What can you see in the March 2011 night sky? Mary Bulman has the answers, beginning with a tale from the folklore of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

Image of Orion Nebula

This image of the Orion nebula, a stellar nursery, is a view of star formation that’s better known at NASA. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team)

Did you ever look up at the sky on a clear starry night and wonder where the stars came from? I am going to give you the answer to that question as articulated in an Australian Aboriginal tale. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia are regarded by many as the oldest astronomers in the world. Rolla-Mano was an old man of the sea who ruled a world of fascinating and strange creatures in the depths. One day he went fishing for his dinner in the mangroves. As he was eating his catch by the campfire he spied two beautiful maidens coming his way. He hid in the bushes and attempted to trap the ladies by throwing a net over them. However one escaped and jumped into the river. As Rolla-Mano dived into the water to catch the escapee the burning stick he held in his hand touched the water causing an explosion of  sparks which flew into the sky where they have remained ever since. So the next time you are admiring the stars think of the beautiful woman who escaped capture or the poor old man of the sea who had to settle for one woman!

But of course there are more than stars to be seen in the night sky.  The Moon is the subject of another Aboriginal legend and a story from Cape York solves the problem of how the Moon appeared in the heavens. Long ago the people met to discuss the problem of the night darkness. Stumbling round in nocturnal confusion was a major hassle for man and animal. After much debate it was agreed that a special boomerang should be made and put in the sky to take over ‘light’ duties when the sun went underground. The boomerang was made and all the strong men lined up to fling it into the sky. After many unsuccessful attempts at launching it a frail old man asked if he could have a go. Everyone laughed but a wise elder said he should be allowed a chance. To everyone’s surprise and delight the weak old man sent the boomerang high into the sky and it is still there. The shape of the boomerang can be seen in the Moon every month.

Image of crescent moon over the Earth

A last quarter crescent moon above Earth’s horizon is featured in this image photographed by the Expedition 24 crew on the International Space Station. Or is it a boomerang gone astray? (Image credit: NASA)

Let’s not forget about the wandering stars. In recent month the planet Venus has been visible in the pre-dawn sky shining at a magnitude of -4. On a clear morning the last bright ‘star’ you will see before the sun rises is in fact the planet Venus, often referred to as the Morning Star or the Evening Star ( when it is the first ‘star’ to appear  in the sky after sunset. It is worth elaborating a little on this jewel of the heavens.  The planet Venus is the brightest object in the sky after the Moon. Our sister planet is the hottest in the Solar System though it is not the closest to the Sun. Its dense carbon dioxide clouds form a type of lagging jacket which trap the heat from the Sun causing a runaway greenhouse effect. Temperatures on Venus can reach up to 500° C. It spins from West to East so if you were standing on Venus you would see the Sun rise in the West and set in the East and if that was not confusing enough you might also have a problem with time as this is a place where a year is shorter than a day! Let me explain. It takes Venus 224 Earth days to orbit the Sun giving the length of its year. It turns on its axis every 243 Earth days. So its day is 19 Earth days longer than its year. Such are the peculiarities of our closest sibling.

Now turning to myths and legends associated with this strange planet.  The Aboriginals of Australia have many tales about Venus. To these ancient astromners the Morning Star is called Barnumbir (or Barnimbir) and is said to live on the Island of the Dead. According to a story from Arnhem in the Northern Territory when the fishermen of the island asked Barnumbir to accompany them on their fishing trips (being really bright Barnumbir could be of real help in this endeavour) she refused because of her fear of drowning in the sea. A pair of wise old women came up with a plan to tie her to a rope to keep her safe. They pull her back to the island and keep her safely in a basket during the day. Because Barnumbir is attached to this safety device she cannot go too far and so never rises too high in the sky. They have a beautiful ceremony based around the rising of Venus in which they remember their dead.  The ritual is usually an all night event. Note the beautifully decorated totem poles known as Morning Star Poles in this video.

Image of Mary Bulman

Mary Bulman Education Support Officer

Article by Mary Bulman.


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