There are more things in heaven and earth, cobber, than are dreamt of in your philosophy

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for Studying astro­nomy in cul­ture should be simple. There’s only so much that is vis­ible by the naked eye, and it fol­lows pre­dict­able pat­terns. Modern astro­nomy means that we can recon­struct what was vis­ible any­where in the world in human his­tory, within cer­tain bound­ar­ies for errors. If we know what hap­pens when, then study­ing a cul­ture should just be a case of tak­ing a shop­ping list of astro­nom­ical phe­nom­ena and see­ing what a cul­ture does with them. And some bad his­tor­ies of astro­nomy read like the author is award­ing marks to cul­tures for astro­nom­ical achievements.

There’s vari­ous things that don’t work with that plan, but the biggest is that you sup­posedly are examin­ing cul­ture and are fit­ting a study to a very spe­cific view of astro­nomy, a mod­ern west­ern view. It’s awk­ward because we live in a cul­ture where a mod­ern Platonic view of sci­ence is rarely chal­lenged. There’s a good reason for that. Our view of sci­ence makes sense within our cul­ture. But if we don’t acknow­ledge that sci­ence is a social con­struct then we don’t fully under­stand other cul­tures. Reality is the same for all of us, but not our way of mak­ing sense of it. An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy by Philip A. Clarke in Archaeoastronomy is a good paper that helps show the dif­fer­ence between under­stand­ing the use of astro­nomy in a cul­ture and com­par­ing an indi­gen­ous astro­nomy with ours to see how much they got right.

The paper starts at the very best place to start, as after a brief intro­duc­tion it con­siders the sources of the data. It’s a key point because if the source data is full of lead­ing ques­tions and pre­con­ceived notions then you’ll only get the answers you were look­ing for.

Clarke then looks at how Aboriginal peoples saw their world. If you’re going to exam­ine the sky, it helps to know how the people describ­ing it saw it in rela­tion to the rest of the world. A com­mon fea­ture of abori­ginal cos­mo­logy is that the sky was seen as con­nec­ted to the land. Clarke refers to the sky as the “Land of the Dead” or the “Land to the West”, because spir­its are thought to travel to the west to enter the sky. The meth­ods of get­ting there var­ied. Tasmanians saw their foot tracks in the forest as lead­ing to the Milky Way. This reminds me a bit of the Greenlandic idea that the shaman could walk to the moon. In the far north the moon can roll across the hori­zon, so that it has a vis­ible con­nec­tion to the Earth. From that view the idea that the Milky Way is a foot track con­nec­ted to the Earth where it meets the hori­zon makes sense. Others have the idea that birds could trans­port people to the Skyworld, which again matches obser­va­tions of birds being between land and sky. Still more say that you can reach the Skyworld by climb­ing tall trees and get­ting help from a passing tornado.

The abori­ginal Skyworld seems to be a very richly described place. The abori­gin­als have no truck with celes­tial spheres. Their Skyworld has topo­graphy, trees and inhab­it­ants. The Skyworld is where the ancest­ors live, and so it’s a handy place to visit if you’re in need of a bit of ancient wis­dom. They should be easy enough to find as some of the ancest­ors are thought to be vis­ible as stars.

The iden­ti­fic­a­tion of ancest­ors in the sky brings a whole series of fur­ther factors. Kinship is import­ant in abori­ginal soci­ety and the same is true for the ancest­ors. Antares is Butt Kuee Tuukuung in south­w­est Victoria, and the fainter close stars are his wives. Brightness and loc­a­tion explains a lot of the other rela­tion­ships that Clarke lists. Time is also an issue. In north­ern Queensland the Evening Star is Dog and the Morning Star is Bitch. All these fea­tures are cat­egor­ised in clans and sec­tions just like the rest of the abori­ginal world includ­ing anim­als and plants on the land.

Opinion is divided on how the Sun and Moon return from the west to the east. For some people this is through a path in the under­world. The people of Arnhem land have a tale the Sun becomes a great fish and swims under the land through the ocean. That appeals to me at a nar­rat­ive level. Other regions have other tales and some include the pas­sage of stars beneath the earth as well as the Sun and Moon.

One of the inter­est­ing fea­tures that comes out of this paper is that the Aboriginal people seem to have a concept of stars, but not so much of stick-figure con­stel­la­tions. Clarke men­tions a sur­vey by Haynes that finds evid­ence of some faint stars being Unwala the Crab Ancestor [PDF], but not both­er­ing with Procyon and Regulus — two much brighter stars close by. My reac­tion was that maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a sur­prise. If a bright star is an ancestor then it’s an indi­vidual not part of a lar­ger fig­ure. There are already kin­ship con­nec­tions between stars so the idea of Greco-Roman style con­stel­la­tions is prob­ably a bit too con­fus­ing. Another factor is that because the Milky Way is so vis­ible, there are already plenty of dark-cloud con­stel­la­tions that actu­ally look like things. For example one patch of neb­ula in the Milky Way blots out the stars mak­ing the sil­hou­ette of an emu in the sky. That makes draw­ing stick fig­ures between stars an uncon­vin­cing altern­at­ive for con­stel­la­tions. But there are other bet­ter reas­ons too.

Clarke makes the point that col­our is very import­ant in abori­ginal cos­mo­lo­gies. One example he gives are the Arrente people of Central Australia who give more import­ance to red­dish or white stars than yel­low or blue stars. It won’t sur­prise you the same people value red ochres and white clays as sym­bols of power. Colour becomes more com­plic­ated when you exam­ine the Sun or Moon, which are red at the hori­zon but change col­our as they climb and fall. A red Sun seems to a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem as it’s a fem­in­ine sym­bol and red is a power­ful col­our. One tra­di­tion describes it as a kangaroo skin dress that is given to her by men who spend the night with her. The mottled face of the Moon seems to be explained by scars of con­flict, but the exact nature of the fight var­ies from region to region.

Clarke cov­ers time­keep­ing, espe­cially sea­son­al­ity in depth. The only thing I’ve found miss­ing here is when the day starts. Some cul­tures see it start­ing at sun­rise, oth­ers at sun­set but I’ve no idea if there’s a shared day concept in Aboriginal cul­ture. The Pleiades seem to be par­tic­u­larly import­ant in the turn­ing of the sea­sons [PDF]. Clarke notes that Tindale has fifty dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Pleiades myth­o­logy con­nect­ing them to chan­ging of the sea­sons. That might indic­ate a lot of dis­agree­ment, but the fact that so many abori­ginal cul­tures over such a large area are using the same gen­eral idea and dis­agree­ing on the details points to inter­con­nec­tion between peoples.

The sad­dest sec­tion is The Collapse and Rebirth of the Cosmos. Aboriginals did not pass­ively sit wait­ing for white set­tle­ment and news of the Europeans pre­ceded their arrival in many places. Clarke can show this is reflec­ted in their cos­mo­logy. The British arrived in the east and thanks to small­pox brought death with them. Visions of the Aurora Australis and met­eors were inter­preted as omens of dire times. Given the res­ults it’s easy to see how the arrival of the British could be seen as a cos­mic apo­ca­lypse.

The com­mon theme in this paper, apart from sheer vari­ety and oth­er­ness of abori­ginal astro­nomy is that this is also a con­tinu­ing tra­di­tion. I’m acutely aware I may have mixed up tenses in the descrip­tion because some of these ways of life have gone, while oth­ers are still alive. This life isn’t simply a rut that people return to, but a tra­di­tion that can adapt can appro­pri­ate new ideas, like Aboriginal beliefs about UFOs, or sci­entific dis­cov­er­ies. Clarke men­tions the met­eor­ite strike that cre­ated the Wolfe Creek Crater has been woven into tales of the Dreamtime.

Astronomically inspired indigenous art at the Ilgarijiri exhibition on display in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.
Astronomically inspired indi­gen­ous art at the Ilgarijiri exhib­i­tion on dis­play in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.

Good writ­ing can trans­port you to strange new places. Sometimes its an evoc­at­ive geo­graph­ical descrip­tion, but it can also show you the uni­verse in a new light. Astronomy can show the majesty of the cos­mos and the sheer scale of cre­ation. At the oppos­ite end of the scale you can go on safari with micro­scopic bac­teria far too small to be seen by the human eye. In the case of work like Clarke’s, it can be a guide to show how spe­cial the appar­ently mundane is. The night sky we see is more or less the same as seen by the abori­ginal peoples of Australia, allow­ing for some effects of lat­it­ude of the observer.

What I like about this paper is that at each step Clarke is link­ing back to the cul­ture that the astro­nomy is in. The fact that abori­ginal astro­nomers are inter­ested in the col­ours of stars is, by itself, a foible. Because Clarke makes that point that col­our is con­nec­ted to all sorts of ter­restrial sym­bol­ism and mean­ing then the con­nec­tions between sky and soci­ety become much more mean­ing­ful. Likewise the lack of con­stel­la­tions might be taken as a sign that Aboriginal peoples aren’t that inter­ested in many stars. Knowing about the kin­ship sys­tem shows how mis­taken that is, and that state­ments about the Skyworld are also strong polit­ical state­ments about life in the world below.

The many pages of ref­er­ences at the end of the art­icle are the icing on the cake, because this paper is very much an over­view. Any single sec­tion of the paper is a gate­way to many many more art­icles research­ing abori­ginal astro­nomy and cul­ture. You never want to take one author’s work as the last word on a sub­ject, but if you’re inter­ested in Australian indi­gen­ous astro­nomy you could do a lot worse than take Clarke’s art­icle as the start­ing point.

ResearchBlogging.orgClarke, P.A. (2007). An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, XXI, 39–58 (Mendeley link)


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

7 Responses

  1. …col­our is con­nec­ted to all sorts of ter­restrial sym­bol­ism and mean­ing then the con­nec­tions between sky and soci­ety become much more meaningful.

    Not only in Aborigine astrom­ony, of course, but we’ve lost a lot of our own, earlier col­our con­nec­tions; e.g. Hephaestion of Thebes (Greco-Egyptian astro­lo­ger, 5thAD):

    ” … if the [Dog] star rose great and white and if its col­our passed through like a flood, then the Nile would rise high and there would be abund­ance; but if it were flame-coloured, and the col­our of red ochre, there would be war.”

    More on the col­our of this star at http://​judith​weingarten​.blog​spot​.com/​2​0​0​9​/​0​8​/​c​a​n​i​c​u​l​a​r​e​s​-​d​i​e​s​-​d​o​g​-​d​a​y​s​.​h​tml

  2. Couple of points:

    Aborigines don’t use the term “cob­ber” as it’s an English thing.

    Wolf Creek, not Wolfe Creek.

    Finally, there are, or were at set­tle­ment, 400 dis­tinct lan­guage groups among “the” Australian abori­gines. Generalisations are fraught.

    • Alun says:

      Thanks for the com­ment. I was think­ing of using the word Gubbah rather than Cobber. In the end I thought it best to not use an insult if I didn’t fully under­stand what it meant.

      I agree with you on gen­er­al­isa­tions, and I espe­cially like your “the” because on of the polit­ical effects of mak­ing gen­er­al­isa­tions is to lump a diverse set of people in one group. On the other hand they can have value as a broad-brush intro­duc­tion, if you make it clear that the detail is com­plic­ated. I think that’s some­thing Clarke does very well. He draws out some com­mon themes, but the wealth of ref­er­ences he uses shows that the details aren’t simple. That’s why I found a link to Haynes’ work refer­ring to the con­stel­la­tion of Unwala in Arnhem Land to coun­ter­bal­ance the state­ment that Aboriginal peoples aren’t that inter­ested in con­stel­la­tions. Clarke’s paper could be a start­ing point for a whole course on abori­ginal astro­nomy, if you wanted. It’s a help­ful entry for the state of know­ledge in 2010. However, Australia is a cur­rently a hot­bed of really inter­est­ing research in cul­tural astro­nomy, so I’d expec­ted people read­ing this in 2015 (or earlier) to be able to poke holes in the art­icle. It’s not the last word in Australian astro­nomy, but it’s a great source for research questions.

      I’m find­ing Wolf(e) Creek a puzzle though. I think it could be in the pro­cess of chan­ging its name. The Australian Heritage Database has an entry for Wolf Creek Crater, but spells it Wolfe Creek in the descrip­tion. The Western Australian Government refers to Wolfe Creek Crater National Park. Anyone research­ing the site should prob­ably use both names.

  3. Alice Gorman says:

    I was doing some work with the Kokatha out near Woomera a few years ago, and one senior man men­tioned that some of the people with the most know­ledge about the sky were get­ting very frail; he was quite inter­ested in hav­ing someone do some formal oral his­tor­ies around this. There are prob­ably many groups in this situation.

  1. October 18, 2010

    […] This post was men­tioned on Twitter by Alun, Leicester Blogs. Leicester Blogs said: There are more things in heaven and earth, cob­ber, than are dreamt of in your philo­sophy http://​bit​.ly/​c​u​b​FqW […]

  2. October 24, 2010

    […] There are more things in heaven and earth, cob­ber, than are dreamt of in your philosophy […]

  3. November 16, 2010

    […] is one of them, and he has a post on the astro­nomy of Australian abori­ginal cul­ture: “There are more things in heaven and earth, cob­ber, than are dreamt of in your philo­sophy”: “Studying astro­nomy in cul­ture should be simple. There’s only so much that is vis­ible by […]