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The Aborigines of Australia

Updated on January 12, 2013

This was my Anthropology paper and I found the information for the Aborigines interesting and truly educational. The reference is at the bottom if you want to r

When it comes to religion, the Aborigines of Australia are like other traditional societies these days. They practice rituals to settle spirits of the living and dead, worship the spirits of nature, and their ways are mixing with other ideas of faith. Since the late 1700’s and the European invasion, the religious ways of the Aborigines have dwindled along with their population. However, like some religions like Shamanism, their ways didn’t die but expanded in different ways. Although their beliefs aren’t the same all over Australia, the Aborigines held on to their different beliefs in different ways.

The oldest traditional belief of the Aborigines is the Dreamtime. Dreamtime is the ‘the other world’ where it is “associated with the time of creation” (Stanner 1979, page 195). It is the place where it was believed that their ancestors put souls in all living and non-living forms, like rocks, trees, and animals. This idea is close to animism, “the belief that spirits resides within all inorganic and organic substances” (Scupin, page 195). The name ‘dreamtime’ originated from the 19th century by a post master named Frank Gillen. The name is an English version of the term ‘altyerrenge’ or ‘altyerre areme’, meaning ‘process of having a dream to see Altyerre’ (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, page 10). Another traditional idea is the Law. The Law “governs the world of all creation” (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, 10). It gives rules and regulations that Aborigines live by and gives laws of nature. Because the Law is everywhere and Dreamtime gives a soul to everything, if these things didn’t exist, nothing would exist or persist.

Since Aborigine’s beliefs are close to animism, they believe that all things have souls and meaning in their lives. Certain animals and landscapes become symbols for ceremonies and every-day lives. For example, in Tasmania, the kangaroo is a metaphor for knowledge and identity. They were conducted in ceremonies by hunting, killing and eating them. Another example is Mt. Dromedary, an extinct volcano. Another example is the stars above. They were considered important to the Aborigines and were part of every-day life in song, dance, art, ritual and story-telling. An example of the stars telling stories is the story of “The Pleiades”. It’s about seven women and they are running away from Nijiru (Orion). He catches one of the women and rapes them. However, he’s still in pursuit of the women so the women made a plan. Since he couldn’t find the women, he sent his penis to them but the women sent dogs to it and the penis became another deity named Jula. This story was usually told when there is a celebration of a first menstruation for a girl who was going away from the main camp.

Although most Aborigines believe in the Law and Dreamtime, where they do their worship and what they worship is different in certain places. For example, near the Victoria River, the people focus their worship in the water and rocks of the river. It’s believed that it first started with water, but then the water withdrew and when the land rose, so did the ancestors or Dreamings. The stories of the Dreamings are marked on the rocks of the bed of Victoria River. Another example is the people of the Torres Strait Island. They focus on the spirits of the dead and have a ceremony that would release them; it is called the Tombstone Ceremony. In this ceremony, an engraved headstone for a deceased person is unveiled, a sign that his or her spirit has joined other ancestors. The tombstone would be decorated with symbols of their life achievements, occupation, or totems. The area of the new tombstone would have “sand neatly piled with skulls and ribs” (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, page 36).

These traditional ways were threatened by the Europeans in the 1700’s. When the Europeans landed in Australia in 1788, they saw the Aborigines as uncivilized. Since the Aborigines had no concept of materialism, it was frowned upon by the new visitors so they tried to convert them to Christianity. They arranged marriages between the people of Aborigines without regard to the tribe’s marriage rules. Because of the Europeans’ persistence, many Aborigines today see the Dreaming as one entity. For example, Agnes Palmer, who lives north of Alice Springs, goes to a Christian church every Sunday and mixes the old Aborigines beliefs with Christian beliefs. Another example of mixing the Christianity ideas with the old ways is in the south east. In the south east, their beliefs focused on “All Father” figures of Daramulun and Baiami, “believed to have returned to earth as mentors and guides for the descendants” (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, page 241).

However, the Aborigines found different ways to save their old ways and pass it on to future generations. One of the oldest ways is ileme or “telling a story” (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, page 10). They would tell different stories to different ages and genders to keep the spirit alive. “What stories children hear depend on age, gender, and family affiliation” (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, page 11). For example, the story of The Pleiades would be told to a girl that was going through her first menstruation. Michael Anderson, a leader of the Ten Embassy was taught that his ancestors traveled the land, “engaging in adventures which created the people and established The Law” (Anderson, page 9).

One of the oldest ways they held on to their ways is rock art sites, which “have been handed down from generation to generation and are redolent with the power of ceremonies held there” (Neale, Kleinert, and Bancroft, 126). They have different types of art for different meanings. The art that is considered historically true is called ‘outside art’ while the art that concentrates on pride, defiance and the nature of life is called ‘inside art’. For example, there is a piece of rock art by George Liwukang. It has a picture of a supposed Dreaming in white paint. The thighs are big, the legs and arms are open wide, and there is a crown on top of its head, resembling a rising sun. Other artists, like Johnny Bulunbulun, have arts that have colored dots all over the paintings that would resemble real life things, like kangaroos, lizards, and people.

The Aborigines of Australia have old ways that honor spirits of the living and non-living. They varied in different places to honoring the Dreamings in the earth to honoring them in the stars. The old ways were threatened by the European visitors that tried to convert them to their monogamy religion. However, they held on to their beliefs and adapted to their new environment with the new people. With their art, ability to mix religions and tell stories, the unique beliefs of the Aborigines live today in many parts of Australia.

References Cited

Margo Neale, Sylvia Kleinert, Robyne Bancroft. “The Oxford Companion to

Aboriginal Art and Culture.” Oxford University Press, 2001.

758 pages. Print.

Scupin, Raymond. "Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective".

Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Chapter 8. Textbook.

Pages 195-196.


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