which has often been travelling for aeons from reaching the Earth and the Adelaide Plains.

Sadly few people now give thought to the original inhabitants of Adelaide Plains - the Kaurna People. Before European occupation, the Kaurna (pronounced gar-na) had been living on the Adelaide Plains for thousands of years. They were comprised of a number of different clan groups who were united by a common language. According to records the Kaurna lived as far north as Port Wakefield near the coast and inland to Crystal Brook, and as far south as Victor Harbor (note: many Kaurna and their descendants still live in the Adelaide region). Their traditional boundary to the east is the Adelaide foothills and to the west the Adelaide coastline. The Kaurna were bordered by the Peramangk People in the Mount Lofty Ranges to the east, by the Ngarrindjeri and Ramindjeri Peoples to the southeast and by the Ngadjuri People to the north.

Kaurna dancers at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

There were 650 Kaurna People on the South Australian Register in 1842. However, before Europeans began the occupation of the Adelaide area on mass in 1836, many of the diseases of the west which had been brought by the convicts and colonists from Europe were to decimate many Indigenous Australian populations. For example, it is believed that through the interaction of Aboriginal Groups in the eastern states with invading Europeans that many diseases such as smallpox had migrated down through the Murray-Darling Aboriginal Nations who unwittingly spread the disease. Once Europeans first started arriving at Holdfast Bay many of these diseases had already impacted upon the Kaurna People, therefore, it is hard to say with certainty how many Kaurna People may have already fallen to these pathogens.

The Kaurna People still occupy the Adelaide Plains. However, over time, and through brutal government policies they were displaced and moved on to other lands.  Resurgence and interest in Kaurna Culture has recently been taking place, as it has been for many other Aboriginal Cultures around Australia. For example, similar to the nomenclature now used in the Northern Territory where Ayers Rock is usually called Uluru, many notable Adelaide place names now share dual naming. For example, the River Torrens is now also known as Karrawirraparri (karra=Red Gum, wirra=forest and parri=river).

Today, because of the endeavours of a few thoughtful individuals about 3,500+ words of the Kaurna language survive. Unfortunately, little is now known of the astronomy and cosmological beliefs of the Kaurna. However, these same people responsible for the recording of Kaurna linguistics also documented snippets of Kaurna knowledge of the night sky in addition to their cultural and spiritual beliefs.

Kaurna Elder, Steve Goldsmith.

Most notable of these recorders were two Lutheran missionaries who had arrived from Germany in the colony in 1838. Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann had come to Adelaide fleeing the religious persecutions of their homeland in the interest of greater freedom and converting the local Anglo and Indigenous populations to their own faith. Schürmann and Teichelmann established the first ‘native school’, as it was then called, on the banks of the River Torrens Karrawirraparri at a place that is known as Piltawodli, which means ‘possum’s house’. It is here that the two missionaries likely recorded some of the Kaurna cosmological beliefs.

Somewhat similar to some ancient Egyptian beliefs, the Kaurna believed that celestial bodies such as the stars formally lived on the earth. They believed that while on the earth these celestial bodies lived their lives partly as men, and partly as animals.  Eventually, they exchanged this existence for a higher level and ventured into the heavens. Thus, the Kaurna applied names given to beings on the earth to celestial objects and there was a close connection between the lower and upper realms of existence.

Next week - Part II...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

BBC World Service Discovery Program

The Aboriginal Astronomy Project has been featured on a radio program by the BBC World Service Discovery.  Hosted by Robert Cockburn, it is a discussion about Aboriginal Astronomy and Wurdi Youang and contains interviews by Duane Hamacher (Macquarie), James Wilson-Miller (Powerhouse Museum), Ray Norris (CSIRO), and Janet Mooney (Sydney University).

Click here for full audio (18 minutes in length).


The Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in Victoria.

Were Australia's prehistoric Aboriginal people the world's first true astronomers, predating European and ancient Greek and Indian astronomers by thousands of years?
The stunning discovery of what is being called an "Aboriginal Stonehenge", the first of its kind to be found in Australia, could change that continent's history and with it our whole understanding of how and when humans began to accurately chart the night skies.
The 50 metre egg-shaped arrangement of stones in a farmer's field in Victoria, was forgotten after the arrival of European settlers some 200 years ago and until recently overgrown by meadow grass.
Now, the site called Wurdi Youang has got Aborigines and astronomers scratching their heads.
How did its stones come to be perfectly aligned with summer and winter Solstices and the autumn and winter Equinoxes, like Britain's 4,500 year-old Stonehenge?
The problem is that there are very few Aboriginal records in the literature and nobody left to explain what they meant and what they were used for.
What is becoming clear is that Australia's ancient indigenous people had a command of astronomy and mathematics, and ability to observe and keep accurate astronomical records.
The stones at Wurdi Youang will be a test of Australia's scientists and of Australia’s willingness to properly appreciate its ancient indigenous past.
Read our previous blog post on Wurdi Youang.
We would like to thank Wathaurong cultural officers Reg Abrahams and Trevor Edwards and recognise the Wathaurong people, both past and present.