More about Aboriginal Australians

(based on James Cowan’s Aboriginal Dreaming: An introduction to the wisdom and thought of the Aboriginal traditions of Australia, ISBN 9780007145461)


Hold on! You mean them there tribal mark thingies actually mean sum’n?

Recently I’ve finished reading the aforementioned book, and I admit for such a small light book it deals with a big and heavy topic: the culture of aboriginal Australians. Obviously they have individual differences between the different groups (language, dialect, fine details of myths, etc.), but most of the same stuff is shared throughout all the cultures.


One prominent example is the Rainbow Snake or Great Snake, a primordial entity linked with creation itself and, like the Norse belief in the rainbow bridge Bifröst, it’s also a bridge between the spiritual & material realms. Its primary role is creation of bodies of water (similar to Chinese dragons’ rule over water, coincidentally) and therefore the quality of giving & sustaining life. Its universality and significance among Aborigines in general is second only to Baiame (see Sky Heroes below). Fairly obviously it’s know by different names across the tribes (Jarapiri, Unjuat, Galaru, Kunukban, Bolan) but they all refer to the same thing. It should be noted this Snake isn’t completely benevolent or harmless, for one legend says he stole the creative power of the fertility-mother Kunapipi by eating her daughters! It’s not clear whether he had any before or if that was the source of his creative power, but either way it’s often been used to explain the masculine “need” to control & possess feminine creative power. Hmmm…


The first misogynist?


The Sky Heroes, beings that existed in Australia before people. They were shape shifters, able to take any form at all, and there were many of them. Pungalunga Men, Lightning Brothers, Ninja Ice Men, and many others. They were the ones who gave humans law, order, culture & tradition so they were pretty important, especially the All-Father Baiame (aka. Ungud, Pundjel, Mangela).


Dreamtime, aka. the Dreaming. This term gets bantered around a lot but rarely explained. It’s what the Aborigines see as the primordial non-physical state of the world, where humans as we know them didn’t exist. Back then we were mouthless limbless creatures called inapertwa, transitory states between plant/animal & human that were then shaped into properly-formed sexually dimorphic beings by the self-created couple Numbakulla (2 of the Sky Heroes I believe). It’s also the real state of the world, where ideas, spirits, powers & the like reside within and influence the material world.


Totems is an interesting notion. It took me ages to get my head round it but I think I got it. Totems are the remembrance of their ancestral inapertwa selves from the Dreamtime, the specific type of animal/ plant (or in some cases natural phenomenon like wind, river, etc!) they used to be. There are different types of totem for each person –

  • one from their overall tribe,
  • one from their class. Each tribe is divided into classes (usually 2 to 4), which represent certain natural energies or characteristics. For example, slow/quick, getter/watcher, active/passive, and smart/fool. It may sound like the Hindu caste system or something, but these classes are NOT given superior/ inferior statuses. Not even the smart/fool one. They are seen only as natural complements to keep each other in check. Also unlike the caste system, people in the same class are forbidden from marrying each other. They are only allowed to marry people from a different class! This is to prevent incest and to prevent certain characteristics/ energies being over-represented in the tribe, which would lead to environmental and/ or social instability. Also, painting their bodies in certain colours demonstrates their totemic characteristics: black & yellow are slow/ passive/ watcher, red & white are quick/ active/ getter,
  • and one they inherit from their specific spiritual ancestry and cannot be shared with others. They only discover this one when they’re initiated into manhood, and then having it bestowed on them by their fathers and other elder men. During the initiation they’re given secret knowledge of their totem and their relationship to it, symbolised on a wooden churinga kept in a special storage house, and exposed to ritual chants in a language they don’t know. They’re also made responsible not just for adhering to new (manly, as opposed to boyish) ways but also to be guardian of their fathers’ totem until death so they can pass it on to their progeny.

Example of a churinga, a symbolised demonstration of an initiate’s relationship to his totem. The ones presented to the initiates are made of wood, but there are stone ones kept in a special part of the storage house, containing the original “message” of the Sky Heroes


Totems are so important because they’re the person’s & tribe’s origins, eg. if a group has a kangaroo as their totem it’s because they have common ancestry with kangaroos, back when they were inapertwa. It therefore follows that kangaroos are their relatives and they are to be respected as such, so that tribe may be forbidden from eating kangaroo meat. That would be cannibalism.


It’s worth mentioning totems are NOT inherited biologically but spiritually. They believe women don’t get pregnant through the physical act of sex but through spirit-children (taraulbas) choosing to enter their bodies by shrinking down to the size of a termite and crawling into her. Which taraulba enters determines the child’s totem, and some are lucky enough to have the taraulba of a Sky Hero! However, if a woman stays too long at a neighbour’s place or far from her country for too long, the wrong type of spirit can enter her so the child gets a totem that’s incompatible with those of its fellow compatriots. This leads to problems, social and personal, for that child.


Aborigines didn’t see Australia as one big country but as separate regions and countries for separate tribes, like so.


An important thing to remember is that these concepts are NOT seen as legends or stories of some long-forgone era but as events that still exist, still unfold, still matter to the lives of each and every person. And as for totems, each person thus has 2 identities: themselves and their totemic selves. Anyone who doesn’t know their totem (either through underage or cultural estrangement) is considered semi-alive.


Other stunning factoids:

  • Before humans were there Australia used to be part of Antarctica! That certainly explains one description of the Dreaming as Njidding (ice age).
  • Aborigines’ cultures had remained pretty much the same since they first arrived on the continent. In other words, their traditions, worldviews and the like haven’t changed much since the Stone Age! Before foreigners like Arabs & Europeans came, needless to say.
  • They were among the world’s first astronomers, having an understanding of heavenly bodies and constellations and the like for at least a good 40,000 years! See more here.


And how long will it take for them to be totally divorced from this culture…?


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