Australia, a vast land dominated by desert and semidesert landscapes, was first inhabited by the Aborigines. The mythology of Australia comes from these people and has been influenced by their very close relationship with the natural environment. Most of the myths deal with the features of the landscape, how they were created, and their importance to the Aborigines.
In Australian mythology, there are no standard versions of individual myths. Instead, a tale about a particular character varies from region to region. The reason for these variations in the mythology lies in the lifestyle of the Aborigines.
Origins and Influences
The first humans to inhabit Australia may have arrived more than 75,000 years ago. They probably came from the islands to the north that are now known as Indonesia or from islands in the Pacific Ocean. Some historians believe that the earliest inhabitants traveled overland, across a land bridge that once connected Australia and southeastern Asia. Later immigrants arrived by raft or boat after the ocean rose and covered the land route.
The early inhabitants were seminomads who survived by hunting wild animals, fishing, and gathering fruits and plants. Each group had a home territory where their ancestors had originally settled. However, most groups moved with the seasons as they ran out of food and fresh water. This seminomadic lifestyle exposed some Aborigines to different areas and brought various groups into contact with one another.
Types of Myths
Australian myths deal with the creation of the world, floods and drought and other natural disasters, and major events in the life cycle, such as birth and death. Most myths are set in the local terrain and explain the origins of features of the land, including hills and valleys, water holes, and places of safety or danger. Listening to the stories, the Aborigines learn about the local geography while reinforcing their bonds to the group and its heritage.
Storytelling. In Aboriginal culture many types of information, including myths and legends, are transmitted orally. Storytellers rely on techniques such as repetition and special expressions that always take the same form. They use songs, chants, and sand paintings to help tell the tale. Journeys, the subject of many Aboriginal stories, are described by explaining what happened at each place along the way.
End of an Era
For thousands of years, the Aborigines' way of life was touched little by outside influences. Then, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, European colonists began to arrive in Australia. Today the Aborigines make up little more than 2 percent of Australia's population, and few of them maintain their traditional way of life. Aware that the breakdown of their seminomadic lifestyle and oral tradition could lead to a loss of their heritage, some Aborigines are making an effort to collect and record the myths and legends they know for future generations.
Myths fall into different categories. Some are public and may be shared with all members of a group. Others are restricted: only people who have participated in certain special ceremonies may hear them. Some sacred stories may be told by and heard only by men, while others are restricted to women or to the elder members of the community.
Dreamtime. The Aborigines believe that the world began during a mythical period called Dreamtime, or The Dreaming. During this time, ancestral beings that slept beneath the ground emerged from the earth. They created the landscape, made people, established the laws by which people lived, and taught them how to survive. After the ancestral beings' work was done, they returned underground.
The Aborigines actively recall the events of Dreamtime. By participating in certain rituals, individuals can reenact the journeys of their ancestors.
Ritual As important as the myths themselves are the rituals that accompany their reenactment. The rituals involve singing, dancing, and painting, which according to the Aborigines, nurture the land, the people, and the ancestral beings. The individuals performing the ritual call upon the ancestral beings and later sing a song to return them to their place of emergence.
Rituals also include the creation of mythological designs, such as the body paintings, ground paintings, rock paintings, and engravings found throughout Australia. The Aborigines decorate sacred objects and weapons to represent certain myths. They chant a myth to attach it to the object being decorated. When a sacred object or place is touched, struck, or rubbed, it releases the spirit that inhabits it. Such rituals are preserved and repeated to establish ties between past, present, and future generations.
Main Myths and Mythical Figures
Aboriginal myths often tell of a big flood, with local variations. The Worrorra people in western Australia describe an enormous flood that destroyed the previous landscape. It was caused by ancestral figures called the wandjina, who then spread throughout the land, establishing a new society. Other groups say the flood was brought by a great serpent that still exists in deep pools of water or off the coast.
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
The Tiwi, from islands off the northern coast, tell of the old woman Mudungkala who rose up from the ground carrying three children. These children were the ancestors of all the islands' inhabitants. As Mudungkala walked across the landscape, water
Aboriginal beliefs about the origin of death vary. One tale about death says that Crow and Crab argued about the best way to die. Crab crawled off into a hole, shed her shell, and waited for a new one to grow. Crow said that this took too long and that he had a better way. He rolled back his eyes and fell over dead. The Murinbata people have a ritual dance comparing the two types of death, and it shows that Crow's way is the better way.
Other popular mythical figures include the Seven Sisters. According to a version of their story told in central and southern Australia, the sisters fled from central Australia to Port Augusta on the south coast to escape a man named Nyiru who wanted to rape the oldest sister. They traveled over hundreds of miles, and many features of the landscape of today are associated with their journey. For example, legend has it that a low cliff near Mount Conner is a windbreak they constructed, and a cave is a hut they built. One of the wild fig trees nearby is the oldest sister. At the end of the journey, the sisters turned into the constellation called the Pleiades, and Nyiru became some of the stars in the constellation Orion.
Ayers Rock is a huge dome-shaped rock in central Australia. According to Aboriginal myths, the gullies and holes on the south side of Ayers Rock were battle scars left over from a battle between snake men. To the southwest of the rock are some stands of oak trees. These were said to be young warriors waiting silently to join in the battle.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
Tales about tricksters who often cause trouble are believed to be some of the earliest myths. Tricksters typically appear as characters who upset the natural order of things by stealing or by causing humans to fight or engage in other unpleasant behavior. People of the Kimberly region in northwestern Australia say that a race of tricksters called the Wurulu-Wurulu use flowers mounted on sticks to steal honey from bees' nests. An empty nest is said to be a sign that the Wurulu-Wurulu have been there.