Sun, Moon, and eclipses

engraving of a crescentIn most Aboriginal cultures, the Moon is male and the Sun is female. For example, the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the far north of Australia, tell  how Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn (Wells, 1964). She decorates herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the red sunrise. She then lights her torch, made from a stringy-bark tree, and travels across the sky from east to west carrying her blazing torch, creating daylight. As she descends at the end of her journey, again some of the red ochre dusts the clouds to give the red sunset. On reaching the western horizon, she puts out her torch, and starts the long journey underground back to the morning camp in the east. Thus the Yolngu people explained the daily motion of the Sun across the sky and back again under the ground.

Engraving of the SunThe Yolngu people call the Moon Ngalindi  and he too travels across the sky.Originally, he was a fat lazy man (corresponding to the full Moon) for which he was punished by his wives, who chopped bits off him with their axes, producing  the waning Moon (Wells, 1964, Hulley, 1996). He managed to escape by climbing a tall tree to follow the Sun, but was mortally wounded, and died (the new Moon). After remaining dead for 3 days, he rose again, growing round and fat (the waxing Moon), until, after two weeks his wives attacked him again. The cycle continues to repeat every month. Until Ngalindi first died, everyone on Earth was immortal, but he cursed humans and animals so that only he could return to life. For everyone else, death would thereafter be final.
   But the Arnhem Land stories go much further, even explaining why the Moon is associated with tides. When the tides are high, water fills the Moon as it rises. As the water runs out of the Moon, the tides fall, leaving the Moon empty for three days. Then the tide rises once more, refilling the Moon.  So, although the mechanics are a little different from our modern version, the Yolngu people obviously had an excellent understanding of the motions of the Moon, and its relationship to the tides.
   The Warlpiri people explain a solar eclipse as being the Sun-woman being hidden by the Moon-man as he makes love to her. On the other hand, a lunar eclipse is caused when the Moon-man is threatened by the Sun-woman who is pursuing him and perhaps catching up. These two stories demonstrate an understanding that eclipses were caused by a conjunction between the Sun and Moon moving on different paths across the sky, occasionally intersecting. (Warner, 1937). This realisation is found in several other language groups. For example, Bates (1944) recounted how, during the solar eclipse of 1922, the Wirangu people told her that the eclipse was caused by the Sun and Moon "becoming husband and wife together".
   Amongst thousands of beautiful rock engravings in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, just outside Sydney, are a number of crescent shapes, such as that shown below. Archaeologists (e.g. McCarthy, 1983) have  traditionally referred to these shapes as boomerangs. However, a detailed study (Norris, 2008) has shown that these shapes are more likely to represent crescent moons than boomerangs. For example, boomerangs usually have two straight lengths rather than a single curved crescent, and rarely have pointed ends. Furthermore, it is unclear why a man and woman should reach up towards a boomerang in the sky. But if these shapes are moons, then why is the moon shown with the two horns pointing down, since that configuration is seen only in the afternoon or morning when the Sun is already high in the sky, and the moon barely visible?
  Basin Track engraving

One answer is that it might depict an eclipse. In the figure on the right, the man stands in front of the woman, partly obscuring her. Such carefully-drawn obscurations are unusual in these rock carvings, and in this case may well represent the Moon-man obscuring the Sun-woman during a solar eclipse.



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