Dreamtime and the Beginning
Aborigines were the original inhabitants of Australia and were hunters and gathers. Their understanding of the land was the basis for their spiritual belief.
The aboriginal “Dreamtime” stories explain how the land and creatures were created.
The Aborigines have sacred places all over Australia. The best known is Uluru. Uluru is also one of Australia’s most famous landmarks. It is a giant sandstone rock, actually the world’s biggest sandstone rock. It is more than 318 meters high and 8 kilometres round. Ancient paintings have been discovered on the surface and in the caves of Uluru.
The Aborigines believed that land could not be bought or sold but the British settlers disagreed. The Aborigines began to loose their hunting grounds and water holes as the settlers moved inland. The settlers simply took the land. The Aborigines have now been given back some of their land, as the government has understood that the land has spiritual and historical importance to the aboriginal people. In 1985, Uluru was returned to the Aborigines.
There is not one single god covering all of Australia. Each tribe has its own set of gods, with some of the beliefs the same. For example, the Wandjina spirits in the northern Kimberley of Western Australia belong to the Ngarinyin, Worora and Wunambal tribes. These Wandjina are responsible for bringing the Wet Season rains, as well as creating many of the laws for the people. In the east this function is taken over by Yagjagbula and Jabirringgi. They are called “The Lightning Brothers” by the Wardaman tribe in the Northern Territory.
Aboriginal gods have many roles. Based on their primary role, they fall into three main categories. Any god may belong to one, two, or all three of these categories:
- Creation Beings. Many are involved with the creation of people, the landscape, and aspects of the environment, such as the creation of red, yellow or white pigments, so can be called “Creation Figures” or “Creation Beings”.
- Ancestral Beings. In many examples, these gods are regarded as the direct ancestors of the people living today and so they are “Ancestral Figures”, “Ancestral Beings”, “Ancestral Heroes”, or “Dreamtime Ancestors”. Here, the one term “Ancestral Being” is used to describe these deities.
- Totemic Beings. A Totemic Being represents the original form of an animal, plant or other object (totem), as it was in the Creation Period. The concept of a Totemic Being overlaps with that of a Creation Being and an Ancestral Being because the Totemic Being may create the abundance of species, and people see themselves as being derived from the different Totemic Beings.
To this day, ceremonies play an important part in Aboriginal life. Small ceremonies, or rituals, are still practised in some remote parts of Australia, such as in Arnhem Land and Central Australia. This is done in order to ensure a supply of plant and animal foods. These take the form of chanting, singing, dancing or ritual action to invoke the Ancestral Beings to ensure a good supply of food or rain.
The most important ceremonies are connected with the initiation of boys and girls into adulthood. Such ceremonies sometimes last for weeks, with nightly singing and dancing, story telling, and the display of body decoration and ceremonial objects. During these ceremonies, the songs and stories connected to each of the Ancestral Beings are told. Some of them are “open” for women and children to see and hear, others are restricted or “secret-sacred”, and is only told to the the initiates.
Funerals are another important time for ceremonies. For these ceremonies, people often paint themselves white or cut their own bodies to show their remorse for the loss of their loved one. They then conduct a series of rituals, songs and dances to ensure the person’s spirit leaves the area and returns to its birth place, from where it can later be reborn.
Burial practices vary throughout Australia. The way people are buried in parts of southern and central Australia, is quite different to the north. Across much of northern Australia, a person’s burial has two stages, each accompanied by ritual and ceremony.
Aboriginal rock art records ceremonies dating back tens of thousands of years, and are continued to this day.