I was surprised when I found out this wasn’t the first card in the deck. The emu is a very important animal in aboriginal culture, featuring in a lot of the dreamings and in their astronomy.
But first, let’s find out a bit about this important bird. They are the second tallest living bird reaching over 6 foot tall. They are flightless but can travel great distances and run at speeds of over 30mph if they need to.
In the breeding season, males will build nests and wait for females to approach them. Females can become aggressive during this process and fight for access to males. Once they’ve had sex, dad will become quite broody and settles down for the 8 week incubation period. This is a tough time for dad and he will definitely need his endurance for it. Whilst incubating the eggs, he doesn’t eat or drink and will lose about a third of his body weight. Generally the female leaves him to it and goes off to mate with someone else. Once born, it takes about six months to grow up, during which time they are protected by dad from predators and threats including the mother emu. Dad is an incredibly responsible parent, enduring difficult situations to raise them and provides them with a stable and grounded start to life. To make it through his time parenting, he must pace himself. Endurance requires the preparation and mentality of a marathon, not a sprint.
Emus forage for plants and insects but have been known to go for weeks without eating. They also swallow small stones which help to grind up and digest the plant materials. Emus don’t need frequent access to water but will drink a lot when it is available. Similarly, when food is abundant they lay down large stores of fat, again demonstrating the preparedness needed to endure difficult times.
Emus were used as a food source and every part of them was used in some way. The meat for eating, the feathers for use in ceremony, the fat for oil, tendons for string and bones for tools.
The emu features in a lot of aboriginal mythology, for example a number of groups say that the egg of the emu was thrown into the sky and it’s yolk lit a fire that illuminated the world below and hence we have the sun.
There are a few different tales about how the emu lost her flight. In one, she convinced the wild turkey to kill her young so emu would have more chicks and hence more status. In revenge, wild turkey tricked emu into cutting of her wings. In another, the emu was a sky bird and never touched the earth. She saw people singing and dancing and was tempted into landing on the ground. She wanted to join them but when she asked if she could, they hid their arms behind them and said the emu couldn’t because her wings would get in the way of life on land. Emu really wanted to stay so she cut them off and soon learned she’d been tricked. Nearby the kookaburra had watched this all and laughed and laughed and still laughs today when he remembers.
The poor emu seems to endure a lot of mockery… although their depiction in culture may make up for this. They are considered the unofficial bird of Australia and appear opposite the red kangaroo on the country’s coat of arms.
Whilst the emu is considered a solar animal, it does have a lunar link; the emu in the sky. Ray Norris discusses the astronomy of aboriginal people and the emu in the sky in Cultural Impacts of Astronomy: Astronomy Of Indigenous Australia. It is said that emu is a protector and can be seen stretching across the milky way. Her position in the sky indicates when it is time to collect emu eggs.
Plan ahead, use all the resources you’ve got and be careful of people out to trick you.