ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng


ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng

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Seven Sisters Dreaming – Miyay-Miyay 

Aboriginal Australia
Pleiades / Orion
Adapted from Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli, “First Knowledges Astronomy: Sky Country” (Australia: Thames and Hudson, 2022) and Alexis Wright, “A Universal Lesson of the Seven Sisters Songline”, Emergence Magazine, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/a-universal-lesson-of-the-seven-sisters-story/

Across Indigenous Australia, the Pleiades are known as a group of sisters, ice maidens called Mirrai-Mirrai or Miyay-Miyay, meaning ‘several girls’, who touch the ground as they set below the winter horizon. With their long hair and bodies made of icicles, they are known for their beauty. Their story — a timeless and universal story of a flight from danger — was part of a songline, or “Dreaming track” (one of many pathways that lead across the continent connecting the people to the land and its traditional laws).

Source: @IndigenousX, Twitter

The epic saga of the Seven Sisters and their relentless male pursuer is played out nightly in the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion constellation. Not just in Aboriginal Australia, but continents worldwide, humans have “looked at the same septuplet knot of the Pleiades and believed them to be seven young girls running away from something that threatened to hurt them.” Variations of the story unfold depending on the story’s original location, the seasons, and one’s viewing position on the planet. 

For people in the Western Desert, when the Pleiades rise it signifies the arrival of dingo pups. For Central Desert people, their Pleiades/Orion Songline can direct them from their home across to the west coast of Australia, over 2000 kilometres away. For the Yolŋu people, the sisters are said to bring with them berries and fish, representing the time of the year when these foods become available.

For the Gamilaraay people, as in other tales, the Orion constellation is a group of young, desiring males called Birray-Birray, meaning ‘young boys’. The story tells of the Birray-Birray’s desire to marry the Miyay-Miyay, despite their being from the wrong moiety. They leave traps baited with honey for the sisters. The sisters eat the honey and enjoy it, but do not accept the Birray-Birray’s advances in respect for the Law. One day, the old fire spirit, Wurrunnah, steals two of the sisters in an attempt to warm their icy bodies, but their bodies extinguish Wurrunnah’s flame. Eventually, he orders them to cut some bark from a great pine. The sisters know the pine tree to be a bridge to the sky world, and warn Wurrunnah that they will not return if they attempt his order. Angered, he instructs them to do as they are told. The sisters start to cut bark from the pine and, as they had warned, soon begin to rise. As they ascend, they hear their five remaining sisters up above and climb towards them. Soon they are reunited, and have remained so ever since, but the two sisters did not escape unharmed, their light dimmed by Wurrunnah’s flame.

Another Gamilaraay version speaks of one sister being timid and hiding behind the other sisters. Her name is Gurri-Gurri, meaning ‘shy’. This embedded feature could relate to some of the Pleiades stars not being visible to the naked eye, or perhaps acknowledges that seven stars were once visible but some have since faded.

The Warlpiri people tell the story of the ancestral Napaljarri sisters. The morning star, Jukurra-jukurra, is a Jakamarra man who is also in love with the seven Napaljarri sisters and is often shown chasing them across the night sky. They travel across the land and launch themselves from a steep hill to ascend the heavens to become stars. The Jakamarra man follows the sisters into the sky, travelling in the form of a star seen in the Orion’s Belt star cluster, which is also seen as the base of the Big Dipper. So every night the Seven Sisters launch themselves from earth into the night sky, and every night the morning star chases after them across the sky.

Painting by Walpiri artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites titled ‘Seven Sisters Dreaming’. 

For the Gamilaraay and many other nations, they bring frost. In South Australia, the Adnyamathanha people say the Pleiades sisters possess pouches filled with ice crystals that they release into the sky as they travel across it, producing frost. In traditions from southern parts of the Western Desert, the Pleiades are known as Kungkarungkara and their rising marks the nyinnga cold season from May to September. Similarly, in Ngarrindjeri traditions, if the Pleiades are making their highest altitude in the sky during early morning, it indicates the onset of the flowering of yam daisies. They act as a signpost for the time of year when local women collect various vegetable foods, such as grass seeds. Astronomical knowledge is hence coupled to that of seasonal changes in native plant cycles.

“The Seven Sisters songline is a warning against breaking the laws that keep our culture together. The sisters, clustered together to fight off a shape-shifting challenge, show us how to conquer adversity. Their story helped shape our conscience; it strengthened our combined humanity, and our belief in the future of our culture. We can see this today as we continue to fight to reclaim our sovereignty and to care for our traditional lands.”

—Alex Wright

See: Orion and Hyades
Orion appears to be pursuing the Pleiades as the stars move from east to west each night, with the sisters in front and the man in tow. The distinctive V-shaped Hyades star cluster, which lies between Orion and the Pleiades, is often perceived as a protector of the sisters, warding off the advances of Orion. Cultural narratives from across the globe reflect this dynamic, whether it is Taurus the bull protecting the Pleiades from the advances of Orion in traditions of ancient Greece, or Kambugudha protecting her younger Yugarilya sisters from the advances of Nyeeruna the hunter in Aboriginal traditions of Australia’s Great Victoria Desert.

Isabella Ong
Seet Yun Teng
National Arts Council Singapore