Indigenous stories of the stars contain astronomical observations and crucial knowledge about living on the land, Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli write.

Since time immemorial, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have danced, sung and shared stories about their understandings of the cosmos. Each song, dance and story is packed with complementary observations and theories woven together by the peoples’ lore and Country.

Knowledge of how to perform the songs, dances and stories is handed down from the ancestors and passed on to those able to receive, maintain and transmit it to future generations. This information communication technique is part of an oral culture, not dependent on the finality of the written word but based on the adaptability and fluidity of language spoken and performed.

Oral traditions present knowledge as inseparable from culture – in contrast to the modern scientific method, which aims to insulate knowledge from its context. As such, in oral societies culture and knowledge are often interchangeable concepts.

Knowledge is also more likely to survive the passage of time if it has a practical use. Giving knowledge meaning is one of the many techniques oral cultures use to ensure the successful transmission of knowledge – they make it relevant for day-to-day life.

More than myth

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge is embedded within the Dreaming or Songlines. Dreaming stories describe the Law, culture and creation of everything, while Songlines are pathways of knowledge that crisscross the continent. They carry stories enshrined in the land, where features of the land act as mnemonics.

This knowledge conveys essential information about living on the land and with each other, and how to care for Country. Nothing is purposeless. Transmitting knowledge orally requires impeccable memory or memory cues as communities are dependent on the knowledge to survive.

To improve a story’s memorability, efficiency and longevity, it is constructed and layered to convey information. The layers can include customary Aboriginal laws, a person’s rights and responsibilities, and the natural processes of the land, ecology and natural resources.

This means that most stories are not just stories: they are vehicles that carry knowledge. And contrary to fairly common dismissals of Dreaming stories as ‘myths’, they are far more than tall tales. They are very rarely for entertainment value alone. Dreamings are multifaceted tools with many practical, moral and societal applications.

Storytellers and knowledge holders will often manipulate an ancestral story so that listeners have access only to the relevant pieces of the story, generally the first few layers. Some stories have thirty to forty different layers of knowledge, many of which are known only to the appropriate knowledge keepers.

Embedding physical knowledge into a memorable story is required for cultures and communities to survive.

Multilayered stories can link seemingly unrelated events or processes, like a web that can be unravelled through story, song, dance and art. Prioritising and valuing relational knowledge is an efficient way to transmit large volumes of information. It is also a unique and sophisticated way in which to view the world.

Another essential feature of Indigenous knowledge systems is their sometimes fanciful, dramatic nature. Anthropomorphism is a commonly used technique. For example, Gamilaraay people call Venus ‘Gindamalaa’, which translates to ‘You are laughing’, and describe the planet as a laughing older man, personifying the object. This description captures the observation of Venus scintillating, or twinkling, in the night sky.

Scintillation is an effect that usually only affects starlight, not reflected sunlight off a planet’s surface, as the Gamilaraay traditions of Venus suggest happens. However, there is an exception to this: if a planet is low in the sky, the light is required to travel through more of Earth’s atmosphere than if it was higher up, making scintillation – a disruption to the light’s path – more likely.

The Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land call Venus ‘Barnumbirr’, the morning star. She is seen as a creator spirit for the Yolŋu people and is believed to have guided the first humans to Arnhem Land. They observed that Barnumbirr never went too high in the sky and said this was because she was tied down by her friends with rope to prevent her from getting lost. The twinkling features of Venus observed by the Gamilaroi people and the low position of Venus in the sky documented by the Yolŋu people inform us of the unique positional astronomy observations Indigenous peoples hold.

Venus being described as laughing and tied down may seem frivolous to the untrained reader or listener, but to an astronomer or Indigenous person there is clearly significant information stored in these details.

Embedding physical information into a memorable story is required for cultures and communities to survive. Lives depend on the knowledge contained within such stories. If the knowledge holders forget any detail of a chronicle, food, shelter, community and kinship could be lost. Retelling elaborate, exciting and relatable stories aids in them being remembered and passed on.

Tale as old as time

How astronomical information is woven into story can be seen in the Seven Sisters Songline, which has many variations across the Australian continent. Some Seven Sisters stories relate the physical properties of the Pleiades cluster to the Orion constellation, situated 444 light years and over 1,000 light years away from Earth respectively.

Most stories worldwide related to these two celestial bodies refer to the Pleiades as a group of women or sisters, and to Orion as a male or group of men. The story and its variations are ingrained in the vast Australian landscape, informing the cultural protocols of various nations, as well as helping with navigation, seasonal tracking and other applicable knowledges.

To the Gamilaraay people, the Pleiades are seven sisters called Miyay-Miyay, meaning ‘several girls’. With their long hair and bodies made of icicles, they are known for their beauty. As in other tales, the Orion constellation is a group of young, desiring males called Birray-Birray, meaning ‘young boys’.

The story tells of the Birray-Birray’s desire to marry the Miyay-Miyay, despite their being from the wrong moiety. They leave traps baited with honey for the sisters. The sisters eat the honey and enjoy it, but do not accept the Birray-Birray’s advances in respect for the Law. One day, the old fire spirit, Wurrunnah, steals two of the sisters in an attempt to warm their icy bodies, but their bodies extinguish Wurrunnah’s flame.

Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. Image: Richard/

Still, Wurrunnah keeps them captive. Eventually, he orders them to cut some bark from a great pine. The sisters know the pine tree to be a bridge to the sky world, and warn Wurrunnah that they will not return if they attempt his order. Angered, he instructs them to do as they are told.

The sisters start to cut bark from the pine and, as they had warned, soon begin to rise. As they ascend, they hear their five remaining sisters up above and climb towards them. Soon they are reunited, and have remained so ever since, but the two sisters did not escape unharmed, their light dimmed by Wurrunnah’s flame.

Across Indigenous Australia, the Pleiades/Orion saga varies depending on the story’s original location. For people in the Western Desert, when the Pleiades rise it signifies the arrival of dingo pups. For Central Desert people, their Pleiades/Orion Songline can direct them from their home across to the west coast of Australia, over 2,000 kilometres away. For the Yolŋu people, the sisters are said to bring with them berries and fish, representing the time of the year when these foods become available.

Many stories include astronomical observations like those in the Gamilaraay telling of the Miyay-Miyay saga. Another Gamilaraay version speaks of one sister being timid and hiding behind the other sisters. Her name is Gurri-Gurri, meaning ‘shy’.

This embedded feature could relate to some of the Pleiades stars not being visible to the naked eye, or perhaps acknowledges that seven stars were once visible but some have since faded. This theory is being examined by astronomer and cultural astronomer Dr Ray Norris from CSIRO, and University of Sydney astronomer Dr Barnaby Norris. In a recent paper they investigate the possibility of there having been seven stars visible in the Pleiades cluster, despite only six being visible today.

Using astronomical knowledge on the stars’ proper motion – that is, the motions of stars as viewed in the sky from here on Earth – they extrapolate this knowledge back through time to see what the Pleiades cluster used to look like and conclude that the seven individual stars would have been much more visible 100,000 years ago. If this is the case, the Seven Sisters Dreaming may be the oldest known story in human history.

This is an edited extract from Astronomy: Sky Country by Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli (Thames & Hudson Australia)

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