Songlines have been a prominent feature of Aboriginal cultures for over 60,000 years. Songlines explain the laws by which desert people have lived, and the origins of this country. For an elder in Central Australia, these songlines are part of life, and are second nature, whereas to outsiders explaining the significance of songlines remains incredibly difficult.
Songlines trace astronomy and geographical elements in ancient stories that have helped shape the landscape to what it is today. They were first used as a form of communication across areas of Australia. Noel Pearson, in his quarterly essay A Rightful Place, compares the Songlines of Central Australia to the Odyssey, the Iliad, and the Book of Genesis - referring to these Songlines as Australia's very own Book of Genesis.
The term ‘Songlines’ was prescribed and became popularised by author Bruce Chatwin in the 1980’s in his book ‘Songlines’. There was controversy over this name, as it implied that Aboriginal people would sing their way across the country like an ancient GPS or commuter map. While Songlines do in fact chart the landscape of Australia, there is no navigational radar interwoven into these songs.
"The songlines shouldn't be just an anthropological footnote, but a part of Australian history as it is taught in schools. To tell the real story of this continent, you've got to have both histories. They are held in different ways, told in different ways, but are essentially complementary. To really belong to this place, you've got to embrace the songlines. They are the story of this land." - Margot Neale
Songlines are passed from elder to elder over thousands of years. Many of the routes shared through songlines, are now modern highways and roads across Australia. The famous route across the Nullarbor between Perth and Adelaide came from songlines, as did the highway between the Kimberleys and Darwin.
The songlines of the Seven Sisters are some of the most significant and comprehensive creation tracks that cross Australia. This story is one of magic and desire, hot pursuit and escape, and the strength and power of family ties. The Seven Sisters story can be tracked from Roeburn in the West of Australia, all the way to the east coast of Australia passing through the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) lands in the Northern Territory and South Australia. As the story crosses through many different lands, the story is carried by the Martu, the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra people.
It is a tense and epic narrative, which is as complex and exciting as Greek mythology. As the Seven Sisters leave Roeburn, they are pursued by an evil shape-shifting spirit called Wati Nyiru or Yurlu, who drives the sisters East across the land and into the night sky - where they become the Pleiades star cluster. The songline crosses three deserts in an epic story that is also one of the oldest ever told in this country.
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters was an exhibition that showed this story. It can now be explored from this website
Seven Sisters Songline 1994 by Josephine Mick, Ninuku Arts. © the artist / Licensed by Viscopy, 2017. Photo: National Museum of Australia
The Seven Sisters story is not unique to Australia. We see stories of seven sisters appear in stories from many cultures, including the Persians, Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and Native American people. It is incredible that people from all over the globe could derive a similar story from the stars, that of seven sisters being pursued by a single male.
Main photo: National Museum of Australia, 2017