Australian Aboriginal mythology

Australian Aboriginal mythology

Australian Aboriginal myths (also known as Dreamtime stories, Songlines or Aboriginal oral literature) are the stories traditionally performed by Aboriginal peoples [Morris, C (1994) “Oral Literature” in Horton, David (General Editor)] within each of the language groups across Australia.

All such myths variously tell of significant truths within each Aboriginal groups' local landscape affectively layering the whole of the Australian continent's topography with cultural nuance and deeper meaning, effectively empowering selected audiences with the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of Australian Aboriginal ancestors back to time immemorial.Morris, C (1995) “An Approach to Ensure Continuity and Transmission of the Rainforest Peoples' Oral Tradition” in Fourmile, H; Schnierer, S; & Smith, A (Eds) "An Identification of Problems and Potential for Future Rainforest Aboriginal Cultural Survival and Self-Determination in the Wet Tropics." Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Participation Research and Development. Cairns, Australia]

David Horton's Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia contains an article on Aboriginal mythology observingBerndt, C (1994) “Mythology” in David Horton (General Editor)] :

"“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 civilisation, a geography textbook, and to a much smaller extent a manual of cosmography". [Van Gennep, A (1906)] .

Aboriginal mythology: Antiquity

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 some of the harder scientific discoveries being made about the same landscapes. [Dixon, R.M.W. (1972) "The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 29]

In the case of the Atherton Tableland myths telling of the origins of Lake Eacham, Lake Barrine, and Lake Euramo, geological research had dated the same formative volcanic explosions described by Aboriginal myth tellers, as having occurred more than 10 000 years ago. Pollen fossil sampling from the silt that'd settled to the bottom of those craters since their formation confirmed Aboriginal myth-tellers advice that at the time eucalypt forests dominated rather than the current wet tropical rain forests. [Dixon, R.M.W (1996)] [ [| Ngadjon jii - Earthwatch Web Page] ] . (See Lake Euramo for an excerpt of the original myth, translated)

Dixon observed, from the evidence available, Aboriginal myths regarding the origin of the Crater Lakes might be dated as accurate back to 10 000 years ago. [Dixon,R.M.W. (1996)] . Further investigation of these observations by the Australian Heritage Commission lead to the Crater Lakes myth being listed nationally on the Register of the National Estate [ [;search=place_name%3DWet%2520Tropics%2520%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=105689| Register of the National Estate listing for Queensland's wet tropical forests] ] , 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". [cited in PANNELL, S (2006) "Reconciling Nature and Culture in a Global Context: Lessons form the World Heritage List" [] . James Cook University, Cairns. Page 11]

Since then Dixon assembled a number of similar examples of Aboriginal myths performed or told around Australia accurately describing the landscapes of an ancient past, particularly noting the large number of myths telling of previous sea levels, including [Dixon,R.M.W. (1996)] :

* the Port Phillip Bay myth recorded as being told to Mr Robert Russell in 1850, describing Port Phillip Bay as dry land once, and the course of the Yarra River being once different (following the then Carrum Carrum swamp) - an oral recollection that would have been accurate 10 000 years ago

* the Great Barrier Reef coastline myth told to Dixon himself in Yarrabah, just south of Cairns telling of a past coastline (since flooded) which stood at the edge of the current Great Barrier Reef, and naming places now completely submerged after the forest types and trees that once grew there - an oral record that would have been accurate 10 000 years ago

* the Lake Eyre myths recorded by J.W Gregory in 1906 telling of the deserts of Central Australia once being fertile, well watered plains and the deserts around present Lake Eyre having been one continuous garden - an oral recollection which matches geologists' understanding that there was a wet phase to the early Holocene when the Lake would have had permanent water.

Aboriginal mythology: Whole of Australia

Diversity across a Continent

There are 400 distinct Aboriginal groups from across Australia (as listed within the Encylopaedia of Aboriginal Australia [Horton, David (1994)] , each distinguished from each other by unique names most often identifying the particular languages, dialects, or distinctive speech mannerisms. [Donaldson, T. J. (1994) “Tribal Names” Horton, David (1994)] within which their myths would originally have been told, from which the distinctive words and names of individual myths are derived.

There are so many distinct Aboriginal groups, languages, beliefs and practices that it would not seem proper to 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 members of each and every one to the groups across the whole of the continent (see external link [| here] for one indicative spatial map of Australian Aboriginal groups, and see [| here] for an earlier Tindale map of Aboriginal groups.)

The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia never-the-less observes: "One intriguing feature [of Aboriginal Australian mythology] is the mixture of diversity and similarity in myths across the entire continent."

A Public Generalisation

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's booklet, 'Understanding Country', formally seeks to introduce non-indigenous Australians to Aboriginal perspectives on the environment, and in doing so, makes the following generalisation about Aboriginal myths and mythology [Smyth, Dermot (1994) "Understanding Country: The Importance of Land and Sea in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Societies". Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's Key Issue Paper 1. Australian Government Publishing Service. Canberra. Pages 3, 6.] :

"..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 .."

An Anthropological Generalisation

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 [Beckett, J. (1994) Pages 97-115] ; helping shape peoples' ideas; assisting influence others' behaviour [Watson, M (1994) "Storytelling" in Horton, David (1994) "The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society, and Culture" Aboriginal Studies Press. Canberra.] ; often continuously incorporating and "mythologising" actual historical events in the service of these social purposes in an otherwise rapidly changing modern world.Dixon, R. M. W. (1996)] :

"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." [Sutton, Peter (2003) "Native Title in Australia: An Ethnographic Perspective". Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Pages 113, 117.]

An Aboriginal Generalisation

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"Morris, C (1995) Page 71.]
"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 can not 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 .."Morris, C (1995) Page 71.]

Aboriginal Mythology: Pan-Australian Myths

Rainbow Serpent

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, A.R (1926) Pages 19-25.]

Radcliffe-Brown coined the term 'Rainbow Serpent' to describe what he identified to be a common, re-occurring myth, and, working around the Australian continent he noted the key character of this myth (the 'Rainbow Serpent') is variously named:

:"Kanmare" (Boulia, Queensland); "Tulloun": (Mount Isa, Queensland); "Andrenjinyi" (Pennefather River, Queensland), "Takkan" (Maryborough, Queensland); "Targan" (Brisbane, Queensland); "Kurreah" (Broken Hill, New South Wales);"Wawi" (Riverina, New South Wales), "Neitee & Yeutta" (Wilcannia, New South Wales), "Myndie" (Melbourne, Victoria); "Bunyip" (Western Victoria); " Wogal" (Perth, Western Australia); "Wanamangura" ( Laverton, Western Australia); "Kajura" ( Carnarvon, Western Australia); "Numereji" ( Kakadu, Northern Territory).

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 milkyway; 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 [Radcliffe-Brown (1926)Page 22.] . The term coined by Radcliffe-Brown is now commonly used and familiar to broader Australian and international audiences, as it's 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 short-hand allusion to Australian Aboriginal mythology generally. [Rainbow Serpent#External links]

Captain Cook

A number of linguists, anthropologists and others have formally documented another common Aboriginal myth occurring across Australia within which 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 performers predecessors. [Maddock, K (1988) Page 20]

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 colonising Australia. Maddock (1988) Page 27.] . The Aboriginal 'Captain Cook' is attributed with bringing British rule to AustraliaDixon,R.M.W (1983) Pages 1-3] , but his arrival is not celebrated and, 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 actual encounters with the Lieutenant James Cook who first navigated and mapped Australia's east coast on the HM Bark "Endeavour", back in 1770. Guugu Yimidhirr predecessors, along the Endeavour River, did encounter the real James Cook during a 7 week period beached at the site of the present town of Cooktown while the HM Bark "Endeavour" was being repaired [Hough, Richard. (1994). "Captain James Cook: a biography", pp. 150-155. Hodder and Stoughton, London. ISBN 0-340-58598-6.] ; and 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 actual 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 has been formed, and an original social order founded: this Captain Cook is a harbinger of dramatic transformations in the original social order, bringing change and a different social order, being the social order into which present day audiences have been born. [Maddock, K (1988) Page 27] (see above regarding this social function played by Aboriginal myths)

In 1988, Australian anthropologist Kenneth Maddock, assembled a number of versions of this 'Captain Cook' myth as recorded from a number of Aboriginal groups around Australia [Maddock, K(1988):13-19] . Included in his assemblage are:
* Batemans Bay, New South Wales: Percy Mumbulla told of Captain Cook arriving on a large ship which anchored at Snapper Island, from which he disembarked to give the myth-teller's predecessors clothes (to wear) and hard biscuits (to eat), following which he returned to his ship and sailed away. Mumbulla told how his predecessors rejected Captain Cook's gifts, throwing them into the sea. [source cited is Robinson, Roland (1970) "Alteringa and Other Aboriginal Poems". A.H and A.W. Reed. Sydney. Pages 29-30.]
* Cardwell, Queensland: Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway told of how Captain Cook and his group seemed to stand up out of the sea with the white skin of ancestral spirits, returning to their descendants. Captain Cook arrived first offering a pipe and tobacco to smoke (which was dismissed as a 'burning thing .. stuck in his mouth'), then boiling a billy of tea (which was dismissed as scalding 'dirty water'), next baking flour on the coals (which was rejected as smelling 'stale' and thrown away untasted), finally boiling beef (which smelt well, and tasted okay, once the salty skin was wiped off). Captain Cook and group then left, sailing away to the north, leaving Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway's predecessors beating the ground with their fists, fearfully sorry to see the spirits of their ancestors depart in this way.
* South-eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland: Rolly Gilbert told of how Captain Cook and others sailed the oceans in a boat, and decided to come to see Australia, where he encountered a couple of Rolly's predecessors whom he first intended to shoot, but instead tricked them into revealing the local populations main camping area, after which they [cited in Maddock, K (1988) Page 17.] :

"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"

* Victoria River (Northern Territory): it is told in a whole Captain Cook saga that Captain Cook sailed from London to Sydney to acquire land, and admiring the country he landed bullocks and men with firearms, following which local Aboriginal peoples' in the Sydney area were massacred. Captain Cook then made his way up to Darwin, where he sent armed horsemen to hunt down the Aborigines in the Victoria River country, founding the city of Darwin and giving police plus cattle station managers orders on how to treat Aborigines. [cited source is Rose, Deborah (1984) "The Saga of Captain Cook:Morality in Aboriginal and European Law' "Austalian Aboriginal Studies" Volume 2. Pages 24-39]
* Kimberley (Western Australia): it is told by numbers of Aboriginal myth-tellers that Captain Cook is a European culture hero who landed in Australia, and using gunpowder, set a precedent for the treatment of Aboriginal peoples through-out Australia, including the Kimberley. On returning to his home he claimed he had not seen any Aboriginal peoples, advising that the country was a vast and empty land which settlers could come and claim for themselves. In this myth, Captain Cook introduced 'Cook's Law', upon which the settlers rely, noting however, that this is a recent, unjust and false law compared to Aboriginal law. [cited source is Kolig, Erich (1980) "Captain Cook in the Kimberley's" in Berndt, R.M & Berndt, C.H (Eds) "Aborigines if the West: Their Past and Their Present". University of Western Australia Press. St Lucia. Pages 23-27.]

Aboriginal mythology: Individual Groups

Murrinh-Patha people

Of the Murrinh-Patha people (whose country is the saltwater country immediately inland from the town of Wadeyede Brabander, Dallas (1994) "Murrinh-patha" in Horton, David (1994)] ) it's been observed the Dreamtime they tell of in their myths, is in fact a religious belief equivalent to, though wholly different from, most of the world's other significant religious beliefsYengoyan (1979)citing Stanner (1966)] .

In particular, it has been suggested the Murrinh-patha have a oneness of thought, belief, and expression unequalled within Christianity, which sees 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 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" [ Yengoyan (1979) Page 406]

Animating and sustaining this Murrinh-patha mythology, is an underlying philosophy of life that has been characterised by one of Australia's most influential writers on Aboriginal religion (W.E.H 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 they grow. This is the underlying message repeatedly being told within the Murrinh-patha myths, and 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." [STANNER, W.E.H (1966) pages 40 - 43, as summarised and cited by KOEPPING, Klaus-Peter (1981) Page 378.]

Within both 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 they are able to be accepted as young adults with all the rights and privileges of young adults [KOEPPING, Klaus-Peter (1981) pages 377-378]

Pintupi people

Of the Pintupi peoples (from within Australia's Gibson Desert region) it's been observed they've long enjoyed a predominantly 'mythic' form of consciousness [Rumsey, Allen (1994) Pages 116 - 128] , within which events occur and are explained by the preordained social structures and orders told of, sung about, and performed within their fantastic, superhuman mythology, rather than by reference to the possible accumulated political actions, decisions and influences of local individuals (ie, an understanding that effectively 'erases' history) [Myers, E (1986) "Pintupi Country, Pintubi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines". Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra & Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.]

"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 view of the world (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" and most completely told and performed by Pintupi peoples at larger gatherings within Pintupi country [De Brabander, Dallas (1984) "Pintupi" in Horton, David (General Editor)]

See also

* Cultural landscape
* Dreaming (story)
* Dreamtime
* Indigenous Australian spirituality
* Myth
* Rainbow Serpent


* Beckett, J. (1994) “Aboriginal Histories, Aboriginal Myths: an Introduction.” "Oceania" Volume 65. Pages 97-115
* Berndt, R. M. & Berndt, C. H. (1989) "The Speaking Land." Penguin. Melbourne
* Cowan, James (1994) "Myths of the dreaming : interpreting Aboriginal legends". Unity Press. Roseville, N.S.W.
* Dixon, R. M. W. (1996) “Origin legends and linguistic relationships.” "Oceania.". Volume 67. Number 2 Pages 127-140.
* Elkin, A. P. (1938) "Studies in Australian Totemism". Oceania Monography No. 2. Sydney.
* Haviland, John B., with Hart, Roger. 1998. "Old Man Fog and the Last Aborigines of Barrow Point". Crawford House Publishing, Bathurst. ISBN 1-86333-169-7.
* Hiatt, L. (1975) "Australian Aboriginal Mythology: Essays in Honour of W.E.H Stanner." Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Canberra
* Isaacs, J. (1980). "Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History". Lansdowne Press, Sydney, ISBN 0-7018-1330X.
* Koepping, Klaus-Peter (1981) "Religion in Aboriginal Australia" "Religion" Volume 11. Pages 367-391.
* Lawlor, Robert (1991). "Voices Of The First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal dreamtime." Inner Traditions International, Ltd. Rochester, Vermont. ISBN 0-89281-355-5
* Maddock, K. (1988). “Myth, History and a Sense of Oneself.” In Beckett, J. R. (ed) "Past and Present: The Construction of Aboriginality." Aboriginal Studies Press. Canberra. Pages 11-30. ISBN 0-85575-190-8
* Horton, David (1994) "" Aboriginal Studies Press. Canberra. ISBN 0-85575-234-3
* Morphy, H. (1992) "Ancestral Connections.". University of Chicago Press. Chicago.
* Mountford, C.P (1985) "The Dreamtime Book: Australian Aboriginal Myths" Louis Braille Productions.
* Pohlner, Peter. 1986. "gangarru". Hopevale Mission Board, Milton, Queensland. ISBN 1-86252-311-8.
* Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1926) "The Rainbow-Serpent Myth of Australia." "The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland." Volume 56. Pages 19-25
* Roth, W. E. 1897. "The Queensland Aborigines". 3 Vols. Reprint: Facsimile Edition, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, W.A., 1984. ISBN 0-85905-054-8.
* Rumsey, Allen (1994) “The Dreaming, human agency and inscriptive practice”. "Oceania." Volume 65, Number 2. Pages 116 - 128.
* Sutton, P. (1988) “Myth as History, History as Myth”. In Keen, I (ed.) "Being Black: Aboriginal Cultures in 'Settled' Australia." Aboriginal Studies Press. Canberra. Pages 251-68.
* Stanner, W.E.H. (1966) "On aboriginal religion", "Oceania Monograph" No. 11. Sydney.
* Van Gennep, A (1906) "Mythes et Legendes d'Australie". Paris.
* Yengoyan, Aram A.(1979) "Economy, Society, and Myth in Aboriginal Australia". "Annual Review of Anthropology". Volume 8. Pages 393-415.


External links

* [|Australian Museum 2004 Collection of Aboriginal myths/stories]
* [| Australian Government 'portal' on Aboriginal 'Dreamings' and associated mythology]
* [| Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC)Online Display for 'Aboriginal Relationships to Country']
* [| Ngadjon jii -Earthwatch Web Page]

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