Fear of eclipse widespread in Aboriginal culture

By Natalie Muller June 14, 2011
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In the past, indigenous communities considered eclipses to be omens of death, disease and sorcery.

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, indigenous groups throughout Australia have watched the night sky, using the motions of the sun, moon, and stars to make sense of natural cycles in the world around them.

But while they had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the movements of celestial bodies, rare and unexpected events, such as the appearance of a comet or eclipse, sometimes caused fear and panic.
Astronomer Duane Hamacher, a PhD candidate at Macquarie University, and CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris, analysed 50 historic Aboriginal accounts of lunar and solar eclipses to gain an insight into how Australia’s first people understood the phenomenon.

They found that for many communities, eclipses heralded a frightening change that interrupted the harmony of an otherwise predictable and consistent cosmos.

“Eclipses were typically feared and associated with evil magic, bad omens or death – not just with indigenous peoples but even in European history, they were seen as omens, for example that a civilisation might fall,” says Duane. 

“According to Herodotus, in 585 BCE a total solar eclipse occurred during a battle between the Lydians and Medes in what is now Turkey. They saw this event as a divine sign, stopped fighting, and made peace.”

Duane hopes his research paper, published in the July edition of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, will also dispel the myth that indigenous Australians knew little about the motions of the cosmos.

Dreamtime stories

Although there are hundreds of different indigenous groups in Australia, some developed similar stories to explain an eclipse. For example, in most Aboriginal cultures the sun is female and the moon is male, and to the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, a solar eclipse was an act of copulation between the sun (woman) and the moon (man).

“Some groups, such as the Euahlayi of NSW, noticed the zigzag motion and path the moon makes across the sky and saw it as the moon-man (Bahloo) constantly avoiding the advances of the sun woman (Yhi),” Duane says. “But every once in a while [when an eclipse occurs] she’ll overtake and attack Bahloo.”

According to Duane’s research, the Yolngu people had a developed understanding about how the moon moves across the sky, affects the tides and covers the sun during a solar eclipse. Other groups, such as the Arrernte or Wardaman, understood something was covering the sun, but explained it as a large black bird or the effects of evil magic.

Often, a powerful man or a ‘clever man’ would protect the community from the evil of an eclipse or comet. He would chant and throw sacred objects towards the sun, using his powers to magically control the eclipse.

“And of course the moon would come back, the sun would come out, or the comet would fade away,” Duane says. “And this would reinforce his role of protector of the community.”

Surviving records

Duane studied oral traditions and historical accounts, but many surviving records were ambiguous. Much of the knowledge about Aboriginal astronomy disappeared after colonisation.

“No matter how much I dig for information, I’m just scratching the surface,” Duane says. “There are hundreds of groups with traditions that go back 40,000 or 50,000 years, so this is really a tiny sample of what is really out there.”

The image above shows a rock engraving situated in Kur-ring-gai Chase National Park, NSW. It depicts a man and woman partially superimposed with a crescent above their heads, which Duane and Ray speculate may represent the sun woman and moon man during an eclipse.

Early risers will catch a special sight just before dawn on 16 June (AEST), when the moon will be eclipsed just before setting.