Lunar traditions of the First Australians

The Moon’s movement and light informs knowledge of the land and harvest across the continent.

In Nuenonne traditions of Bruny Island, Tasmania, the Sun is a man named Punywin and the Moon is his wife, Venna. In the beginning they travelled from horizon to horizon together, creating life on Earth before setting into the sea each night. But Punywin travelled too fast and Venna fell behind and rested on icebergs even though Punywin produced more and more light to encourage her to catch up. Tasmania was pushed away from the mainland and gradually rose from the seas to become the island we know today. These traditions describe how moonlight is reflected sunlight, and speaks back to a time when Tasmania was formed by rising seas at the end of the Ice Age, over 10,000 years ago. 

The Moon and its phases feature in many Dreaming stories across Australia, describing the intangible relationship between the Moon, Sun and Earth. The Nuenonne traditions of the Moon woman are an example of astronomical observations embedded within culture. For many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the Moon is a powerful man, often associated with fertility. This association links the Moon’s monthly waxing and waning to the female fertility cycle. In some nations, looking at a full Moon was thought to cause a woman to fall pregnant. In others, people warned that it could lead to infertility or even death.

Knowledge associated with the Moon comes in many forms, encapsulating law and lore within a web of practical knowledge connecting land and sky. Predicting weather and seasons, tracking time and informing ceremony and navigation are some of the many -Indigenous uses of the Moon.

Time and tide

The Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land record the Moon’s connection to Earth and its effect on the tides. They teach that the Moon fills up and empties as it passes the horizon: the tides are high when the satellite is full or new and is setting or rising. Conversely, the tides are low when it is near zenith (high in the sky), corresponding to the effects of the Moon’s gravity on our planet.

The Moon doesn’t have a great deal of surface gravity itself – only about one-sixth when compared to the Earth. But its gravitational tug has an impact on our oceans. When it is combined with the gravitational pull of the Sun, the Earth’s centre of mass is drawn by a tidal force, creating bulges on either side, making our planet slightly ovate, like a football. When the Sun and Moon are aligned together, we get spring tides. When the two bodies are perpendicular to us, we get neap tides.

Moon images credit: Artpartner-images / Getty Images

Meriam man William Bero, from the eastern Torres Strait, teaches that a good time to go fishing is during a quarter Moon. Neap tides occur when the tidal amplitudes (the difference between high and low tide) are the lowest. At this time, sand and silt on the seafloor is not churned up as much by the waxing and waning tidal waters, making the fish easier to see and catch. On the island of Mer, low tides at quarter Moons keep the fish further out at sea for several hours, before the high tide brings them close to shore where they can feed. This is why the tide at quarter Moons is called Werir Meg – “hungry tide”. It is best to fish on the west side of the island during first quarter Moon and the east side of the island during last quarter.

Explaining eclipses

On 26 May this year, the Moon will go into a total eclipse, turning a deep blood red colour. This is when the Moon moves into the shadow of the Earth as the three celestial objects fall in a nearly perfect line (called syzygy). Sunlight is refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere and the bluer wavelengths of light are scattered, leaving the redder wavelengths to illuminate the Moon. 

These transient phenomena have a variety of meanings in Traditional Knowledge Systems. A lunar eclipse is often seen as a warning. In the western Torres Strait, a lunar eclipse is called Merlpal Mari Pathanu, meaning “the ghost has taken the spirit of the Moon”. Mua artist David Bosun explains that a lunar eclipse foretells the coming of an enemy army. During an eclipse, the people hold a special ceremony, naming the islands in the region until the eclipse ends. This tells the people from where the enemy will come. In the eastern Torres Strait, a lunar eclipse is called meb dimdi, meaning “covered Moon” in the Meriam Mir language (the Papuan language of the eastern islands).

Solar eclipses are also well known, despite only occurring from a given location every few hundred years. Cultures across Australia, such as the Yolngu, teach that an eclipse occurs when the Sun woman and the Moon man are in the embrace of  love. 

On 21 September 1922, astronomers on the coast of South Australia were observing a solar eclipse to test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The local Wirangu shared their knowledge of an eclipse with them, explaining that it was caused by the hand of a spirit man named Maamu-Waddi who covered the Earth for the privacy of the Sun woman and Moon man while they were guri-arra (“husband and wife together”).

The Gedge Togia Moon Dance 

In the eastern Torres Strait, the Meriam people pass down a sacred traditional Kab Kar song about the Moon, called Gedge Togia. The lyrics are in two languages: Meriam Mir and Kala Lagau Ya (the Pama-Nyungan language spoken on Mabuyag island in the west). The lyrics are Gedge Togia MilpanukaGedge Togia means “rising over home” (Mer, or Murray Island) in Meriam Mir, and Milpanuka is a Mabuyag word referring to the Moon (in Meriam Mir it is meb). The dancers hold a device in each hand: one showing a full Moon and one showing a new Moon.

Meriam elder Alo Tapim teaches how this song shows the close links between the two islands that go back millennia, representing Meriam people watching the Moon rise in the east as they sailed home from Mabuyag, which lies 200 kilometres due west of Mer. The song and associated dance were central to a legal battle the Meriam people pursued (and won) to gain their sea rights. Uncle Alo was the youngest witness – he was 65 years old at the time.

Halo effect 

Forecasting the weather is essential for life: gardening, hunting, travelling, or caring for Country. First Peoples have developed substantial toolkits for accomplishing this task. These tools are multifaceted and combine to make a more accurate prediction, just like weather forecasting algorithms used by meteorologists.

One key indicator that rain is approaching is the appearance of a halo around the Moon. In Gamilaraay traditions, a lunar halo is a sign of rain or bad weather. But how soon it will come depends on different characteristics of the halo. Elders teach us to count the number of stars within the halo. If few or none are visible, rain is imminent. If you can see several stars in the halo, rain may not come for days, if at all. In the Torres Strait, elders say a halo (susri) is the Moon man building a hut to keep himself dry as rains are coming.

Moon haloes are a type of transient optical phenomena in which a large ring appears around the Sun or Moon. They commonly form when wispy cirrostratus clouds are present. Light passes through ice crystals suspended in these clouds, which act like prisms. Clouds situated in the upper troposphere (~10 kilometres up), where the temperatures are approximately – 55°C, provide perfect conditions for these ice crystals to form. Similarly, if temperatures are low enough, hexagonal ice crystals can generate closer to the Earth’s surface, a phenomenon known as diamond dust. These crystals form in low fronts, which typically bring rain. If humidity is high, the water will condense and fall as rain. But if conditions are dry, this is unlikely.

Gamilaraay people observing a hazy halo with no visible stars know the air is humid, signalling impending rain. Other characteristics observed include the Moon’s position to the halo (centre or off-centre), the presence of two haloes, or other optical phenomena that signal different atmospheric conditions. In the Tiwi islands north of Darwin, the people hold a special yam ceremony towards the end of the monsoon season. The Kulama ceremony is a time for initiation, yam harvesting, and other important events. It is signalled by the presence of a golden halo around Japara, the Moon man. During this ceremony, a special yam is prepared in a careful manner, which takes three days – otherwise, it is poisonous. This coincides with the time it takes Japara to die then come back to life.

Cusps and conditions 

A crescent is the most common way people visually represent the Moon. The crescent Moon is caused when the angle between the Moon and Sun is less than 90° from our point of view. The ‘points’ of the crescent Moon are called cusps. The angle of the cusps in the sky changes throughout the year, and Torres Strait Islanders have long observed the orientations of Moon cusps and worked out their relationship to seasonal rainfall.

Meriam elder Segar Passi teaches that when the cusps are pointing straight up (Meb metalug em), it is the Sager (dry season) and very fine weather is coming. At this time, cumulus clouds are seen in the sky and white caps are visible on the waves as they crest in the rippled water. Despite the choppy seas, fine weather will come. However, when the cusps are tilted at an angle (Meb uag em), thin cirrus clouds are visible and a fuzzy region will form around the Moon. The water looks calm and mirror-flat, but bad weather – the Kuki (wet season) – is on the way.

The Moon and its cycles guide traditional -activities on Country, and this knowledge contains a wealth of science embedded within.  

Source: Cosmos