By Paul Curnow [B.ED]
I remember when I was in my teens, now unfortunately a long time ago; making regular trips with my family down to a town named Elliston, a small seaside town located along the shores of Waterloo Bay on the west coast of Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. As we got nearer to the town, I was always amazed by the amount of Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) that I would see along the way. They would soar high above us and then often swoop down on prey, or road kill. One could not help but be impressed with the size and incredible power of these raptors of the skies.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to get quite close to some of these birds on Kangaroo Island. These magnificent creatures have a stare like no other, and I couldn’t help but think that I was glad I was not one of their prey animals. Their claws alone would be enough to easily puncture and rip through the flesh of most creatures. These sky raptors have a wingspan of up to 2.27 metres and a length up to 1.04 metres; therefore, they’re not the kind of bird you want to annoy.
It is for these reasons that this bird of prey likely features so prominently in The Dreaming of Aboriginal Australians. As an astronomer, I have an interest in what would probably be considered one of the more esoteric fields of astronomy, ‘ethnoastronomy’, which is generally speaking the study of non-western astronomy, focussing on the world’s indigenous perceptions and understandings of the night sky. Although, all indigenous astronomy is of interest to me, over the years I have come to specialise somewhat in how Aboriginal Australians see the night sky.
To be found within The Dreaming there are many stories throughout the diversity of Aboriginal groups which speak of eagles. For example, the Kaurna People of the Adelaide Plains have an eagle constellation known as Wilto. The Southern Cross represents the foot of this stellar raptor which can be easily seen from the southern hemisphere. Like the Kaurna, the Ngadjuri, Nukunu and Adnyamathanha Peoples, who live to the north of Adelaide, also see the cross as the foot of the eagle. In fact the Adnyamathanha, who come from the Flinders Ranges, often refer to it as Wildu mandawi, and it is viewed as the place where deceased spirits travel up into the heavens. Furthermore, Wildu the spirit eagle features prominently in The Dreaming of the Ngadjuri, Nukunu and Adnyamathanha Peoples of South Australia. (Figure 1: The Southern Cross as the footprint of the eagle - artwork Gail Glasper)
The Boorong People, who once occupied the mallee country in small numbers around Lake Tyrrell in north-western Victoria, also saw two Wedge-tailed Eagles in the sky. The first and brightest is represented by the bright star Sirius located in the constellation of Canis Major which they called Warepil. The second is the star Rigel in Orion which the Boorong called Collowgulloric Warepil. At night these two celestial eagles soar high into our skies and Warepil is considered to be one of the spirit elders known as the Nurrumbunguttias, the first beings to inhabit the Earth. Moreover, located at a distance of 8.6 light years Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is the brightest star in the sky with an apparent magnitude of -1.44. Almost all early cultures have attached importance to this sparkling stellar beacon. Additionally, Collowgulloric Warepil, better known to us as the blue-white supergiant star Rigel (Beta Orionis), sits at a distance of some 773 light years.
The Wongaibon People from the Cobar region of New South Wales see the brightest star in the constellation of Scorpius as an eagle. This star, the red supergiant Antares, is known as Gwarmbilla. On each side he is accompanied by his two wives the stars Alniyat and Tau Scorpii. One wife is a Mallee Hen and the other is a Whip Snake. Gwarmbilla’s wives had fallen in love with another man named Gulabirra. One day when Gwarmbilla was out hunting the wives set a trap for him. They dug a hole, placed sharpened bones in it and filled it with their blood. They covered it with sticks which gave it the appearance of a Bandicoot’s nest and when Gwarmbilla swept down to grab it his feet were impaled. However, his mother pulled him to safety and placed him into the heavens with his wives either side, so they would never be tempted to stray again.
Antares (Alpha Scorpii) is an incredibly large star. It is a red supergiant star located approximately 604 light years away. Antares is 57,500 times more luminous than the Sun. It has 12 ½ times the mass of our Sun, and has a surface temperature of around 4,290 Kelvin. Furthermore, in ancient Persia, Antares was recognized as Satevis, one of the four ‘royal stars’, and its modern day name means ‘the rival of Mars’.
The Kulin People, who come from the region around the city of Melbourne, and the Wotjalbaluk People of western Victoria have a creator being named Bunjil the eagle. Bunjil is represented in the sky by the star Altair (Alpha Aquilae) in the constellation Aquila. There are no prizes for guessing that Aquila is another eagle in the sky, but one of the classical 88-constellations as used by astronomers today. Bunjil has two wives in the form of black swans that sit either side of him represented by the stars Tarazed (Gamma Aquilae) and Alshain (Beta Aquilae). (Figure 2: A young male Wedge-tailed Eagle - image Paul Curnow)
It is interesting to note that the Wardaman People of the Northern Territory also see Altair as an eagle named Bulyan. According to Wardaman elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, Bulyan is the eagle who watches over the area of Corona Australis; a ceremonial region in the sky. Bulyan as a ‘watchman’ has to make sure that people are kept out of special ceremonial areas, and away from rituals they are not permitted to attend. Furthermore, men who have Bulyan as their totemic ancestor are traditionally seen as security men who make sure that the correct traditions are being adhered to. (Figure 3: With Wardaman elder Bill Harney)
In conclusion, eagles have been admired by many ancient and contemporary cultures. The Roman legion used an ‘aquila’ as its standard, which was carried by a legionary known as an ‘Aquilifer’ (aquila-bearer). In classical mythology the constellation Aquila was the companion of the god Jupiter (in Greek Zeus) and carried his thunderbolts. And to many Native Americans a mythical eagle was responsible for creating thunder and lightning by beating its wings.
Cairns, Hugh, & Harney, Bill Yidumduma, 2003, Dark Sparklers, H.C. Cairns (Publisher), N.S.W.
Curnow, Paul, 2011, Aboriginal Skies, Australasian Science, pp 22-25
Harney, Bill Yidumduma, 2010, [Wardaman elder] (personal communication).
Johnson, Dianne, 1998, Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia, University of Sydney, Sydney.
McKenzie, Marvyn, 2010, [Adnyamathanha man] (personal communication).
Pring, Adele, 2002, Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People (draft), DETE, Adelaide.
Stanbridge, Wm. Edward, 1857, On the Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria, Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute, Melbourne.
© Paul Curnow
(please note that as a matter of respect, the stories contained within this article remain the cultural property of the indigenous communities mentioned)
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Updated 4th of May 2012