October 2008 General Meeting Report
Guest Speaker, Paul Curnow with the Adelaide Planetarium, on exchange from the ASSA Subject: Aboriginal Skies
Did you know there are 270 aboriginal languages spoken in Australia? Make that 600, if you include the various dialects of the groups. That makes for a huge diversity of Aboriginal traditions in Australia, each with its own particular expression of astrology and cosmology. However, some common themes and systems do run between the groups. Australian Aboriginal astronomy is a name given to the indigenous Australian cultural traditions of astronomical study. “The Aborigines have a myth connected with nearly all the Constellations and bright stars in the Heavens” wrote David Unaipon, scientist and Ngarrindjeri Elder (1872 – 1967). He was also a writer, musician, inventor and a preacher. Born in Raukkan (then the Point McLeay Mission) near Tailem Bend, south east of Adelaide, he moved to Adelaide in 1885 for five years where his interest in music, science and literature was fostered. He spent many years lecturing on Aboriginal legends, customs and social conditions, becoming a spokesperson for Aboriginal people and influencing government indigenous policy. Unaipon made significant contributions to science and literature, and to improvements in the conditions of Aboriginal people. His compilations of Aboriginal legends and his own poetry were published from the late 1920s. Unaipon's portrait is on the Australian $50 note issued in 1995. On hand of many delightful pictures Paul Curnow took us through Aboriginal Astronomy and the various interpretations these people did give to (and many of them still do) the Planets, the Stars and Constellations of the night sky. How they used the changing night sky display to time their cyclic wanderings, to organise their hunting, their harvests and even their Dream Time. With simple, everyday stories and pictures they memorized the Constellations and the phases of the Moon. Thus the Moon was once a young slim man (the waxing crescent Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon). But then he broke the law, and was attacked by his people, resulting in his death (the New Moon), only to rise again in three days and repeat the cycle. The Boorong people in Victoria know that when the Mallee-fowl constellation (Lyra) disappears in October, to "sit with the Sun", it's time to start gathering her eggs on Earth. Other groups know that when Orion first appears in the sky, the Dingo puppies are about to be born. I was fascinated with the novel explanation of the Milky Way, seen not as spilled mother milk, but a as a cloud of termites streaming out of the bottom end of a Didgeridoo as the man blows into the top. Another astronomical story widespread in Australia is that of the "Emu in the Sky", a dark constellation in the Milky Way resembling a running Emu, with its black head (the Coalsack, next to the Southern Cross), and a dark body and dark legs trailing out along the Milky Way to Scorpius. We are so used to thinking of an astronomical constellation as an arrangement of stars connected to form a figure (an Asterism) that we don’t immediately think of the Emu as a constellation. But the astronomical definition of a constellation is actually a specific area on the tapestry of the night sky. While this area normally contains an asterism, it does not have to. In a concession to this mental assumption such shadow shapes (there are others) are sometimes referred to as Dark Constellations to highlight their novelty. Paul explained the Aboriginal “Dreaming” or “Dream Time” as an ongoing and evolving process. For most “The Dreaming” is an explanation of the formation and evolution of the Cosmos and all terrestrial features. At the same time it is a blueprint for living and contains laws and rules for all living things. For instance, the Pleiades also figure in the Dreamings of several language groups. In the central desert region, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion. The close resemblance of this to Greek mythology is believed to be coincidental – but then, it could also be proof of the ongoing and evolving process of Aboriginal Dreaming.
A most unusual and interesting evening, well presented by Paul Curnow, a man who seems to know what he is talking about. The vote of appreciation was given by Perry Vlahos with the usual present in a dark-blue and star-studded shopping bag, to general acclaim.
Next time you’re in South Australia join astronomer Paul Curnow for an evening at the planetarium, where he'll take you on a fascinating tour of the Aboriginal night sky. The Aboriginal Peoples of Australia have been gazing skyward for thousands of years and have an in-depth knowledge of the skies above. This is one of the few courses in the world that has access to a planetarium as a teaching tool.