Single stars, constellations, and empty spaces in the night sky all contributed to Indigenous astronomy. It had an integral role in ceremony and life in general according to physicist and Wiradjuri woman Kirsten Banks, who spoke via Zoom as part of the Lismore Quad’s Dark Science event last month.
Across Australia there were over 250 different Indigenous language groups, each with an intimate connection to the night sky. While there was some crossover, they were generally very different connections Banks said.
For Indigenous astronomers the night sky played an vital role in ceremony, storytelling, and the interaction between the land and people.
‘What happens on the ground is mirrored in the sky. It is a very important concept in Indigenous astronomical traditions – the sky, the land, and people all work together,’ she said.
There are some similarities to western concepts, but also differences, says Banks.
As in western culture Indigenous astronomers identified constellations, the area around a group of stars that mirror an object, person, or animal. In western culture Orion is represented as an ancient Greek warrior, while in the stories of the central NSW Wiradjuri people that group of stars represent Biami, also a warrior.
As the constellation is upside down in the southern hemisphere, Biami is seen facing down, and as the constellation travels across the sky, Biami goes face first downwards. The Wiradjuri story that goes with this tells of the warrior tripping over a log while chasing an emu.
‘While this is embarrassing for the warrior, the story is reflected in stars, and shows how the stars are the canvas for our stories,’ Ms Banks explained.
The space of no stars
Indigenous astronomers also interpreted ‘dark constellations’ or the patterns in the sky where stars are absent to the eye. One of Kirsten’s favourites is the dark emu, or celestial emu called Gugurmin.
It manifests in the dark parts of the Milky Way ‘and once you see it, you can’t unsee it’, she said.
‘While it is pretty to look at, it also has a significant use in Wiradjuri culture as its position in the night, at certain times of the year, indicate when it is time to go looking for emu eggs.
‘When it’s rising in late May and early June it looks like it is running along the horizon. This represent emus looking around for mates, so it is still too early to look for eggs. But later in year, as the Earth moves further around the Sun, the emu is higher in the sky, the body is higher up in the sky, and when it sits directly overhead, we no longer see it as an emu but as an egg sitting in a nest.
‘As the perspective of the emu changes, so to does our story of it. It tells us that now is the right time to go looking for emu eggs.
‘So the stars can also be used as a seasonal menu of sorts,’ she said.
Individual stars were also the subject of storytelling, as were the planets.
The full Zoom recording of Kirsten’s talk can be found at: www.facebook.com/LismoreQuadrangle/videos/347281786299778.