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Aboriginal astronomy the star of Dreamtime stories

Photo: Indigenous Australians use the stars to navigate life on the ground.

Article from abc.net.au

For the next couple of months, get away from the city lights, look up to the stars, and you might just be able to spot an emu in the sky.

According to Aboriginal legend, emus were creator spirits that used to fly and look over the land.

To spot the emu, look south to the Southern Cross; the dark cloud between the stars is the head, while the neck, body and legs are formed from dust lanes stretching across the Milky Way.

Physics student and Sydney Observatory guide Kirsten Banks said most Aboriginal tribes told the story of the emu in the sky.

"The position in the sky tells us when to collect emu eggs; it's very well known all across Australia."

Ms Banks is in her third year at the University of NSW and has aspirations to study the formation of stars once she graduates.

She is descended from the Wiradjuri people but only delved into her ancestry after seeing an Indigenous map of Australia hanging in the entrance of the Observatory.

"By learning more Dreamtime stories and more about the culture, I really connected more with my ancestry — and linking it to astronomy today is really exciting.

"I feel like it has encouraged my cultural aspect of astrophysics; not so much how things work, but more so about how people perceive the sky and stars with constellations.

"I see more pictures in the sky in the constellations.

"For example, when I look up at the Western constellation of Orion, I also see a canoe in the sky with three brothers being represented by the belt of Orion."

The three brothers

CSIRO Indigenous astronomer Ray Norris told the Yolngu Dreamtime story of the three brothers to ABC Radio Sydney:

"They say three young boys were out fishing and all they could catch were kingfish.

"One got so hungry he ate one of the kingfish.

"The Sun was so angry that she created a waterspout that blew them up into the sky as a warning to kids that you've got to obey the tribal laws.

"The three stars we see, they're the three brothers. On either side of that, which we would call the hand and feet of the Orion, that's the front and end of the canoe.

"The Orion nebula where new stars are being born; they're the fish."

The Sun and Moon

In most Aboriginal cultures, the Sun is female while the Moon is male.

"The Sun is a lovely old lady called Walu Yolngu," Mr Norris said.

"She gets up every morning and puts on her red ochre, which is why we get the red sunrise, lights a stringy bark tree and carries it across the sky and giving us all light and heat, travels to the west and puts out the stringy bark tree, then travels around back to camp in the east for the morning."

In all Aboriginal cultures the Moon is considered a bad person, Mr Norris explained.

"In the Yolngu story, he's called Ngalindi and he was big and round and fat like the full moon, and he was lazy.

"His wives and children got so angry because he did nothing to help, so they chopped off bits of him and he went from being a round fat moon and got thinner and thinner which is why you get phases on the Moon.

"Eventually he died and stayed dead for three nights before he came back to life, as a new moon.

"He cursed everyone and said that when he died he would come back to life, but when others died, they would stay dead."

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