Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Leteors in Australian Aboriginal Dreamings

In this paper Hamacher & Norris present an analysis of accounts of meteors by Australian Aboriginal people. They used data from anthropological and ethnographical literature that described oral traditions, ceremonies and Dreamings from 97 Aboriginal groups that represent all states of modern Australia. The analysis revealed common themes in the way meteors were viewed between Aboriginal groups, with the focus on supernatural events, death, omens and war. Hamacher & Norris suggest the presence of such themes was probably due to the unpredictable nature of meteorites in a cosmos that was otherwise ordered.

As a scientific discipline the history of meteorites has been studied extensively (e.g. McCall et al., 2006), and has incorporated the records and observations of meteoritic phenomena by various cultures around the world (e.g. Burke, 1986; Zanda & Rotaru, 2001). Recently, these phenomena have been studied more extensively as a better understanding has been gained by researchers of the frequency and potentially hazardous effects of cosmic impacts (e.g. Melosh, 1989; Gehrels, 1994; Lewis, 1999). Little attention has been focused on the cultural and anthropological study of meteorites, though this attention has served to funnel more research into the scientific study of meteorites.

Hamacher & Norris define Cultural Meteoritics as the study of the influence of meteoritic phenomena and material, including comets, meteors, meteorites, tektites, and cosmic impacts on society. Included in this is human interaction with such meteoritic materials, and the role of meteoritic phenomena in art, religion, music, ritual, and mythology. Some researchers have addressed this topic (e.g. Brown, 1875; Bevan & Bindon, 1996; Hughes, 1989; Bobrowsky & Rickman, 1997), the Meteor Beliefs Project (MBP), that was sponsored by IMO, is the first large scale study of Meteoritics.

European views of meteors have been the focus of the majority of the MBP to date. Hamacher & Norris present in this paper the first comprehensive study of the perceptions and descriptions of meteors by Australian Aboriginal people with the aim to fill a gap in the literature. The use of Australites (Australian tektites) in Aboriginal cultures has previously been detailed (Baker, 1957; Edwards, 1966), and others were the first to address the use by Aboriginal people and transport of meteorites (Bevan & Bindon, 1996). Papers on Aboriginal views of comets, and meteorite falls, and cosmic impacts can be found respectively in (Hamacher & Norris, 2010b; 2010b). The wider astronomical themes in Australian Aboriginal cultures have been reviewed (Hamacher & Norris, 2009).

The term ‘mythology’ is used in the context of this paper to refer to a body of stories owned by a particular culture, which often explain the nature of the universe and humanity by invoking the supernatural. The beliefs do not imply that such usage is untrue. Hamacher & Norris use data from many Aboriginal groups from across Australia, but data from Torres Strait Islanders, who are of Melanesians extraction, and differ distinctly from Australian Aboriginals (cf. Davis, 2004). The views on meteors of Torres Strait Islanders will be the subject of a paper in the future.

Meteors as Benevolent Spirits

Spirits of the Deceased

The representation by spirits, either good or evil, is the most common association between meteors and death. In many cases the benevolent spirits of important individuals are represented by meteors, as in the case of the Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunambal peoples of the Kimberleys (Blundell & Woolagoodja, 2005, p. 41) and the Euahlayi of New South Wales (Parker, 1905, p. 91), though at other times seeing a meteor simply told the people that “an old blackfella has fallen down there” (Smyth, 1878 p. 309), a reference to the deceased man’s spirit (star) falling from the sky. A view shared by the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley was that a meteor signified that someone had died (Kaberry, 1935/36, p. 38; Piddington, 1932p. 394; Kuku-Yalanji of Queensland (Oates, 1993, p. 79) Dieri of South Australia (Elkin, 1937, p. 289), Kuninjku of the Gippsland region, Victoria (Massola, 1968, p. 163), Wardaman of the Northern Territory (Harney, 2009) and Wik-Munkan of the Cape York Peninsula (McConnel, 1930/31, p. 183). The Euahlayi and Narran of New South Wales believed that if a meteor was seen that was followed by a large crash, a great medicine man had died (Parker, 1905, p. 91; Parker, 1978, p. 148). The action of a spirit could be signified by a meteor, such as the Aboriginal people near the Pennefather River, Queensland, who believed the falling star was the spirit of a woman pouring water over yams to help them grow (Roth, 1984, p. 8). According to the Gunditjmara near Port Fairy, Victoria, Julia Percy Island was connected to the mainland by a haunted cave. The body of a person who had died was wrapped in grass and buried. If the grass was found at the mouth of the cave it was proof that Puit Puit chepetch, a benevolent spirit, had removed the body through the cave to the island, and conveyed its spirit to the clouds. It was believed that if a meteor was seen at the same time it was fire taken up with the spirit (Dawson, 1981, pp. 51-52). When a person of the Yerrunthully people from central Queensland died, they climbed to the sky on a rope. They dropped the rope when they reached the top and it was this rope falling back to Earth that was seen as a meteor. If a booming noise was made by a meteor (exploded) it was the sound made by the rope as it hit the ground. If a meteor was audible it could signify a person had been dropped as part of a game (Palmer, 1885, p. 174).

Meteors as Flesh

It was believed by some groups that the flesh of a deceased person could transform into a star or vice-versa. An Aboriginal group on the Lyne River in the Kimberleys believed that the flesh of a person became a star when they died (Kaberry, 1935/36, pp. 38-39), while to the Andedja and Yeidji peoples  this applied only to a Burumannari (a medicine man or clever man). Among the Yiiji of the Lyne River when a female Burumannari died, she took her child to the sky where their flesh became a star (ibid). To the Wotjobaluk of Victoria a meteor was seen as the falling heart of a man who had been caught by a Bangal (medicine man) and had been deprived of his fat (Howitt, 1996, pp. 368-369). To the Yir-Yoront of Cape York Peninsula when a man died his spirit became a star, and the transformation was accompanied by a meteor (Sharp, 1934/35, p. 34). The night sky was described as a dome composed of a hard substance, such as rock or shell, and the stars represented the spirits of the dead (Piddington, 1932. P. 394). In one view the stars were nautilus shell with living fish inside them. A meteor signified the dead fish dropping from the shell (ibid). In another view meteors represented chunks of flesh falling from a tree where Marela, a culture hero, was placed when he died (ibid) (1). (Hamacher & Norris know of a Wajuk account from Perth that describes the relationship between meteors and children, but they were not able to contact the informant to obtain permission to share this information). While in the sky the spirit it appeared as a star and was looked after by Munin the Rock-Cod star (Arcturus, α Boӧtis). Then the spirit fell back to Earth as a shooting star, where it fell into a stream, and the Rock Cod looked after it again. The spirit eventually found its mother-to-be, upon which it entered her, and was reincarnated as a baby (pers. Comm. to Hamacher & Norris, 2009).

Spirits Retuning Home

Among some Aboriginal groups a meteor signified a spirit of a person who had died far from their home returning to their home country, such as the Yarralin (aka Walangeri) of the Northern Territory (Rose, 1992, p. 70), Nungubuyu of Arnhem Land (Harney, 1944, pp. 74-75, 79, 163), Yintjingga of Cape York Peninsula (Montagu, 1974, p. 155), Arunta of central Australia, and Kukata and Narrinyerri of South Australia, (Basedow, 1925, p. 296). This view was not confined only to the deceased. A meteor was seen as a message that a living relative had arrived home safely by the Yolngu of Arnhem Land (Wells, 1964, pp. 42, 59).

Meteors as Malevolent Spirits

Meteors are associated with evil spirits or magic among many Aboriginal groups, such as the Ngarrindjeri of South Australia (Smith, 1970, p. 136). Meteors were the glowing eyes of evil spirit beings, typically serpents, which hunted for the souls of the sick and dying, to several groups in the Northern Territory. Among these beings was the ghoulish Papinjuwari of the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands (Mountford, 1958, pp. 144-146), the clawed Namorrorddo of the Kuninjku of Arnhem Land (Taylor, 1996, 189-190), The 1-eyed Indada of the Badaya and Gurudara peoples (Berndt & Berndt, 1989, pp. 25-27), and the serpentine Thuwathu of the Lardil of the Wellesley Islands, to whom meteors are known as Kuwa Thungal, which means “eye thing” (McNight, 2005, p. 209). Meteors were viewed as the fiery eyes of serpents that dropped into dep waterholes by the Luritja and Arrernte of the Central Desert, as did the Thuwathu (Strehlow, 1907, p. 30). The Western and Eastern Aranda similarly compared serpent’s eyes to bright stars (Rohein, 1945, p. 183). According to stories among the Tiwi, at the beginning of time spirits of falling stars (probably the Papinjuwari) searched with blazing eyes for living things to eat. An old Tiwi woman placed infants into a string bag that she tied around her neck to protect them from the eyes of the evil meteor spirits (Allen, 1975, p. 89).

In northwestern Victoria, the Boorong people saw a meteor as Porkelongtoute, an evil being, which would portend evil to men who had lost a front tooth, i.e. initiated men (Stanbridge, 1857, p. 140). This contrasts with a description by the Aboriginal people near Sugarloaf Mountain, outside Newcastle, New South Wales, of Puttikan, an evil meteor-being who killed and ate men that did not have a missing front tooth, i.e., non-initiated men. In stories of the Mara people there was an unfriendly father-son pair, the Minungara. If a man was sick the son came to Earth in the form of a falling star to find out how close the man was to death. The father would come down to suck the blood of the dying man if that man was ‘close-up dead’ (Spencer & Gillen, 1927, p. 628). Among the Djirbalngan from Eastern Cape York there was an unusual description of a malevolent meteor spirit. Jubena, the spirit, was associated with cooked eggs burnt on coals, which were seen as falling stars, and would hunt down people and tickle them to death (Dixon, 1964). An Aboriginal community in Cape York Peninsula said that if a meteor broke apart in the atmosphere the people called it titurie udzurra, a spirit with many ‘young ones’, which caused much fear among those who saw it (Moore, 1979, p. 156).

At opposite ends of the continent there were 2 stories that were almost identical that told how meteors represented an evil being that was flying across the sky. These stories were from the Weilan people from northern New South Wales (June Barker in McKay, 2001, pp. 112-114) and the Ooungyee people of the Kimberleys in Western Australia (Sawtell, 1955). In both of these stories people disappear from a camp near a waterhole. When strange tracks were noticed people from the camp found that the people who were missing were the victims of a shape-shifting monster who lured people to the waterhole with sugarbag (honey) whereupon it dragged them beneath the water to their deaths. The monster was female in the story from New South Wales, but male in the story from Western Australia. In both stories a clever man (Wirrigan in New South Wales and Jubertum in Western Australia) used a strong cord made with hair of women from the camp. When the clever man reached the waterhole, he was offered a kangaroo leg by the monster. The clever man told the monster, who appeared in the form of an Aboriginal man, that he wanted to take a nap first. The monster agreed and the both decided to take a nap. The clever man woke up and tied the cord to the sleeping monster and jumped on its back. The monster woke and fought to get the man off its back, and dived into the water, turning it into the “hot soda water it is today”. The man stabbed the monster with a spear but it wouldn’t die. The monster flew into the sky, with the man still on its back, where they are seen at the present as meteors. The name of the clever man and the gender of the monster are the only differences between the stories. Also, in the story from New South Wales, the clever man fell to Earth with a group of falling stars at Girilambone, New South Wales. The remainder of the story is exactly the same, which suggests that one story originated from the other. The account that in the literature that was recorded in the Kimberleys was recorded 46 years earlier than the New South Wales account, though it is not clear where the story was first developed. The Kimberleys story had been published in a magazine ‘for the Aboriginal people of New South Wales’, which suggests it may have been adopted by the Weilan in that state. As the wording and the theme of the text are almost identical Hamacher & Norris do not consider these stories to be independent of each other.

Meteors and Evil Magic

Mushrooms, Meteors and Magic

The Arunta of the Central Desert believed that falling stars contained evil magic, Arungquilta. It was believed that mushrooms and toadstools were fallen stars that contained this magic. They were therefore considered taboo and it was forbidden to eat them (Spencer & Gillen, 1899, p. 566; 1904, p. 627; 1927, pp. 415-417). Hamacher & Norris suggest that this taboo may have stemmed from bad experiences that resulted from the eating of poisonous  or hallucinogenic mushroom that are common in the area, such as Amanita phalloide, Paxillus involutus, or Psilocybe subaeruginosa, though other Aboriginal groups of the Central Desert did not share this taboo (Kalotas, 1996, p. 1). The Arunta are not unique in associating mushrooms with fallen stars, as it found around the globe (see Beech, 1986). (See also WGN 21:4, 1993, pp. 200-202; 41:4 1993, p. 225; 22:2, 1994, p. 28; & 35:1, 2007, pp. 23-28 for other non-Australian examples – Project Coordinators).

Protection from evil magic

Various methods were used by Aboriginal people to protect themselves against evil meteors, including the throwing sticks in the direction of the trajectory of the meteor (Stanbridge, 1857, p. 140), or chanting and making noise (Roth, 1984, p. 8). There was a report of children from the Ooldea region of western South Australia, who saw a meteor, which they called a devil-devil, chanting Kandanga daruarungu manangga gilbanga, a rough translation of which is ‘star falling at nigh-time go back’ (Harney & Elkin, 1949, p. 130; Berndt & Berndt, 1943/44, p. 53). Munpani, a spirit living in the bush, watched over the Mara people constantly, protected them from the evil Miningara (Spencer & Gillen, 1927, p. 628). When in the bush they slept on their stomachs or sides to prevent Namorrorddo from stealing the hearts of babies (Lewis, 2007, p. 2). If a Worora, Ngarinyin or Wunambal person was holding a baby when seeing a meteor, the person would kiss the baby on the forehead so the meteor-spirit would not see the infant as it flew overhead (Blundell & Woolagoodja, 2005, pp. 41-42). In the Western Desert Aboriginal peoples believed Wuuna, an evil sky being, would throw spears that were seen as meteors as he wandered across the sky (Tindale, 1983, pp. 376-377). Epidemics that spread among dingoes were often blamed on the evil Wuuna, because the spirit hunted dingoes. On seeing a meteor the people covered their dingoes with red ochre to protect them (ibid). Tiwi initiates were protected from Mabinua, the evil meteor spirit, (Spencer, 1928, p. 671), though only a clever man could kill the Namorrorddo of Kuninjku lore (Lewis, 2007, p. 3). Similarly, Wardaman people used a ceremony that involved birth and circumcision wounds to protect them against various forms of evil. This ceremony was connected to Wuja (the Wardaman word for meteors) and the Southern Cross (Cairns & Harney, 2003, p. 65).

Meteors as Omens

Omens of Sickness and Death

The association of meteors and evil spirits that hunted the sick and dead is suggested by Hamacher & Norris to possibly account for the belief that meteors were omens of sickness and death that was shared by a number of Aboriginal groups such as the Tanganekald in South Australia (Tindale, undated), Aboriginal groups near the Bloomfield River, Queensland (Roth, 1984, p. 8), the Turrbal of Brisbane (Howitt, 1996, p. 429), Yir-Yoront (Sharp, 1934/3, p. 34),  Lardil (Roughsey, 1972, p. 107), Kaurna of Adelaide (Schurmann, 1987, p. 242), and Kukatja of Western Australia (Poirier, 2005, p. 171). The Ngarrindjeri spoke of a being they called Kulda who manifested as a meteor emerging from the Southern Cross, that warned the people of a disease epidemic. When the saw this they shouted peika baki, which means “death is coming” (Tindale, 1934, p. 232; Tindale, 1983, p. 375; Parker et al., 2007, p. 400). On Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal people shared a similar view (Thompson, 1933, p. 498). A ‘Fear Death’ song was  recorded (Tindale, 1937, p. 111-112) that was associated with the appearance of Kulda, and the smallpox epidemic that followed. The meteor, which was supposedly a fireball as it was very bright and ‘flashed ‘across the sky, coming from the east and shot westwards towards Kangaroo Island, which was known to the Aboriginal people of the Coorong as the ‘home of the dead’  (ibid).

Positive Omens

Omens that were associated with meteors were not always negative. An incident is known of in which an elderly Kukatja woman became sick and was driven to a clinic. A bright meteor flashed across the sky as they were travelling.  To the woman’s daughter-in-law said it was seen as a bad omen, and she feared the worst. When the elderly woman began to recover, they instead viewed it as a good omen (Poirier, 2005, p. 171). To the Darkinung of New South Wales meteors were a portent that something good was about to happen (Needham, 1981, p. 11). According to Lardil culture, meteors were seen as a sign of good luck, such as the birth of a baby, or the finding of turtle eggs (McNight, 2005, p. 209).

Meteors and War

Portents of War

In various parts of eastern Australia, especially Queensland, the association of meteors with omens of war was prevalent. A ship named ‘Peruvian’ crashed into the Great Barrier Reef in 1846 and there were 4 survivors. After the survivors reached the shore of Cleveland Bay, near Townsville, and then wondered for 2 weeks before they were discovered by a group of local Aboriginal people who fed them. The Aboriginal people said they had gone to the place by following the paths of falling stars night after night, which had indicated to them the presence of a hostile enemy (Morrill, 1864, p. 16; Robertson, 1928, p. 144). Aboriginal men of the Tully River, Queensland would walk in the direction of the path of the meteor to search for tracks of possible enemies (Roth, 1984, p. 8), while in Proserpine, Queensland, Aboriginal people saw meteors as enemies that had been killed (ibid). The Ngarigo in the southeast of New South Wales believed that a bolide was a portent that showed the people where its path pointed were in the process of gathering for war (Howitt, 1996, p, 430; Pring, 2002, pp. 27-28).

Implements of War

Among several Aboriginal groups there was a link between meteors and war, including weapons of war, such as a spear or a club (e.g. Gibbs 1996, p. 69). The Wathi-Wathi from the Murray River viewed a meteor as a passage of a Nulla Nulla, which was a short spear-like weapon that they used to hunt emus (Cameron, 1985, p. 365). In Queensland, some Aboriginal groups saw a meteor as firesticks that were carried across the sky or thrown from the sky to their enemies (Roth, 1984, p. 8). In the Brisbane region, the Turrbal (or Jagara) saw a meteor as a clever man, Kundri, dropping his firestick in order to kill (Howitt, 1996, p. 430), while in the Western Desert, the Aboriginal people believed Wuuna would throw showers of spears (meteors) from the sky. Sometimes images of Namorrorddo depicted him carrying a miyarrul (fighting club) used to stun his victims (e.g. Blanasi, 1994).  To the Yarrungkanyi and Warlpiri people from the Northern Territory, shooting stars were Dreaming men falling to Earth to bring the Dreaming to the people. Armed with weapons the men travelled through the sky as falling stars, landing at a place called Purrparlarla, to the southwest of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory (Warlukurlangu Artists, 1987, p. 127).

Meteors in Ritual and Ceremony

Causing harm or death

There were a number of rituals in various Aboriginal cultures that served to harm people, which often involved pointing a bone or stick at a person or enemy while chanting or singing a particular song, which caused the person to become sick and die (Hollenback, 1996, pp. 208-210). Meteors were often incorporated into these rituals because they were frequently linked with sickness and death. The bone-pointing ritual was called puri-puri in the Lardil culture (Roughsey, 1971, p.75) and involved the spirit of a shooting star that entered the body of the victim like a bullet, inciting a dream. While dreaming the victim would see the ceremony being performed, and become aware it was directed at him. This would cause the victim much distress, and he would feel as if there was something in his chest, or stomach, and after he had these feelings his health would deteriorate until he died. As part of the ritual, people of the Star Totem (Ngarridbelangee and Bungarinyee) would stay awake at night to chant the name of the victim. They knew the ritual was successful if they saw a meteor, and the person had died. It has been reported that the only way to cure his illness was for the victim to ask the man who he saw in his dream to perform a ceremony to remove the shooting star from his chest.

Treating Sickness

Among the Lardil there were various rituals that could be used to treat an evil sickness known as Malgri, which Hamacher & Norris suggest was probably a type of food poisoning. One such ritual involved the treatment by a group of clever men of a man who became sick after helping to catch fish near a beach. According to Hamacher & Norris it is likely the man had eaten unprepared palm nuts, which are poisonous if eaten raw. The clever men made a long cord of human hair at night, which they tied to the man’s toe and trailed it out to sea. They received a signal that the Malgri had left the man’s body and returned to the sea when a meteor was seen in the sky as the men chanted. At that moment the cord was snapped, whereupon the man began to groan and roll around (Roughsey, 1971, p. 80; Cawte, 1974, p. 110). The people of a Lardil camp gathered Wattle leaf bushes if a meteor was seen from the camp where a person was sick. They warmed the leaves repeatedly over a fire, and then transferred the heat from the leaves to the abdomen of the sick person, while chanting a song to cure the sickness. If another bright red or blue meteor was seen they threw firesticks in the direction of the meteor. Among the Lardil it was believed the meteor was the evil Thuwathu that was leaving the body to return to the sea. If they failed to see a meteor the person would probably die (Roughsey, 1972, p. 107).

Warning to Follow Laws and Traditions

Warnings to follow laws and traditions were other ritual forms that involved reference to meteors. Across northern and central Australia, from Alice Springs to Arnhem Land, to the Gulf of Carpentaria there were examples of this. An example is if a man of the Lardil people who broke traditional laws, Thuwathu would afflict him with Malgri (Roughsey & Elkin, 1971 p. 80), while among the Wardaman, Utdjungon would manifest as a fiery falling star and destroy the Earth (Harney & Elkin, 1949, pp. 29-31). In Wardaman tradition only Aboriginal people could ward off the threat of Utdjungon (ibid). This was interpreted (Harney & Elkin) to mean that if no Aboriginal people were present to ward off Utdjungon, the colonist would be destroyed by the falling star. The Wardaman believed that if they were forced off their land or their laws and traditions were destroyed by the colonist there would be no Aboriginal people to ward off Utdjungon.

The casting of a star from the sky to punish lawbreakers was in some cases more literal. A case has been described (Harney, 1969, p. 37) which involved an incident in which a married woman ran away from her lover. This enraged her husband and he sang a sacred song inciting magic, then slung a stone, which represented a sky stone, at her using a hair belt. When the stone flew over her head and became very frightened.  She ran back to her husband sobbing who gave her a second chance. Hamacher & Norris say this was a practical example of the Utdjungon story, demonstrating the application of the warning. A similar account from Arnhem Land was cited by Harney, in which a spirit being who lurked in the Coal Sack that borders the Southern Cross in the Milky Way, slung a fireball at the unfaithful woman (Coon, 1972, p. 294). The western and southwestern Arunta of Central Australia had similar rituals that involved meteors and sky stones that were used to punish people for disobeying laws and traditions. In a particular magic ceremony to punish a man for stealing the wife of another man a small spear-like device was used (Spencer & Gillen, 1899, p. 550; 1904, p, 627; 1927, pp. 415-417). The spear, which was endowed with evil magic, was thrown in the direction of the man’s home. The spirit within the spear was believed to locate the man and kill him as a law-breaker. The men who participated in the ceremony waited until a thunderstorm boom was heard, which was believed to signify that the man had been struck and killed by the spear, though it is not clear if the sound indicated the passage of  a bolide. This form of Arungquilta was seen “streaking across the sky like a thunderbolt” (ibid 1927, pp. 415-417).

Another form of Arungquilta was described (Spencer & Gillen, 1899, p. 550; 1904, pp. 627-628; 1927, pp. 415-417) which involved meteors and involved comets, that was used in the punishment of unfaithful wives. In this case a particular ceremony was performed to punish a runaway wife. In an area that was selected a pictogram was drawn in the dirt while the men chanted a particular song. A piece of bark was used to represent the spirit of the woman, which was impaled with a series of small spears and flung in the direction the woman was believed to be, which would appear in the sky as a comet. When then Arungquilta found the woman it would remove her fat. The emaciated woman would eventually die, and her spirit would appear in the sky as a meteor. 

It was believed by the Kaitish that a falling star indicated the location of a man who had killed another using magic, by the use of a pointing stick or a bone (Spencer & Gillen, 1904, pp. 627-628). Friends of a murdered man would watch for falling stars. When they saw one they would “settle to their own satisfaction where it had reached the Earth” (ibid). The son-in-law of the murdered man organised an avenging party which travelled to that spot armed with a wailia-wailia and kill the murderer by spearing him. They left the corpse and the women buried him at the spot where the star fell. According to Hamacher & Norris it is not certain if the women found the actual spot the meteorite had landed, or if they just guessed or agreed collectively on a location as to the location they believed it fell. According to Spencer & Gillen the women could easily have found the spot as the ground was soft. Hamacher & Norris say this description is ambiguous, and though it would be possible to find such a meteorite, it appears to be implausibly rare. See Hamacher & Norris (2010b) for more examples of Aboriginal meteorite beliefs.

Initiation Rituals and Medicine Men

In many Aboriginal cultures there is a close association between medicine men and meteors. The tooth-rapping ceremony, which was part of an initiation ceremony among the Aboriginal people of Sugarloaf Mountain, New South Wales, was conducted by a medicine man that came to Earth as a fiery meteor from the Sky World, and he was considered to be a benevolent, good person (Gunson. 1974, p. 50). Hamacher & Norris suggest this may imply that a meteor had been seen prior to the beginning of the ceremony. Among the Anula the medicine men are hereditary in the Yuntanara (Falling Star Totem) (Spencer & Gillen, 1904, pp. 479 & 488). Many rituals that involved meteors centred on the disembowelment of the initiate and replacing his organs with those of a sky being, though he wasn’t harmed. In Victoria such rituals were present among several groups, including the Jupagalk (Elkin, 1977, pp. 75-76), Mukjarawaint and Jajauring (ibid), Wotjobaluk (Smyth, 1878, p. 309; Massola, 1968, p. 116; Howitt, 1996, pp. 368-369), as well as the Euahlayi of New South Wales (Parker, 1905, p. 54; Elkin, 1977, p. 89), the Binbinga from the edges of the Gulf of Carpentaria (Howitt, 1996, pp. 114-115, and the Mara of Arnhem Land (spencer & Gillen, 1904, p. 488; Elkin, 1977, p. 115). The entrails that were removed were sometimes believed to be replaced by sacred stones to provide the magic the initiate would need as a medicine man. Typically, these stones were identified as australites or quartz crystals (Cowan, 2001, p. 21). Crystals were associated with divine properties and origins among the Arunta, having fallen to Earth as solidified ‘light’ (Eliade, 1965, p. 25). According to Wuradjeri lore, Kurikuta, a spirit, came to Earth in a crystal body at night as a fiery meteor (Berndt, 1974, p. 28). Quartz crystals and australites, called mabana, were used by medicine men among the Kokatha of South Australia to cure afflictions (Berndt & Berndt, 1943/44, pp. 56-57).

Other Views of Meteors

According to Hamacher & Norris there are some perceptions of comets and meteors that do not belong to any of the themes previously described here, and apparently they have no cultural counterparts elsewhere. The Plangermairrener from northeast Tasmania have a story about Puggareetya, a mischievous woman, who fought a snake in its home on Earth, and in the process pushing the ground up to form the surrounding landscape (Noonuccal, 1990 pp. 15-119). As they fought the snake threw Puggareetya into the sky and the sky spirit Mienteina held her. The sky deities became annoyed as she continued to play her tricks and occasionally threw her across the sky, when she is seen as a meteor. Among the Mara there is a story about the supernatural conception of a child from a pair of spirit children that were beckoned by a meteor (Harney & Elkin, 1949, pp. 35-36. The Narangga and Kaurna peoples of South Australia had a story in a similar vein in which meteors were seen as orphans (Transactions of the Statistical Society, 1842; Moorhouse, 1843; Black, 1920, p. 89; Parker et al., 2007, p. 400). In New South Wales it was told how meteors were warnings that the red blooms of the Waratah flower were being stolen (Peck, 1925, p. 160), while stories in Queensland tell the story of Priepriggie, who was a highly regarded figure in his community, who could make the falling stars dance to his songs (Reed, 1999, pp. 88-89). In Victoria, meteors represented deformity, which tied closely with sickness, to the Moporr (Dawson, 1881, p. 101) and the Gunditjmara (Parker et al., 2007, p. 400). What Hamacher & Norris describe as possibly the strangest descriptions of a meteor that came from the Aboriginal people came from the Aboriginal people of the Loddon River, Victoria, who had a word for seeing a dog jump up in an attempt to bite a falling star: Bûrdi-dûrt (Smyth, 1878, p. 205).

Woodcarvings of meteors have been described by a number of researchers, though the references tend to be vague. It was recounted (Mathews, 1896, p. 41) that an earlier description of an initiation site in New South Wales was surrounded by tree carvings that included carvings of meteors. It was claimed that marks and notches in wooden churungas depict astronomical objects such as the flights of meteors and comets, though they gave no examples and cited no references (Brown, 2000, p. 27).

Meteor Showers

An Amangu man from Mullewa, Western Australia, told Tindale in 1939 that his paternal grandmother was a baby when “the stars fell” alluding to a bright meteor shower that occurred in the 19th century (Tindale, 1983, p. 376). It was speculated by Tindale that this may have been the great Leonid shower of 13, November, 1883, an event in which thousands of meteors lit up the sky every minute (cf. Littmann, 1999).


According to Hamacher & Norris they have presented a comprehensive analysis of 150 views of meteors among Australian Aboriginal people, representing 97 Aboriginal groups from all Australian states. Fear, death, omens and war were the most notable of the themes that many of the views fell into. Many of the descriptions of meteors were included in ritual and ceremony, and focused on inciting harm to others, or providing protection from harm. Not all views of meteors are negative, however. Of the accounts that had a specific aspect 38 (25 %) described positive attributes, such as benevolent spirits of good omens, and 63 (42 %) attributes that were negative, which included evil spirits, evil magic, bad omens, weapons of war, deformity, or rituals causing harm. The remaining 49 stories (33 %) described neutral attributes, such as the role meteors play in initiation ceremonies, meteor definitions that were considered not to be either good or evil.

Many Aboriginal groups from Across Australia shared these views. According to Hamacher & Norris a role has certainly been played by researcher bias in the way accounts were recorded, though there is not much evidence that this was the primary reason for these similarities. The hypothesis that a general fear of meteors may have been caused by cosmic impacts is supported by circumstantial evidence, there has been no physical evidence that has been found to date that would confirm this hypothesis, as examined (Hamacher & Norris, 2010b), and as such events are so rare that they are not likely to have had any cultural effect over the time humans have occupied the Australian continent. Hamacher & Norris suggest the most probable explanation is that the celestial phenomena that are unexpected and random were fearful because they disrupted what was apparently and ordered cosmos.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Hamacher, Duane W.  & Norris, Ray P., 2010, Meteors in Australian Aboriginal Dreamings, WGN, the Journal of the IMO 38:3 (2010).



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