The Aborigine Universe
The Australian Aborigines felt a strong connection to nature which shaped their view of the universe and their place in it. They believed they were associated with nature in a special way and that they were a part of a much greater entity called nature. They realized the importance of nature and sought to preserve it. Closeness to nature was expressed through totems which in turn shaped their mythologies and their vision of the world.
The Australian Aborigines were a people of hunters and gatherers that lived off of the harsh desert land. Their livelihood depended on what nature would provide them for food, shelter, and water. This dependence on nature was probably one of the main reasons why the Aborigines felt a close kinship to nature. They believed that everything was a part of nature right down to the most insignificant item conceivable and that everything had its place and function in nature. The Aborigines believed man to be a part of this system as well. Human beings were to honor nature by performing rituals to maintain the order of nature. By means of this worship, both the Aborigines and nature benefited. The Aborigines received food, water, shelter, and other necessities from nature and nature is revitalized by the Aborigines and their ceremonies. The Aborigines essentially had a symbiotic relationship with nature. Elkin writes that there was a "common life which man and nature share" and there was "a mutual dependence of one on the other." (207) They held the belief that "man and nature belong to one order" (Elkin, 205) and in this order man had to cooperate with nature. Mudrooroo says that the Aborigine "should not pillage and destroy, but co-operate and tolerate, nurture and care for the whole universe with it's myriads of living and breathing things." (xi) The Aborigines felt so close to nature that they did not place themselves above anything in the hierarchy of nature, the believed everything in nature was equal and to be respected. Elkin notes this by writing, "Human beings are not separated from the natural species and objects, but grouped with them." (206) This unity with nature is the backbone of Aboriginal totemism.
Totemism is how the Aborigines classified man and event and things in nature into one unified system. As Elkin states it, "Totemism is a means of expressing the unity of man and nature as one big tribe."(207) Although the Aborigines could respect nature as a whole, they each could not adequately respect every aspect of nature. To compensate for this every person had an association to a set of totems. The classifications of totems were: individual; sex; moiety, which partitioned the tribe in half; section and subsection, which dealt with groups within a tribe; clan, or immediate family; local, which was based on a specific location; and multiple in which a number of natural things were associated to a group. With such classifications the Aborigine could adequately respect and perform rituals for nature as an individual or as a part of a larger group. In totemism man has a close relationship with nature especially with his or her own totems. Totems allowed the Aborigines to cooperate with nature and provided them with confidence in nature. A totem was virtually anything found in nature. This includes: plants, animals, flowers, wind, rain, storms, thunder, lightning, the stars, the sun, the moon, clouds, tools, weapons, food, cosmetics, fire, smoke, water, body parts, desires, sickness, health, animal organs, and object parts (Bernt, 226). Although the types of totems are quite diverse the Aborigines still felt a general closeness to all of nature. Totems were merely their manifestation of their kinship with nature and totems "unit[ed] them with nature's activities and species in a bond of mutual life-giving." (206). Totemism was the central structure of the Aboriginal world and as a result it helped form their "social groupings and mythologies, [it] inspired their rituals and linked them to the past." (Elkin, 140)
Although all Aborigines shared general beliefs of nature and the universe there was much diversity in specific beliefs, stories, and myths about the world which was due to totemism and the number of Aborigine tribes and clans. However, there were a few key similarities in their belief system and mythology. They respected medicine men and their powers, they performed rituals to their totems and ancestral heroes, they believed "in a personal sky-being" and "in auxiliary spirit-beings," and maintained the "existence of holy objects left behind by the sky-being." (Stanner, 232) Most Aborigine mythology was based on and dealt with what was most important to them, nature specifically the land. Mudrooroo, a native Aborigine, says "Many, if not most, of our stories and myths are land-centered." (ix) There was little need for astronomical observation in Aboriginal life so much of their cosmology is based on mythology. Many myths are stories of ancestral heroes, associated with specific totems, tribes, or clans as well as myths of creation, the sun, moon, and other celestial objects. When discussing myths it is usually best to start with creation.
In most Aborigine creation myths the period of creation was called "Dreamtime." In several myths, the world, man, animals, plants, and nature were created and named by supernatural beings who later disappeared into the earth or into the heavens. The universe was made from pre-existing material, "it was not a creatio ex nihilo," or created out of nothing, as Eliade (1) puts it. In some myths the earth starts out as a featureless plain, which shows the Aborigine association with the land. The landscape was transformed by awakened beings such as giant serpents that created the landscape. These serpents "pushed upward and writhed across the void, creating as they went along the landscape in which we live today." (Mudrooroo, 52) Many of these supernatural beings were the ancestor-heroes of specific totems who taught totem members the rituals they were to perform. This universe, created by super-natural beings, had a definite structure of the earth, heavens, and the underworld.
The structure of the Aborigine universe was about the same throughout Australia. It consisted of three planes: the earth, the sky, and the underworld. The earth was circular and flat covered by the dome of the sky which stretched out to the horizon. The sky was the plane upon which super-natural beings or the ancestral-heroes lived. The Aborigines believed that the sky "was a rich country with a plentiful water supply." (Mudrooroo, 31) The stars represented the campfires of the beings that lived in the sky plane. Some myths include that the sky was held up by giant props at the corners of the earth. The Aborigines also believed that certain shaman, or medicine men, had the ability to travel between the earth plane and the sky plane. They did this by means of trees between heaven and the earth. One such tree was seen in the night sky in the Milky Way. Under the plane of the earth was the underworld plane. The underworld plane was much like the earth plane and inhabited by people like those from the earth plane. Certain celestial objects were also explained in Aboriginal mythology.
The sun for all Aborigines was female and associated with light and goodness. In one myth the sun came out of the earth at a certain place, which is marked by a large stone. It came out of the earth with two other women, who were left behind while the sun rose into the sky. Every day thereafter the sun rose into the sky and at night it returns to the spot where it first arose. Another myth tells how a woman left her son in a cave while she searched for food. Since it was dark she lost her way and wandered in to the sky region. Every day she travels through the sky with her torch, lighting up the sky, looking for her son.
The moon in Aborigine mythology was male. One myth explained how a member of the opossum totem had a shield with the moon on it to hunt opossum at night. One time a member of the seed totem stole the shield and ran away. The owner of the shield chased after him and when he could not catch the thief he yelled to him and told him to release the moon into the sky so that everyone could benefit from its light. Another myth told that a man of the opossum totem died. Shortly after, he arose from his grave and grew into a man, grew old, and died again. At certain points he would rise again from his grave as a young boy and grow old again. This process explained the phases of the moon.
The Aborigines had myths to explain other astronomical objects and events. An eclipse of the sun was thought of as evil or Arungquilta, which is an "evil or malignant influence" (Spencer) They believed the Arungquilta wanted to live in the sun and an eclipse was when it tried to do that. When an eclipse occurred the medicine men performed rituals to drag the evil spirit away. The Magellanic clouds were also Arungquilta that sometimes visited the earth and choked people in their sleep. An alternate belief was that they were called Inja-kinja-tera and were the camping grounds of two ancestral-heroes. Mushrooms were also evil because they were considered fallen stars.
The Aborigine relationship with nature shaped their view of the universe. It related their place in the world by means of classification in to totems which allowed them to cooperate with nature. The totems structured their world and provided a basis for their mythology.