MAAS Magazine

Patyegarang’s sky world

Photo of Magellanic Clouds
The Magellanic Clouds, taken from Wentworth Falls, New South Wales. Photo by Geoff Wyatt, MAAS


Assistant Curator of Macleay Museum Matt Poll on the importance of Patyegarang’s legacy. 

Sydney Observatory is built on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. Eora is a word derived from Ee (yes) and Ora (here, or this place). The Gadigal were one of at least seven Aboriginal groupings that were interconnected by the Sydney Harbour foreshore.

The language of the Sydney peoples still resides hidden in the names of beaches, suburbs and motorways. Bird names, seasonal attributes and astronomical phenomena have been invaluable tools of landscape designers, artists and community members, who have awakened these words from dusty archives and revitalised them into a living cultural heritage with a remarkable history of sustainably living on Sydney Harbour.

It is through the generosity of a young Gadigal woman named Patyegarang that we can glimpse the pre-contact night time sky as it was known by the First Australians. William Dawes, Lieutenant in the First Fleet, recorded Patyegarang’s language in his notebooks, and these are thankfully available to us today.

In sharing her language Patyegarang also contextualised her knowledge of thousands of aspects of everyday life of the Eora people at the time, providing a platform for future generations to reclaim a part of their world that was eclipsed for a moment in time. Patyegarang’s country may have been irretrievably transformed by urbanisation, but the sky world she knew and described, and saw from Eora country, remains the same as it always was.

In Patyegarang’s language, guru (deep water), is in this context also a suitable metaphor for deep time, for how multigenerational layers of observation, learning and teaching become an experientially based knowledge of place, and how this knowledge embeds itself in a language. Looking up from the guwiyang (fire), and witnessing mulumulu (a cluster of falling stars), the Eora oriented their world around night time sky; millions of hours observing the night in their nawi (canoes) surrounded by yanada (moon) gili (light) sparkling across the badu (water).

To the north of Sydney Harbour, in what is now the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, are thousands of rock engravings that afford a glimpse of the profound cosmology, history written in place, ingrained in Patyegarang’s astronomical language. These engravings are tangible evidence of the Eora peoples’ history. Some engravings represent phases of the Moon, the path of the guwing (sun) from buruwi (east) to bayinmarri (west). Among the thousands of rock art motifs etched into the sandstone are records of how multiple generations of Eora peoples described and represented the cosmology and taxonomy of their world.

The Magellanic Clouds are two irregular dwarf galaxies that are visible only in the southern sky. They orbit the Milky Way, and First Nations cultures of the southern hemisphere have recorded their movements for millennia. The fact that Patyegarang’s vocabulary included names for relatively obscure night sky phenomena such as buduwanung (the two Magellanic Clouds), and even specific names for its component parts galgalyung (the larger) and ngarangalyong (the smaller), gives an inkling of just how detailed First Peoples’ knowledge of the night time sky was. Our understanding of her world is still growing. In 2017, astronomers detected the first evidence of a magnetic bridge that links the two Magellanic Clouds; Patyegarang’s legacy bridges the worlds of Sydney’s deep past and our ever-changing understanding of our universe.

Patyegarang’s sky world is partially obscured due to light pollution and the urban density of the city, but through embracing her sense of place, space and country, through a deeper understanding of her knowledge of the night time sky, the sky world reshapes how we all see ourselves today.


Matt Poll is of South Sea Island and Torres Strait heritage and works as the assistant curator of the Macleay Museum Indigenous Heritage collections. He is also the University of Sydney repatriation project officer. This extract first published in the 2019 Australasian Sky Guide (October 2018). Purchase the 2020 Australasian Sky Guide online or from MAAS Store and selected bookstores.

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