The Aboriginal people of Australia developed an astronomy where figures from their mythology were represented by the dark patches, stars and other features of the night sky. These figures came from familiar animals and objects from their immediate environment that often had stories attached to them explaining their origin or function.
In the night skies above Australia is the Southern Cross which has a dark patch or cloud next to it called the Coalsack Nebula. This dark place is associated with the “Emu in the Sky” with the Coalsack representing the head and the body and legs formed by the dust trails that reach out across the Milky Way. Presented here is a brief description of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy followed by the folktale of The Blind Man and the Emu. Then follows a look at the rock engraving of the Emu in the Sky and the celestial orientation in the night sky of the Emu before concluding with the importance of both of these to the Aboriginal people.
Australian Aboriginal Astronomy
In Australian Aboriginal astronomy, astronomical objects such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets and the Milky Way and their movements across the sky are often seen as being representative of objects, animals or aspects of the world they knew. They used these representations to help explain and give meaning to various things that in their minds needed explaining or in some cases as a calendar to keep track of the passing of time and the seasons. Quite often there are mythological or religious explanations given to celestial objects and phenomena and sometimes there are less profound associations given. Different groups of Aboriginal people have different folktales featuring many different creatures such as stingrays, sharks and other fish, different kinds of birds and animals also different people groups such as men, women, boys, girls and hunters.
The Blind Man and the Emu
One folktale tells of a blind man who lived in a camp in the bush. He had a wife who lived with him and every day he would send his wife out to look for emu eggs for them to eat. His wife would dutifully oblige but no matter how hard she tried she could not please him. She would find the emu eggs and bring them back to him but he would complain they were too small and become angry with her. One day she went out looking for emu eggs and came across the tracks of a very large emu. Thinking that such a large bird would lay large eggs she followed the tracks and found it sitting on its nest on the ground. Thinking the eggs would be large and would please her husband for a change, she became determined to get them and so she threw stones at the bird hoping to scare it off. Instead the bird stood up and attacked her and killed her.
Meanwhile the blind man was becoming hungry waiting for his wife and he also began to worry about her. Unable to see he began to feel his way cautiously around the camp until his hands felt a bush and feeling the branches he found some berries upon it. Eating the berries he was suddenly cured of his blindness and picking up his spears he went out looking for his wife. He found her tracks and followed them and found her body by the emu’s nest. Realizing the emu had killed her he speared the emu and sent its spirit into the Milky Way. There it remains to this day and can be seen at certain times of the year and became known as the Emu in the Sky.
Rock engravings of the Emu in the Sky
In the Kuringai National Park, north of Sidney the Guringai people who live there created rock engravings, some of these are depicting Daramulan the sky god and his emu-wife. One engraving at the Elvina Track Engraving Site depicts an emu similarly posed similarly as the Emu in the Sky constellation. During evenings in the autumn, which is March to May in Australia, the celestial emu in the sky is directly over the engraved emu in the sky depicted in the rock corresponding to the time when the emu lays its eggs and are traditionally collected by the Aborigines.
The Emu in the Sky
During March the head and neck of the Emu appears in night sky and from April to May the full length is revealed in the sky from south toward south east. During this time the Emu is said to have legs by the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples and is seeming to be in a running pose. This is said to be representative of the females who during the mating season run after the males.
During June and July the celestial emu appears to change its position with the disappearance of its legs and is said to be now male and sitting on its nest hatching the eggs. It is the male emu on earth that incubates the eggs. So the celestial Emu appears to reproduce the behavior of the earthly emu.
The Emu in the Sky is an example of how the Aboriginal Australians related to the natural world on earth and the heavens above them. Their reliance and closeness to nature is seen in the use of the rock engraving that acts as a calendar reminding them of the important time of the year when the emu egg will be available to harvest.
© 08/06/2016 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
Copyright June 8th, 2016 zteve t evans
- Australian Aboriginal astronomy – Wikipedia
- Emu in the Sky – Australia Telescope National Facility
- Aboriginal Astronomy
- Australia’s first astronomers
- Australian Indigenous Astronomy
- PDF. The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi
- File:Emu public.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – The Aboriginal “Emu in the sky” – Author: en:User:Rayd8 – CC BY 2.5