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The Boorong night sky

Words, voices and images: Connecting to cultures around the world

“Today the Boorong are gone and the reconstruction of their cosmology has required the breadth of the nineteenth century natural philosopher, drawing on zoology, botany, and linguistics, ethnography, geography and anthropology, as well as patient, long-term naked eye observation”.

John Morieson and Alex Cherney

August 4, 2023

The nearby lake they called “direl” because even though most often dry, it is salt encrusted, absorbs moisture from the atmosphere, and in its few centimetres covering of water, provides a mirror image of the night sky. “Tyrille” in the local language means “night sky” or “space”.

When giant fish leaves the sky

When giant fish leaves the sky it is time to travel: A cultural reconstruction. This video should be used in conjunction with the monograph Stars over Tyrrell: The night sky legacy of the Boorong by John Morieson and published on the Art and Culture Channel.

Just a little over a hundred and fifty years ago an Australian Aboriginal family at Lake Tyrell in north west Victoria (Australia) told William Stanbridge, a newcomer from England, something of their stories relating to the night sky.

Some forty stars, constellations and other celestial phenomena were named and located. Stanbridge later gave an address to the Philosophical Institute in Melbourne on this topic. After reading his account in the early1990’s I looked for these celestial phenomena, found them, and have tried to ascertain the way the Aboriginal clan, the Boorong, may have seen them.

Thus in my exploration of the four pages of cryptic clues bequeathed firstly to William Stanbridge by the Boorong and from Stanbridge to us, I have sought explanation through western astronomy, ornithology and zoology, linguistics, anthropology and sociology, archaeology and geography, ethnology and ethnography, and human physiology. It has been, and continues to be, a very exciting and stimulating journey and I am very proud to be able to bring this insight into the intelligence and intellectual powers of a vanquished people who did not require literacy to transfer their knowledge from generation to generation, but instead used the stars and their superlative imagination to do so”.

I realised then that even though the Boorong were no longer present and many creatures no longer lived in that country, it was possible to reconstruct some of their life on the ground by analysing what was in the sky.

The four pages by William Stanbridge, unexamined for a century and a half, then became the source of great privilege and joy for me in finding the creatures and the people in the southern night sky. When I first saw the ring-tailed possum at the top of the Southern Cross, I realised how people could be excited by this discovery and I wondered how Aboriginal people would view the retrieval of this information.

John Morieson