November 4, 2020
Aboriginal people, like so many cultures around the world, spent much of their life living under the light of the night sky. Like a giant dot-to-dot, they would create pictures with the stars they saw. These pictures became what we now know as constellations. There are 88 recognised constellations in the night sky. Of those 88 constellations, over 50 of them exist in the Southern Hemisphere.
Aboriginal people believe that the stars are the campfires of our ancestors. In the beginning there was only darkness. There was no such thing as mountains or rivers or streams. The Tjukuritja (pronounced Chook-a-ridge-a), the ancestral beings, created everything that we see. They were so exhausted from their efforts after the creation that their physical bodies passed away. Their spiritual bodies became a part of the things that they created: they became the mountains, they became the rivers, they became the stars. They say that when we pass away, we will become a part of the stars as well.
In central Australia there exists a Eucalypt tree called a River Red Gum. It grows in the dry river beds. One of its special adaptations is that it dies from the inside out. Its hollow trunk acts like a worm hole. When we pass away, our spirit passes through the hollow trunk of the River Red Gum and out through its branches, directing our journey towards the sky.
In the time of the Tjukuritja, it was believed that we were not restricted by our physical bodies; that people were able to walk across the sky as easily as we were able to walk across the land. The Tjukuritja were shapeshifters. They had the ability to become whatever form they wanted, changing from animal to human and human to mineral or plant. It is for this reason that some of the stories Aboriginal people tell include both the sky and the land. We are fortunate to have one of those stories written into the mountain landscape in front of Peak Lodge.
The Milky Way – Photo by Andy Schneider on Unsplash
The mountains that you see in front of the lodge are a part of what we now know as the Main Range National park. These mountains tell the story of The Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters travelled from West to East right across Australia, creating small hills and valleys as they stopped along the way. They were travelling quite hastily as they were being chased by a great hunter. His name was Whati Nehru. Whati Nehru, upon seeing the sisters for the first time, fell in love with them. Not just one of them, but all of them. Un-interested in Whati Nehru, the seven sisters travelled quickly in order to avoid Whati Nehru’s pursuits.
Upon reaching this area in front of the Lodge, the seven sisters stopped briefly to have inma (ceremony) with their Mother and Father. Their Mother is represented by the twin peaks of Mount Mitchell, known to the local Ghithabul people as ‘Cooyinnira’. Their Father is represented by the triangular peak of Mt Cordeaux; known as ‘Noominbooyo’. After visiting with their Mother and Father, the seven sisters continued their journey towards the east coast. Upon reaching the ocean they found that Whati Nehru was still in pursuit. The Tjukuritja took pity upon the seven sisters and sent them into the night sky. But Whati Nehru was such a great hunter that he too was able to travel into the night sky. We now see both of them as different star formations.
The Seven Sisters became what we now see as Pleaides. Pleaides is a cluster of over 100 stars but we can only see six or seven of them with the naked eye. They form the tail of the Taurus the Bull Constellation; one of our zodiac constellations. It is a summer sky constellation. When looking for Taurus, look for a ‘V’ shape in the night sky. This ‘V’ is known as Hyades and forms the head of Taurus the Bull. If you look to the right of the head, you will find the tiny cluster of Pleaides. It shines quite blue because the stars within the cluster are quite young so they burn very hot and very bright.
Whati Nehru also became a constellation. He became what we now know as ‘Orion’. Multiple cultures around the world saw Orion as a great hunter and Pleaides as seven female figures. There is no official explanation for this. One theory is that before the continents broke a part, we all existed in an area of Africa. Potentially these stories originate from that time of human history. As the continents broke a part, each culture took those stories with them.
Orion Nebula – Photo by Arnaud Mariat on Unsplash
Orion was not always seen as a great hunter by different Aboriginal language groups. The groups of Cape York in North Queensland saw Orion as something else entirely. They referred to it as Djulpan. Djulpan was a King Fish and the totem animal of the Djulpan clan. Totems are unique among Aboriginal language groups. You inherit one based upon the tribe that you are born into. You will also be gifted one by an Elder throughout your life. Your gifted totem usually relates to a characteristic they feel you possess or need to build upon as a person. This totem is sacred. It is a part of who you are. It becomes your flesh and blood. You are responsible for looking after your totem as well as the environments that it exists in. If it is an animal, you would never eat that animal. For the Djulpan clan they were forbidden by cultural law to eat the King Fish.
One day three brothers from the Djulpan clan decided to go out fishing in their canoe. By the end of the day, the only thing they had been able to catch was a King Fish, which they were forbidden to eat. The youngest of the three brothers had grown hungry. He decided to break the cultural law and he ate the King Fish they had caught. The Walu Woman (The Sun Woman) saw this and she became infuriated. She blew a wind that was so fierce it took the three brothers, along with their canoe, up into the night sky. The three stars of Orion’s belt, are the three brothers in their canoe. The central star of Orion’s sword, is the King Fish that the brothers ate. And the two opposing bright stars of Orion’s shoulder and foot, are the two points of the canoe as it is drawn in the night sky.
The name Orion comes from Greek Mythology. In Greek Mythology Orion was also seen as a great hunter. He was such a great hunter and had been told so many times throughout his life that Orion had become quite arrogant. One day he went to Gaia (Mother Earth) and he proclaimed that he could kill all of the creatures and the beasts of the world. It was Gaia’s responsibility to look after the creatures and the beasts of the world. Not knowing what to do Gaia went to the Gods and told them what had happened. The Gods decided to punish Orion. Because it was the creatures and the beasts of the world that Orion had sought to destroy, it was a creature that they sent to destroy him. A very tiny creature. A scorpion. The scorpion bit Orion on the heel of the foot and killed him instantly.
The Gods sent Orion into the night sky so that anyone looking upon Orion would be reminded to remain humble and not to be arrogant. They also wanted Orion to remember the lesson that he had been taught as he made his immortal travels through the night sky, so they also placed the Scorpion in the sky. The scorpion is what we now know as Scorpius or the Scorpio constellation; one of our zodiac constellations. It is interesting that Orion was once the hunter and the Scorpion once the hunted. In this story the scorpion became the hunter and Orion became the hunted. That eternal battle between predator and prey continues today. It is rare to see Scorpio and Orion in the night sky at the same time.
Orion in action – Photo by Alex Simpson on Unsplash
These two constellations formed seasonal change markers for the Aboriginal people. The rising of Orion over the horizon at sunset indicated the coming of the summer and the warmer temperatures. As Orion comes over its zenith and starts to set, Scorpio begins to rise over the horizon at sunset, indicating the coming of the winter and the cooler temperatures. This was particularly important for the Aboriginal people as it told them when to move camps or when to store food. Aboriginal people do not recognise the four seasons that we recognise. Traditionally they have six seasons. The additional two seasons were usually determined based upon what plants were flowering and what animals were breeding.
The Scorpion was not the only animal that they saw in the night sky. A more well-known constellation that you may not immediately associate with an animal is that of the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross is made up of five stars in total: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and tiny little Epsilon on the right hand side. There are multiple crosses in the night sky. Underneath and to the right of the Southern Cross we also have the Diamond Cross and the False Cross. They all line up in an arc across the sky. The way we can tell the true Southern Cross is by two very bright stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri; that point to the true cross. Also known as The Pointers.
Coastal Aboriginal people saw the diamond shape of the cross as a stingray swimming through the great ocean of the sky, the Milky Way, being chased by two sharks, Alpha and Beta Centauri. In central Australia they saw the Southern Cross as the footprint of the Wedge Tail Eagle, the largest predatory bird in Australia. It has three toes that point upwards and one toe that points downwards, so it looks like a cross.
The two pointer stars were the fire sticks of the Wedge Tail Eagle, which he used to cook his prey. Underneath the Southern Cross and to the left hand side exists an oval shape in the night sky where there are no stars. This is known as the Coal-sack Nebulae. The Coal-sack Nebulae is a giant celestial dust cloud. This dust cloud is so thick that it stops the light from the stars behind it from penetrating through. That is why we see it as a black space in the night sky. This is said to be the nest of the Wedge Tail Eagle.
This Coal-sack Nebulae forms the head of a much larger constellation known as a Dark Constellation. Unlike most other cultures around the world, Aboriginal people did not just make pictures with the stars, they made pictures with the black spaces in between the stars as well. This is what we call a Dark Constellation. The most famous of these Dark Constellations for the Aboriginal people is that of the Emu in the sky. You need a full sky night to be able to see the Emu. The Coal-sack Nebulae forms the head of the Emu. If you trace the dark space through the two Pointer Stars, you will see the neck of the Emu. Following it around to the Scorpio constellation you will see the large oval shape of the back and the belly of the Emu. And extending through the tail of Scorpio are the two elongated legs of the Emu.
River Red Gum – Photo by John Torcasio on Unsplash
There is a story from the Boorong people of Victoria that tells about the creation of the Southern Cross, the two pointers, the Milky Way and the Emu. They say that the four lower stars of the Southern Cross represent a River Red Gum. At the top of the River Red Gum is a Possum. The Possum has been chased up the tree by an Emu. The Emu in turn is being chased by two brothers, Alpha and Beta Centauri. In many language groups around Australia, the two pointers are seen as two brothers. These brothers had control over fire before fire ever existed on Earth. One day the brothers grew hungry so they ventured down to Earth to find something to eat. What they found was a ‘Kalaya’, an Emu. They killed the Kalaya and took it back to their camp in the sky. With their fire sticks they lit a great fire and began to cook the Kalaya upon it. The smoke from the fire stained the night sky, creating the Milky Way. It took the spirit of the Emu into the night sky along with it.
That concentration of stars we see in the night sky is called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is the name of our Galaxy. It is not the only Galaxy that we can see with the naked eye. We can see three other Galaxies outside of our own: Andromeda, which we can see in the summer sky, and what look like two fluffy white clouds in the night sky. These fluffy white clouds are just underneath the Southern Cross and to the right hand side. You have the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud. They are distant Galaxies outside of our own. The concentration of stars within these galaxies is so immense, millions and millions of stars, but are so far away that we can’t make out the individual stars. What we see instead is a white fuzz that looks like a cloud.
The reason science believes our Galaxy to be so special is because it contains our Solar System, with all of our planets and our Sun and our Moon. Not every Galaxy contains a Solar System. Aboriginal people also have stories about how the Sun and the Moon were created. Unlike other cultures around the world, Aboriginal people saw the Sun as feminine and the Moon as masculine. This dates back to the period of hunting and gathering. Traditionally it was the men who did the hunting. They would often hunt smaller, nocturnal animals by the light of the moon. As we moved more towards an agricultural society, sowing and reaping the crops by the phases of the moon, it was the women who were responsible for the gathering and therefore the harvesting of fruits and seeds. That is when the moon took on more of a feminine aspect.
The story of the Sun is that of the Walu Woman. They say that in the beginning everything was only darkness. The Walu Woman brought us day. Each morning she would paint herself from head to toe with red ochre. Ochre is a naturally occurring clay that can be ground down into a fine powder and mixed with animal fat to create a paint. This is what they would traditionally paint their bodies with for ceremony. The Walu Woman after painting her body in this red ochre, would brush the excess from her hands, staining the morning sky. That is why our sunrises are so vibrant with different colours. She would then light herself a flaming torch and she would travel from one side of the world across to the other side of the world bringing us day. At the end of her travels the sweat from her efforts would wash away the remaining ochre from her body, once again staining the sky. That is why are sunsets are so vibrant with colour. She would then extinguish her torch and travel underground back to her morning camp so that she could start the ritual again the next day.
The story of the sun – Photo by James Day on Unsplash
The story of the Moon also relates to the story of the boomerang. After the people received day, they also wanted to be able to light the night, but not in the same way as the day. They gathered together and discussed what they could do. They thought to light a great bonfire. “We will collect all of the wood from the area and each night we will light a great bonfire. That will be enough to illuminate the night.” One of their Elders stepped forward. “This is not a good idea. Eventually we will burn all of the timber in the area and then we will no longer have any resources. This is not good for us. This is not good for the land. We need to think of a different way.” A young boy among them had been out hunting for the day. Whilst he was hunting he came across a Mulga Tree, a type of Acacia. In central Australia they use the Mulga to fashion their boomerang. The young boy decided to gift the Mulga Tree to the community. “We can fashion this Mulga into a boomerang. Then we can shine it and polish it until it is so bright that it can illuminate the night. Then all we have to do is place it in the night sky.” The people thought this was a great idea. So that is what they did.
They fashioned the Mulga into a boomerang and they polished it until it was so bright that it could illuminate the night. All they had to do was place it in the night sky. Every young man amongst them stepped forward to try. Every young man amongst them failed to place it in the night sky. Finally the oldest amongst them stepped forward. “I would like to try.” The young men laughed at the old man. “Old man sit down. If we can’t do it, you can’t do it.” The old man said, “Respect your elders. I would like to try.” The old man dragged the boomerang to the top of the tallest sand dune he could find and with all of his strength and all of his might he lifted the boomerang into the night sky. These days, whenever we see a crescent moon, that is what we are looking at, the boomerang in the night sky.
The concept of Galaxies, Solar Systems and Universes is a large concept to try to imagine. A simple story that makes it easier to picture is a story from Indonesia. A Dayak man from Kalimantan once described a spiritual meditation. During this spiritual meditation he experienced astral travel; travelling outside of his body. During this astral travel he travelled outside of his body and into outer space. He looked back and he saw our Earth. He saw it as the living cell of a living creature. He travelled still further out and when he looked back, he saw our Solar System with all of our planets and our Sun and our Moon. He saw it as the organ of a living creature. He travelled still further out and when he looked back, he saw our Milky Way Galaxy. He saw it as a fish swimming through the ocean. Our galaxy is just one of many, many fish swimming through a very big ocean. That is essentially what we call the Universe.
These amazing stories form part of our constellations by campfire experience at Spicers Peak Lodge. It is a complimentary experience which is offered over a rotating weekly roster. You will be advised of daily experiences upon arrival. Alternatively, please contact reception to enquire about making a private booking.
Spicers Peak Lodge
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