Night Sky Tour

With the warmer and clearer summer nights upon us, it's a great time to get outside and start educating yourself from an 'ethnoastronomical' viewpoint. Generally speaking, ethnoastronomy is the study of how non-western cultures see, and have seen, and perceived the night sky. Image 1: is set-up for the evening sky at 9:30pm on the 07/02/13, looking north-east, latitude 34.9333° S, longitude 138.5833° E.

Firstly, we see Jupiter, the largest of our solar system's planets at 1,318 earth volumes and 318-times as massive. Jupiter is known by many names, the Greek ‘Ares’; the Babylonian ‘Marduk’; the Hindu ‘Bṛhaspati; and the Norse ‘Thor’. The Boorong Aboriginal People who came from the north-western region of Victoria called it ‘Ginabongbearp’; an ancestral being who represents one of the ‘Nurrumbunguttias’, or ‘old spirits’. Situated close to Jupiter at the moment is the orange-giant star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri). This star is located at a distance of approximately 65-light years away and has an apparent magnitude of 0.87. The name Aldebaran is Arabic in origin (الدبران al-dabarān) and translates literally as “the follower.” This is due to the way it follows the open star cluster the Pleiades (M45), or the ‘Seven Sisters’ across the sky. The great Persian astronomer Al Biruni (973-1048 C.E.) also mentioned many other names that are indigenous to Arabia, which include ‘Al Fanik’, meaning the Stallion Camel; ‘Al Fatik’, the Fat Camel; and ‘Al Muhdij’, the Female Camel. Usually included in the description of this region are the stars of the Hyades Cluster being the ‘Little Camels’. Conversely to the Aboriginal People from the Clarence River of north-eastern New South Wales, Aldebaran is their Ancestor 'Karambal' who travelled to the sky in the flames of a fire.

Now heading to the right in image one we see the three belt stars of Orion, named Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. These three belt stars have many names - which include the Māori 'Tautoru'; the Malay 'Bintang Tiga Beradik'; the Hungarian 'Bírópálca' and the Lakota/Sioux 'Tayamnicankhu', which represents the backbone of a Bison. The star Mintaka (Delta Orionis) is a very complex multiple system lying some 900-light years away and Alnilam (Epsilon Orionis) is a large blue supergiant star located roughly 1300-light years away. Alnitak (Zeta Orionis) is a complex triple star some 736-light years distant.

And finally we come to the bright star Sirius, which was known as ‘Sopdet’ to the Ancient Egyptians. In Ancient Egypt, ‘Sopdet’ identified the goddess Isis and the constellation of Orion identifies her companion Osiris ‘god of the underworld’. When ‘Sopdet’ made its first dawn appearance (heliacal rising) after an absence of approximately 70 days, this was the time that the Nile would flood and consequently spread fertile mud across the valley. Thus, it was this time of year that the Egyptians would then plant their crops. Sirius is also known by many other names around the world. For example, the Maori call it 'Takurua'; the Hawaiian 'Ka'ulua'; to the Boorong Aboriginal People it was called 'Warepil' and to the Karadjeri People it is the woman 'Wolabun'. The Incas of South America call it ‘Wilkawara’ and to Andean farmers it is a sacred star that is a protector of crops.

In Ancient Greece the inhabitants of the small Greek Island of ‘Ceos’  in the Cyclades archipelago in the Aegean Sea, now known as ‘Kea’, celebrated a significant local event. During late summer - sacrifices were made to the Olympian god Zeus and to the star Sirius to bring the cooling breezes that would relieve the high temperatures. As part of this event the islanders, clad in their armour, on hilltops of Ceos, would observe the heliacal rising of Sirius looking for signs or omens foretelling the possibility of epidemics throughout the coming year. If the star rose above the horizon shining clear and brilliantly, then the prediction for the health of Ceos' inhabitants was good. However, if Sirius appeared dim or hazy, then this was the forecast of bad heath and difficult times ahead. So wander outside and practice your ‘starlore’ – enjoy and clear skies!




© Paul Curnow - Last update 16th of January 2013. Send your e-mail comments to: