Afterlife: Australian Indigenous Concepts

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There are no easy generalizations to be made when dealing with issues associated with ritual particular beliefs in indigenous Australia pertaining to the question of what happens to the spirits of individuals after death. This article will focus on one region of Australia to illustrate concepts involving what may loosely be called afterlife. The particular group is the Yanyuwa people of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia's Northern Territory.

For the Yanyuwa, the body possesses two spirits: the first, ardirri, comes from the land of one's paternal ancestors, and begins the process of pregnancy. Upon birth, this spirit inhabits the bones of an individual, as they are considered the least corruptible body parts. The second spirit is the na-ngawulu, which is often translated as the "shade" or "shadow" of an individual, also the Yanyuwa word for an actual shadow. This spirit is represented in the body by the pulse or the heartbeat. There is also the wuwarr spirit, which upon death manifests itself as a ghost of a person. Certain ritual actions take place in the community to remove the presence of the wuwarr spirit, potentially dangerous and malevolent, described as jealous of its living kin. The na-ngawulu is said to travel east to the spirit world, where it will live in contentment in a rich environment, but speaking a new language and "having new ears so it can no longer hear its living relatives" (Dinah Norman Marrngawi, personal communication, 2004). In more recent timessince contact with Christianitythis is the spirit that is said to travel to heaven or hell.

In the past, the piercing of the nasal septum was a common practice in Yanyuwa society. This was said to open the nose so that upon death, the spirit of the deceased would be able to smell the spirit world. The body was placed on a platform until the flesh decayed, and then the bones were gathered for further ritual to take place one to two years later. Today, internment takes place in a cemetery, but the post-funeral rituals occur as in the past. These rituals are said to join the wuwarr spirit to the ardirri (creating a spirit called the kuyara ), and to send the spirit back to its own spiritual source on the land, where it can await rebirth as another human being. In the past, this return to country was actual, with the bones of the deceased interred in a hollow log coffin decorated with powerful designs relating to the deceased individual and country of origin. Contemporary Yanyuwa people see no conflict with new systems relating to death and dealing with various spirits, and indigenous Australians are able to construct relevant understandings of what happens after death.

However, the spirits of deceased individuals are also said to remain in the country they once inhabited, constituting a community that parallels the living Yanyuwa community. These spirits of the deceased continue to hunt and travel all over the country and sea, watching the actions of their living relatives. The spirits are said to be jealous of their living kin, and to have the ability, if they choose, to cause harm and hardship. Conversely, they can help the living, appearing in dreams and assisting their relatives with the retention of information such as place names and song cycle verses.

There are times when the inhabitants of this spirit world and the land itself are seen to be one and the same. In speaking about the land and these deceased kin, people interchange the terms for land (awara) and spirits (li-ngabangaku) often colloquially as the old people (li-wankala), so that one can talk about how the country has become poor and then say that the spirits of the deceased are jealous or cheeky. Both of these comments mean the same thing. One way of dealing with a land that has spirits residing within it is by actively speaking to the land, or "talking to country." This may involve long speeches in high oratory, or may consist of a simple statement that says no more than "here I am." Senior men and women may do no more than shout to announce their presence. This is especially so if people are still often in touch with the locality they are visiting; the land and the spirits of the deceased residing there will be familiar with them. There are times when nothing needs to be said, because people are still moving through the location. When people have not visited a locality for a long period of time, or the actions of the deceased kin are said to be working against the living, speaking to country becomes one way in which a consensus is reached between the living and the dead. By the use of oratory, order is created whereby the speaker draws on the past, reaching out to the deceased kin through genealogy and relationship, and identifying a person or group of people with a locality. It also states by what authority the person is coming to the country, and in what way the person is related. This authority is conveyed by the calling of place names and the names of people who were once associated with the country. The use of names provides a key by which an understanding is given to the event as it unfolds, but the names are also echoes from the past and links with the present generation, and are important for the negotiation of entry to place. A common phrase used in these orations translates as "do not be ignorant towards me." They are also rhetorical statements of an individual's position in relation to significant others. The presentation of self and negotiation with such orations are not beyond dispute and are also the topic of conversations where they will be evaluated against the status of the individual. People can also still often have accidental interaction with these spirits; some of these interactions are seen to be alarming and potentially dangerous while others are seen to be humorous and to be expected. Either way, they become an important source of storytelling.

While there are formal means by which the spirits of deceased are to be dealt with, there is no clear-cut understanding about the ultimate nature of the spirit in Yanyuwa society and what happens at death. What is clear, however, is that a portion of a deceased person will still reside on the land and it is this spirit that involves constant negotiation. While generalizations can be misleading in relation to indigenous understanding of death and afterlife, this belief in spirits of the deceased on the land is widespread across much of Australia.


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John J. Bradley (2005)