I love the serendipitous quality of learning, how a word from someone or an image one stumbles upon can lead us to a new thought, a new question, a new direction… or a paradigm shift in one’s own thoughts. I experienced this again in the last couple of weeks, when a reading suggestion lead me to insights about the breadth and diversity of lunar lore and perceptions, and to thoughts on integrity specific to how indigenous stories are collected and disseminated.
I had been planning a post on Right Relationship with Grandmother Moon for our Moon Seeds newsletter (click here to subscribe) but put it temporarily on hold. Sometimes my writing flows almost in a stream of consciousness, but this time it felt like something was missing. I couldn’t express myself and couldn’t bring my thoughts together. When I am in that place, I know it is best to put the work aside, to not force it, and to let the ideas flow naturally deep within but to also raise my conscious awareness to insights I might glean from experiences or observations.
And then in a stroke of serendipity, two friends spontaneously recommended the same book to me within a few days. Neither knew each other, but both knew me and my interests, and neither knew I was temporarily blocked and looking for inspiration! It felt like a sign, something to pursue. The book was Sean Kane’s Wisdom of the Mythtellers which explores “the ideas and emotions of the Earth expressed through stories—stories distilled from millennia of treading warily in nature” and explores four kinds of ancestral dream-mapping including (per the publisher’s description “Native Australian, Native American, Celtic, and Greek”). I love the bardic storytelling traditions, and immediately reserved the book from our local library.
When the book arrived a few days later, I jumped in and immediately had yet another awakening, a paradigm shift. How? In the opening prologue, the author shared Stanzas 12 and 13 from the 13-stanza Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone, from the Wonguri-Mandjigai (aka Wangurri) people of north-eastern Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. This song cycle is about the relationship the Wangurri people have with the moon, evening star, and the land. Stanza 12 described the lunar cycle from New Moon to Full Moon to Dark Moon in these excerpts:
Now the New Moon is hanging, having cast away his bone: Gradually he grows larger, taking on new bone and flesh. …. Hanging there in the sky, above those clans ... “Now I'm becoming a big moon, slowly regaining my roundness' …” … The old Moon dies to grow new again, to rise up out of the sea.
I was struck by the beauty of the poetry, and by the strong connection — and Right Relationship — the Wangurri people have with the moon, and how for them it embodied a masculine energy whilst for me the moon is a feminine energy.
Intellectually, I knew the moon was perceived differently around the world and now saw that perceptual difference in another way: as, perhaps, an opening into our own spiritual subconscious and how we individually create our own story about the moon, possibly aligned with the moon stories we learned from our own culture or from other cultures, and how that moon story may inform how we create Right Relationship with the moon (and, of course, Mama Earth and all others sky allies).
For me it was an invitation to ponder what I thought about the moon and my relationship with her — my personal moon story.
And yet, I felt some discomfort as I read the song cycle, which was published simply as a poem in scholarly and poetry journals, disconnected from its original Wangurri traditions and purpose.
The collection of the Moon-Bone Song Cycle
I began to look for more information about this remarkable piece of Indigenous poetry and history. I learned from one report of the song’s origins and collection that discussion of a nautilus shell on the beach (pictured below) with Ronald Berndt, an Australian anthropologist, prompted a discussion of the Moon-Bone Song. The Wangurri elders then sang the song cycle accompanied by yidaki (pictured above, an Indigenous Australian wind instrument similar to didgeridoo, the latter being the colonial word) and clap sticks, as the moon rose over the water. During the song cycle, the singers would pass a string through their hands, to “pull the evening star across the sky”. The physical string represented the metaphysical or spiritual gurrutu, a Wangurri concept meaning “the string that ties it all together”.
The song, for me, was also a string tying together my own thoughts about the moon and how we each have our own relationship with it-her-him… and also prompted speculation on how the Wangurri felt about sharing their song.
The song was originally collected and recorded in the late 1940s, then translated and published in Oceania magazine, a cultural anthropology journal, by Berndt in 1948. In a Wikipedia article, he is described as “an early advocate for legal recognition and protection of Aboriginal sacred sites”.
In an introduction to the song-poem in Oceania magazine, Berndt introduces ‘The Moon-Bone’ by telling the myth “in which the Moon and his sister the Dugong argue about whether to be mortal or immortal. She remains mortal, with lily roots in her stomach, while he decides to become immortal, growing thin and dying into the sea, his bones washing up as nautilus shell. Then after three days he comes back to life, growing round again, rising into the sky. The narrative is elliptically present in ‘The Moon-Bone’, emerging only at the end. Like the shell, the song-poem is part of something beyond itself.” (as quoted in the Nicholas Jose article in Westerly magazine)
Nautilus shell. Collected north-east Arnhem Land, 1946.112 x 220 x 172 mm. Gifted by R. M. and C. H. Berndt [Accessionno. 1946/0095]. Image courtesy of the Berndt Museum of
Anthropology. Photo: Nicholas Jose, for his article "The Story of the Moon-Bone" in Westerly magazine.
We now know that some anthropologists and song collectors did not always translate the original works accurately or combined various versions using their own artistic (but not necessarily authentic) license. In some cases, they did not have permission to do so as these songs are preserved in oral traditions, handed down from one generation to the next, and not shared beyond the tribe or clan. These songs and poems are often sacred blessings, or ceremonial songs for ritual, intended to be used only on those special occasions. For instance, the Carmina Gadelica — long considered a treasury of Scottish Gaelic-spoken lore, prayers, hymns, chants, and collected from 1860 and 1909 — is still considered a good source of their traditions, but from examining the workbooks of the collector/publisher, Alexander Carmichael, we know now that he did combine and embellish various versions for a more poetic aspect.
This may be the case, too, with the Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone. Berndt said he collected the songs and other lore as a means of cultural preservation. Was this in alignment with Wangurri traditions? Did they want it disseminated so widely in scholarly journals? For a fascinating scholarly in-depth history of this poem-song, including the knowledge transfer from the Wangurri people of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia to western scholars and anthropologists, click here to read The Story of the Moon-Bone by Nicholas Jose in Westerly Mag Issue 65, p 13 – 31 (2020). It is a fascinating read and also raises our awareness to issues of integrity and sovereignty when recording and publishing indigenous works.
Text, The Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone
I found a free online source for the full text of the Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone in a Yale Alumni course post. The materials were shared as a resource for their Reading Australia course. Click here to read it (you will have to scroll down past a couple of other poems). The final two stanzas, 12 and 13, of the song cycle speak to the story of the moon’s origins and its relationship with other sky allies. I share those below.
The images shared below are two bark paintings (both images under Creative Commons licence), on display at the Australian Museum. These works, often considered dreamtime paintings, are created with earth-based pigments painted onto bark collected from the stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta).
Stanza 12 Now the New Moon is hanging, having cast away his bone: Gradually he grows larger, taking on new bone and flesh. Over there, far away, he has shed his bone: he shines on the place of the Lotus Root, and the place of the Dugong, On the place of the Evening Star, of the Dugong's Tail, of the Moonlight clay pan ... His old bone gone, now the New Moon grows larger; Gradually growing, his new bone growing as well. Over there, the horns of the old receding Moon bent down, sank into the place of the Dugong: His horns were pointing towards the place of the Dugong. Now the New Moon swells to fullness, his bone grown larger. He looks on the water, hanging above it, at the Place of the Lotus. There he comes into sight, hanging above the sea, growing larger and older ... There far away he has come back, hanging over the clans near Milingimbi ... Hanging there in the sky, above those clans ... “Now I'm becoming a big moon, slowly regaining my roundness' …” In the far distance the horns of the Moon bend down, above Milingimbi, Hanging a long way off, above Milingimbi Creek ... Slowly the Moon Bone is growing, hanging there far away. The bone is shining, the horns of the Moon bend down. First the sickle Moon on the old Moon's shadow; slowly he grows, And shining he hangs there at the Place of the Evening Star ... Then far away he goes sinking down, to lose his bone in the sea; Diving towards the water, he sinks down out of sight. The old Moon dies to grow new again, to rise up out of the sea. Stanza 13 Up and up soars the Evening Star, hanging there in the sky. Men watch it, at the place of the Dugong and of the Clouds, and of the Evening Star. A long way off, at the place of Mist, of Lilies and of the Dugong. The Lotus, the Evening Star, hangs there on its long stalk, held by the Spirits. It shines on that place of the Shade, on the Dugong place, and on to the Moonlight clay pan ... The Evening Star is shining, back towards Milingimbi, and over the Wulamba people ... Hanging there in the distance, towards the place of the Dugong, The place of the Eggs, of the Tree-Limbs-Rubbing-Together, and of the Moonlight clay pan ... Shining on its short stalk, the Evening Star, always there at the clay pan, at the place of the Dugong ... There, far away, the long string hangs at the place of the Evening Star, the place of the Lilies. Away there at Milingimbi ... at the place of the Full Moon, Hanging above the head of that Wonguri tribesman: The Evening Star goes down across the camp, among the white gum trees ... Far away, in these places near Milingimbi ... Goes down among the Ngurulwulu people, towards the camp and the gum trees, At the place of the Crocodiles, and of the Evening Star, away towards Milingimbi ... The Evening Star is going down, the Lotus Flower on its stalk ... Going down among all those western clans ... It brushes the heads of the uncircumcised people ... Sinking down in the sky, that Evening Star, the Lotus ... Shining on to the foreheads of all those head-men ... On to the heads of all those Sandfly people ... It sinks there into the place of the white gum trees, at Milingimbi.
Do you have a Moon story?
How does the Moon — and your moon story — manifest in your personal practice or spirituality?