Milŋuyawuy | The Milky Way

Munuminya and Yikawaŋa went hunting for fish in the river Milmooya. They made a canoe, addles and fishing spears. They caught many fish, but they could only hunt by day. There was no light at night because there were no stars in the sky. Munuminya and Yikawaŋa  called the people together. ‘We are going to leave you,’ they said. ‘We will travel in our canoe and we will go to a new place in the sky. We are going to becomes stars to let you know where we are. We will make a new home for you. you will travel to this new home in the sky after you die. The two men paddled away in their canoe. They paddled along the river Milŋiya. Then they went up into the sky and they were changed into two very bright stars.

– NARRITJIN MAYMURU (as told to Ted Egan)

Milŋiyawuy is the name for the river that flows from the wetland of Mayawunydji into Blue Mud Bay, and also for the Yirritja moiety land of the dead—the Milky Way. On death, one part of a person’s spirit returns to their homelands, but another manifests as the stars of the Milky Way. The path to the Milky Way was forged by the ancestral Guwak men, who rose to the Milky Way using a great rope of possum fur string that extends from the Marawili tree at Djarrakpi. As their canoe was tossed by waves, the Guwak encountered numerous other ancestral beings including Ŋäw’ (Freshwater Crocodile ancestor), and Ŋuykal (Kingfish ancestor), and the Nyerrkada (Rock Cod ancestor), which can be seen in the constellations of the Milky Way.

Milŋiyawuy has a dual reference. It is the mayaŋ’ (river) of stars that crosses the night sky, which English speakers call the Milky Way, and it is also a mayaŋ’ on earth that flows out into northern Blue Mud Bay. The constellations of the Milŋiyawuy in the heavens are instantiations of animals and people who once lived in the waters below—ŋäw’ (freshwater crocodiles), yambirrku’ (parrotfish), crabs, fishermen in their boats. The manikay (songlines) about Milŋiyawuy reference both the places on earth where the people and animals live, and this parallel world in the sky. Stories tell of possible ways in which the two are and have been connected and disconnected. In one narrative, a length of possum-fur string linked the two realms before it was severed. Although there is no longer a visible rope, the two remain connected, since Milŋiyawuy in the night sky is one of the places where spirits of the dead can be seen, in the bir’yunar (brilliant shining) of the stars.