by David R. Griffiths
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.
Driving down the Western Highway you pass the majestic Grampians
between Stawell and Horsham. You then enter wheat country as
approach Dimboola. Dimboola is the gateway to the Little Desert National Park, the
Wimmera River is flanked by gums and boasts a rowing club.
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.
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
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
(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
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.
clocks and calendars the night sky itself marked the passage
seasons and activities in daily living.
Today the work of Edward Stanbridge has been used by Melbourne Academic
Dr. John Morieson to teach Koori youth at Swan Hill TAFE aspects of
their cultural heritage which have become lost. A programme
also produced for Melbourne Planetarium at Scienceworks.
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.
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
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).
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, which is
suggested by the commonality of the type of stories and usages.
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".
Preliterate Neolithic and Paleolithic
culture can only be guessed at. 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. 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 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...
Initially 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
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
place on a hot day is still the shade of the red gums at the
Leaving Warracknabeal the Borung Hwy. heads east toward Lake Buloke and
The Borung Hwy. ends at Charlton, the country has become more
undulating now than the previous billiard table. Charlton, on
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
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.
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."
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. But another source
gives this interpretation, in a book written in 1918 about names of railway stations.
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.
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
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.