Aboriginal Astronomy Mysteries
by David R. Griffiths

The Locality

In the west of Victoria lies a road named after an Aboriginal tribe famous for their knowledge of astronomy, the Borung highway.  Their knowledge which has parallels with our Greek astronomical heritage, is now being re-popularised.   It could be that early knowledge about the night sky, which was intimately linked with concepts of time, gods, and relations between people, is a key to the foundation stones of human culture.

Driving down the Western Highway you pass the majestic Grampians between Stawell and Horsham.  You then enter wheat country as you approach Dimboola.  Dimboola is the gateway to the Little Desert National Park, the Wimmera River is flanked by gums and boasts a rowing club.  From here the Borung Highway connects to Charlton on the Calder Hwy.

Getting off the main highway gives and immediate sense of peace, the joy of being practically the only car on the road.

Alongside the sandy soil is sprinkled with golden flowers.  A road turn off is to Willenabrina.  We are in the Shire of Yarriambiak, if we care to know of it, Aboriginal heritage exists all around us.  The empty road has wide flat fields extending to the horizon and a big open sky - never the less, while it could be the land of the Borung they actually lived further north, near Lake Tyrrell.

Aboriginal Astronomy similarity to Greek

The Borung (also spelt Boorong or Booroung) in 1857 were described to a gathering of Melbourne's early scientific community as "priding themselves on knowing more of Astronomy than any other tribe".
Wm. Edward Stanbridge Esq., of Wombat detailed the beliefs of the Borung, a record which has proven valuable today.  (click here for 
Stanbridge, W.E. (1857) "On Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria". Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute, Melbourne.)   We are indebted to Stanbridge's respect for and interest in Aboriginal culture.  

William Stanbridge         
was an enlightened Victorian gentleman.
A politician, philanthropist and amateur scientist.
Historian Les Pitt, writes in his book "Mud Blood and Gold"
"Stanbridge was a man for his times, adventurous, refined, worldly,
a believer in man's capacity for self improvement."
In 1855 the town of Wombat was renamed Daylesford.
Stanbridge was its first Mayor and later Member of Parliament. 

Amongst their beliefs Marpeankurrk (Arcturus - the fourth brightest star in the sky, visible in the northern sky from autumn to spring) is the discoverer of the Bittur - the larvae of the wood ant which formed the main part of the diet for the Borung in the months of August and September.

Their stories are no different in style to those of the Greeks having both a direct reference to their daily activities, and also a mythological, moral meaning.  Marpeankuurk is the mother of Djuit (Antares - the brightest star in Scorpius, and like Arcturus, a reddish star) and Weetkurrk (a neighbouring star).

Whilst in Greek legend Arcturus means "bearkeeper", neighbouring Ursa Major represents the nymph Callisto who was turned into a bear by Zeus's jealous wife Hera.

The Greek moralist Hesiod who lived in the eight century BC, wrote in his text "Works and Days":  "When Zeus has finished sixty wintry days after the solstice, then the star Arcturus leaves the holy stream of Ocean and first rises brilliant at dusk. After him the shrilly wailing daughter of Pandion, the swallow, appears to men when spring is just beginning. Before she comes, prune the vines, for it is best so."

Thus for the Borung people Arcturus signaled the time to eat ant larvae, while for the Greeks it was time to prune vines.  Before clocks and calendars the night sky itself  marked the passage of seasons and activities in daily living.

In recent times the work of Stanbridge was used by the late Dr. John Morieson to teach Koori youth at Swan Hill aspects of their cultural heritage which have become lost. A programme was also produced for Melbourne Planetarium at Scienceworks, "Stories in the Stars".

Regrettably the Borung people as a distinct group are no more, most likely a result of dispersal, dispossession and disease. They were a clan of the Wergaia people whose descendants still live in north-west Victoria.  Click here for an animation of the night sky as seen by the Borung people.

Possibility of a common source

There is no one set of Aboriginal star beliefs however, as hundreds of tribes throughout Australia each had their own languages and mythic beliefs.  Sometimes their stories can be similar, and at other times, quite different.   Coastal people from the Torres Strait at the northernmost tip of Australia, considered some stars to represent a shark, but other tribes for instance, from South Australia associated the Southern Cross as a stingray being pursued by two sharks (Alpha and Beta Centauri, the pointers).

Having said that, tribes used to have formal meetings, such as at the You Yangs in between Melbourne and Geelong.  Regional culture existed.  Bunjil the creator God was "the main dreaming being of South East Australia" (Parks Victoria).  Stanbridge writes in his paper for the Melbourne Philosophical institute, The Aborigines of Mt Franklin have [the same] names and mythological associations for a few of the stars [but not as extensive knowledge as the Boorong].

One curious fact is that many tribes considered the Pleiades to be a group of women and Orion to be a hunter.  Orion is prominent and even though it appears upside down in the southern hemisphere, perhaps lends itself to this interpretation which is common around the world .  Or perhaps it is more than coincidence, star knowledge may go back to the beginings of Homo Sapiens.   Of course it would be fragmented and altered over time in different places.

There are many anachronisms in our culture, days of the week named after Norse Gods for example, legal principles go back to Hammurabi in 1700 bc, and that's just when they were written down.  

American Professor of Philosophy Greg Whitlock observed similarities between Plato's ideas of the stars and those of South American Indians.  He commented:  "modern science, through its Greek ancestor, has still deeper roots in a little-studied Neolithic Cosmology".

In many respects, preliterate Neolithic and Paleolithic culture can only be guessed at.  However progress is being made in the discipline called Archaeoastronomy.  But Aboriginal culture, although it too may have evolved over time, goes back 50,000 years.   It remains at least a possibility that we have a common link through our earliest human ancestors.    

It is important to understand early knowledge about the night sky which was intimately linked with concepts of time, gods, and relations between people.  

Recent studies have shown an original human language can be detected, the world's 6,000 modern languages can be traced back to a single African mother tongue.  Research by Quentin Atkinson from Auckland University in New Zealand found that the original language "laid the groundwork for all the world's cultures".

The foundations of our culture, things so obvious we don't see them in their true light, may have been set in the earliest days of mankind.   The format of star mythology and culture, being the same between isolated branches of humanity is clearly one of these original human cultural artefacts.  

The word Borung means "night, darkness", and far from the city lights of modern life the stars still shine brightly against the dark velvet of space just as they have done since the earliest humans looked upward with wonder...   

Borung Highway

Initially in 2004 I had contacted the State's road authority but they had no information on why the Borung Highway got its name.  
 I travelled the length of this road, endeavouring to find out why it was named after the Borung people.

I spent the night at the first major town on the Highway, Warracknabeal (the word means  'mouth of creek with red gum trees').

The Shire was originally named the Shire of Borung in 1891 by the Governor in Council when it was split off from the Shire of St. Arnaud.  The name was changed in 1938 to the Shire of Warracknabeal due to confusion in mail deliveries with the town of Borung near Boort and more recently in 1995 during Victorian Council amalgamations it was changed again to the Shire of Yarriambiak as Yarriambiak creek runs the whole length of the new local government body.

This is most likely where the name for the Borung Hwy. came from.  But nobody could tell me why the shire was named after a tribe that actually lived around 100 kilometres to the north.

Warracknabeal is a lovely town, well preserved.  And the coolest place on a hot day is still the shade of the red gums at the Yarriambiak creek.

Leaving Warracknabeal the Borung Hwy. heads east toward Lake Buloke and Donald. 

The Borung Hwy. ends at Charlton, the country has become more undulating now than the previous billiard table.  Charlton, on the Avoca river was once home to John Curtin, our wartime Prime Minister. Here there is a road to Borung township 80 kilometres to the east, the Charlton to Borung Rd.   This could quite possibly be seen as a continuation of the Borung Hwy with the old Shire of Borung at the western end and the small township of Borung at the Eastern end. But Borung is a very small place and while it was once bigger than the handful of houses remaining, it is fairly unremarkable.  So why the name?

Borung the Town

I visited the hamlet and made inquiries at the current local government centre, the shire of Loddon at Wedderburn.  I was lent a copy of the history of Borung, "Golden Grain: a history of Borung 1877-1977" by Fae Hewson Stevens.  

Reading this history I was taken by the spirit of the people, particularly in the early years.  Borung was a place where friendships ran deep and people were always there to help each other.  Times have changed with mechanisation of  farms and economic pressures reducing population on the land, and trucks replacing trains so that local towns no longer serve as collection points for produce, and service functions tend to graduate to the larger cities nearby while the smaller towns have dwindled.  Borung is such a place, once a thriving small town that has now withered.

Fae Hewson Stevens' history says:  "Borung, which takes its name from an Aboriginal word meaning the broad leafed Mallee scrub..was proclaimed in the Victorian Government Gazette in 1885".  A school had been established by the Education Department in 1877 for some 30 children, it was originally known as Mysia which lies between Borung and Boort, but the Headmaster "James May requested that it be changed to Borung.  The Department adopted this name in 1884."  

A book written in 1918 about names of railway stations also gave this definition for Borung Station.

The town of Borung is around 140 kilometres south-east from Lake Tyrrell where the Borung tribe lived.  Possibly the history is correct on the origin of the name, as it could be a similar sounding word in a different Aboriginal language.  Or it may be a local legend passed on when the real reason had been forgotten.  Why was it so important for  James May to change the name to "broad leaf Mallee scrub"?  I think this interpretation may be a red herring.  The Mallee is hundreds of kilometers away in the north west of Victoria.  

Early in the life of the colony of Victoria Aboriginal words were frequently used as place names, when they were not being named after places in Britain and Europe.  
I tend to believe that Stanbridge's paper on their knowledge of Astronomy in 1857, had an impact in making a name for the Borung people.  Stanbridge was wealthy, a member of the Legislative Council and well connected (he could be compared to Sir Stamford Raffles as a model of an educated Victorian Gentleman).

Subsequent to these researches in 2011 the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages amended details in the Victorian Register of Geographic Names correcting the definition of Borung from "broad leafed Mallee scrub" to "night".

Off the main traffic routes there is an interesting diversion to a world with a slower pace and links ancient and modern, on the Borung Hwy.

detail from 1877 map Victorian Counties


copyright (c) David R. Griffiths 2006, revised 2012, 2014.  
Based on an article "Mystery of the Greek link to Australian Aboriginal sky legends" by David R. Griffiths, published in Neos Kosmos Australian Greek newspaper June 15, 1998
In 2012 an earlier version of this webpage (on Geocities) was recommended as a resource in developing curriculum of Aboriginal studies by the Victorian Education Department.

Further references:

John Morieson's work

Aboriginal Rock Art Photos  



"Most likely the story of convicts being shot while attempting to escape a sinking ship continued to be retold amongst convicts. 
The gentleman I met said his forefather was one of the last convicts sent to the Colony.."

click here for "Tasmanian Shipwreck Legend"

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