Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sky-Shaping (A Poem by Michele Bannister)

28 May 2012

In this way come the names. The kete of knowledge, grasp them, word-woven.
The stars were not spilled from them to scatter—
they are taonga, treasured
a sorrowed son's gift to his father the Sky.
In the spaces between the great river of the goddess of the north,
cloud-shadow, counter-clear, in the south strides the Emu.
Rifted, reflected—
the same place holds the great waka, star-spanned
and the leaping maw of hammer-headed mangō-pare
earnest enemies of fishes.
Some names are found from the quickness of birds
(all the kindness of Tāne; leaf-shadow and branch-shiver, fern-frond unfolded),
even in the tired patience of the frigatebird's long arc, soaring the Pacific,
once seen from a small bark off the isles called Galapagos;
and some from the long slow vastnesses
the patience of ice, the presence of the All-Frozen, seal-teared
children of unknowing oceans.

Michele Bannister was born in the year of Halley's Comet, and retains an uncommon fondness for distant worlds both small and icy. She lives in Australia, where she is working towards her doctorate in astronomy. Her poetry has appeared in Strange HorizonsStone Telling, the Cascadia Subduction Zone and Jabberwocky, and is forthcoming in Ideomancer and Inkscrawl.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cultural Astronomy Lecture Tour by Clive Ruggles.

The 13 Towers of Chankillo, Peru
Professor Clive Ruggles will be giving a lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand from late-May until mid-June.  His lectures will cover various aspects of cultural astronomy, from the astronomy of megalithic structures in Europe to archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy in Peru and Hawaii.

For information about each lecture, click on the links below.


New Zealand

About the Speaker:

Clive Ruggles is Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester, UK - the first and only Chair of Archaeoastronomy in the world. Archaeoastronomy is the study of beliefs and practices related to the sky in the past, and Clive trained as an astrophysicist (DPhil, Oxford) before switching fields and becoming an archaeologist.

Clive has worked in many parts of the world and has published books, papers and articles on subjects ranging from prehistoric Europe and pre-Columbian America to ancient Greece, Egypt, Polynesia and indigenous astronomies in Africa. He has ongoing fieldwork projects in Peru and Hawaii as well as various parts of Europe, and is a leading figure in a joint initiative by UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union to promote, preserve, and protect the world's most important astronomical heritage sites.

His work in South America hit the headlines in March 2007 with the publication in the journal Science of his work with Peruvian archaeologist Ivan Ghezzi on the Thirteen Towers of Chankillo, a 2300-year old solar observation site. His books include Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland (Yale UP, 1999), Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth (ABC-CLIO, 2005), Skywatching in the Ancient World: New Perspectives in Cultural Astronomy, edited with anthropologist Gary Urton (Colorado, 2007), and most recently Heritage Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy, edited with technology historian Michel Cotte (ICOMOS-IAU 2010) and Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges between Cultures (Cambridge UP, 2011), the Proceedings of the first IAU Symposium to be devoted to this topic.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Eagle Dreaming

By Paul Curnow

I remember when I was in my teens, now unfortunately a long time ago; making regular trips with my family down to a town named Elliston, a small seaside town located along the shores of Waterloo Bay on the west coast of Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. As we got nearer to the town, I was always amazed by the amount of Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) that I would see along the way. They would soar high above us and then often swoop down on prey, or road kill. One could not help but be impressed with the size and incredible power of these raptors of the skies.

A Wedge Tailed Eagle.  Image by Paul Curnow.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to get quite close to some of these birds on Kangaroo Island. These magnificent creatures have a stare like no other, and I couldn’t help but think that I was glad I was not one of their prey animals. Their claws alone would be enough to easily puncture and rip through the flesh of most creatures. These sky raptors have a wingspan of up to 2.27 metres and a length up to 1.04 metres; therefore, they’re not the kind of bird you want to annoy.

It is for these reasons that this bird of prey likely features so prominently in The Dreaming of Aboriginal Australians. As an astronomer, I have an interest in what would probably be considered one of the more esoteric fields of astronomy, ‘ethnoastronomy’, which is generally speaking the study of non-western astronomy, focussing on the world’s indigenous perceptions and understandings of the night sky. Although, all indigenous astronomy is of interest to me, over the years I have come to specialise somewhat in how Aboriginal Australians see the night sky.

To be found within The Dreaming there are many stories throughout the diversity of Aboriginal groups which speak of eagles. For example, the Kaurna People of the Adelaide Plains have an eagle constellation known as Wilto. The Southern Cross represents the foot of this stellar raptor which can be easily seen from the southern hemisphere. Like the Kaurna, the Ngadjuri, Nukunu and Adnyamathanha Peoples, who live to the north of Adelaide, also see the cross as the foot of the eagle. In fact the Adnyamathanha, who come from the Flinders Ranges, often refer to it as Wildu mandawi, and it is viewed as the place where deceased spirits travel up into the heavens. Furthermore, Wildu the spirit eagle features prominently in The Dreaming of the Ngadjuri, Nukunu and Adnyamathanha Peoples of South Australia.

The foot of an eagle, represented by the Southern Cross.
Image by Paul Curnow.

The Boorong People, who once occupied the mallee country in small numbers around Lake Tyrrell in north-western Victoria, also saw two Wedge-tailed Eagles in the sky. The first and brightest is represented by the bright star Sirius located in the constellation of Canis Major which they called Warepil. The second is the star Rigel in Orion which the Boorong called Collowgulloric Warepil. At night these two celestial eagles soar high into our skies and Warepil is considered to be one of the spirit elders known as the Nurrumbunguttias, the first beings to inhabit the Earth. Moreover, located at a distance of 8.6 light years Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is the brightest star in the sky with an apparent magnitude of -1.44. Almost all early cultures have attached importance to this sparkling stellar beacon. Additionally, Collowgulloric Warepil, better known to us as the blue-white supergiant star Rigel (Beta Orionis), sits at a distance of some 773 light years.

The Wongaibon People from the Cobar region of New South Wales see the brightest star in the constellation of Scorpius as an eagle. This star, the red supergiant Antares, is known as Gwarmbilla. On each side he is accompanied by his two wives the stars Alniyat and Tau Scorpii. One wife is a Mallee Hen and the other is a Whip Snake. Gwarmbilla’s wives had fallen in love with another man named Gulabirra. One day when Gwarmbilla was out hunting the wives set a trap for him. They dug a hole, placed sharpened bones in it and filled it with their blood. They covered it with sticks which gave it the appearance of a Bandicoot’s nest and when Gwarmbilla swept down to grab it his feet were impaled. However, his mother pulled him to safety and placed him into the heavens with his wives either side, so they would never be tempted to stray again.

Antares (Alpha Scorpii) is an incredibly large star. It is a red supergiant star located approximately 604 light years away. Antares is 57,500 times more luminous than the Sun. It has 12 ½ times the mass of our Sun, and has a surface temperature of around 4,290 Kelvin. Furthermore, in ancient Persia, Antares was recognized as Satevis, one of the four ‘royal stars’, and its modern day name means ‘the rival of Mars’.  

The Kulin People, who come from the region around the city of Melbourne, and the Wotjobaluk People of western Victoria have a creator being named Bunjil the eagle. Bunjil is represented in the sky by the star Altair (Alpha Aquilae) in the constellation Aquila. There are no prizes for guessing that Aquila is another eagle in the sky, but one of the classical 88-constellations as used by astronomers today. Bunjil has two wives in the form of black swans that sit either side of him represented by the stars Tarazed (Gamma Aquilae) and Alshain (Beta Aquilae).

It is interesting to note that the Wardaman People of the Northern Territory also see Altair as an eagle named Bulyan. According to Wardaman elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, Bulyan is the eagle who watches over the area of Corona Australis; a ceremonial region in the sky. Bulyan as a ‘watchman’ has to make sure that people are kept out of special ceremonial areas, and away from rituals they are not permitted to attend. Furthermore, men who have Bulyan as their totemic ancestor are traditionally seen as security men who make sure that the correct traditions are being adhered to.    

Paul Curnow and Senior Wardaman Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney.

In conclusion, eagles have been admired by many ancient and contemporary cultures. The Roman legion used an ‘aquila’ as its standard, which was carried by a legionary known as an ‘Aquilifer’ (aquila-bearer). In classical mythology the constellation Aquila was the companion of the god Jupiter (in Greek Zeus) and carried his thunderbolts. And to many Native Americans a mythical eagle was responsible for creating thunder and lightning by beating its wings.


Cairns, Hugh & Harney, Bill Yidumduma, 2003, Dark Sparklers, Hugh Cairns, Sydney.

Curnow, Paul, 2011, Aboriginal Skies, Australasian Science, pp 22-25

Harney, Bill Yidumduma, 2010, [Wardaman Elder] (personal communication).

Johnson, Dianne, 1998, Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia, University of Sydney, Sydney.

McKenzie, Marvyn, 2010, [Adnyamathanha man] (personal communication).

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

Stanbridge, William Edward, 1857, On the Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria, Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute, Melbourne.

URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquila_(Roman)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Meamei - The Seven Sisters

A Dreaming story recorded by K.L.Parker (1897)

WURRUNNAH had had a long day's hunting, and he came back to the camp tired and hungry. He asked his old mother for durrie, but she said there was none left. Then he asked some of the other blacks to give him some doonburr seeds that he might make durrie for himself, But no one would give him anything. He flew into a rage and he said, "I will go to a far country and live with strangers; my own people would starve me." And while he was yet hot and angry, he went. Gathering up his weapons, he strode forth to find a new people in a new country. After he had gone some distance, he saw, a long way off, an old man chopping out bees' nests. The old man turned his face towards Wurrunnah, and watched him coming, but when Wurrunnah came close to him he saw that the old man had no eyes, though he had seemed to be watching him long before he could have heard him. It frightened Wurrunnah to see a stranger having no eyes, yet turning his face towards him as if seeing him all the time. But he determined not to show his fear, but go straight on towards him, which he did. When he came up to him, the stranger told him that his name was Mooroonumildah, and that his tribe were so-called because they had no eyes, but saw through their noses. Wurrunnah thought it very strange and still felt rather frightened, though Mooroonumildah seemed hospitable and kind, for, he gave Wurrunnah, whom he said looked hungry, a bark wirree filled with honey, told him where his camp was, and gave him leave to go there and stay with him. Wurrunnah took the honey and turned as if to go to the camp, but when he got out of sight he thought it wiser to turn in another direction. He journeyed on for some time, until he came to a large lagoon, where he decided to camp. He took a long drink of water, and then lay down to sleep. When he woke in the morning, he looked towards the lagoon, but saw only a big plain. He thought he must be dreaming; he rubbed his eyes and looked again.

"This is a strange country," he said. "First I meet a man who has no eyes and yet can see. Then at night I see a large lagoon full of water, I wake in the morning and see none. The water was surely there, for I drank some, and yet now there is no water." As he was wondering how the water could have disappeared so quickly, he saw a big storm coming up; he hurried to get into the thick bush for shelter. When he had gone a little way into the bush, he saw a quantity of cut bark lying on the ground.

"Now I am right," he said. "I shall get some poles and with them and this bark make a dardurr in which to shelter myself from the storm I see coming."

He quickly cut the poles he wanted, stuck them up as a framework for his dardurr. Then he went to lift up the bark. As he lifted up a sheet of it he saw a strange-looking object of no tribe that he had ever seen before.

This strange object cried out: "I am Bulgahnunnoo," in such a terrifying tone that Wurrunnah dropped the bark, picked up his weapons and ran away as hard as he could, quite forgetting the storm. His one idea was to get as far as he could from Bulgahnunnoo.

On he ran until he came to a big river, which hemmed him in on three sides. The river was too big to cross, so he had to turn back, yet he did not retrace his steps but turned in another direction. As he turned to leave the river he saw a flock of emus coming to water. The first half of the flock were covered with feathers, but the last half had the form of emus, but no feathers.

Wurrunnah decided to spear one for food. For that purpose he climbed up a tree, so that they should not see him; he got his spear ready to kill one of the featherless birds. As they passed by, he picked out the one he meant to have, threw his spear and killed it, then climbed down to go and get it.

As he was running up to the dead emu, he saw that they were not emus at all but black fellows of a strange tribe. They were all standing round their dead friend making savage signs, as to what they would do by way of vengeance. Wurrunnah saw that little would avail him the excuse that he had killed the black fellow in mistake for an emu; his only hope lay in flight. Once more he took to his heels, hardly daring to look round for fear he would see an enemy behind him. On he sped, until at last he reached a camp, which be was almost into before he saw it; he had only been thinking of danger behind him, unheeding what was before him.

However, he had nothing to fear in the camp he reached so suddenly, for in it were only seven young girls. They did not look very terrifying, in fact, seemed more startled than he was. They were quite friendly towards him when they found that he was alone and hungry. They gave him food and allowed him to camp there that night. He asked them where the rest of their tribe were, and what their name was. They answered that their name was Meamei, and that their tribe were in a far country. They had only come to this country to see what it was like; they would stay for a while and thence return whence they had come.

The next day Wurrunnah made a fresh start, and left the camp of the Meamei, as if he were leaving for good. But he determined to hide near and watch what they did, and if he could get a chance he would steal a wife from amongst them. He was tired of travelling alone. He saw the seven sisters all start out with their yam sticks in hand. He followed at a distance, taking care not to be seen. He saw them stop by the nests of some flying ants. With their yam sticks they dug all round these ant holes. When they had successfully unearthed the ants they sat down, throwing their yam sticks on one side, to enjoy a feast, for these ants were esteemed by them a great delicacy.

While the sisters were busy at their feast, Wurrunnah sneaked up to their yam sticks and stole two of them; then, taking the sticks with him, sneaked back to his hiding-place. When at length the Meamei had satisfied their appetites, they picked up their sticks and turned towards their camp again. But only five could find their sticks; so those five started off, leaving the other two to find theirs, supposing they must be somewhere near, and, finding them, they would soon catch them up. The two girls hunted all round the ants' nests, but could find no sticks. At last, when their backs were turned towards him, Wurrunnah crept out and stuck the lost yam sticks near together in the ground; then he slipt back into his hiding-place. When the two girls turned round, there in front of them they saw their sticks. With a cry of joyful surprise they ran to them and caught hold of them to pull them out of the ground, in which they were firmly stuck. As they were doing so, out from his hiding-place jumped Wurrunnah. He seized both girls round their waists, holding them tightly. They struggled and screamed, but to no purpose. There were none near to hear them, and the more they struggled the tighter Wurrunnah held them. Finding their screams and struggles in vain they quietened at length, and then Wurrunnah told them not to be afraid, he would take care of them. He was lonely, he said, and wanted two wives. They must come quietly with him, and he would be good to them. But they must do as he told them. If they were not quiet, he would swiftly quieten them with his moorillah. But if they would come quietly with him he would be good to them. Seeing that resistance was useless, the two young girls complied with his wish, and travelled quietly on with him. They told him that some day their tribe would come and steal them back again; to avoid which he travelled quickly on and on still further, hoping to elude all pursuit. Some weeks passed, and, outwardly, the two Meamei seemed settled down to their new life, and quite content in it, though when they were alone together they often talked of their sisters, and wondered what they had done when they realised their loss. They wondered if the five were still hunting for them, or whether they had gone back to their tribe to get assistance. That they might be in time forgotten and left with Wurrunnali for ever, they never once for a moment thought. One day when they were camped Wurrunnah said: "This fire will not burn well. Go you two and get some bark from those two pine trees over there."

"No," they said, "we must not cut pine bark. If we did, you would never more see us."

"Go! I tell you, cut pine bark. I want it. See you not the fire burns but slowly?"

"If we go, Wurrunnah, we shall never return. You will see us no more in this country. We know it."

"Go, women, stay not to talk. Did ye ever see talk make a fire burn? Then why stand ye there talking? 

Go; do as I bid you. Talk not so foolishly; if you ran away soon should I catch you, and, catching you, would beat you hard. Go I talk no more."

The Meamei went, taking with them their combos with which to cut the bark. They went each to a different tree, and each, with a strong hit, drove her combo into the bark. As she did so, each felt the tree that her combo had struck rising higher out of the ground and bearing her upward with it. Higher and higher grew the pine trees, and still on them, higher and higher from the earth, went the two girls. Hearing no chopping after the first hits, Wurrunnah came towards the pines to see what was keeping the girls so long. As he came near them he saw that the pine trees were growing taller even as he looked at them, and clinging to the trunks of the trees high in the air he saw his two wives. He called to them to come down, but they made no answer. Time after time he called to them as higher and higher they went, but still they made no answer. Steadily taller grew the two pines, until at last their tops touched the sky. As they did so, from the sky the five Meamei looked out, called to their two sisters on the pine trees, bidding them not to be afraid but to come to them. Quickly the two girls climbed up when they heard the voices of their sisters. When they reached the tops of the pines the five sisters in the sky stretched forth their hands, and drew them in to live with them there in the sky for ever.

And there, if you look, you may see the seven sisters together. You perhaps know them as the Pleiades, but the black fellows call them the Meamei.