In Aboriginal Australia, early European observers recorded that the inhabitants held cosmological beliefs dominated by concepts of the heavens as a ‘Skyworld’. This was the upper part of a total landscape that possessed a topography that included Earth and the Underworld. Historical accounts from Aboriginal people described the Skyworld as being inhabited by human and spirit ancestors, who lived in a land similar to Earth, and it was believed that these entities still had influence over all living things.
In Australian ethnographic literature, the Skyworld refers to a concept of the heavens as a country with distinct zones and regions, within which human soul spirits and Creation ancestors existed alongside all the plants and animals that also lived on Earth. On the level of mythological detail there is variation across Aboriginal Australia, the Skyworld was nonetheless experienced through broadly shared systems of cosmology and aesthetics.
According to Aboriginal tradition, the Skyworld was similarly organised to that of Earth, to the extent that the celestial bodies as ancestors were subject to the same laws as people and animals. Landscape objects and topographic features on Earth were recognised as continuing or being replicated in the Skyworld above. In the Aboriginal worldview, they were reflections of each other, with points of connection on the horizon. Terrestrial and celestial spaces were not just seen as having similar geographies, but were seen as continuous from one to another.
For example, the prominence of rivers as topographical features in south-eastern Australia is reflected in them being identifies as major features in the Skyworld – the Ngaiawang people living along the upper reaches of the Murray river in South Australia recognised the Milky Way as being part of the same river, with the stars on either side seen as men hunting on the Mallee.
(Tindale cited Clarke 1997). Similarly, in south Western Victoria the Milky Way was known as barnk, meaning ‘big river’.
For Aboriginal groups in some parts of SE Australia, the forests dominated the Skyworld. It was recorded that the Wurunjerri (Woiworung) people on the northern side of Melbourne believed that they had a sky country which they called Tharangalk-bek, the gum-tree country (Howitt 1904). Here, the land was named after tharangalk trees, which are Mann gums that were the source of the highly prized edible sugar lerp.
In Noongar Cosmology, the Waakal is the Creator, the keeper of the fresh water sources which gave life and the trilogy of belief in the boodjar - the land - as our mother and nurturer of the Noongar moort - family and relations - and katitjin - knowledge so that Noongar people could weave that intricate tapestry known as the “web of life”. This is the trilogy of Noongar theory and their stories reflect this belief.
Source: Fred Cahir, Ian D. Clarke and Philip A. Clarke, ‘Aboriginal Biocultural Knowledge in South Eastern Australia’, 2018 CSIRO publishing Clayton South, Victoria.
Image: Constellation of Pleiades
Story of the well known Pleiades or The Seven Sisters is shown here with blue nebulosity surrounding the bright stars.
Photo by Roger Groom.
The traditional tale of the Wongutha people of the eastern goldfields, tells the story of a group of stars called the Seven Sisters (Pleiades) and why the seventh star always appears behind the others.