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Australian Aborigine Religion : What | Who | GuL's Comment | Score | Forums | Books

Who are these people and what do they believe in?

     There are not many contenders for the oldest living religion in the world, but if there was a list, the Aborigines of Australia would find themselves very close to the top.
     Time for the Aborigines started in the Dream Time or Altjiranga and the Dream Time extends from the very distant past to the far distant future.
     So far into the past and so far into the future that time, both real and dreaming, is brought neatly round in a full circle.
     Dreaming, as most people do most nights, being both the link and the proof.

     Dreams of going to new and exciting places was something the Chinese were always trying to turn into reality and in there some evidence that the town that was to become Darwin had a visit from the Chinese Exploration Department as early as 1432. But in the discovery business it was the Dutch Expeditionary force that made the greatest mistakes.
     The Dutch had already established trading links between South Africa and Indonesia, discovered that New Guinea was an island and replaced the old pictures of dragons and sea monsters with New Zealand and Tasmania. They had had found the legendary Terra Australis, the South Land, which they predictably and imaginatively named New Holland, and even landed the first European settlers in Shark Bay in 1626. Then, finding nothing of any great interest, they left.
     The English were next and almost made the same mistake when the Admiralty temporarily ignored the meticulous but depressingly dull charts and logs of the captain, explorer, drunkard and brutal disciplinarian William Dampier. Bad Bill faced a court-martial in 1702 but strict discipline was considered an asset rather than a failing and brutal Billy was back in charge of another expedition the following year.
     It was during this voyage that a sailor by the name of Alexander Selkirk had such an altercation with one of the officers that he actually asked to be marooned on an island, an act that was to give the novelist Daniel Defoe the idea for a tale of intrigue, betrayal, madness and buried treasure that has left many a schoolboy gazing wistfully towards the far horizons.

     On August 26th 1768 Lieutenant James Cook left Plymouth with one ship, a crew of 94 reasonably able bodied men and orders to confirm that the Great Southern Continent actually existed. Three years later and at least thirty men fewer Jim reported back with his maps, charts and plants and vivid descriptions of the great new continent.
     Although Britain immediately claimed the land, boldly wrote the name New South Wales all over the bottom right hand corner and established a settlement at Sydney, the old men at the Admiralty were still not totally convinced that Terra A was worth anything more than a tick in the 'we've been there' box. So for a second time the ever obliging Jim, this time with the rank of Commander, two ships, almost twice as many men (but with the same old orders) set sail again on July of 1772.
     Three years later Jim was back in Plymouth with a sea chest literally overflowing with maps, facts and charts of hundreds of islands. None of which looked the slightest bit like the big island of their dreams.
     The Admiralty were not amused and it was left to the almost completely unknown Matthew Flinders who between 1801 and 1803 managed to circumnavigate both New Holland and Tasmania (proving once and for all they were islands) and also managed to convince the name-givers to call the place Australia.
     The name became official in 1817 and the place became the perfect depository for all the miscreants, malcontents and law-breakers that the British judiciary would otherwise have to lock up at the tax payers expense. And so from the early 1800's a good many criminals and dispossessed were forced onto ships and pointed south to a land of sunshine, lush pastures, sparkling rivers, cool mountains and fertile planes.
     As word slowly drifted back to the land of smokestacks, workhouses and forced child labour there was, quite understandably, a large number of people ready to join them.

     The fact that someone was already living there did not concern the new arrivals because all the new arrivals were totally confident in their own sophistication, knew perfectly well that they were well educated and intelligent and believed that the natives were completely ignorant because, apart from a rather startling line in body-paint, they were for the most part, naked.
     Also the new boys had enough weapons and drugs to ensure that any native foolish enough to question the authority of the invaders would receive a swift and painful explanation of exactly who was the new boss in town.
     The exploitation of the indigenous population is a dark side in Australian colonial history and one that still haunts and effects the lives and consciences of both the victims and the perpetrators. For the winners, the continent was wide open for exploitation and financial gain but for the losers it was exploitation of a very different kind.
     Denied access to traditional lands, betrayed by successive administrators, forced onto reservations and into further ignominious subservience the original Australian Aborigines were left only memories and the hope that the old gods would wake up and throw out this new and invasive pestilence.
     It was time for the Aborigines to think back. Back to a time when time itself was just a dream. To a time when dreams and gods swirled together and then found a purpose - and then made the dreams come true.

     Within the Dream Time were born the Altjiranga Ngambakala, the Gods of Eternity.
     The job of these Gods was to make the Earth habitable, to roam around in both human and animal form and generally fix the place up.
     The Altjiranga Ngambakala fell into three broad categories. First there were the Dema Gods who were the practical guys and who had the task of showing the new humans what to do and explain the rules of hunting, gathering, cultivation and the benefits of keeping the place looking tidy and respectable.
     Secondly there were the Wondjina. These were the gods in charge of sex and it was their job was to make sure there was a proper balance in the population, not only human but of all living things. And this was a busy time for the Wondjina who thoughtfully left images of themselves in the form of the cave paintings to remind humans that the distant past was right in front of their eyes.
     Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult to define are the Tjurunga. These were spirits who infiltrated material objects and have left associations, conceptions and traditions attached to all sorts of everyday items.
     The good news is that if an everyday object such as a cup or throwing-stick that has been touched by the spirit of Tjurunga, things for the owner improve a hundred percent. The bad news (for anyone on the receiving end) that the 'pointing' of Tjurunga influenced bones can cause an untimely death - so this is definitely a spirit to be taken seriously.
     The good Dema Gods had one remaining task before they slipped back into the land of dreams. They unselfishly dismembered their own bodies and left the bits all over the land that was going to be called Australia. From these bits emerged all the tribes with the sure knowledge that both they and the land they lived on was a Gift-From-The-Gods.
     Having done all the hard stuff the remaining Gods simply lay down and, while making time to greet the constant stream of (dead) newcomers to the dream world, went into a long sleep.

     For Aborigines life, especially new life, is taken seriously and the important thing for a newly pregnant woman to do is to pass by a spot where one of the Ancestors happens to be sleeping. This allows the new child to be the reincarnation of one of the Ancestor-Gods and so receive his or her 'totem'. Which is quite a responsibility for both the receiving human and the giving god
     If the totem-giving ancestor-god were a particular animal then it would be the job of the person to see that the animal was properly honoured both in life and in dances and rituals. Also that there were enough of those animals about to be of use to the tribe.
     The totem is also seen as the eternal soul of the Ancestor-God and is on temporary loan to the (as yet) unborn human. The bad news about this is that this particular eternal soul has to be returned to the Ancestor-God to be recycled on to the next generation.
     Fortunately all humans get two souls. The second soul is given to children by their parents, it is immortal and when it has finished with the human body it is allowed to join the Ancestor-Gods for a well deserved rest. And perhaps look upon the now white-dominated land of its real ancestors and wonder if there was some part of the process of social evolution that is yet to be fully explained.


Top God:The Altjiranga Ngambakala.
Running Time:Estimated at 40,000 years.
Status:Worried about loosing everything.
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