Australian Aborigines



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The Magical World of the Australian Aborigines


Mark Jaqua

"Why change our sacred myths for your sacred myths?"

– Aborigine poet Kath Walker

Source: TAT Journal, Issue 10, 1980

Australian Aborigines, Contemplation

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The Outback

The outback of the Australian desert is the most other-worldly terrain as can be found on this planet. For hundreds of thousands of square miles there is nothing but desolation in scorching heat. Early explorers – those who survived – told tales that could scarcely be believed. They were constantly plagued by mirages in their treks, sometimes two or three at a time. Trees or mountains would be suspended upside-down in midair before them. Some areas of the land looked like tremendous graveyards with row upon row of towering anthills. New species of wildlife were encountered everywhere. There were "ventriloquist doves" that with a slight movement of their throats could make a noise seeming to come across the plain. An ugly bird, later named the cracticus destructor, could imitate any sound it heard and would linger around the campsites learning new calls. There was the emu, which looks like a large feather-duster with legs, and the unusual kangaroo. The most unique creatures of all were the people that inhabited this stark land.

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Aboriginal People

The Aborigines have a culture that is the most unusual of any known people. Today, unfortunately, they have been all but destroyed as a distinct society. Within a hundred years of the immigration of Europeans into Australia there were virtually no Aborigine tribes that were uncontaminated by the white man's ways. Occasionally today, a small band is discovered in the outback that follows its ancestral path but none of these are ignorant of the white man and his culture.

According to the 1966 Australian census there are some 80,000 half and full-blooded Aborigines living. When European immigration first began in the 1780's it was estimated there were 300,000 natives composing 500 tribes. By many of the invaders the Aborigines or "abos" were seen as subhuman and were hunted and killed like animals. The supposed "dispersal" of the natives was a euphemism for genocide for many years. Thousands were given poisoned food and a typical Saturday night adventure would be to go out and shoot "abos" for fun. The Aborigines also received smallpox and other diseases from the whites and their numbers rapidly declined. (Strangely, they were immune to syphilis which was imported by Europeans elsewhere.) Contact with whites curiously resulted in a large share of the Aborigine population becoming barren. In nearby Tasmania the entire population became infertile and extinct within a hundred years of the invasion by Europeans.

The native culture was at total odds with the Europeans. Neither could understand the other. Aborigine culture is very possibly as subtle and intellectually complex as our own but unfortunately the Europeans could only see the superficial Stone Age appearance. The Aborigines were neither competitive nor violent. Occasionally a group would attack a band of whites but usually this resulted in three or four charging the whites while the rest of the Aborigine men stood back and joked and laughed at their leaders being repelled! When treated kindly they were very friendly to the explorers, even to the point of offering them their untidy wives. The Aborigines dark skin turns white after death and upon seeing their first whites they were believed to be the dead arisen. Later the whites came to be called "unreal" since they definitely were unreal and unnatural to a stable culture that had existed in Australia for at least 16,000 years.

Aborigines constitute a unique physical type and have been classified as a distinct race – the Australoid. There are only four recognized races of people, the others being the Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. The Aborigine's skin is copper-gray in color, his eyes are yellowish and red-veined and he has wavy hair.

When young, many of the children have blonde or red hair. Many have raised scars or keloids which indicate levels of initiation or just simple decoration in less austere tribes. D.H. Lawrence wrote that Aborigines had an incomprehensible depth in their eyes that reached "across gulfs of unbridged centuries." [1]

[1. In his novel Kangaroo (1923). ]

The social grouping of the Aborigines is complex and suggests a comprehensive mind to develop such a system. Aldo Massola, in his book As They Were, [2] has described their basic social organization in as simple a manner as possible:

[2. The Aborigines of South-Eastern Australia as They Were, 1971. ]

"In actual practice, the members of most, not all of the Aboriginal tribes of south-eastern Australia were divided into two moieties (from French 'moietie' – half). These were generally named Eaglehawk and Crow. Each of these two moieties were divided into a number of phratries (from Greek 'phratria' – a clan). The names for the phratries or clans, as they were sometimes called were taken either from animals or from inanimate natural objects. Each of the phratries were further divided into totems (a North American Indian name for a similar relationship) named after animals, plants, heavenly bodies, or the elements.

"From time immemorial, the law was laid down that Eaglehawk people had to marry Crow, and vice versa, but in so doing they also married into different phratries and different totems. At the same time, they could not just marry into any of the other totems: it had to be of the right phratries."

The elders of the smallest groups or "totems" were the actual leaders. There was a great respect of old age in both men and women. It was believed that if a man survived the bewitchments of his enemies and the evil spirits for such a long time then he must have a great deal of power.

Among the different tribes there were nearly 700 different languages. A different speech was used for different aspects of tribal life. There was a special language for ceremonial rituals and initiations and as well even a "mother-in-law language" which women must use in the presence of their daughter's husband. Initially, perhaps, these languages all stemmed from a common tongue since there are similarities between the tribal dialects. Tribe A can understand and interpret tribe B, B interpret tribe C, and C tribe D, but tribe A cannot understand tribe D. To complicate matters far more is the taboo against mentioning a man's name after he had died. Since people are named after animals, insects and plants, this means that the name of these must be changed every time their namesake dies! Some of these languages are very complex, numbering up to 40,000 words.

The Aborigines had no permanent dwellings but roamed over the land in groups of fifteen or so winning their living off the barren land. Most groups used no clothing and during the cold nights would sleep with dog front and back to keep warm or else build a small fire on each side of their body. In the morning they would roll in the dead ashes of the fires to get the last bit of warmth. Women would gather grass-seed, yams and insect grubs during the day while the men would hunt animals with boomerang and spear. Animals were cooked by building a fire in a hole in the ground. The animal was thrown in the hot coals of the fire and covered with ashes and sand. When the emu was cooked his head was kept above ground and when steam issued from his beak he was ready to be eaten.

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In The Two Worlds of Jimmie Barker [3] an Aborigine man recalls the remarkable powers of telepathy that existed among his people before being westernized by the British. As a small child in the early 1900's he would occasionally travel with the older men on hunting parties away from their mission settlement.

[3. 1977. Ref: (also see below) ]

"White people find telepathy hard to explain but probably recognise that it exists. The gurungu of the Muruwari seems similar. Gura means string, and the literal meaning of gurungu is 'magic string.' This communication of thought was used and discussed frequently during my first years at the Mission. I still believe in it and expect other Aborigines of my age to have strong feelings about it. Men and women talked about getting news from others who were far away: it might be of an impending visitor, or of a death. This gurungu was the magic way in which a message could be sent to another camp. It might be sent to disturb a person who had done wrong, and might come in the form of a bird thought or dream. My first experience of it was when I was about eight years old and we were camping in the bush. On this occasion the old men said we must return immediately: a young child had died and the men were needed. These old people seemed to know when a friend or relative had arrived at home or if someone was ill or in trouble. It has happened so often it has been difficult to believe that it was coincidence. When we returned in this way some unusual event had always occurred. I am sure these messages were genuine.

"One night when we were camping there was an exceeding loud noise: it sounded as if a tree had crashed and fallen. There had been loud talk, and when this happened there was an eerie silence. In the morning the men walked round and round our camping area, gradually enlarging their circles. When they came back there was real concern, as no fallen tree could be seen. Within minutes we were on the move and returning to the Mission. When we arrived we learnt that a young child had died and there was great distress. This event remained in my mind for a long time. When an unusual or unexplained noise occurred like this the Muruwari called it Dinagunda, meaning "a visitor from afar." This also referred to an evil spirit which could appear in the form of a bird or animal: it might just be a solitary emu or kangaroo running across the plain. The indication that one of these was a Dinagunda was the bird or animal would stop and look at a person."

Totemism is almost impossible for us to understand through our modern concepts and beliefs. There was a prescribed mode of conduct for every aspect of life – even to the stance the man would take while urinating. These "rules" did not come from outside but were an inner directive strengthened from constant repetition. The totem system was a totally absorbing state of mind and way of living. The Aborigine was in constant rapport with the "Two Brothers" [4] who made and created the world. The Two Brothers were simultaneously everywhere and in every time. By being in rapport with these transcending essences the Aborigine was able to perform feats we find incomprehensible.

[4. ]

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"Dreamtime" was the ever-present state in which the Two Brothers created the world and into which the Aborigine must enter to become one with the Two Brothers. It is a sort of parallel universe to the "here and now" that he once again enters to eat his meals and speak to his fellows. To enter Dreamtime the Aborigine must be totally unambiguous and totally absorbed into the trance state. In The Crack In the Cosmic Egg, Joseph Pearce [5] related the scene of an Aborigine absorbed in Dreamtime trance standing on one leg in the desert with flies crawling unnoticed across his open eyes.

[5. ]

The complete reorganization of thought processes that is necessary for Dreamtime is first obtained through a terrifying series of initiations during adolescence. At about seven years the boy was separated from his mother and the rest of his family and sent to live in the desert in a "bachelor's camp." After a short while he and other boys had their heads covered and were taken to a ceremonial site in the desert. For several days and nights he was not allowed to sleep. After days of no sleep the boy was informed that the ancestral spirits were in the bush and he was intentionally terrified by various noises. The bull-roarer, a specially carved stone swung on a string, was one of the instruments used to make unworldly noises. After several tormenting and sleepless days the boy is held to the ground and all hair except for the head is plucked from his body. Circumcision and subincision, cutting the penis to the urethra from end to end, then follow. If the boy utters a cry during this ritual he is either later killed or at best refused initiation. In some cases, each day the boy is covered with blood from the arm of his father. In other ceremonies one or two teeth are removed with a crude hammer and chisel.

These rites were so terrifying that the boy would literally become "mindless" under the strain and become totally open to an indoctrination and "reprogramming" into Dreamtime and the totem system. Since his former world-view was totally disorganized through shock and terror he was completely open to absorb a new view of the nature of the world. He was shown the secret symbols and sang the sacred songs that were the Aborigine's heritage from the spirits of Dreamtime. A new meaning was given to life and a new mental organization was achieved. These ceremonies were repeated several years in a row and at end the Aborigine adolescent achieved a rock-like stability in the alternative universe of Dreamtime.

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Aborigine culture was permeated with what are to us very strange customs. Sometimes the bodies of great old men were mummified by fire and carried about for months by the tribe. It was done as an act of reverence and, as well, because it was believed these men had special powers. Other customs were even more gruesome. Sometimes an especially loved man would be eaten after his death by his relatives. This was not an act of true cannibalism but was looked upon as an act of devotion and reverence. By eating his body it was felt that the relatives became one with the man. This custom was not observed towards those that died of old age or sickness. Another shocking custom is related by Lorimer Fison [6] and A.W. Howitt [7] in "Funeral Ceremonies in Australia":[8]

[6. ]

[7. ]

[8. Google Books ]

"When an individual of the Kurnai tribe died, the relatives rolled the corpse up in an opossum rug, enclosed it in a sheet of bark, and corded it tightly. A hut was built over it, and in this the bereaved and mourning relatives and friends collected. The corpse lay in the centre, and as many of the mourners as could manage to find room lay on the ground with their heads upon the ghastly pillow. There they lay lamenting their loss. They would cry, 'Why did you go?' 'Why did you leave us?' Now and then the grief would be intensified by the wife uttering an ear-piercing wail – 'Penning I turn!' (My spouse is dead); or the mother – 'Lit I turn!' (My child is dead). All the others would join in, using the proper term of relationship; and they would cut and gash themselves with sharp instruments, until their heads and bodies streamed with blood. This bitter wailing and weeping would continue all night; the less closely related persons and the friends alone rousing themselves to eat, until the following day. This would go on for two or three days, when the corpse would be unrolled for the survivors to look at and renew their grief. If by this time the hair had become loose, it would be carefully plucked off the whole body and preserved by the father, mother, or sisters in small bags of opossum skin. They then again rolled up the body, and it was not opened until it was so far decomposed that the survivors could anoint themselves with 'oil' which had exuded from it."

Aborigine men taking part in a sacred religious ritual.

[Illustration: Men taking part in a sacred religious ritual. Great effort is put into these rituals and they involve a large share of the Aborigine's time. In addition they are kept completely secret from the women. If a woman should happen to see part of the rituals or the men's religious ground paintings or artwork – she is most frequently put to death. Modern Aborigines are much less secretive about their rites than their ancestors.]

Of the 80,000 Aborigines in present day Australia probably no more than a few thousand live in scattered groups following a similitude of the ways of their ancestors. In the 1960's Eugene Burdick [9a, 9b] happened upon a man, his lubra (wife) and two children.

[9a. Author (1918-1965) ]

[9b. Possibly: "The invisible Aborigine", Harper's magazine (Sept. 1961) (subscription) ]

The man was six feet tall and incredibly skinny. The clan reeked of musk and had flies crawling across their bodies and even across the man's open eyes. Burdick asked them to perform a few "tricks" if they would. The young boys placed a dead rodent on a bush, gathered up a few stones and began pelting the rodent with pinpoint accuracy. Burdick asked for another "trick" and the man said he would miss the rodent with his boomerang. He hurled his boomerang and it skimmed the surface of the ground for a number of yards before shooting up into the air. It reached a few hundred feet away and seemingly hovered in mid-air only to come speeding back, missing the dead rat by an inch. The man stepped sideways and grasped the instrument out of flight. When asked for another feat the man trotted into the plain and came back in minutes with a dead kangaroo which he and his family tore apart and ate raw. The Aborigine bid Burdick farewell by crunching a bone between his bloody teeth.

The Aborigine could survive in a land where most westerners would die in a few days and yet he was without any clothing, shelter or instruments other than crude spears and the uncanny boomerang. They are a great anthropological mystery. It is uncertain where they came from or when, although it has been determined by excavations by D.J. Mulvaney that they have been on the continent at least 16,000 years. This would make them the longest surviving single culture in the world. It is peculiar that the Aborigines superficially only attained a primitive Stone Age culture while their religion and customs are so exceedingly and intellectually complex. It has been maintained by some, including Joseph Chilton Pearce and French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, that the Aborigines intentionally stayed at a Stone Age level of development. Perhaps the Aborigine's culture was a mental culture rather than a technological one. Their view of the world is as entirely complex as our own but it is also an entirely different kind of viewpoint. Materiality and possessions were eschewed because it encumbered their mental involvement in Dreamtime and made impossible all the uncanny abilities and mental plateaus they could achieve.

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A Different Paradigm

Thomas S. Kuhn coined the term "paradigm" in his book published in 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. [10] Briefly put, our paradigm is the composite of mental concepts according to which we believe the world operates. In it is defined what is possible and impossible. When we turn on the tap we believe water will come out and not oil and when we jump into the air we expect to come right back down and not go sailing off into space. The accepted scientific paradigm is of a more abstract nature which we don't normally think about in everyday life. This consists of the simplest mechanical laws to the most abstruse sub-atomic physics.


The Aborigine has a different paradigm than we do. To him it is possible to communicate telepathically with his fellows and to have knowledge of a kangaroo in the bush two miles distant. To him this is no sort of magic but something taken in stride within Dreamtime. An air conditioner would be quite a magical thing to the Aborigine because he has no possibility of such a thing in his paradigm. Everyday telepathy is quite magical to us because we have no place for such abilities in our paradigm.

The "way the world works" does not seem to be so much "out there" as "in here." Man's mind may have an effect on the environment to an equal degree as the environment has on man 's mind. In The Crack in the Cosmic Egg Pearce postulates that thought is part of a continuum, the lower extreme of which is matter. Our most basic assumptions about the nature of the world are "converted" into or are matter.

If some of our most basic assumptions about the physical world such as that fire burns, prove to be arbitrary – then it could indicate that these basic assumptions are synthetic and do not represent an absolute physical reality "out there." The primitive fire-walker is an instance of supposed physical law being violated. In numerous places the world over primitives demonstrate the ability while in religious trance to walk barefoot over hot coals. This fact has been validated by many observers yet it is "impossible" since it violates our physical law. The Aborigine also performs feats that must be described as impossible according to our physical laws. Joseph Chilton Pearce relates an incident of this Dreamtime ability:

"To test their proverbial tracking skill, a single man traveled on foot for many miles over widely different terrain, sandy desert, marsh, rocky country, following no trail, leaving no detectable trail. The route was nevertheless followed unhesitatingly a year later by a cooperative aborigine. Their ability for 'ground reading' is famous, but here the contemporaneousness with the Two Brothers was called on. The Aborigine had to have an article of clothing from the man leaving the original trail. This he held while going into Dream-Time. The Two Brothers, of course, were contemporaneous with the original event itself. Having made his connections with the Two Brothers, the tracker connected with the event which was then contemporaneous with himself as well. He followed the trail rapidly, unerringly, and without pause, never giving any indication of looking for signs, should any have conceivably remained." [11]

[11. Crack in the Cosmic Egg. (see below) ]

A full-blooded Aborigine woman and child.
[Illustration: The old ways and the new. A full-blooded Aborigine woman and child living in the ways of their ancestors. The "keloids" or raised scars on the woman's shoulder are from an initiation rite. Women go through only one initiation rite during puberty while men may pass through any number and stages of initiation.]
A modern half-blooded Aborigine woman working in a supermarket.
[Illustration: The picture is of a modern half-blooded Aborigine woman working in a supermarket. While many Aborigines are unable or find it undesirable to integrate into modern society most have entered fields of mining, construction and livestock raising. The Aborigine men are especially noted for their skill in mechanics.]

The Aborigine is able to perform this feat because within his Dreamtime philosophy he has belief and an entire explanation of how it is possible and perfectly natural. This could be compared to our technological paradigm. Our air-conditioners work because we have belief and an entire explanation of how they work and that it is also "perfectly natural." What is believed and can be explained is physically possible. It could be that when we can explain theoretically and thus believe in an anti-gravity principle – we will discover anti-gravity. This is certainly no more an amazing thing than the development of nuclear energy which was stimulated by a simple three letter equation, E=mc2.

The Aborigine in Dreamtime trance lives in a different world from our own. This world is as alien as the utterly desolate terrain upon which he spent his last 16,000 years, unscathed by other polluting minds and allowed to create his own adventure. His story is over, however, and we are lucky to have caught its last chapter and to have gained an insight into the working of Mind itself.


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