An image of the night sky and stars with the outline of the Emu in the sky and a Hand stretched out with Indigenous painting on it.

Anthropology: Astronomy of Indigenous Australian and Western Culture

Star signs are a concept that has origins in ancient Babylonian astrology. However, Indigenous Australian astronomy predates their existence. So, chances are, you already know your zodiac sign despite not knowing a lot about it. However, many people do not understand that the Indigenous Australians are the oldest surviving civilization on earth. An even lesser-known fact is that they were the first people to study astronomy and tell tales about the stars.

Often referred to as ‘star signs,’ a zodiac is an ancient interpretation of the heavens. It has origins in Hellenistic and Babylonian astrology but is also present in countless other cultures in history. However, star signs as we know them today, are from Hellenistic times. The Zodiac is the idea that the stars and planets in the sky above your place of birth affect your character.

This is the result of old astronomy working its way into popular culture and taking on a life of its own. For example, a quick investigation into star signs and their history will bring up ancient Greek and Hellenistic traditions. Typically, this is how people will often interpret the history of astronomy. However, focusing exclusively on this element of history is Eurocentric, meaning it does not take other cultures into account.

Indigenous Astronomy

A map of the night sky showing all of the main constellations in Indigenous astronomy.

First Nations people of Australia refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Their culture dates to 65 0000 years old. However, some evidence suggests that it may be even older than this. As a result, Indigenous people were the first astronomers and created folklore around the stars and planets.

A great deal of Indigenous law, social structure, and hunting practices are governed by the sky. Today, Indigenous communities still have many oral traditions and stories surrounding the sky thousands of years old. Indigenous Australians often told these through the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is the belief system and explanation of the beginning of the universe and its creatures.

The Basics of Horoscope Astrology

An visual depiction of the houses or star signs derived from Greek astronomy on a wheel with their corresponding animals against a night sky.

Perhaps you have heard someone say ‘Venus is in retrograde’ after a terrible day at work. Whether they are joking or really hold stock in this, there is no doubt astrology has become a huge part of popular culture. It is now common for every magazine and newspaper to include some sort of section with a horoscope or reading of your zodiac. There are now even apps you can download on your phone to determine and follow your readings. A quick search in Google will also easily pull up countless websites where you find out all your planetary alignments.

Usually, you do so by entering your time and city of birth, as well as your age. This information will then calculate your various signs. There are sun signs, moon signs, and rising signs, all of which make up a complex network of constellations that contribute to your personality. Each constellation or planet has different ‘energies’ or interpretations that are thought to determine who you are and, consequently, what choices you should make.

 So why is the Zodiac so pervasive today? The Zodiac is a belt-shaped region within the sky that tracks the earth’s orbit around the sun. It also follows the planetary movement of the sky across the year. What we know of the zodiac is based largely on horoscope astrology, which uses visual interpretations of constellations. This presents itself in a chart of symbols that represent different planets and allows us to use these symbols to track their movement easily.

The Horoscope in Popular Culture

A colourful painting depicting the twelve animals in the Zodiac represented in a circle. .

The defining element of horoscope astrology is its use of the ‘ascendant.’ This is where you find out the degree of the Eastern horizon rising against the backdrop of the ecliptic at the specific moment in question. Usually, this is the moment of your birth. The ascendant is also known as the ‘rising sign’. 

For example, your rising sign is your social personality and a true expression of your inner and outer being. It is what you immediately present to people. Your sun sign is your deepest sense of self, and your moon sign is your inner, hidden emotions.

The Zodiac includes twelve houses, with each one ruled by a different star sign or planet. You can find the position of your house with the time and date of your birth. For example, your first house is your rising sign, your seventh house governs your relationships with others, and your fifth house is creativity and expression.

Of course, there are merely the basics and there is a large and complex network of meanings in the Zodiac. However, these are terms or ideas that are most common in popular culture.

Origins of the Zodiac

An old painting depicting the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy.

People across the world have looked to the stars and planets with fascination for centuries. Many beliefs and schools of ancient science study the celestial bodies. The Lascaux cave in France, dated around 15,200 BCE, depicts an ancient asteroid impact and an interest in astronomy. Yet, there is still much we don’t know about what extends beyond our skies all these years later. 

The origins of the zodiac are so old, they can be traced back to the Bronze age. The Zodiac signs originally began with Babylonian astronomy in the First Millenia BC. Babylonian astronomy assigns twelve signs, which make up the twelve months of the year that have roughly 30 days each. Each contains  30⸓ of ‘celestial longitude,’ which is a system of coordinates in the sky.

Some scholars suggest that certain stories in the Bible are allegories or represent the movement of the Zodiac. For example, the twelve tribes of Israel may represent the twelve houses and their movement in the lunar calendar. Some of them even say that the twelve apostles represent the twelve houses, with Christ representing the sun in the sky. However, these are interesting theories without a lot of compelling evidence. It is possible, however, that the influence of the Zodiac was present in Biblical times.

In the 4th century BC, the ancient Greeks began to use the Babylonian star chart. It also took elements of Egyptian astrology. However, it was not until 50 BC that we saw what is called the Dendera zodiac. This is the first depiction of the twelve classical zodiac signs, such as the image of the twin sign Gemini, the Crab sign Cancer, and the Bull Taurus.

The Beginning of Astrology and the Zodiac Today

A photo of the night sky and the milky way surrounded by stars.

When we discuss Western concepts of astrology, we have the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy to thank. In his very famous work Tetrabiblos, he outlined the basic houses, star signs, and planets.

As much as this is an incredibly long time ago, Indigenous Australians were well ahead regarding astronomy. First, indigenous Australians studied the stars and used the same line of questioning later developed by the Romans: observe, question, and theorize. The theories then developed into the culture and then explanations about the environment that made laws.

These laws are often about how they can live in harmony with the natural world with guidance from movements of the stars across the sky. The sky is a road map that reflects what happens in the natural world. For example, the changing of the seasons, the migration of animals, and even the development of marriage systems are informed by astronomy. 

Some critical defining differences between Indigenous astronomy are that the Sun is a woman and the Moon is a man. Moreover, they pay attention to the absence of stars in the sky and dark patches, unlike Western astronomy. Also, the color of certain stars is significant.

There are some similarities with Western astronomy, such as the difference between stars and planets. In addition, they also recognize celestial events such as comets, eclipses, and meteors. Parts of the sky have their own corresponding features on the Earth. Often, changes in the sky will reflect changes in the natural world and signify for Indigenous people when it is time to harvest, hunt or move.

Indigenous Astronomy Explained

A black and white painting depicts the white figures of Indigenous Australians pointing at the stars in the night sky and looking up.

While Western astrology began in ancient astronomy and this is how we understand its ‘origins,’ there is a cultural bias present in this. Indigenous Australians were, in fact, the first people to observe and name the stars. From this  there is a rich tradition of culture, stories, and understanding of the environment.

Yurree (Yoo-ree “oo”)  & Wanjel (Wan-jel)

Yurree and Wanjel are the two hunters who pursue Purra, the kangaroo. The fan-tailed cuckoo is Yurree and the long-neck tortoise is Wanjel. To Europeans and Americans, these are the two Gemini twins,  Castor and Pollux. The appearance of these stars in the night sky indicates seasonal patterns for both of these animals. Yurree & Wanjel reappear in the sky in late spring, when the fan-tailed cuckoo becomes active again. In late summer, the stars are most prominent in the sky when the long-necked tortoise lays its eggs.

Kulkunbulla (Kool-koon-boo-la “oo”) 

You surely have heard of the belt of Orion and can maybe even point it out in the sky. In indigenous astronomy, Kulkunbulla, the two young dancing men, is found in one of the most recognizable constellations. Song and dance are significant to Indigenous Australian cultures, as they are one of the main ways that stories and information are told.

Bunya (Bun-ya)

Bunya, the possum, can be seen in the constellation known to us as the Southern Cross. The tip of the Southern Cross is the nose of the possum and his tail hangs down to the left. Bunya ran away from Tchingal, the Emu, and hid in a tree for so long that he turned into a possum.

The Emu in the Sky

A photo of the great Emu in the sky from Indigenous astronomy outlined by the milky way and the stars.

Tchingal (Chin-gel)

The Emu in the Sky is well-known for indigenous astronomy. It is a constellation outlined by dark areas of the night sky, not the stars. Called Tchingal, it is the evil Emu that lurks in the sky. It was hunted by the brothers Bram and eventually killed by Weetkurrk. The battle between them helped to create the landscape of western Victoria. You can see Tchingal in the sky as a series of dark nebulae. The head of Tchingal is the Coalsack, the dark nebula next to the Southern Cross. The neck of Tchingal goes through the two pointer stars, and the body extends to the large dark nebulae near Scorpius. Due to light pollution, you may need to go to the country’s dark skies to see Tchingal.

According to Indigenous legend, emus were more than just birds. They were creator spirits that soared through the skies above, looking over the land. These birds were incredibly helpful, so it makes sense that Emu in the Sky helped Indigenous people predict what was happening in the world around them. Depending on the time of year, the Emu in the Sky is oriented to either appearing sitting or running. And depending on the position the Emu was in, Indigenous people knew whether they should be out hunting for emus or collecting their eggs.

The Emu is one of the greatest and most well-known figures in both Indigenous astronomy and in culture and story-telling.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology: Astronomy as Culture

An image depicting the various cycles of the moon in Indigenous astronomy in their native language.

It may sound absurd to say that a bad day is the result of mercury in retrograde. However, it is an example of how astronomy has evolved into mainstream culture. Things such as Zodiacs are not just fringe beliefs but the result of history and culture that is still present today. They represent how people in the past looked to the stars to order the world around them.

Interpretations of the stars both influence and also inform social structure. In many ways today, this is still true, as ideas like astrology emerge out of astronomy. The way astronomers now interpret the sky is often through the lens of technology and more a pursuit of knowing how these things work. However, these observations also inform our ideas about the world, history, and belief systems.

Unfortunately, for many years, Indigenous Australian culture and history were repressed and ignored. Due to the traumatic effects of colonization and forced white assimilation, we have forgotten the world’s oldest astronomy. However, as Indigenous Australians speak out and empower themselves again, we learn more about their astronomy.

Indigenous astronomy both tells stories about the natural world and was to pursue both science and culture. Science and culture are two categories that develop alongside one another. Indigenous astronomy reveals things that even modern scientists today did not know about the flora and fauna of Australia. It also contributes stories and culture that provide a sense of identity within the natural world. Whether referring to ancient Greek astronomy, modern astrology, or Indigenous Australian astronomy, it always pursues meaning and culture.

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