Banumbirr, and the Morning Star ceremony


Yolngu people call the planet Venus "Banumbirr", and tell how she came across the sea from the east in the Dreaming, naming and creating animals and lands as she crossed the shoreline, and continued travelling westwards across the country, leaving as her legacy one of the ''songlines'' which are important in Aboriginal cultures.
   In an important and beautiful "Morning Star Ceremony", earthly Yolngu people communicate with their ancestors living on Baralku, the island of the dead, with the help of Banumbirr together with a "Morning Star Pole". The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn. She is said to trail a faint rope behind her along which messages are sent, and which prevents her from ever moving away from the Sun. This faint line in the sky is probably zodiacal light, which is caused by extraterrestrial dust in the plane of the solar system. Although difficult to see for most of us in our polluted skies, it is easily visible in the clear dark skies and low latitude of Arnhem Land.
   The Morning Star ceremony tells us two important things. One
is that Yolngu people had already observed that Venus never strays far from the Sun, which they explain in terms of the rope binding the two bodies together - a bond that Isaac Newton called "gravity". The other is that the Morning-Star ceremony has to be planned well in advance, since Venus rises a few hours before dawn only at certain times of the year, which vary from year to year. So the Yolngu people also track the complex motion of Venus well enough to predict when to hold the Morning Star Ceremony.



A morning star pole

A morning star pole, made by Yolngu artist Richard Garrawurra, from Elcho Island. The tuft of Magpie-goose feathers at the top represents Banumbirr, and also represents a water-lily. The patterns are traditional clan designs. The other tufts of feathers on pandanus strings represent other stars, and other clans.

All material on this page © Ray Norris 2007 except where otherwise indicated.