Australian Mythology in Context
Australia, a vast land dominated by desert and semi-desert landscapes, was first inhabited by the Aborigines (pronounced ab-uh-RIJ-uh-neez). The mythology of Australia comes from these people and has been influenced by their very close relationship with the natural environment. Most of the myths deal with the features of the landscape, how they were created, and their importance to the Aborigines.
In Australian mythology, there are no standard versions of individual myths. Instead, a tale about a particular character varies from region to region. The reason for these variations in the mythology lies in the lifestyle of the Aborigines.
The first humans to inhabit Australia, the Aborigines, may have arrived more than fifty thousand years ago. They probably came from the islands north of the Australian continent, now known as Indonesia, or from islands in the Pacific Ocean. Some scholars believe that the earliest inhabitants traveled overland across a land bridge that once connected Australia and southeastern Asia. Later people arrived by raft or boat after the ocean rose, covering the land route.
The early inhabitants were semi-nomads who survived by hunting wild animals, fishing, and gathering fruits and plants. Each group had a home territory where their ancestors had originally settled; however, most groups moved with the seasons as they ran out of food and fresh water. This semi-nomadic lifestyle exposed some Aborigines to new regions and brought various groups into contact with one another.
For thousands of years, the Aboriginal way of life was hardly touched by outside influences. Then, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, European colonists began to arrive in Australia. Today the Aborigines make up little more than 2 percent of Australia's population, and few of them maintain their traditional way of life. Aware that the breakdown of their semi-nomadic lifestyle and oral traditions could lead to a loss of their heritage, some Aborigines are making an effort to collect and record their myths and legends for future generations.
By participating in certain rituals, individuals are able to reenact the journeys of their ancestors. The ritual reenactment of a myth is as important as the story itself. The rituals involve singing, dancing, and painting, which, according to the Aborigines, nurtures the land, the people, and the ancestral beings. The individuals who perform the ritual call upon the ancestral beings and later sing a song to return them to their place of emergence.
Aboriginal rituals also include the creation of mythological designs, such as the body paintings, ground paintings, rock paintings, and engravings found throughout Australia. The Aborigines decorate sacred objects and weapons to represent certain myths. They chant a myth to attach it to the object being decorated. When a sacred object or place is touched, struck, or rubbed, it releases the spirit that inhabits it. Such rituals are preserved and repeated to establish ties between past, present, and future generations.
Core Deities and Characters
The Australian Aborigines are comprised of many different tribes across Australia, and their deities vary widely from region to region. Underlying this variation, however, is the belief in the mythical era known as the Dreamtime , when the ancestor spirits created the world. These spirit ancestors continue to affect Aboriginal life today in the Dreaming rituals. Song chants, dances, and art retell the stories of the Dreamtime and assure the continuity of life, cultural values, and law.
The Dreamtime ancestors were totem figures—animal or human mythological ancestors to whom the contemporary Aboriginal groups trace their ancestry. As familial ancestors, they will continue to provide for their descendents as long as the proper rituals are performed. The great Rainbow Serpent was one of the creator ancestor spirits who emerged from the ground in the Dreamtime and is an important mythological figure today. As a protector of water resources, the Rainbow Serpent constantly battles with the Sun to preserve water holes in the sometimes dry Australian landscape. If not properly respected through ritual, however, the Rainbow Serpent can inflict punishment on the people.
Aboriginal myths fall under different categories. Some are public and may be shared with all members of a group. Others are restricted; only people who have participated in certain special ceremonies may hear them. Some sacred stories may only be told and heard by men, while others are restricted to women or to the elder members of the community.
The Aborigines believe that the world began during a mythical period called the Dreamtime. During this time, powerful ancestral beings that slept beneath the ground emerged from the earth. They created the landscape, made people, established the laws by which people lived, and taught them how to survive. They also established the correct relationships between the many Aboriginal clan groups, between people and animals, and between people and the land. After the ancestral beings' work was done, they returned underground. The Aborigines actively recall the events of the Dreamtime through myth and ritual.
Aboriginal myths often tell of a big flood, with local variations. The Worora people in western Australia describe an enormous flood that destroyed the previous landscape. It was caused by ancestral figures called the wandjina, who spread throughout the land establishing a new society. Other groups say the flood was brought by a great serpent that still exists in deep pools of water or off the coast.
The Tiwi, from islands off the northern coast, tell of the old woman Mudungkala who rose up from the ground carrying three children. These children were the ancestors of all the islands' inhabitants. As Mudungkala walked across the landscape, water rose up behind her and cut the islands off from the mainland. According to some myths, the people of the land were created by two sisters and a brother called the Djang'kawu , who traveled throughout the land. Their journey is recalled in a cycle of more than five hundred songs.
Ayers Rock, also known as Uluru, is a huge dome-shaped rock in central Australia. According to Aboriginal myths, the gullies and holes on the south side of Ayers Rock were scars left over from a battle between snake men, or serpent beings. To the southwest of the rock are some stands of oak trees. These were said to be young warriors waiting silently to join in the battle.
Aboriginal beliefs about the origin of death vary. One tale about death refers to an argument between Crow and Crab about the best way to die. Crab crawled off into a hole, shed her shell, and waited for a new one to grow. Crow said that this took too long and that he had a better way. He rolled back his eyes and fell over dead. The Murinbata people have a ritual dance that compares the two types of death. It shows that Crow's way is the better way.
Other popular mythical figures include the Seven Sisters. According to a version of their story told in central and southern Australia, the sisters fled from central Australia to Port Augusta on the south coast to escape a man named Wati Nehru who wanted to rape the oldest sister. They traveled over hundreds of miles, and many features of Australia's current landscape are associated with their journey. For example, legend has it that a low cliff near Mount Conner is a windbreak they constructed, and a cave is a hut they built. One of the wild fig trees nearby is the oldest sister. At the end of the journey, the sisters turned into the constellation popularly known as the Pleiades (pronounced PLEE-uh-deez), and Wati Nehru became the constellation commonly known as Orion.
Sacred Land and the Dreamtime
Australian Aborigines view the land as sacred because it was created by their ancestor spirits during the Dreamtime and continues to be inhabited by them. The Gagudju, an Aboriginal tribe in northern Australia, believe that, after the ancestors created the land, they transformed themselves into various objects, like rocks and water pools. These parts of the landscape are full of power and energy and are sacred sites to the Gagudju. If these sites are destroyed, the ancestors inhabiting them will also be destroyed, and the Gagudju will also suffer. This view of land as sacred can be found among tribal groups throughout the world.
Tales about tricksters who often cause trouble are believed to be among the earliest Aboriginal myths. Tricksters typically appear as characters who upset the natural order of things. They do this by stealing, or by causing humans to fight or engage in other unpleasant behavior. People of the Kimberley region in northwestern Australia say that a race of tricksters called the Wurulu-Wurulu use flowers mounted on sticks to steal honey from bees' nests. An empty nest is said to be a sign that the Wurulu-Wurulu have been there.
Key Themes and Symbols
Australian myths deal with the creation of the world, floods , drought, and other natural disasters, as well as major events in the life cycle, such as birth and death. Most myths explain the origins of features of the land, including hills and valleys, water holes, and places of safety or danger. By listening to the stories, the Aborigines learn about the local geography and reinforce their bonds to their land, their group, and their heritage.
In Aboriginal culture, many types of information, including myths and legends, are transmitted orally. Storytellers rely on techniques like repetition and special expressions that always take the same form. They use songs, chants, and sand paintings to help relate their stories. Journeys, the subject of many Aboriginal stories, are described by explaining what happened at each place along the way.
Australian Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Aboriginal mythology has long been passed down from generation to generation through myth and art. Aboriginal art, often based on intricate and sophisticated motifs, includes rock paintings, body art, sculpture, wood carvings, tree bark paintings, and decorative and ritual items. These designs and motifs are also functional, as they trace land rights and relationships to the ancestral beings. Songs and stories were not written down, but spoken aloud and memorized. In recent years, thanks to interest from art collectors and tourists alike, some Aboriginal artists have been able to support themselves and their communities by creating traditional artwork that reflects their culture and belief system.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories by Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1994) is divided into two halves: in the first, author Noonuccal relates personal stories of growing up as an Aboriginal girl on an island just off the Queensland coast; in the second half, Noonuccal tells several of the most important Aboriginal myths of her childhood. The book also features illustrations by Bronwyn Bancroft.