Australian Aboriginal Spiritual Beliefs

Olga Gostin – Australia

[The following article is from the Theosophical Encyclopedia, edited by Philip S. Harris, Vicente R. Hao Chin, Jr., and Richard W. Brooks (Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006), pp. 70-74.]

Australian Aboriginal Spiritual Beliefs.

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While it is now taken as a matter of course that indigenous Australian spirituality has a place in any encyclopaedia of world religions, it must be remembered that this facet of indigenous Australian life was not given due recognition until fairly recently. W. H. Stanner’s seminal article The Dreaming first published in 1956 can arguably be regarded as the watershed which put the spirituality of indigenous Australians on the map. Prior to that, and as a direct outcome of the colonial mind set of the British and nineteenth century evolutionary thinking, Aboriginal spirituality and cosmology were regarded as either non-existent or at best a form of magic which reflected the so-called “primitive” lifestyle of people whose existence was then considered predominantly “nasty, brutish and short,” to quote Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan about man’s life in a state of nature, as opposed to civilization.

Today, in the context of a more enlightened post-modern age and a shift away from ethnocentric and racist thinking, spirituality is considered to be the very essence of Aboriginal life. Discussion focuses rather on whether it is more appropriate to speak of Aboriginal religion or spirituality, and to debate what religious/spiritual aspects are validly and generally applicable to the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up Aboriginal Australia. It is relevant to this discussion to remember that at the time of European contact there were some 250 distinct nations and languages (up to 600 dialects) in the continent, covering the full gamut of ecological niches and environments.

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A holistic world view. The first fact that strikes the student of Aboriginal cultures is that there is no formal distinction between the sacred and the profane, between religious and secular living, between mind and matter, between humans and nature. Such contrasting dualities are inconsistent with a world view which is essentially inclusive and holistic. This is not to deny the importance of paired concepts and complimentary dualities such as male-female, moieties or paired kinship groups, associations between generations, paired totems or linked mental constructs. But in the Australian aboriginal world view, humans and all aspects of human endeavor, all animal and plant species, and all physical phenomena, from the night sky to the seasons and lightning, are regarded as equal manifestations of a timeless spiritual or cosmic order whose origins, meaning and integrity are not open to challenge (Gostin and Chong, p. 123).

This world view and its interpretation form part of a body of knowledge that is itself seen as an extension of the cosmic order and comprises the accumulated wisdom of a given group, handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth since time immemorial. This does not mean that the body of knowledge is changeless or finite, but rather that change and additions become incorporated into the collective wisdom of the group (Gostin and Chong, p. 123-4). Individuals acquire this knowledge progressively and cumulatively during a lifetime punctuated by periods of formal and intense learning described as going through the Law. Knowledge is acquired both by imitation in day to day contact with peers and older persons, and by bestowal by specialist older persons. The latter often takes place in a highly charged ritual setting which is both secret and separate, during which initiates (both male and female, mostly separately) are temporarily removed from everyday circulation. Debate and challenge are not countenanced. The individual progresses through stages of specialized learning and graduates or comes out as a person of different ritual and social status with new knowledge, new privileges and new responsibilities. This change is universally accepted by the group whose acceptance enforces the person’s new role and responsibilities, derived directly from the ancient wisdom of the group and sanctioned by ritual whose origin is attributed to the prototype set down by the ancestral beings who are held to be directly responsible for the well-being of the group (Idem.).

While the authority of ancient wisdom, as interpreted and transmitted by the elders of the group, forms the cornerstone of Aboriginal spirituality, it does not mean that this world view is therefore changeless and sterile. Some cultural attributes mitigate against this. The first of this is the recognition of the need for balance: that life has both good and bad aspects and that these are inseparable. This applies not only within the sphere of human relations, but also to the relationship between humans and nature and even the wider cosmic order. This is amply demonstrated in the stories of ancestral beings who are not removed from everyday life, but who experience both the heroic and less noble foibles of human nature while carrying out their creative tasks. Balance also means accountability for one’s actions and the need to pay for one’s misdeeds. Rules are known and there are penalties for violating the moral order. Diversity and difference are recognized and respected, but must not run counter to the harmony and balance that is the hallmark of well ordered living. All things are interconnected and impinge on one another: there is recognition of the need for internal integrity and harmony just as there is interconnection between all things, past, present and future. Time is not linear but cyclical.

These attributes formed the basis of classical (pre-European invasion) indigenous Australian spirituality.

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Due to the inherent diversity of Aboriginal cultures and the devastating impacts of colonialism — dispossession and dislocation from ancestral lands, repression of native languages, denial of cultural practices and forced assimilation — not all Aboriginal groups today can tap into a viable body of knowledge. Very few have managed to retain the social fabric to support access to ancient bodies of knowledge. However, strategies have been put in place or are being devised to ensure cultural transmission of knowledge and ritual enforcement through tapping into the wisdom of those groups which have been less affected by the inroads of the European invasion.

The Dreaming. The holistic world view which is the trademark of indigenous Australian spirituality finds its root in the concept of The Dreaming. Various terms have been applied at different times to this fundamental concept which has a vernacular expression in every cultural group, with shades in meaning and application. Among well-known vernacular terms for The Dreaming are tjukurrpa for the Pitjantjatjara/nangu whose country includes Uluru, alcheringa for the Arrernte to the immediate east of the Pitjantjatjara, muda for the Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

European missionaries and anthropologists dealing with this concept have variously and interchangeably used the terms Dreaming and Dreamtime, both of which are liable to misinterpretation; the first in its obvious and superficial link with the physical act of dreaming though it must be acknowledged that dreams are a recognized way of tapping into ancient wisdom; and the latter with its erroneous temporal connotation, though it could be argued that the irrelevance and transgression of formal time in the act of dreaming captures the elusive temporal attributes of The Dreaming. Neither term is, strictly speaking, correct, and to that extent the use of either term has to be qualified. Indigenous Australians themselves use the terms interchangeably since vernacular terms can only be properly applied when referring to their specific areas of origin.

The well-known anthropologist Bill Stanner popularized the concept of The Dreaming as the cornerstone of Aboriginal spirituality: “Clearly, The Dreaming is many things in one. Among them, a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for aboriginal man” (Stanner, p. 255). Stanner favored the use of capitals for the two words on the grounds that they form an indissoluble whole. Popular usage, however, tends to have capitals only for Dreaming, thus distinguishing this term from the act of dreaming. It nevertheless remains true that common usage (and ignorance) have muddied our understanding of these concepts. In the absence of a better English word, however, The Dreaming remains the most useful term. Edwards (1988) presents a comprehensive and very readable overview and interpretation of the concept of The Dreaming.

In its broadest application, The Dreaming refers to genesis or creation, but as an ongoing reality untrammeled by the constraints of time. With local variants, the interpretation of The Dreaming goes roughly as follows:

In the beginning the land was flat, featureless and enveloped in darkness, yet encompassed within it latent spiritual forms and attributes.

Progressively these forces emerged from the land in the shape of heroic beings: ancestral figures, some human, some animal, some a combination of both sharing attributes of either or both. Starting from their various places of origin, these ancestral beings undertook major journeys of varying length and eventfulness creating all the physical and animated features that constitute the modern Australian landscape: mountain ranges, rivers, claypans, outcrops, plants, bird and animal species, as well as human groups distinguished by different languages, beliefs and practices.

At the end of their creative period, the beings simply reabsorbed themselves into the landscape at places of their particular creativity thus becoming indissolubly associated with particular localities and landforms.

Aboriginal spirituality is thus strongly influenced by animistic beliefs where all of nature and the environment is imbued with spiritual forces.

There is little evidence for a single overarching creative power or ancestral being despite early missionary efforts to identify such. In the eastern part of the continent some sources suggest that the ancestral figures called Baiame (NSW) and Bunjil (Victoria) approach the notion of a dominant creator being, but it is difficult to unravel what was reality, and what was projected by the zeal of early missionaries to identify a creative force onto which they could graft the Christo-Judaic God. Some scholars argue that the almost universal prevalence of the Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal Australian Dreamings amounts to a prototype of a single creative power. The search for such manifestations smacks of ethnocentric projections onto a spirituality which sought no subservience to any one source but rather celebrated all being as part of the great cosmic order.

There is little of the dogmatic context, structured hierarchy and separation of the sacred and the profane that pertains to conventional religion. The Dreamings are both accessible and transcendental in their everyday bearing on those who live the Dreaming. In David Hope’s unique synthesis of Aboriginal spirituality, Aboriginal people are archetypal exponents of menticulture, that is a state of mental or spiritual connectedness to the land and its transcendent meanings which can only be activated by a detailed and cumulative cultural “reading” and bonding with the land, nature and all expressions of the physical environment as encapsulated in the Dreaming.

The stories of ancestral wanderings are perpetuated in vibrant oral histories or Dreaming stories, songs, dances and ceremonial cycles also referred to as Dreamings, which are handed down from generation to generation giving each group their distinctive historical, cultural and spiritual framework. While each Dreaming story is firmly anchored in its local area, many stories extend beyond the boundaries of any one language group, and like the Seven Sisters Dreaming or the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming may extend across several language groups or even traverse the continent.

These Dreaming tracks, also referred to as songlines, strings or paths may also be the routes for extensive exchange, trade and marriage links between groups. Secular activities thus become inextricably interwoven with spiritual connections, and links through ancient Dreamings validate contemporary alliances.

Ceremonial life. The ancestral heroes not only laid down the physical features and boundaries which identify and separate groups from one another, they also instituted various rules of behavior and belief systems validated and exemplified by their own ancestral feats and journeys. It is these codes which are handed down during initiation ceremonies performed at specific sites identified with the movements of the ancestral beings. These major ceremonies are commonly referred to as going through the Law and often entail a strict separation of the genders, each undergoing their own “men’s or women’s business.” The ceremonial sites have variously been called secret, sacred, secret/sacred or ceremoniously charged, depending on the degree of exclusivity which applies to them and their associated ritual ceremonies. Since Dreaming stories may pertain or belong to women as much as they do to men, some sites and/or ceremonies are exclusive to men, others to women, and yet others involve the co-operation of both genders.

Most highly charged sites are out of bounds to non-initiated people and severe penalties may apply to violators of this rule, though there are many different rules across the continent. Tunbridge provides an excellent summary of the functions of Dreaming stories (Tunbridge, p. xxxvii).

A common feature of all ceremonies, however, is that they entail the re-enactment of important aspects of ancestral Dreamings, and in doing so, re-activate (for the duration of the ceremonies) the spiritual forces that have remained charged but quiescent, as it were, in those particular sites. Human re-enactment through ritual is crucial to connecting with the ancestral beings, but it is not a symbolic act. The effect of properly performed ritual is rather to re-activate, sustain or release the connection, influence and power of the ancestral beings for the general well-being of the living. Indigenous persons of high degree invoking their ancestral heroes in their sacred ceremonies on sacred ground are believed actually to temporarily become those ancestral beings and to fuse with the primeval creative forces. The present merges and becomes one with the past.

As Stanner puts it, there is neither past, nor present, nor future: there is only “everywhen” (Stanner, p. 225). It is in this sense that Aboriginal spirituality is distinguished by its inseparable link between the land, The Dreaming, ancestral beings and the present custodians of the land. The highly charged re-enacting ceremonies performed by initiated persons at special places associated with ancestral beings endorse, perpetuate and ensure the continuity of the bond between the Dreaming heroes and their descendants. The connection between the physical and spiritual attributes of the land and its living custodians thus transcends time: The Dreaming is “everywhen.”

Many of the ceremonies performed are specific in their re-enactment and desired outcomes. While their secret nature prevents any detailed rendering, some categorization is possible. So-called “increase” ceremonies are performed mostly by men with a focus on ensuring the sustained fertility and productivity of the environment and individual animal and plant species by invoking and ensuring timely seasonal cycles of rain and plenty. The ceremonies are focused on ensuring a proper balance between humans, the land and cosmic forces believed to be controlled and managed by the ancestral beings. Women also have their sphere of influence though this was somewhat late in recognition as most early observers and recorders of custom and beliefs were middle-class British males who transposed their Eurocentric male dominant views on indigenous Australian cultures.

Aboriginal women play a crucial ceremonial role in sustaining the health and well-being of the community and family groups, as well as in other specific fields relating to what is commonly called “women’s business.” Diane Bell’s Daughters of the Dreaming (1983) remains one of the most detailed and authoritative accounts of women’s ritual role in indigenous Australia.

Another important focus of ceremonial activity are funerary rites associated with the proper disposal of the dead and ensuring that the transition to the spirit world takes place as smoothly and respectfully as possible so as to ensure a balanced relation between the world of the living and those who have gone before. Since most Aboriginal groups believe in reincarnation in some form (there being no fundamental distinction between human and animal species) it is most important that funeral ceremonies be carried out properly and with due respect. Most burials involve two ceremonies, the first focusing on the immediate disposal of the human remains by whatever customary practices apply locally (e.g., in ground burial, exposure and/or smoking of the body on a wooden platform — obviously no longer practiced nowadays); and the second involving a well publicized and grandiose disposal of the remains (bones, skeleton) associated with guest dancers, carving of funerary posts and/or hollow log coffins and the like. The epitome of this secondary funerary rite is the “opening [read unveiling] of tombstones” by Torres Strait Islanders which reflects a fascinating blend of Christian ritual and traditional islander custom. In other parts of Australia, the secondary ritual may involve the “smoking” of the house and/or burial of possessions of the deceased to ensure that all traces associated with the dead have been effectively erased, thus making the environs safe for the living.

Both men and women are also importantly involved in the transmission of cultural and esoteric knowledge to the next generation and this takes place in mostly segregated initiation ceremonies which may involve several cycles spread over many years of cumulative learning. Indeed, induction into the most secret bodies of knowledge is reserved for those who have proven through their life’s example that they are worthy custodians to receive such knowledge in trust. It is one of the saddest indictments of European influence that in some groups older custodians of oral knowledge may, and indeed do, choose to withhold such knowledge from the younger generations for fear that it may not be treated with the proper respect and value. The inroads of alcoholism and associated violence are deemed to be primary obstacles to the transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next in modern times.

The totemic landscape as icon. For the first Australians land is clearly more than real estate. It is the living repository of ancestral beings and in a very real way it is their mother: that from which they were born and to which they will return in the endless cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. In a very real sense the land rights slogans “the land is our mother” and “we belong to the land” mean just that. It is for this reason that people seek to return to the land of their birth, particularly when death approaches. Just as the spirit child is believed to enter the mother at a specific site at the time of the first quickening of the foetus, so it is important to return to the same country (the preferred term) in order to return the spirit to its ancestral place at the time of death. One is literally treading on hallowed ground at all times, though some sites are recognized as being more ritually charged than others. The differentiating factor lies in the location of specific Dreaming paths and sites. For indigenous Australians the physical attributes of the environment do not have to be ritually invoked or somehow acted upon by human intervention to bring about their transformation or imbue them with spiritual connotations. Landscape features are icons of heroic beings or some manifestation of ancestral activity — tears, excreta, weapons or whatever.

The concept of totemism has been used to explain the relationship between people, spirit beings, and country (Berndt and Berndt, pp. 231-8; Strehlow). This refers not only to the particular anthropomorphic attributes of a given locality or species, but links the totem very directly and specifically with the individual who bears, or the kin or clan group which bears, its name and wholly identify with that locality or species. The bond that exists between people, land and species thus becomes even more personalized and intense. The person who belongs to the Kangaroo Dreaming is the kangaroo and the kangaroo is the person, group or collectivity. There is no disjunction. Rules of behavior and proper handling of the totemic species apply, one of the most common attributes being a prohibition on killing and eating the species, though exception and variations on the theme apply in different groups and in specific circumstances. Just as people are one with their totem and individuals are in the first instance identified by their country of origin, so country may be accorded totemic names and be referred to in kinship terms. The relationship between humans, Dreamings, totems and country is integrated and highly complex. It is against this background that one can better appreciate the devastating effect of dispossession and enforced removal from the land on the survival of oral histories and Dreaming stories, and hence on the moral fabric of indigenous Australian societies.

It follows that one cannot explore indigenous Australian spirituality or make sense of any one aspect of Aboriginal cultures, be it kinship, gender relations or systems of authority and the Law, without reference to the wider interactional, notably spiritual, context(s) within which such activity is taking place. The Dreaming represents that timeless, indefinable essence which underlies, informs, encompasses and gives meaning to all aspects of indigenous Australian life. It also follows that no one who has not gone through the rigors and the learning of the Law can really apprehend the fullness of this concept, and even then, one would only be conversant with the ancient wisdom of one particular group. These limitations must be taken very seriously and realistically by anyone purporting to discuss Aboriginal spirituality. Even so, non-Aboriginal Australians have become much more sensitized to and aware of this concept and associated ideas over the past two decades as attention has focused on land rights, native title and reconciliation.

Bibliography:

Bell, Diane. Daughters of the Dreaming. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1983.

Berndt, R. M. and Berndt, C. H. The World of the First Australians. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1992. Bourke, Colin; Bourke, Eleanor and Edwards, Bill, editors (1994).

Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory and Reader in Aboriginal Studies. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Edwards, W. H. An Introduction to Aboriginal Societies. Wentworth Falls: Social Science Press, 1988.

Edwards, W. H. Traditional Aboriginal Society: A Reader. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1987.

Gostin, Olga and Chong, Alwin. “Living Wisdom: Aborigines and the environment,” (1994). In Bourke, C.; Bourke, E. and Edwards, B. Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Hope, D. A., Rose, Deborah Bird. Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in An Aboriginal Australian Culture. Cambridge University Press, pages 42-57, 1992.

Rose, Deborah B. “Consciousness and responsibility in an Aboriginal Religion.” In Traditional Aboriginal Religion: A Reader. Edited by W. H. Edwards. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1987.

Rose, Deborah B. Nourishing Terrains. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1997.

Stanner, W. E. H. “The Dreaming.” In Traditional Aboriginal Society. Edited by W. H. Edwards. South Melbourne: Macmillan. Strehlow, 1987, first publ. 1956.

Tonkinson, Robert. The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert. Stanford University, 1991.

Tunbridge, Dorothy. Flinders Ranges Dreaming. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988. 

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