Greece and Australia: Astronomy in pre-literate societies

THE pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s times may be thought to have had little in common with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Research, however,  has revealed that the Greeks of Homer’s times, c. 750-650 BC,   were not alone among ancient peoples in preserving important knowledge of astronomy in their storytelling traditions.

An academic submission at https://arvix.org/abs/1607.02215  explores a culture that had ‘a significant astronomical component through oral traditions, ceremony and art.

The astronomical knowledge of that pre-literate society could not be more distant from the lands and islands of Ancient Greece and is found in ‘the traditional culture of Aboriginal Australians…’

‘This astronomical knowledge includes a deep understanding of the motion of objects in the sky which was used for practical purposes such as constructing calendars and for navigation,’ says Ray P Norris.

‘Putative explanations of celestial phenomena appear throughout the oral record, suggesting traditional Aboriginal Australians sought to understand the natural world around them, in the same was as modern scientists,’ writes Norris.

A broadcast on BBC television in March, 2017, also indicates that  the two pre-literate societies living at opposite ends of the earth came up with similar solutions to resolve a common problem concerning long-distance travel – Star Maps.

Research by Robert S. Fuller, of the University of New South Wales, says the Aboriginal peoples  may be the world’s oldest astronomers, as their culture has retained much astronomical knowledge, passed down through stories, song and art.*

‘In some places, there is evidence that Aboriginal people used patterns of stars in the night sky to teach other persons how to travel outside their own country … These patterns are called star maps, and were used to memorise waypoints along a route of travel’, says Fuller.

The Greeks also used a similar cultural tool to preserve wide-ranging knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making … and long distance travel.

A major theme in Edna Leigh’s study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as sources of extensive astronomical knowledge, was her assertion that the pre-literate Greeks also used ‘maps’ based on patterns of stars in constellations to guide them on long-distance journeys. See Homer the Map-Maker (Homer’s Secret Iliad, pp 239-262).

An extensive account and expansion of  Edna’s research has been published in  Homer’s Secret Iliad (1999), and Homer’s Secret Odyssey (2011)

*http://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/news/aboriginal-star-maps

See  posts below for an introduction to Homer the Astronomer and for summaries of Homer’s Secret Iliad and Homer’s Secret Odyssey which explore Homer’s epics as sources of extensive knowledge of astronomy, a large catalogue of stars and constellations,luni-solar cycles and a detailed luni-solar calendar system.

© 2017 Kenneth and Florence Wood

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About Florence and Kenneth Wood

Authors of Homer's Secret Iliad (John Murray, 1999) and Homer's Secret Odyssey (The History Press, 2011)
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