Australian Aboriginal Star Lore

A bark painting by Yolngu artist Dhuwarriny Yunupingu. All elements of it refer to stories involving astronomical constellations. The crocodile at the bottom is the constellation Scorpius. This particular painting is modern but follows a traditional design. (Norris, R.P. 2016)

The Aboriginal peoples of Australia have one, if not, the, longest continuous unbroken cultures known. They are thought to have left Africa around 100,000BC and arrived in Northern Australia at least 40,000 years ago. Until the coming of the Europeans in 1788 they had virtually no contact with other cultures (except for annual visits by Mocassan trapang traders over a few hundred years). In this period, they had spread throughout the continent developing into about 250 language groups (& 750 dialects). While there are different cultures alongside these languages, there are also some common threads, including the belief that the world was created in the Dreaming by ancestral spirits. The Dreaming is not only an ancient era of creation but continues even today in the spiritual lives of the Aboriginal people. All life – human, animal, bird or fish – is part of an ever-transforming system that can be traced back to the Spirit Ancestors who go about the Earth in an eternal time.  As these spirit people roamed the Earth they made the mountains, rivers, the sky with its celestial objects and all the other features we see in the natural environment around us. Unfortunately, the coming of the Europeans meant the destruction of entire cultures, and it is estimated that population plummeted from around 300,000 people in the pre-colonial period to 93,000 by 1900.  However, some cultures survived intact, typically in the north and centre of Australia, and this is where we have learnt a lot about their traditional knowledge about navigation and star lore.  Star lore was considered a significant aspect of a young person’s education…

“In the country the landscape, the walking and dark on foot all around the country in the long grass, spearing, hunting, gathering with our Mum and all this but each night where we were going to travel back to the camp otherwise you don’t get lost and all the only tell was about a star. How to travel? Follow the star along. … While we were growing up. We only lay on our back and talk about the stars. We talk about emus and kangaroos, the whole and the stars, the turkeys and the willy wagtail, the whole lot, everything up in the star we named them all with Aboriginal names. Anyway we talked about a lot of that … but we didn’t have a watch in those days. We always followed the star for the watch. … Emu, Crocodile, Cat Fish, Eagle Hawk, and all in the sky in one of the stars. The stars and the Milky Way have been moving all around. If you lay on your back in the middle of the night you can see the stars all blinking. They’re all talking.” Bill Yidumduma Harney, Wardaman Elder

The contents of the night sky hold many cultural uses to the Aboriginal peoples. They are used as calendars and markers for the seasons, markers of time, representations of the Dreaming, as moral guides, law, and for navigation. 

A bark painting by Yolngu artist Dhuwarriny Yunupingu. All elements of it refer to stories involving astronomical constellations. The crocodile at the bottom is the constellation Scorpius. This particular painting is modern but follows a traditional design. (Norris, R.P. 2016)
A bark painting by Yolngu artist Dhuwarriny Yunupingu. All elements of it refer to stories involving astronomical constellations. The crocodile at the bottom is the constellation Scorpius. This particular painting is modern but follows a traditional design. (Norris, R.P. 2016)

The Aboriginal people use the celestial objects in the sky to inform them of how to conduct themselves. The rules they enact on land are reflected in the sky for all to read. For example, the star Aldebaran is a reminder of a story about what happens to adulterers. According to the people of the Clarence River region in New South Wales, Karambal (Aldebaran) stole the wife of another man and hid her in a tree. The husband set fire to the tree and the flames carried Karambal into the sky where he is easily seen and pointed out as the red star which is still burning.

Like many ancient peoples, the Aborigines associate the appearance of certain stars at different times of the year with the seasons and seasonal food cycles. When the people in Arnhem Land see Arcturus in the sky they know that it is time to harvest a rush which is used to make fish traps and baskets to carry food. However, to the Boorong in Victoria, Arcturus represents the spirit of Marpeankurrk, who showed them where to find the pupa of the wood ant, while Vega – which represents the spirit of the Mallee hen – showed them where to find her eggs.  It may seem a bit strange to us, but not having a written way of recording dates, the use of the predictable patterns in the skies helped many groups to plan important ceremonies and know when the best time was to gather resources and food.

For the rest of this blog, we’ll take a brief look into the fascinating aspect of navigation. Way back in 1939 it was shown that Australia was crisscrossed with trade routes used by the Aboriginal peoples for purposes of trading stories and going to ceremonies as well as commodities such as such as bunya nuts, pituri (a nicotine-based narcotic), stone axes, ochre, and tools.  So, given that these routes cover massive distances and clearly crossed the borders of many territories, it was necessary to learn the routes and to navigate them in some way.

Aboriginal Trade Routes
Aboriginal Trade Routes.

I am guessing that most of you have heard of the songlines – a word used by Bruce Chatwin in his famous book.  The Aboriginal people also called them Dreaming Tracks. For example, the Two Dog Dreaming tells how the ancestral emu, Kuringii, was chased by two ancestral dingoes along a trade route. Kuringii was eventually killed at the foot of the Flinders Ranges, and his blood is the source of the prized red ochre from Parachilna in South Australia. In this way, the ochre traded on this route became part of the story in such a way that the route is now a songline for the song that relates the story. A Dreaming track is another way to express the meaning of a story that is a part of a traditional Dreaming story that travels down a trade route.  The route is described in a story form.  Songlines can also be seen in the sky at night. Euahlayi people know of a songline stretching from Heavitree Gap at Alice Springs to Byron Bay on the East Coast. This is the songline of Mulliyan-ga (the eaglehawk), and runs from the star Achernar in the West overhead to Canopus, to Sirius, and then to the East. Mulliyan-ga fought, and was defeated by the caterpillar, Yipirinya, at Alice Springs after travelling from the East, and his spirit remains in Achernar. This is a songline that connects the Arrernte people of Alice Springs with the Euahlayi people of northwest New South Wales. The Euahlayi also know of the Black Snake/Bogong Moth songline, which connects Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria with the Snowy Mountains near Canberra. This songline in the sky follows the Milky Way and intersects with the Mulliyan-ga songline over Euahlayi country.

These songlines in the sky are called star maps and the patterns of stars represent the routes of travel on land.  These maps were not used directly for navigation but instead act as visual representations of the actual route to be travelled – an aide memoire. The knowledge holder would use a clear night at the right time of the year and point out the directions for travel, using the patterns of stars in the star map in the sky to guide the intended traveller from place-to-place on the ground using the stars as what we now call “waypoints‟ in terrestrial navigation. To the Aboriginal person, these waypoints could be a bend in a river, a waterhole, a marked tree or a stone arrangement. Eventually the star map would lead to the destination.  The image shows an example of a Euahlayi songline extending from Queensland into New South Wales. The song describes the path on the ground, which is mirrored by the stars of Scorpius (taken from Norris, R.P. Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation).

Dream track land - sky
Dream track land – sky.

The concept of cardinal directions is common amongst Aboriginal language groups in Australia The Warlpiri people in central Australia are often highlighted as an example as much of their culture is based on the four cardinal directions that correspond closely to the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west) of modern western culture. The cardinal directions were given to the Wardaman people by the blue-tongue lizard, who threw boomerangs to the four cardinal points. The Guugu Yimithirr language utilises cardinal directions rather than concepts of left or right or behind. East and west are usually associated with the rising and setting positions of the sun, and the words for east and west are often based on the word for the sun. Navigating at night was not something done by every group but initiated men knew the sky intimately, and could name most stars in the sky visible to the naked eye. Wardaman senior elder Bill Yidumduma Harney has developed an intuitive mental map of the moving sky, and its changing relationship to the land, which can be used directly for navigation. This was not necessarily something a young person grew up knowing, there are some accounts which indicate that knowledge of the stars was taught as part of initiation. This reminds me of the book by Tristan Gooley called Wild Signs and Star Paths in which he promotes the idea that if you constantly practise techniques for natural navigation, they become second nature and you get to the point where you don’t need to consciously think about them. So, I feel there is hope for me yet!


Star maps and travelling to ceremonies: The Euahlayi people and their use of the night sky. Fuller, R.S. (2014) Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 149–160 (2014)

Songlines and navigation in Wardaman and other Australian cultures. Norris, R.P. (2014) Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 141–148 (2014)

Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation. Norris, R.P. (2016)  Astronomical Society of Australia 2016; published by Cambridge University Press.

Astronomy in Aboriginal Culture Ragbir Bhathal Astronomy & Geophysics, Volume 47, Issue 5, October 2006, Pages 5.27–5.30

Australian Indigenous Astronomy accessed 11/6/2022

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