Glimpses of Aranda cosmology Part 1 – Altjira Iliiŋka.

This follows on from ‘Larapinta Way’, posted to this blog earlier – but here we take a closer look into the Skyworld – and also learn something of Western Aranda cosmology regarding life on Earth.

Glimpses of Aranda cosmology Part 1 – Altjira Iliiŋka.

WARNING – contains images of Western Aranda People who have passed away.

Bruce Reyburn
May – Sept 2015

“Altjira has emu-feet (ilia – emu, inka – legs, feet) and it is for this reason he is called Altjira iliinka… He dwells in Heaven (alkira) which has existed since eternity (ngambakala); it is represented by the aborigines as a continent. The Milky Way is a great stream (larra; also ulbaia, called creek), with high trees and sweet pereninal (sic-R) springs; here are found delicious berries and fruit in great quantities; flights of birds inhabit the great kingdom of Altjira, while many animals, such as kangaroos (ara), wild cats (tjilpa) etc, prowl about in its huge hunting-grounds. While Altjira himself lies in wait for the game, which comes to the springs to quench its thirst, his wives collect fruits, which grow abundantly in all seasons. The stars (with the exception of a few constellations, which are regarded as belonging to Totem-Gods ascended to Heaven) are the camp-fires of Altjira.” (Carl Strehlow 1907:1-2 (Chewings translation)”

“Hence the sight of the starlit Central Australian sky brought no consolations of immortality to the dark folk who gazed at the full glory of its brilliant magnificence. For mortal men no bridge remained that might have linked the earth to with the sky.” (TGH Strehlow ‘Songs of Central Australia’ 1971:621)


This document is too long to post to a blog so i have opted to share it from Onedrive by url.!1694&authkey=!AL91lsRf06h3CIM



Larapinta Way – “As above, so below.”

Bruce Reyburn – July August 2015.


I learnt via a Facebook posting of the passing of John Morieson (who built on William Stanbridge’s pioneering indigenous astronomy for the Boorong family of Lake Tyrrell). I am not familiar with his work and look forward to learning more. The FB posting by Australian Indigenous Astronomy noted that he worked with Aboriginal communities for decades and that, in 1996, he completed an M.A. thesis at the University of Melbourne analysed Boorong Astronomy from the documents of William Stanbridge.

From a small website entry connect to the Facebook posting:

“We know that a basic principle in Aboriginal astronomy is that what is in the sky is a reflection of what is on earth. Therefore what is found in the sky gives us an understanding of what life was like for the Boorong Clan around Lake Tyrrell.” ( accessed 11 July 2015).

The image immediately formed in my mind of the sky as a huge reflecting mirror. That is, the complete opposite of the usual use of reflecting mirrors in constructing telescopes in order to peer further into the depths of distant galaxies.

It struck a chord with me as it summed up a line of enquiry of my own over the last week. As part of a larger work (in connection with Western Arrernte cosmology and Altyere or Altjira Iliiŋka – (The Emu-footed Sky-Being and his kin) I have been exploring the links between a Central Australian river and the Milky Way. The strong association between the river and the Milky Way suggested to me as “As above, so below” relationship.

But as Philip Clarke notes:

“In Aboriginal cosmology, the perceived Skyworld was a distorted reflection of the terrestrial landscape …” (Clarke 2014:321). Like a distorting mirror, the images are subject to forms of fantastic transformations, familiar in all systems of mythology. It is not a simple matter of looking for parallels between the world above and the world below.

The short entry the notes of John Morieson that, amongst other things:

“Through wide reading in several disciplines he attempts to place the sites in the landscape into their original context and to read the night sky as the people once did.”

What follows is the result of my initial – and brief – research which I put forward in a similar spirit.


There is something about being in desert of Central Australia which enables you to feel larger things more keenly.

In his book “Broken Song” about the life of T.G.H. Strehlow, Barry Hill writes about the presence of the usually dry and sandy Finke River near Ntaria, site of the Lutheran Hermannsburg mission, in Western  Aranda (Arrernte) country in Central Australia.

“At all times the Finke is a powerful presence as it snakes its way around the Range of Doom. In the afternoon light it spreads itself along as a welcome. At dusk it takes all the day down into itself. At night the stars fall into its sand which, under the flare of the Milky Way, is still white. In the middle of the night the pale belly of the snake has gone: it has rolled over and its course is as dark as the range. The first pink in the sky also washes the ridgeline. Finally, when the sun shows itself, the whole bed of the river is sitting up again: it wakes with a shout.

The little limestone church on the river’s bank might ring its bell, but the note gets lost along the river.” (Barry Hill “Broken Song” 2003:39-40)

Broken song? Barry Hill note that it is not the Songs of Life chanted across generations by senior lawmen that are not broken. Coming from country itself, they made of far more subtle and resilient ‘stuff’ than that. They will continue to inform our representations of life in the same way magnets arrange iron filings, and giant planets their spectacular halo rings.

(Picture of the Lutheran Mission Church at Hermannsburg, Ntaria, – by me 2015)

(Picture of river at back of Hermannsburg Mission buildings taken by me 2015)

(Pictures in front of the Kata-Anga Tea Rooms at Hermannsburg by me 2015)

(Picture – side arm of river near Hermannsburg – by me 2015)


” … I sent Kekwick to examine the creek and also another that I could see coming from the north plenty of water to serve our purpose the creeks very large with the finest gun trees we have yet seen, any size and any hight (sic-BR), this seems to be a favourite place for the Natives camping there are 11 wirlies at one encampment a number of new parrots and black cockatoo and numerous other birds, the creek runs over a space of about 2 miles coming from the west the bed sandy after leaving it on a bearing of 329° for 9 miles we passed over a plain of as fine a country as any man would wish to see a beautiful red soil covered with grass a foot high after that it become a little sandy and at 15 mile got into some sand hills but still the feed most abundant I have not passed through such splendid country since I have been in the colony I only hope it may continue the creek I have named the Finke after Wm Finke Esqr of Adelaide.” (Stuart Fourth Expedition Journal 1860 Wednesday 4 April – 1983 edition pp23-24)

Entering this earthly version of paradise, uninvited and without proper ceremony, the Scotsman John McDouall Stuart, in 1860, renamed the Larapinta river “Finke” in honour of William Finke, a German man living in South Australia, who was one of Stuart’s patrons. Both had been in this country for a little over 20 years. Looking for new economic advantages informed their eyes.

Others who came after Stuart learnt the name it was called by their Arrernte ‘hosts’ – “Larapinta” in some accounts. It has a certain ring to it. The name “larapinta” is well known today in Central Australia in somewhat narrow terms of the Larapinta Trail and the Larapinta Drive. There is also the Namatjira Drive, named in honour if the famous Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira. This country has a powerful force which calls up our creative spirit.

(Picture of The Finke/Larapinta near Glen Helen taken by me April 2015.)

When W.B. Spencer (later Sir) wrote up a leading section of the 1896 report of the 1894 Horn scientific expedition to Central Australia, he titled that section “Through Larapinta Land: A Narrative of the Horn Expedition to Central Australia.” (see )

In the Introduction, W.A. Horn (who did not complete the trip) wrote:

“In the very centre of the continent, and within the limits of the Eremian region, there exists an elevated tract of country, known as the McDonnell Ranges … The mountains are a the head of the Finke River, and, for this region, including the valley of the Finke, we have adopted the name Larapinta, from the native name for the Finke, “Larapinta,” and it was over this area most of our expeditions were conducted.” (1896 Part 1 Introduction vii)

Spencer wrote:

“These natives belong to the Arunta tribe, which occupies a large tract of land stretching from the Macumba Creek in the south about seventy miles north of Alice Springs. Westward it extends to Hermannsburg, and its eastward extension is not completely known. At Alice Springs it spreads out about a hundred miles to the east of the telegraph line Very often the men used to describe themselves as Larapinta blacks from the native name of the Finke River, which drains a considerable part of the country which they occupy.” (Spencer Report of the Horn Expedition Part 1 1896:39)

(Picture of cliff walls at Glen Helen, said to represent various Dreaming ancestors – taken by me 2015)

Spencer was not an anthropologist at this time. He met Frank Gillen while on the Horn Expedition and they later joined forces to carry out their famous fieldwork in Central Australia – first with Arrernte people and later with northern peoples, such as Warumungu at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station.

Dick Kimber, a Central Australian historian specialising in cross-cultural matters, has written about Larapinta in his chapter on Central Australia in the book “Aboriginal placenames” edited by Harold Koch and Luise Hercus (2009 ANU e-press edition).

We can glean some useful information from his fine research. (2009:291-292.)

Kimber provides a quote from Ernest Giles who was camped at the Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station in August 1872. In making inquiries to First Peoples about country to the west and north-west “They often used the words Larapinta and plenty blackfellow.” (Kimber cites Giles (18??) 1979 vol 1. 7-8)

Charlotte Waters is in Arrernte country in the map attached to Aranda Traditions. TGH Strehlow mentions that Arrernte country was said to extend all the way to Oodnadatta. (Aranda Traditions, (1947) 1968:70)

Later in the month (28th August 1872) while on the Finke, in an interaction with some indigenous men, Giles was able to confirm to his satisfaction that the river was called Larapinta. He added that “This word, amongst the Peake and Charlotte natives, means a snake, and from the continued serpentine windings of this peculiar and only Central Australian river, no doubt the name arrives.” (cites Giles 1979 vol1:17)

There are other Central Australian rivers, but the Finke appears to be an exceptionally good one. The Wikipedia entry notes the role of the incised meander. (see link for google maps image)

Kimber notes:

“Although the modern spelling is different (see below – R) Giles was correct in his Arrernte name for the river, but not quite correct in its meaning. Certainly the course of the river is perceived as having been made by a gigantic mythological snake … ” (Kimber 2009:291)

Kimber does not provide a reference for the source of the information regarding the river being formed by a gigantic Dreaming snake.

TGH Strehlow mentions:

‘The great water serpent of emiaŋa migrated from the Hamilton Creek in the Northern MacDonnells to Kantowala , in the middle course of the Finke River, in its early youth. When it was a full-grown hideous monster, it was summoned back home … The snake moved along slowly; its writhing body cleft deep furrows everywhere in its way home to Emiaŋa in the form of creeks and rocky gutters. ” (Aranda Traditions 1968:26)

This does not sound like the Finke River itself, but esoteric Western Arrernte law is not an open book available to all.

By complete contrast, a short and public pamphlet from Glen Helen roadhouse, café and tourist accommodation facility, located and within the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park on the upper reaches of the Finke River, says the name for the place is Ntjarnga – a waterhole “or oasis” – and that:

“Aboriginal people believe that ancestors like the Rainbow Serpent travelled over the land carving paths through it, which formed the landscape as it is today. This particular Rainbow Serpent was said to have travelled along the mountain range until it came to Glen Helen, where it stopped and drank at the waterhole. He then headed East along the McDonald (sic-BR) Ranges … ” (Glen Helen Sites and Stories.)

(Picture of waterhole at Glen Helen – by me April 2015)

The connection with a Rainbow Serpent raises a key question, given the tiers of Arrernte cosmology in which parallels are found between the terrestrial river and the Milky Way “As above, so below?”

That is, is there any Rainbow Serpent type figure associated with the Milky Way? The question can only be posed at this stage. I do not know the answer.

The Glen Helen pamphlet also says that Emu and Deaf/Death Adder are also part of the rich Dreaming complex in this part of the river’s course. Emu was hunted here and this may relate to the Western Arrernte night-sky Emu and Hunters figures mentioned in Maegraith. It notes, too, an important women’s site in the Gorge, Kwarre Tnemaye (Girl Standing). This rock formation is known in English as the Pipe Organs and was painted by Albert Namatjira. Charles Mountford wrote that he traced the Orion and Pleiades/Seven Sisters narrative over a long distance to Glen Helen (Mountford (1965) 1981:20).

Kimber continues his account of Larapinta as a placename with the arrival of Lutheran missionaries at Ntaria in June 1877 to establish the Hermmansburg mission on the river. He provides a very interesting quote from Scherer which connects the river to the Milky Way:

“After evening devotion they sprawled out to sleep on the sandy river-bed of the Finke River, which (Heidenreich says) the people called the earth’s Milky Way on account of its multitudinous white sand, and from which the Heavenly Milky Way was thought to derive. The native name for the Finke was ‘Lara Beinta’.(Scherer 1975: 44)

Kimber continues:

“Scherer, who translated the old German records, adds that ‘Lara Beinta'”[properly] – means “Salt River” … This translation is widely accepted, in that, except in flood, the Finke contains certain waterholes that are constantly salty …” (Kimber in Koch and Hercus 2009:292)

He also provides, through Scherer, the information from the missionary Rev L Schulze that:

“The Milky Way they term ‘Ulbaia” – i.e., water-course” (refs Schulze 1891: 221)

Kimber notes that ulbaia is an alternative for lara and, in more recent Arrernte orthographies, ulbaia = ulpaye and lara = lhere.

Kimber also records that, in 1886, Hermannsburg missionary Rev H Kempe wrote to F.E.H.W. Krichauff who translated the German:

“The Finke is call ‘Lirambenda’.’ Lira’ is a creek, and ‘mbenda’ permanent water and spring” (Kimber ibid)

TGH uses Lira Beinta on his map of Aboriginal Central Australia (Included in his 1971 ‘Songs of Central Australia’). (diphthong ‘ei’ in Beinta)

Spencer, who had a long association with the name Larapinta (and associated journal articles and correspondence) noted, in 1927 :

” … the natives living along the Finke River, who are often spoken of as Larapinta blacks, to distinguish them from other groups, Larapinta being the native name of the river. (Fn 1) The pronunciation of the name of this river, that runs from the north-west to the south-east across Arunta country, varies in different localities. It is often pronounced as if spelt Larapeinda.” (Spencer 1927 Vol 1: 179)

Amongst the journal articles he would have known “The Religious Ideas of the Arunta’ by N.W. Thomas (Folk-Lore Vol 16 No 4.)

Thomas, following up South Australian reports by the missionary Kempe and also reproduced by Krichauff, Thomas had written to Carl Strehlow regarding the absence of mention of an Emu-footed sky-being in Spencer and Gillen’s 1899 publication “The Native Tribes of Central Australia”. Thomas mentions that Gillen had previously given an account of this sky-being in the report of the Horn expedition.

His condensed translation of Carl Strehlow reads, in part:

“Altjira is surrounded by handsome youths and immortal virgins. He is the creator of the heavenly bodies – sun. moon and stars. The Milky Way is a river, hence called by the blacks lara, river, or ulbaia, creek; birds and beasts, too, wander through the realm of Altjira. When rain clouds come up, it is Altjira walking through the sky – a good omen for mankind of a season of plenty. Altjira shows himself to man in the lightning; the thunder is his voice … ” (Carl Strehlow 1905 letters to N.W. Thomas, translated from German).

The translated letter from Carl Strehlow 20/12/01 which is to be found on is similar in content to those dated Feb 11 and August 3 1905 used by Thomas.

In 1907 Carl Strehlow began publication of his main ethnographic work: Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien, Ed. Städtisches Völkerkunde-Museum Frankfurt am Main and Moritz Freiherr v. Leonhardi, Vol. 1-5, Frankfurt 1907-1920

Carl Strehlow’s 1907 published account, translated from German by Chewings, expanded a little on this picture:

“The Milky Way is a great stream (larra; also ulbaia, called creek), with high trees and sweet perennial springs: here are found delicious berries and fruit in great quantities; flights of birds …” (from Carl Strehlow major work, Chewing’s English extract on

It is not clear to me what the Western Arrernte name is for the Milky Way. The IAD Press Eastern and Central Arrernte picture dictionary gives ‘amiwara’. Their Western Arrernte picture dictionary is out of print and difficult to locate.

TGH provides amewara as its name in the Alitera dialect (Hale River (Songs:179) – accent over the ‘e’.) He also provides a fascinating comment in his glossary:

“Amewara Tnataŋa (“The foot of the Milky Way” or “The great beam of the Milky Way”), the Aranda name for Port Augusta, …” (Songs 735 – Strehlow text has accents.)

Tnataŋa can be glossed, as TGH does, as a ceremonial pole. Examples of these, which may be restricted to initiated men, are highly decorated.

Spencer, in ‘The Arunta’:

“Nurtŭnja. A pole used in sacred ceremonies, emblematic of the animal or plant giving its name to the totem with which the ceremony is connected.” (accent over first ‘u’.) (Vol 2 (1927) 2011:622)

That information certainly opens up the vault of the Central Australian night sky!

The distance from the flood-out of the Finke River, disappearing into the Simpson Desert, to Port Augusta, at the head of Spencer Gulf, is some several hundred kilometres. The Dreaming track/Songlines connections between Arrernte people and Port Augusta have been documented by others.

Philip Clarke notes the work of Luise Hercus regarding the Urumbula songline in Nukunu language, which goes from Port Augusta, through Central Australia to the Gulf of Carpenteria in Western Queensland. Quoting Hercus:

“The main feature was a huge tree, so high that it was like a great ceremonial pole which in turn represented the Milky Way. This giant tree was located close to the present day Port Augusta Hospital.” (Clarke ‘Aboriginal People and their Plants’ (2007) 2009:24. Hercus ‘A Nukunu Dictionary’ 1992:3.)

(An old tree, in Todd Street, Mparntwe – Alice Springs – taken by me 2015)

Clarke says “see also Strehlow 1970:94-5). OK. There TGH said:

“Some of these Central Australian linking myths were almost certainly based on actual long-distance travels and on historical events. The Eastern and Lower Southern Aranda urumbula myth which linked such Simpson Desert centres as Akara and Pmar Ulbura with Amewara Tnataŋa (Port Augusta) was without doubt one of these. Not only was the 600-mile route described in the myth a practicable one – human beings could have followed it in ease during good seasons – but the urumbula verses sung at Port Augusta were composed, not in Paŋkala but in Aranda, and the Simpson Desert urumbula verses sung at Akara and Pmar Ulbura celebrated a tnatantja pole standing in the sea at Port Augusta.” (1970:94-95. Check original for TGH accents).

During my research with Warumungu people in the 1980s I was told that people from the Gulf of Carpenteria would come to the Devil’s Marbles, 100km south of Tennant Creek, as part of a major gathering involving numerous other language groups. They had their own designated camping places in the country around that large complex. There were also large gatherings, when good seasons allowed, on the Barky Tableland.

While I cannot say if Arrernte people were present, there are clear links between the Northern Arrernte major Fire Dreaming site of Rubuntja and the Warumungu Fire Dreaming country Warupuntja (within sight of the Devil’s Marbles). These links were explicitly affirmed either as being related by a spark from one going to the other site and/or burning underground. These Dreaming connections would have enabled visiting by one group to the other.

Opening our minds to the realities of life in this country prior to the arrival of Europeans requires gaining a better degree of appreciation of the extent of the flow of messages, services and people over large areas.

I find it useful to regard the messages which travelled along Dreaming tracks or Songlines as being like messages travelling along life’s meta-neural systems, connecting one part of country (as though a form of intelligence) to another.

These messages, which originate ‘outside’ of humanity, pass through humanity and flow back into the cosmos – to allow life to govern itself.

Such talk is nonsense, of course, to descendants of a Neolithic tradition which created a false image of themselves in order to seek to impose their narrowly will on life (an impossible task, as it happens, and the feedback from life that this is so continues to be ignored by those who, enjoying self-privileging positions in the resulting distorted life-formation, present themselves as a governing elite.)

While materialistic minds can detect the carrier signals for these messages, lacking the appropriate codes we cannot understand what they say.

It is striking in this regard to pay due homage to Carl Strehlow, who was (I understand) the first to debunk the earlier misunderstanding that the Songs of Aranda peoples were meaningless. The great work of his son continued in this major task.

At the very least, these songs contain the real poetry of this country – poetry formed by eons of intimate relationships with all aspects of life here.

And, in my ‘working hypothesis’, they contain metaphors which not only provide the means for interpreting experience, they enable Being to truly connect with Cosmos. These complex arrangements of metaphors represent the combined wisdom of real life gained over countless generations.

Stepping back for a moment from all this detail, there is clearly a parallel in Arrernte thinking between the major feature of the landscape – the great river – and the major feature of the overhead sky – the Milky Way.

This may be a major link – a sort of master analogy which informs Western Arrernte cosmology.

TGH Strehlow notes in ‘Songs of Central Australia’ (as does Kimber page 318) the role played both by oblique references and systematic substitutions of metaphorical alternatives in Arrernte texts. The Milky Way is itself included amongst the examples provides by TGH (1971:179), in verses which include a reference to a sacred site on the final flood-out of the Finke river.

“The variant names are often greatly different in nature, particularly when poetic imagery is used, … This suggests that sites almost certainly had alternative names …” (Kimber 318) This sounds very much like the ‘codes’ of Levi-Strauss which allow information (in myth-narratives) to be transposed from one register, as it were, to another in order to convey the same message.

To think of Larapinta as ‘Salty Waterhole River’ hardy does justice to its importance. Perhaps it is an oblique or overt way to refer to something of more esoteric importance?

TGH, in providing a glowing account of the Western Arrernte country he knew so well, provided a more rounded picture;

“The Finke itself contains a considerable number of permanent water-holes, some of the most important being Arotna, Rama, Tnjima, Ntarea and Irbmaŋkara. Wherever there is no surface water a soak can be obtained with ease anywhere in the bed of the Finke from Japalpa in the north-west to Irbmaŋkara (Running Waters) in the south-east, by digging a few feet into the deep coarse sand and smoothly-worn gravel stones of the river bed. The Finke, however, carries much salt; and quite a number of salty lagoons, bitter with minerals, are to be found in the river bed, often only a few hundred yards away from open expanses of sweet water.” (Aranda Traditions p60)

And how sweet that water can be in this part of a very arid country!

There is clearly a very strong analogy between the Larapinta and the Milky Way. One is compared to the other with ease. The bountiful features of the Milky Way are those which accord with the first recordings of Larapinta by Stuart.

What we can draw together from these various elements a supernatural serpent, thunder and lightning, water, plants and animals, birds … a great river running through the land, a great spectacle in the night sky. Glimmers of possible connections have to do.

There is very much a sense of ‘LIFE’ in this rich mix (complete with its counterbalancing salty aspects as though yang to yin). Life in capital letters.

TGH records that, after a season of abundance, and with the onset of harder times:

“… Northern men and Western men would meet once again at Japalpa (Finke Gorge), where, according to Western Aranda traditions, the first shapeless human beings came into life on the banks of the rock-sheltered water-hole which defies even the most prolonged attacks of a Central Australian drought.” (Aranda Traditions p 50)

From his map in Songs, the Finke Gorge where Japalja is located is south of Glen Helen rather than in the Finke Gorge National Park (south of Hermannsburg), and thus closer to the source of the river.


Milky Way


At one end of an imaginary rainbow, the place where humanity came into life – and at other end, by the ‘salty’ waters of far distant Port Augusta, the ‘foot’ of the decorated powerful ceremonial pole, the light source of the great beam of the Milky Way.

Now there’s a glowing cosmic picture awaiting a very good artist from Namatjira country!

(see, for example, the wonderful pottery work being done by Hermannsburg potters at )