Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Aboriginal Australian Cosmic Landscape Part 2 – Plant Connections with the Skyworld

There is frequent mention of the Skyworld in the recorded mythology of Australian Aboriginal people as the upper part of a total landscape that is linked with that of the Earth and the Underworld. In Aboriginal Australia the heavens were perceived by the as a country that has the same species of plants and animals that existed on the Earth below. Large trees were seen in Aboriginal tradition as connecting the terrestrial space with the sky above, and the movements of the celestial bodies were linked with seasonal changes that they observed on Earth. In this paper Clarke describes the links that are believed to exist between the Skyworld and the Earth.

The “Skyworld” is referred to in the Australian ethnographic literature as an Aboriginal concept of the heavens as a country with a separate existence where the spirits of people and ancestors exist together with the plants and animals that are familiar on Earth (Clarke, 1997; 2008b; 2009a; 2014b; Frederik, 2008; Hamacher, 2012; Haynes, 1992; 2009; Isaacs, 1980; Johnson, 1998; 2005; Norris, 2007; Norris & Hamacher, 2009; 2014; Tindale, 2005). There is much consistency with the main elements of the Skyworld, particularly it’s physical structure and the acknowledged influence it has over the Earth, though the details of the mythology pertaining to the Skyworld vary widely across Aboriginal Australia. Within their environment Aboriginal hunter gatherers were keen observers of changes within that environment, with the passage of seasons signaled by such things as the movement of the celestial bodies over time, shifts in weather and the flowering of calendar plants (Clarke, 2009b; Davis, 1989, 1997).

This paper is the second installment of a study that aimed at drawing out major ethnobotanical themes from the corpus of ethnoastronomical records that were garnered from a diverse range Aboriginal Australian cultures. It investigates the connectedness between the Skyworld and the Earth, and the first paper (Clarke, 2014a) focused on the aesthetics between the perception of Aboriginal peoples in Australia of the heavens.

Data sources

A description of the ethnographic data sources that were used in the current paper is provided in the previous part of this study, as well as an account of the Aboriginal aesthetic that determines what is seen in the sky (ibid). There are major biases, though there are an abundance of ethnoastronomical and ethnobotanical data that is available in Australia. In many areas scholars must rely mainly on anecdotal accounts from settlers and colonial officials of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who could compile information that was gathered from Aboriginal people who survived the first wave of European settlement.

In general, early missionaries who arrived in most areas some years after the beginning of colonisation were more thorough with their recordings of Aboriginal culture, though they were working before the beginning of academic anthropology in Australia. Late in the 19th century a generation of scholars who had close relationships with Aboriginal communities emerged, though their work was restricted to a few elderly informants who could remember when they lived as hunter-gatherer.

By the early 20th century, scholars had realised that Aboriginal people held a wealth of knowledge and experience in the memories of Australian environments. A newspaper writer observed in 1904 in an article on weather forecasting that:

It is astonishing, however, how much weather wisdom has been developed in the world merely as the result of long-continued observations of unscientific people. The man whose life has been passed in certain localities has by reason of long intimate personal communion with nature become endowed with a “gift” that is not to be despised. There are some who would even prefer to trust the instinct of the brute creation or the intuitive perception of aboriginals, whose traditions of the sky are not the least remarkable features of their native knowledge of the ways of nature. All this only another way of emphasising the value of observation and deduction as the stepping stones to knowledge”. (Anon., 1904b).

Alfred Howitt (1830-1908; Stanner, 1972; was born in Nottingham, England, and emigrated to Australia in 1852, and settled in Melbourne. Before becoming an explorer he was the manager of a sheep station and a prospector.

Howitt became a natural scientist in later life and authority on the Aboriginal people of southeastern Australia. Howitt believed that the structure of many Aboriginal astronomical beliefs resonated with those from Western Europe, claiming “It seems that such pseudo-beliefs are an inheritance to us from our savage ancestors, and from which we are not able to free ourselves.” In the case of Aboriginal traditions, remarked that:

“The beliefs as to the stars, which I have noted, and the manner in which they are named, seem to throw some light on the origin of the names, and even on the legends of the constellations of the northern Hemisphere.” (Howitt, 1904: 434).

Anthropologists, astronomers, linguists and museum-based scholars recorded Aboriginal ethnoastronomical data during the 20th century.

Trees that connected the Earth with the sky

The cultural landscape is a concept for geographers that encompass the physical as well as cultural aspects of the human construction and perception of space (Baker, 1999; Clarke, 1994). The heavens are part of the space that is experienced by people. Interpretations of the sky must be understood in terms of the cosmological traditions that explain the making of the world in Aboriginal Australia. The concept, that there had been a period of creation during which totemic spiritual ancestors carried out heroic deeds, moulded and imparted spiritual power to the land, and formulated customs for their descendants to follow, is fundamental to Aboriginal religious beliefs (Clarke, 2003; Hiatt, 1975; Sutton, 1988). These ancestors often took the form of animals and birds, though many were also plants, atmosphere and cosmological phenomena or even diseases of humans. As the ancestral beings crossed the land during the Creation period and the paths they made became ancestral tracks, or song lines, connecting mythological sites where, according to Aboriginal tradition certain events had taken place. As the Creation period was closing, according to Aboriginal belief, many of these spiritual ancestors travelled up into the heavens, and because of this anthropologists have referred to them as ‘Sky-heroes’ (e.g. Elkin, 1964: 252-254). It was believed that as ancestors they would continue to influence life on Earth and that is why Aboriginal people on Earth looked for omens in the heavens (Clarke, 1997; 2009a; Hamacher & Norris, 2010; 2011a; 2011b; Johnson, 1998).

The regions of the Earth, Skyworld and Underworld were connected to the extent that travel from one to the other was easy between them all during the Creation period. The ancestors could reach the heavens by climbing to the tops of tall trees or by walking to the summits of high hills. Sometimes the ascent to the Skyworld involved helping up by whirlwinds, ropes and fast-growing trees. E.g., the Kamilaroi people of the central northern region of New South Wales believed that female ancestors became a cluster stars (the Pleiades) when the 2 pine (Callitris species) they were cutting bark from started growing higher and higher until they pushed the bark cutters into the sky (Greenway, 1901).

·        According to an Aboriginal tradition from this region a star cluster called the Mundewur, which is an S-shaped line of stars in Ophiuchus (formerly serpentarius) that is situated between the northern Crown of Scorpius, which represented “… the notches cut into the bark of a tree to enable a blackfellow to climb it.” (Ridley, 1875: 142).

·        The Alawa people from southeast Arnhem Land of the Northern Territory have a Creation myth in which 2 of their ancestors reached the Skyworld, where they are seen as part of the Pleiades, by climbing a large northern stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) that was growing on Earth (Berndt & Berndt, 1989).

Sometimes, the Skyworld was where the ancestors escaped to after their creative activities on Earth, and in other cases the ancestors were tricked into entering the Skyworld where they were stranded.

·        A detailed version of a myth from the Wimmera district of western Victoria that explains the connection between terrestrial space and the sky (Bulmer, 1855-1908 [1999]). According to his account people who were on Earth during the Creative period could reach the Skyworld to collect the abundant lerp (sometimes called manna) that is found in trees. They did this by climbing the winding steps on a very tall pine tree Callitris spp., which grew on the bank of the Richardson River. Access to the tree was controlled by Jeon, an old man, and he had a pack of dogs he lent to foragers. On one occasion the men who were gathering lerp in the sky were not successful, so they secretly killed one of the dogs, which was Jeeon’s favourite. Jeon realised what they had done and wanted to punish them. So, before the men ventured into the Skyworld again, Jeon made an instrument that allowed him to bore into the taproot of the pine tree where he concealed a fire. When these foragers were about to return to Earth they heard the tree cracking. After 2 unsuccessful attempts to descend to Earth, they returned to the top of the pine tree just in time to see the main section of the tree fall. Bulmer’s informant said the top of the tree can still be seen in the Milky Way towards the south, while the men were forced to remain in the Skyworld are adjacent stars near a dark spot.

·        In western Victoria other ethnographers recorded the account of tree connections between Earth and the Skyworld. According to an Aboriginal tradition that was recorded in the Kara Kara district “…a regular highway between the Earth and the upper regions …” that was formed by a large pine tree that grew on Earth and whose branches crossed into the sky (Mathews, 1904: 281-282).

·        It was similarly stated (Howitt, 1904: 433) that in the Wimmera district of the same region: There was a legend among the Wotjobaluk of a pine tree which ascended up through the sky (Wurra-wurra) to the place beyond which Mamen-gorak [‘father’, ‘ours’] lived. At that time the people ascended by this tree to gather manna, which implied that trees grew there like the Eucalypt, such as Eucalyptus viminalis. This shed the so called manna in the Wotjobaluk country.

According to Clarke the theme of large trees as ladders between Earth and the Skyworld is widespread throughout Aboriginal Australia. From southeastern Central Australia, it was recorded (Howitt, 1904: 433) that:

·        Another of the Dieri [Diyari] and Tirari [Thirrari] accounts for the fossil remains that were found at Lake Eyre, which they called Kadimarkara, as having been creatures which in the old times of the Murra-murras [Creation ancestors], climbed down from the sky to the Earth by the huge Eucalyptus trees on which it rested which grew on the western side of Lake Eyre.

Some of the fossils recovered from Lake Eyre, for which the region is well known, have been found to be Diprotodon, a species from the megafauna of the Pleistocene (Pledge & Tedford, 1990).

There are variations with the mechanisms that stranded the ancestors in the Skyworld in the recorded stories of Aboriginal Australia. They were prevented from returning to Earth at the end of the Creation because of a tree being as a ‘ladder’ had been either burnt or cut down, sometimes by force of trickery, according to the narratives of some stories. E.g. it was claimed by a tradition among the Clarence River people of coastal New South Wales (Mathews, 1904:280) that:

·        Among the Womboang division Alpha Tauri [Aldebaran] was a young man called Karambal, who absconded with another man’s wife. The injured husband pursued him, and he took refuge in a tall tree. The pursuer piled wood around the bole of the tree, which he then set on fire, and Karambal was carried up by the fierce flames into the sky, where he still has the colour of fire.

·        Occasionally the tree ‘ladder’ was a means of escape from Earth. According to a tradition among the Kamilaroi people, during the Creation 2 girls were caught by a man called Wurunna who forced them to cut bark for him (Sveiby & Skuthorpe, 2006).  The first blow of the stone axe caused the tree they had climbed to grow upwards rapidly away from Wurunna, and their 5 sisters saved them by pulling them up into the Skyworld where, together with their sisters, they became the Mirrai Mirrai (Pleiades).

·        In some myths the Moon ancestor also suffered the fate of being stranded in the Skyworld. In mythology among the Nukunu from the southern Flinders Ranges of South Australia, the Moon was tricked into entering the Skyworld:

·        The Moon (Pira) was greedy with meat and wouldn’t share it with others, the crowd decided to get rid of him, so they coaxed him to climb a tree to get [edible] grubs, coaxing him up higher and higher until they could hardly see him. They cut the tree down and the Moon hung up in the sky. Moon said ‘I’ll give the light to the people who walk at night. I’ll die then come to life again’ (Mountford, cited Hercus, 1992: 16-17).

·        In a similar tradition from the Adnyamathanha people of the northern Flinders Ranges, Vira Wurlka the Moon man climbed a river red gum to gather witchetty grubs for 2 nephews (sister’s sons), who made the tree grow higher until it reached the sky (Tunbridge, 1988). Vira Wurlka was stranded in the Skyworld when the nephews shrank the tree. When he gradually dies and becomes smaller the lunar phases are produced.

·        In a myth from the Endeavour River area, northern Queensland, Warigan the Moon man climbed a tree using a climbing cane, but the Ngalan, the Sun, set the bark on fire (Tindale, 1938 ms). That is how the Moon received its ashen face.


Large trees are topographic features for Aboriginal people, representing tangible evidence of the actions of their spirit ancestors during the Creation. Often, prominent trees are seen as creations of the ancestors.


·        In the mythology of the Lower Murray, e.g., the sheoak (Casuarina stricta) tree is significant, as it is the tree the supreme male ancestor Ngurunderi created and then sat under before he ascended to the Skyworld (Berndt et al., 1993).

The ‘ladders’ that lead to the Skyworld are often specified as tall pine trees (Callitris species) (e.g. Bulmer, 1855-1908 [1999]; Greenway, 1901; Howitt, 1904; Mathews, 1904; Sveiby & Skuthorpe, 2006), possibly as a result of their characteristic of having multiple branch levels from the ground to the crown and due to their common location, on hilltops.

Clarke suggests that in arid areas long-lived trees such as river red gums growing along creek beds or at waterholes are prominent features of the landscape, therefore attracting significance in the local mythologies (Clarke, 2014c).

·        There is a tradition among the Nukunu people from the southern Flinders Ranges, South Australia, according to which Atyilpa the western Quoll ancestor carried an immense tree across their country (Hercus, 1992). The tree, which is symbolic of a giant ceremonial pole, was carried about in a bag then placed in the land. It was recorded by Hercus, (1992: 13) that:

·        There were sites in the Nukunu country which marked the beginning of the longest known continuous songline, the Urumbula which goes from Port Augusta to the Gulf of Carpentaria. A huge tree was the main feature, and it was so high that it was like a giant ceremonial pole which in turn represented the Milky Way. The giant tree was close to Port Augusta of the present. The oldest singers of the Urumbula say this tree was destroyed long before their time, in the early days of European settlement.

It was a large northern stringybark tree connected to the Skyworld in traditions of southeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory (Berndt & Berndt, 1989). Most people were forced to remain on Earth while they were alive at the close of the Creation period, as the Skyworld and the Underworld were beyond their reach.

The order of life on Earth required the maintenance of this gap between the terrestrial and sky regions since the end of creation.

·        In the Lower Murray region, particularly large trees and big sand dunes were avoided as malevolent places because they attracted lightning strikes due to their proximity to the clouds (Clarke, 1997; Harwood cited by Tindale, 1930-1952; Daisy Bates; De Vries, 2008; Reece, 2007). She recorded that there the vault of the heavens was supported by a large tree, called Warda, inland from the Great Australian Bight, that had to be protected at all times (D. Bates, cited Isaacs, 1980).2

In Ngaanyatjarra and Ngaatjatjarra languages of the Western Desert …yilkari warta … (idiom for ‘very distant’) literally means “…sky tree…” (Glass & Hackett, 2003: 570). Spirit beings, many of whom took the forms of birds that could fly, had retained the ability to move freely across all parts of the total landscape (Clarke, 1999, 2007 b).

According to Elkin ‘doctors’ and ‘sorcerers’ in Aboriginal traditions that travelled to the Skyworld used various methods, a ‘magic rope’, a tree as a ‘ladder’ or ritual power to pass through space itself (Elkin, 1977). Duncan Stewart was an early colonist in South Australia whose family were ‘supportive’ of the local Aboriginal population (MacGillivary, 2005). Duncan Stewart observed a ‘séance’ that was conducted by the Bunganditj man Kootwor, who:

·        … was supposed to go up into the clouds at night, to induce “those above” to go down and show themselves to the credulous blacks. … Kootwor – the doctor or medium – obtained from “those above” not only dances to amuse, but food, good damper, tobacco, etc., the latter often being dropped into their camp during the night, or found close by in the morning. (Stewart,, c.1870 to c. 1883 [1977: 67]

Stewart needed to be well hidden among the Aboriginal observers, because it was said he might be struck by lightning from above. In order to achieve his ascent the ‘doctor’ climbed a tree and then “…the sky people lowered a rope for him to be hauled up by.” (Stewart, c.1870 – c.1883 [197: 90]). In this region it was reported that a healer gained knowledge through crossing into the heavens by climbing a tree (Smith, 1880). Similar accounts were reported from southwestern Victoria of Aboriginal ‘doctors’and ‘sorcerers ‘claiming to be regular visitors to the Skyworld (Dawson, 1881).

The floral and celestial influences over the Earth

It was acknowledged by European recorders that a role was played in classical Aboriginal tradition by heavenly bodies in the making of the Earth and a terrestrial landscape. E.g., in a Creation account that is not localised in the record, though probably relates to the east coast of Australia, it was stated by an anonymous writer in a newspaper that:

·        In the beginning black men wore wings and chased winged game; they were prosperous, but grew weary for a place to rest their feet, so they begged the help of the stars and other heavenly bodied. Each sent a contribution toward a settlement [Earth]. The stars sent rocks and sand, the moon sent water for sea, rivers and springs, the evening star [possibly Venus] sent rich soil for growing things, the sun sent animals and plants, and the wings were dropped at once for the sole of a foot to rest on. (Anon., 1904a).

The acknowledge source of fire was the Skyworld. It was recorded in the Lake Condah area of western Victoria that:

·        A blackfellow threw a spear towards the clouds. To the spear a string was attached. The man climbed up through the aid of the string and brought fire to the earth from the sun. (Anon., 1888: 2).

Aboriginal people in Tasmania believed that “…fire was thrown down from the heavens like stars by two blackfellows who were now stars, the twin Stars, Castor and Pollux (Mercer, 1912).

In order to account for environmental rhythms of their country Aboriginal people cited cosmological events (Appendix 1). E.g., Wilbur Selwyn Chaseling, a missionary in the Northern Territory, recorded the Yolngu tradition from northeast Arnhem Land that during the Creation period the ancestor Jurrpan left his sons and their wives on Earth so that he could live in the Heavens as the ‘evening star’ (Arcturus).3 From the Skyworld Jurrpan ordered his family to stay below near his former camp and transform themselves into swamp food. Chaseling (1957: 150-151) stated that:

·        They did as they were told and changed themselves into the well-known ‘karkai’, or swamp rush-corm [rakay, rakai, Eliocharis dulsis]. Rarkai, a favourite food, spreads over large areas of swamp in the wet season, then ripening after the water evaporates. Women gather the corms late in the year, and can see Jurrpan in the western sky shining down on his ripening swamp-children at sunset.

A tradition that has been recorded from a Kumbaingiri person in northern coastal New South Wales incorporating the theme of rejuvenation, in terms of the lunar phases as well as the growth of the vegetation (McDougall, 1901).4 According to this tradition the Moon ancestor once lived on Earth, where as a man he was speared and his bowels spilt out onto the land. Wintarn (blady grass, Imperata cylindrical and Cummin-Guroon (ferns), who were 2 plant men, took pity on the Moon man and carried him home. As a result of their kindness, the 2 plant men never really die and are always, as plants, the first to regenerate after fire or drought.

It was widely believed in Aboriginal Australia that certain species of fungi retained power from their connection with the heavens. E.g., in the Flinders Ranges in northern South Australia, in the language of the Adnyamathanha puffballs (Podaxon species) are known as vudlivuta, literally ‘star-dust’.5 When one of these fungi is deliberately kicked by a young man the yellow spores fill the air and people say that he is “… pulling down stars.” (McEntee et al., 1986: 13). Here to ´break the ´vudli´ means that he is “ … falling in love.” In Central Australia, it was recorded (Spencer & Gillen, 1904: 627)6 that:

·        Falling stars appear to be associated with the idea of evil in many tribes. It is believed by the Arunta [Arrernte] that mushrooms and toadstools are fallen stars, and look upon them as being endowed with arungquilta (evil magic) and therefore don’t eat them.

In other parts of Australia species of fungi have been linked to spirits. James Drummond, a Scottish-born naturalist and collector stated that in the southwest of Western Australia he had been shown a glowing fungus; “…to the natives when giving out light…They called it a chinga, their name for spirit, and they were much afraid of it.” (Drummond, 1841 [cited Clarke, 2008a: 84]).7 According to Clarke the species involved is a large luminous mushroom most likely Omphalotus nidiformis that glows naturally for 4-5 days after it is cut.8 In other cultures outside Australia there is also association of fallen stars with mushrooms (e.g. Beach, 1986; Hamacher & Norris, 2010).

The Seasonal calendar

The way people divide the year is shaped by culture and the way they relate to seasonal changes within the landscape (Clarke, 2009b). There is a wide variety of ways Aboriginal hunter-gatherers recognise the annual cycles, ranging anywhere between 4 and 9 distinct seasons (Clarke, 2003; Reid, 1995; Thomson, 1939). The onset of each season, during which specific foraging practices would be employed, are indicated by the combination of movements of stars and animals, weather changes and the flowering of certain plants. It was remarked (Sutton, 1998: 371) that while Aboriginal religion is structured primarily around

·        … places where ancestral events occurred, as well as their relative locations  … time, in the sense of seasons of the year or phases of the day or night caries a great deal of symbolic power in Aboriginal classical thought.

Aboriginal people aimed to hold their ceremonies in honour of the ancestors at specific places of specific mythological significance over many days during a period when there is plenty of food for the participants, and have it end with a full Moon (Morphy, 1999).

The links that were perceived by Aboriginal people between the movements of the heavenly bodies and the onset of seasons was widespread across the Australian continent (e.g. Neidjie et al., 1985; Stanbridge, 1857). It was noted (Mathews, 1904: 279) that it was generally recognised that:

·        … the stars which occupy the northern sky in the cold winter evenings travel on, and are succeeded by others in the following season, and that these are then displaced by different constellations during the warm evenings of summer.

In Tasmania, George Augustus Robinson, the Aboriginal protector, spent 15 years studying the Aboriginal inhabitants claimed that:

·        The Aborigines have considerable knowledge of the signs of the weather … indeed they have numerous signs by which they judge and I have seldom found them to err. Thus they are enabled to know when to build their huts, to go to the coast for fish, travel &c. They also judge by the stars and have names by which they distinguish them (G.A. Robinson, 1830 [Plomley, 1966: 300).9

Brian Gilmore Maegraith carried out anthropological research during university vacations while studying medicine, after which he pursued post-graduate studies at Oxford. He observed in Central Australia that:

·        The aborigine has differentiated between the 2 apparent motions of the stars through the year, namely, the nightly movement from east to west (similar to that of the sun in the day), and the great annual sift of the constellations in the same direction. (Maegraith, 1932: 24).  

Immediately outside Aboriginal Australia, the calendars have been outlined of the horticultural people of the Torres Strait (Johnson, 1998; Sharp, 1993) which involve the movements of stars timed to a range of environmental phenomena, such the fruiting of  native apples (Eugenia species), and rampant growth of yams (Dioscorea species) that need to be planted in gardens.

In tropical northern Australia, for the Tiwi the Upperworld of the sky is similar to Earth with respect to land and the seasons; each of which has a Dry and a Wet (Sims, 1978). The Upperworld was the home of Pakataringa (Thunderstorm Man), Tomituka (Monsoonal Rains Woman) and Pumaralli (Lightning Woman) during the Dry. These ancestors move further up and into the Skyworld at the end of the Dry, and when doing so they cause rain to fall on all the lower levels. Trees and plants in the Upperworld use the raindrops passing through to carry spirits that will grow into plants when they hit the parched Earth below. The stars and the Moon and Sun ancestors live in the Skyworld, and plants are created by the movement of ancestors who control the weather. In other parts of northern Australia, the Rainbow serpent was believed to be the spirit being in the sky that generated the annual monsoonal weather (Clarke, 2009b).

Hot seasons were associated in a generalised way with the ripening of fruit. The Arrernte people of the Macdonald Ranges in arid Central Australia, for instance, linked their hot, wet season, Uterne, with the availability of edible fruit from the wild passionfruit (Capparis spinosa var. nummularia), wild bananas (Solanum ellipticum), because the Sun has “… cooked them ripe.” (Henderson & Dobson, 1994: 613-614). This season was also a good time for drying wild tobacco (Nicotiana species) leaf. In the Eastern Arrernte language of Central Australia, the term, ampme, has the meanings of “… to burn something …”, … to experience hot weather …” and “ … to ripen fruit.” (Henderson & Dobson, 1994: 21). The Kukatja people of the southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, similarly recognised that the heat of the Sun is important for the edible fruit ripening. It was remarked (Peile, 1997: 24) that for Kukatja, “The Sun (tjirntu) is considered to be close to the Earth at dawn and further away at sunset.”

The Wiradjuri people of the semiarid country of central New South Wales, considered that there were 6 winds that were controlled by the ancestors in the Skyworld (McKeown, 1938).10 They were said to be divided equally between males and females, with the winds controlled by the males being responsible for changing the season, which brought on responses in the plants such as flowering and fruiting of the bumblebee tree, the native orange (Capparis mitchelii).

Aboriginal people in temperate Australia also recognised the Sun as strongly influencing themselves as well as the plants and animals of their country. E.g.,

·        in western Victoria, Nyaui the Sun clan had the Moon and the planet Venus among its set of subordinate totems,11 which were mainly plants and animals (Mathews, 1904).

·        The Narangga people of York Peninsula, South Australia, had a song to ripen the quandongs (wild peaches, Santalum acuminatum), which translated as “Wild peaches hanging in the trees, the sun will burn you (to the colour if fire), we will gather you (for food).” Aboriginal people used songs and rituals to help hasten the production of favoured foods.

A diversity of Aboriginal calendars resulted from the association between specific plant phenomena within a local area and the observed changes in the Skyworld. Yolngu people in northeast Arnhem Land began harvesting the corms of spike-rush (water chestnut, Eliocharis dulcis) when Arcturus is seen in the sky at dawn in late November during the Rarrandharr Dhuludur season, which is the buildup to the Wet (Hamacher, 2012; Mountford, 1956).12 The season for gathering spike-rush corms in this region was also signalled by the ‘lily star’, (probably spica), in reference to the lotus  (red lily, Nelumbo nucifera), when it appeared on the western horizon soon after sunset (Wells, 1973).13 The spike-rush, rakia (rakay) in the Yolngu-matha language, is a large fleshy leaved sedge which is prominent in the northern wetlands. It has tubers that are edible and they are in the shape of a squashed marble, and they are gathered either directly from the swamp beds or opportunistically from the crops of magpie geese killed during hunting (Clarke, 2007a; 2012). The monsoonal wet season is generally the time when the tubers are harvested, when rains have stimulated growth. Stems of spike-rush were placed in the earth ovens to generate steam for cooking (Clarke, 2012). Stars also signal the start of the Dry season in northeast Arnhem Land, when Djulpun (Orion’s belt) is visible on the western horizon during the early night sky. This is the Dharratharramirri season when the tall grasses from the Wet are knocked over by the southern storms (Davis, 1989; 1997).

·        Across arid inland regions Aboriginal hunter-gatherers connected the star movements with the seasons for hunting animals and birds and collecting lizard eggs

·        In southwestern Queensland they also signalled the time for gathering the aged sporocarps of nardoo (Marsilea drummondii), which were embedded in dry the mud (E.K.V., 1884).

·        In southern parts of the Western Desert the rising of Kungkarungkara, the Pleiades, marks the nyinnga season from May to September, which is cold and dry (Clarke, 2003; Mutitjulu Community & Baker 1996).

At this time of year women previously collected vegetable foods, such as grass seed, to sustain their group. In the western desert the seasonal variation in the warmth of sunlight was explained as the Sun ancestor having different road to travel along through the Skyworld (Mountford, 1976).

The timing of invertebrate food gathering activities was also dictated by the calendar. In the Mallee region of Victoria the beginning of the Gnallew (‘spring’) season for gathering larvae of bittur, the ‘wood ant’(termite), was signalled by Marpeankurrk (Arcturus) being in the north during the evening (Johnson, 1998; Stanbridge, 1857). It was recorded that here the constellation of ‘Tourtchinboiong-gherra (Coma Berenices, Berenice’s Hair)’ was a flock of small birds drinking rainwater which has lodged in the fork of a tree.” (Stanbridge, 1861: 302).14 According to a qualification of this Coma Berenices represented a tree hat had 3 main branches, and that at the junction with the trunk there was a hollow where birds were drinking (MacPherson, 1881; Johnson, 1998; Massola, 1968). The appearance of this constellation was symbolic of the dry summer weather, a time when such sources of drinking water were crucial for the survival of humans. The seasons dictated the choice of subsistence strategies for foraging groups of Aboriginal people and influenced movement patterns.

Across the Adelaide Plains region the sudden surface appearance of fungi may have been important because it signified the change in the season. It was suggested (Ellis, 1976: 120)15 that here the recoded term for ‘mushroom’, parnappi, was related linguistically to parna, “… a star indicating autumn  ...”, and parnatti, “… the Australian autumn, when the star parna is seen.” Parna has been identified as Fomalhaut, which is based on its heliacal rising in mid-March during a time of increased rainfall on the Adelaide Plains (Hamacher, 2012; 2015). The arrival of Parna in the early autumn indicated to the Adelaide people the change of season and was a sign that large, waterproof huts needed to be built in the Adelaide foothills (J.P. Gell, 1842; [cited Clarke, 1990]). The Aboriginal place name for a hilltop campsite at Morphett Vale, to the south of Adelaide, was Parnangga, which was reported to be a reference to the appearance of Pana (Tindale, c.1931-c.1991; see also Hamacher, 2015). To the east, the Murray River people living between Wellington and Rufus River may also have made this seasonal association, with Pidli being recorded as the Ngaiawung term for “… mushroom, a star.” (Moorhouse, 1846 [1935].

During the 1980s, when Clarke was conducting fieldwork in the Lower Murray area, he noted that Ngarrindjeri residents of Raukkan (Point McLeay) believed that it was not safe to swim in the nearby lake if what is locally called the ‘dandelion’ (Arctotheca calendula) was still in flower. It was believed that anyone who swam in the lake at this time risked contracting ‘dandelion-fever’, particularly if they were children (Clarke, 1994; 2014c). Generally, Ngarrindjeri people did not know that this plant had been introduced by Europeans from South Africa, probably early in the 19th century. According to Clarke this tradition had some depth, as there was an account recorded in the 1960s from s Ngarrindjeri woman, Annie Rankine, which illustrated a link between the flowering season of this species and the celestial movements of the Pleiades star cluster. She said:

·        “My father [Clarence Long Milerum] used to tell us children of a special group of stars which is called the Seven Sisters, and before they were moving we weren’t allowed to swim because the dandelions were in bloom then, and it was said that when the dandelions are out the water is still too chill, and this is why our people are very strict and don’t allow us to swim. When the flowers all died off and the stars moved over a bit further, this is when we were allowed to swim because in that time the dandelion flower which would cause a fever to anyone would not be out to make us sick. (A Rankine, 1969 [cited Clarke, 1994: 123]).  

Clarke suggests it is likely the ‘dandelion’ mentioned was originally the yam-daisy (native dandelion, Microseris lanceolate), which had been locally scarce since scrub was cleared from the country for farming (Clarke, 1994; see Fig. 11).

Events that were less predictable in the night sky were seen as malevolent omens, though regular patterns of celestial movement were linked to the known behaviour of ancestors. Bella Charlie, for instance, of the Yanuwa people in the McArthur River area at the Gulf of Carpentaria gave a description of the night sky, saying that:

·        “There is a lot of story here, wunhaka. Then there is that dangerous star, shooting star, we call him Baribari – he can make you sick, make you die. Dinny and Isaac can block him, have song to stop him. (B. Charlie, quoted Bradley and Yanuwa families, 2010: 161).”

As well as ritual to prevent bad things from happening, there were rituals that were believed to have positive influences, such as affecting short-term changes to the weather that was generated in the Skyworld. It was tradition among Aboriginal people that certain individuals were ‘rain-makers’, who had the ritual power to alter the weather and bring rains to their country (Berndt, 1947; Clarke, 2009b; Elkin, 1977; McCarthy, 1953). The Wiradjuri ‘medicine-men’ in central New South Wales were believed to have had the ability to climb into the Skyworld to obtain rain (Berndt, 1947).16

Discussion and concluding remarks

There were topographical features across Aboriginal Australia that the people believed were portals to the Skyworld and Underworld from the Earth. The entry into the Skyworld from Earth during the Creation period was often perceived as being via the eastern horizon, though the ancestors generally first travelled to the western horizon, and then through the Underworld. In some cases, ancestors ascended by climbing tall trees connecting the Earth with the Skyworld. Certain tall trees remained as ‘ladders’ that allowed a variety of spirits and humans that were specially trained to travel both ways between these sections of the landscape, when the existing landscape was set at the close of the Creation period. Therefore plants can be seen as having physical properties that can be utilised within the psychic realm.

Celestial changes that were observed in the Skyworld were an analogue for seasons occurring on Earth in Aboriginal Australia. Hunter-gatherers were able to position themselves in the landscape to maximise subsistence foraging and comfort through the use of calendars that linked together such phenomena as the movements of stars, plant flowering and weather changes. Calendars were also relevant to ceremonial life, within which ancestors that were responsible for the reproduction of the environment on Earth were honoured.

Sources & Further reading

Clarke, P. (2015). "THE ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN COSMIC LANDSCAPE. PART 2: PLANT CONNECTIONS WITH THE SKYWORLD." Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 18: 23-37.


Author: M. H. Monroe
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