Aboriginal Dreamtime - Part 1


Bruce Chatwin, in his book 'The Songlines', suspected that 40,000 years were needed to make a dreamtime in which the 'Songlines' so saturated the environment with narrative that every tree and rock reflected an Aboriginal spirit collectively and individually:

I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that whenever men have trodden they have left a trail song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo); and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savanna, when the First Man opening his mouth in defiance4 of the terrors that surrounded him, shouted the opening stanza of the World Song, 'I am'.

(Chatwin 1988-282)

In such an intertwining, it was difficult to know the human life and physical nature began and ended, or indeed, whether the word forms of the narratives were in the head or "out there'. That united world of things and words were not frozen still by time, but was always been enlarged by the pains and joys of succeeding generations, even when the latest of these generations may have experienced catastrophic change, even when the outsiders to these 'Songlines' saw them as fraud or rationalizations, or stories in the service of greed and politics.

Sadly, Bruce Chatwin's early death denied him the opportunity to further develop his understanding. Perhaps it would be best to leave his understanding in the piecemeal stories that he presented and perhaps consider the concepts that he raised in terms of its application to the wider view of Oceania as well as a consideration of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. 

The term 'Oceania' has, for many years, described the people of Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, as well as the Australian Aborigines who peopled its continent (Australia) and islands. Indeed, the space that we call 'Oceania' holds within it land as old as Gondwana and a sea that stretches across a third of the globe's space, and reaches down to a depth of 17 kilometres. It rests on a huge plate whose movement arouses goddess Pele's anger in Hawaii and destroys freeways in Los Angeles. Indeed, it seems arrogant to claim that we can encompass such a large area with out Songlines - certainly, there will be no one Songline for an ocean.

The relevance of a Songline to the continent of Australia and the Dreamtime of the Aboriginal people is, perhaps, more significant. Indeed, the Aboriginal people cannot be given their rightful place in national conversation unless white Australia develops an understanding of the remarkable culture that accounts for so many of the attitudes of the Aboriginal people. Indeed, the Aboriginal mythology is the product of something which belongs to the human condition itself and is an attempt to make sense out of human experience and to find some principle in the whole human situation. To be human is to be unable to accept that our existence is ruled ultimately by chaos and meaninglessness. Certainly, a meeting with the mythological response of the Aboriginal culture invites us to reflect more deeply on the way in which the existential needs we share with them have been met in the Western culture.

The Aborigines who first had contact with whites had built for themselves a world in which the territory of each tribal group, and every feature of it, found its entire meaning through he mythological stories which were the expression of the life they shared. In other words, their human existence derived its meaning from the features of their physical environments. This meaning - expressed in the song cycles of their mythology - gave its tribal group a totemic identification within its own land. So complete was this identification of each group with a particular section of the continent, seen as externally determined by the totemic ancestors, that territorial disputes were practically unknown. Every part of the country they occupied, every mark and feature, was numinous with meaning. The spirit ancestors had made the country itself, in their travel, and fused each part of it into the "Dreamtime" - a continuum of past, present and future - that was also the unchangeable law by which the Aborigines lived. The spirits remained in the land, passing on their essence through the births and rebirths of Aborigines themselves and still present in the telling of their stories.

In other words, the Dreaming saw the human situation as determined entirely by the disposition of the transcendent agency of the totemic ancestors. Thus, for instance, the place of conception revealed one identification with a particular ancestor and with the totemic economy whereby that ancestor still lived in particular features of the region: animal, rocks, mountains, or waterholes.

In the Dreaming, the Aborigines thus had a numinous identification with the land and, indeed, no English words can aptly describe or give an appropriate sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland. For example, the English word "home" does not match the Aboriginal word that may mean "camp", "hearth", "country", "everlasting home", "totem place", "life source", "spirit centre", and much more all in one. Indeed, in a typical Aboriginal ceremony, expressions of the mythology of the Dreaming may involve a young initiate being presented with a totemic rock and being told "This is your body from which you have been reborn".

When the white settlers took what was called "land", they took what to the Aborigines meant "heart", "home", "the source and locus of life", and "everlastingness of spirit". It left so many of the Aboriginal people with no stable base of life and no social network had a point of fixture left. Indeed, there can be little wonder that, generations later, the Aboriginal people struggle to find themselves once more.

In fact, the shameful history of white Australia's relationships with the Australian Aboriginal people had not only affected the central being of the Aboriginal people but the moral fibre of the Australian nation. There is certainly a strong case to suggest that an understanding of Aboriginal culture and its relationship to this ancient continent is a matter of fundamental importance to all Australians. It is true that so many of the Aboriginal people no longer live according to the mythology of the Dream. it is clear, however, that the sub-culture which has developed among the Aboriginal people since they suffered the impact of white colonisation preserves many of the attitudes engendered by it. As the nature of the Dreamtime is brought to light once more, it is for the Aboriginal people to decide the degree to which they make use of their traditional ways within the context of a modern multi-cultural Australian society.        

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