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Australian Aboriginal myths (also known as Dreamtime Stories, Songlines or Aboriginal oral literature) are the stories traditionally performed by Aboriginal peoples within each of the language groups across Australia.
All such myths variously tell significant truths within each Aboriginal group's local landscape. They effectively layer the whole of the Australian continent's topography with cultural nuance and deeper meaning, and empower selected audiences with the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of Australian Aboriginal ancestors back to time immemorial.
"A mythic map of Australia would show thousands of characters, varying in their importance, but all in some way connected with the land. Some emerged at their specific sites and stayed spiritually in that vicinity. Others came from somewhere else and went somewhere else."
"Many were shape changing, transformed from or into human beings or natural species, or into natural features such as rocks but all left something of their spiritual essence at the places noted in their stories."
Australian Aboriginal mythologies have been characterised as "at one and the same time fragments of a catechism, a liturgical manual, a history of civilization, a geography textbook, and to a much smaller extent a manual of cosmography."
An Australian linguist, R. M. W. Dixon, recording Aboriginal myths in their original languages, encountered coincidences between some of the landscape details being told about within various myths, and scientific discoveries being made about the same landscapes. In the case of the Atherton Tableland, myths tell of the origins of Lake Eacham, Lake Barrine, and Lake Euramo. Geological research dated the formative volcanic explosions described by Aboriginal myth tellers as having occurred more than 10,000 years ago. Pollen fossil sampling from the silt which had settled to the bottom of the craters confirmed the Aboriginal myth-tellers' story. When the craters were formed, eucalyptus forests dominated rather than the current wet tropical rain forests. (See Lake Euramo for an excerpt of the original myth, translated.)
Dixon observed from the evidence available that Aboriginal myths regarding the origin of the Crater Lakes might be dated as accurate back to 10 000 years ago. Further investigation of the material by the Australian Heritage Commission led to the Crater Lakes myth being listed nationally on the Register of the National Estate, and included within Australia's World Heritage nomination of the wet tropical forests, as an "unparalleled human record of events dating back to the Pleistocene era."
Since then, Dixon has assembled a number of similar examples of Australian Aboriginal myths that accurately describe landscapes of an ancient past. He particularly noted the numerous myths telling of previous sea levels, including:
There are 400 distinct Aboriginal groups across Australia, each distinguished by unique names usually identifying particular languages, dialects, or distinctive speech mannerisms. Each language was used for original myths, from which the distinctive words and names of individual myths derive.
With so many distinct Aboriginal groups, languages, beliefs and practices, scholars cannot attempt to characterise, under a single heading, the full range and diversity of all myths being variously and continuously told, developed, elaborated, performed, and experienced by group members across the entire continent. (See external link[dead link] for one indicative spatial map of Australian Aboriginal groups, and see here[dead link] for an earlier Tindale map of Aboriginal groups.)
The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia nevertheless observes: "One intriguing feature [of Aboriginal Australian mythology] is the mixture of diversity and similarity in myths across the entire continent."
The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's booklet, Understanding Country, formally seeks to introduce non-indigenous Australians to Aboriginal perspectives on the environment. It makes the following generalisation about Aboriginal myths and mythology:
"..they generally describe the journeys of ancestral beings, often giant animals or people, over what began as a featureless domain. Mountains, rivers, waterholes, animal and plant species, and other natural and cultural resources came into being as a result of events which took place during these Dreamtime journeys. Their existence in present-day landscapes is seen by many indigenous peoples as confirmation of their creation beliefs.."
"..The routes taken by the Creator Beings in their Dreamtime journeys across land and sea.. link many sacred sites together in a web of Dreamtime tracks criss-crossing the country. Dreaming tracks can run for hundreds, even thousands of kilometres, from desert to the coast [and] may be shared by peoples in countries through which the tracks pass.."
Australian anthropologists willing to generalise suggest Aboriginal myths still being performed across Australia by Aboriginal peoples serve an important social function amongst their intended audiences: justifying the received ordering of their daily lives; helping shape peoples' ideas; and assisting to influence others' behaviour. In addition, such performance often continuously incorporates and "mythologises" historical events in the service of these social purposes in an otherwise rapidly changing modern world. As R.M. W. Dixon writes:
"It is always integral and common.. that the Law (Aboriginal law) is something derived from ancestral peoples or Dreamings and is passed down the generations in a continuous line. While..entitlements of particular human beings may come and go, the underlying relationships between foundational Dreamings and certain landscapes are theoretically eternal... the entitlements of people to places are usually regarded strongest when those people enjoy a relationship of identity with one or more Dreamings of that place. This is an identity of spirit, a consubstantiality, rather than a matter of mere belief..: the Dreaming pre-exists and persists, while its human incarnations are temporary."
Aboriginal specialists willing to generalise believe all Aboriginal myths across Australia, in combination, represent a kind of unwritten (oral) library within which Aboriginal peoples learn about the world and perceive a peculiarly Aboriginal 'reality' dictated by concepts and values vastly different from those of western societies:
"Aboriginal people learned from their stories that a society must not be human-centred but rather land centred, otherwise they forget their source and purpose.... humans are prone to exploitative behaviour if not constantly reminded they are interconnected with the rest of creation, that they as individuals are only temporal in time, and past and future generations must be included in their perception of their purpose in life."
"People come and go but the Land, and stories about the Land, stay. This is a wisdom that takes lifetimes of listening, observing and experiencing .... There is a deep understanding of human nature and the environment.. sites hold 'feelings' which cannot be described in physical terms.. subtle feelings that resonate through the bodies of these people.. It is only when talking and being with these people that these 'feelings' can truly be appreciated. This is.. the intangible reality of these people.."
In 1926 a British anthropologist specialising in Australian Aboriginal ethnology and ethnography, Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, noted many Aboriginal groups widely distributed across the Australian continent all appeared to share variations of a single (common) myth telling of an unusually powerful, often creative, often dangerous snake or serpent of sometimes enormous size closely associated with the rainbows, rain, rivers, and deep waterholes.
Radcliffe-Brown coined the term 'Rainbow Serpent' to describe what he identified to be a common, recurring myth. Working in the field in various places on the Australian continent, he noted the key character of this myth (the 'Rainbow Serpent') is variously named:
This 'Rainbow Serpent' is generally and variously identified by those who tell 'Rainbow Serpent' myths, as a snake of some enormous size often living within the deepest waterholes of many of Australia's waterways; descended from that larger being visible as a dark streak in the Milky Way, it reveals itself to people in this world as a rainbow as it moves through water and rain, shaping landscapes, naming and singing of places, swallowing and sometimes drowning people; strengthening the knowledgeable with rainmaking and healing powers; blighting others with sores, weakness, illness, and death.
Even Australia's 'Bunyip' was identified as a 'Rainbow Serpent' myth of the above kind. The term coined by Radcliffe-Brown is now commonly used and familiar to broader Australian and international audiences, as it is increasingly used by government agencies, museums, art galleries, Aboriginal organisations and the media to refer to the pan-Australian Aboriginal myth specifically, and as a shorthand allusion to Australian Aboriginal mythology generally.
A number of linguists, anthropologists and others have formally documented another common Aboriginal myth occurring across Australia. Predecessors of the myth tellers encounter a mythical, exotic (most often English) character who arrives from the sea, bringing western colonialism, either offering gifts to the performer's predecessors or bringing great harm upon the performer's predecessors.
This key mythical character is most often named 'Captain Cook', this being a 'mythical' character shared with the broader Australian community, who also attribute James Cook with playing a key role in colonising Australia. The Aboriginal 'Captain Cook' is attributed with bringing British rule to Australia, but his arrival is not celebrated. More often within the Aboriginal telling, he proves to be a villain.
The many Aboriginal versions of this 'Captain Cook' are rarely oral recollections of encounters with the Lieutenant James Cook who first navigated and mapped Australia's east coast on the HM Bark Endeavour in 1770. Guugu Yimidhirr predecessors, along the Endeavour River, did encounter James Cook during a 7-week period beached at the site of the present town of Cooktown while the Endeavour was being repaired. From this time the Guugu Yimidhirr did receive present-day names for places occurring in their local landscape; and the Guugu Yimmidhir may recollect this encounter.
The pan-Australian Captain Cook myth, however, tells of a generic, largely symbolic British character who arrives from across the oceans sometime after the Aboriginal world was formed and the original social order founded. This Captain Cook is a harbinger of dramatic transformations in the social order, bringing change and a different social order, into which present-day audiences have been born. (see above regarding this social function played by Aboriginal myths)
In 1988 Australian anthropologist Kenneth Maddock assembled several versions of this 'Captain Cook' myth as recorded from a number of Aboriginal groups around Australia. Included in his assemblage are:
"set up the people [cattle industry] to go down the countryside and shoot people down, just like animal, they left them lying there for the hawks and crows.. So a lot of old people and young people were struck by the head with the end of a gun and left there. They wanted to get the people wiped out because Europeans in Queensland had to run their stock: horses and cattle."
Murrinh-Patha people's country
The Murrinh-Patha people (whose country is the saltwater country immediately inland from the town of Wadeye) describe a Dreamtime in their myths which anthropologists believe is a religious belief equivalent to, though wholly different from, most of the world's other significant religious beliefs.
In particular, scholars suggest the Murrinh-patha have a oneness of thought, belief, and expression unequalled within Christianity, as they see all aspects of their lives, thoughts and culture as under the continuing influence of their Dreaming. Within this Aboriginal religion, no distinction is drawn between things spiritual/ideal/mental and things material; nor is any distinction drawn between things sacred and things profane: rather all life is 'sacred', all conduct has 'moral' implication, and all life's meaning arises out of this eternal, everpresent Dreaming.
"In fact, the isomorphic fit between the natural and supernatural means that all nature is coded and charged by the sacred, while the sacred is everywhere within the physical landscape. Myths and mythic tracks cross over.. thousands of miles, and every particular form and feature of the terrain has a well-developed 'story' behind it."
Animating and sustaining this Murrinh-patha mythology is an underlying philosophy of life that has been characterised by Stanner as a belief that life is "...a joyous thing with maggots at its centre.". Life is good and benevolent, but throughout life's journey, there are numerous painful sufferings that each individual must come to understand and endure as he grows. This is the underlying message repeatedly being told within the Murrinh-patha myths. It is this philosophy that gives Murrinh-patha people motive and meaning in life.
The following Murrinh-patha myth, for instance, is performed in Murrinh-patha ceremonies to initiate young men into adulthood.
"A woman, Mutjinga (the 'Old Woman'), was in charge of young children, but instead of watching out for them during their parents' absence, she swallowed them and tried to escape as a giant snake. The people followed her, spearing her and removing the undigested children from the body."
Within the myth and in its performance, young, unadorned children must first be swallowed by an ancestral being (who transforms into a giant snake), then regurgitated before being accepted as young adults with all the rights and privileges of young adults.
Pintupi people's country
Scholars of the Pintupi peoples (from within Australia's Gibson Desert region) believe they have a predominantly 'mythic' form of consciousness, within which events occur and are explained by the preordained social structures and orders told of, sung about, and performed within their superhuman mythology, rather than by reference to the possible accumulated political actions, decisions and influences of local individuals (i.e. this understanding effectively 'erases' history).
"The Dreaming.. provides a moral authority lying outside the individual will and outside human creation.. although the Dreaming as an ordering of the cosmos is presumably a product of historical events, such an origin is denied."
"These human creations are objectified – thrust out – into principles or precedents for the immediate world.. Consequently, current action is not understood as the result of human alliances, creations, and choices, but is seen as imposed by an embracing, cosmic order."
Within this Pintupi world view, three long geographical tracks of named places dominate, being interrelated strings of significant places named and created by mythic characters on their routes through the Pintupi desert region during the Dreaming. It is a complex mythology of narratives, songs and ceremonies known to the Pintupi as Tingarri. It is most completely told and performed by Pintupi peoples at larger gatherings within Pintupi country.