«2 Aboriginal Cosmology Australian Aboriginal cosmology, as with all cosmologies, changed and refined itself as Aboriginal people themselves changed ...»
Australian Aboriginal cosmology, as with all cosmologies, changed and
refined itself as Aboriginal people themselves changed and recast themselves. Their view of their world or universe by the time of White contact
had developed, modified and transformed itself over many thousands
of years, and any attempts to reconstruct or recover a single version
of their cosmology from the frozen frame of early anthropological
accounts is, to say the least, challenging. Nevertheless, it is the case that their conceptions of their universe(s) were constructed by them and reflected their particular social, economic, political and aesthetic concerns at any particular time. Like us, they were involved in an ongoing formulation and reformulation of their cosmos. According to Harrison, The universes are our models of the Universe. They are the great schemes of intricate thought—grand cosmic pictures— that rationalise human experience; these universes harmonise and invest with meaning the rising and setting Sun, the waxing and waning Moon, the jewelled lights of the night sky, the landscape of rocks and trees and clouds. Each universe is a self-consistent system of ideas, marvellously organised, interlacing most of what is perceived and known...
Wherever we find a human society, however primitive, there is a universe, and wherever we find a universe, of whatever kind, there is a society; both go together, and the one does not exist without the other. Each universe coordinates and unifies a society, enabling its members to communicate their thoughts and share their experiences. Each universe determines what is perceived and what constitutes valid knowledge, and the members of each society believe what is perceived and perceive what is believed.1 1 Harrison 1985:2.
Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia There are a few basic tenets that underpin a general understanding of Aboriginal cosmology. In Aboriginal ideas about the universe, nature and society, with all its cultural accoutrements, were formed at the same time by powerful creative spirits who wandered the earth during an eternal time (still existing), known these days simply as ‘The Dreaming’.2 These ancestral spirits still abound but are usually no longer visible, having withdrawn from human view into another space/time realm. The earth and life itself were seen as having been in existence when the great creative powers began their business. However, these spirits are not seen as being omnipotent, in the sense that humans, too, are considered to be co-creators. Their task is to maintain the ecological balance, being ultimately responsible for the ongoing harmony between natural and cultural systems, harmony and balance being seen as the keys to the health and continuity of the two systems. ‘(Aboriginal) human beings have a responsibility to intervene where they consider intervention necessary and to leave things alone when they consider that necessary. Humans have the ability to adjust the system, as well as throw it out of kilter’.3 The sustaining effects are seen as theoretically reciprocal: if people work to support natural systems, attending as stewards to the continuity of various species, natural plenty is assured for the continuity of people and their cultural practices. Aboriginal ritual life (increase, initiatory and mourning rites) are thus concerned, at the level of ideology at least, with assurance of the continuity of life - the natural increase of species (increase or fertility rites), the social existence of persons (initiatory rites) and the ongoing nature of the spirit (mourning rites). These rituals ‘seize upon traditions which may be naturally occurring, as with the flowering of trees from which nectar is obtained, or socially occurring, as with the making of men from boys... Life is seen... as cyclical, as running a course, and it is the responsibility of ritual performers to keep natural and social cycles in motion’.4
Aboriginal cosmology then, is more than a creation theory about the origin and structure of the world; it involves as well a theory of human participation and action.
The Sky Dome Despite my cautionary notes about different cosmologies, it is occasionally possible to identify universal themes. Most Australian Aboriginal people held a common view of the earth as a flat disc surrounded by the boundless water of an ocean. Above this earth-disc was a solid vault or canopy. Beyond this vault was the sky-world, a vast, plentiful and beautiful place. ‘The sky was a canopy covering all and coming down beyond the horizon to meet and enclose the flat surface on which men and women followed the fixed pattern of their lives’.5 The sky dome or canopy was usually supported by props of one sort or another. Views about what constituted the props differed across the country. In the Australian Alps for example, the vault was held up by trees6, but on the New South Wales coast, the props appear also to have been solid wooden pillars watched over and guarded by an old man.7 In some places, the stars seen as star-people held the canopy up in conjunction with an emu whose camp was in the dark patch near the 5 Willey 1979:51. The sky viewed as a vault above the disc-earth is well documented in the anthropological literature. It is a view held by Victorian groups (Mathews 1905:6; Massola 1968:05), in particular in western and central Victoria (Worms 1986:09); among New South Wales groups in general (Mathews 1905:6) and amongst the Wuradjeri of western New South Wales in particular (Berndt 1946–7:60); among the Yarralin people of the Victoria River Valley in the Northern Territory (Rose 1992:4); the Anyamatana people of the Northern Flinders in South Australia (Mountford 1939:103) and the Karadjeri of north Western Australia (Piddington 1932:94) 6 Worms 1986:109.
7 Willey 1979:34.
Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia Southern Cross known to Europeans as the Coal Sack.8 Myths told to Daisy Bates by people from the Great Australian Bight indicate that the sky-dome was held up by a great tree, known as Warda, which had to be protected at all times,9 an idea similarly held by groups in the east.
The vault itself was pictured as being composed of a very hard and durable substance. The Karadjeri of north Western Australia, for example, thought this substance to be rock or shell.10 Likewise, groups in Central Australia saw the dome as being ‘a huge shell that covers the world during the hours of darkness... the whole sky is turned over by the two men, the older and younger guardians of the circumcision ceremony... who live in the constellation of Scorpius’.11 The vault delineated the edge of the sky-world which was thought to be the dwelling place of many ancestral spirits and heroes, who were also personified sources of energy which informed and gave meaning to natural and cultural life.
The sky-world could be visited by men and women of high degree (traditional healers) and their great powers were seen to be connected to these energies. Whether the vault was experienced as being consistently or uniformly contained, bounded or immutable is unclear.
Gaining Access to the Sky-World
The sky-world beyond the dome was envisaged as containing a hole, a window or a fissure, through which the traditional healers could gain entry. They usually gained access by climbing or pulling themselves up a connecting cord. The cord was seen variously as being hair, string, a rainbow, lightning, a spear, a grass rope, a tree, flames, a totem board and a turtle.12 Among some Victorian groups there was a view that 8 Mountford 1976:27–31.
9 Isaacs 1980:141.
10 Piddington 1932:394.
11 Mountford 1976b:450.
12 Amongst the Dieri of Lake Eyre, it was a hair-cord (Elkin 1948:1), in the Northern Kimberleys, it was a rainbow (Elkin 1945:3) as it was Aboriginal Cosmology people used to be able to climb up an immense pine tree (probably callitris sp.), up through its branches to the topmost ones which reached the sky. They could walk about, indeed live on the starry vault. Those people who belonged to the sky could descend to the earth and likewise visit friends before returning. Visits were made for purposes of barter between hunting grounds. The tree was viewed as ‘a regular highway between earth and the upper regions’.13 Around the Roper River area, amongst the Alawa people in the Northern Territory, the link was also a tree, but more specifically, a large stringy-bark.14 In an account of the Booandik people of South Australia, the healer (pangal) climbed to the sky-world quite regularly to visit and have social discourse with the sky people.15 In essence, the notion of a cord or link, an umbilicus, should be recognised as part of a myth cycle involving the life-giving or life-sustaining, connecting the earth and the present with the world above, the amongst the Wik-Munkan people of Cape York Peninsula (McConnel 1957:115). In the Eastern Kimberleys, it was a string (Elkin 1945:3), amongst the Wotjobaluk in western New South Wales (Howitt 1904:04) and some Victorian groups (Mathews 1905:0), it was a pine tree (probably callitris sp.). Among the Wuradjeri of western New South Wales, it was a thread (Elkin 1945:5), amongst the Yarralin, lightning strings (Rose 1992:4–5), and at Menindee in New South Wales, and around Lake Alexandrina in South Australia, it was a spear (Berndt and Berndt 1977:03; 1993:29) as it was around Encounter Bay in South Australia (Meyer 1916:62). Amongst the Ngulugwongga people around Daly River in the Northern Territory, the Milky Way which was seen as a rope plaited from grass formed the link (Berndt and Berndt 1989:43–345). Around the Clarence River in New South Wales, it was seen to be the flames of a large fire (Mathews 1889:29). Among groups around the Great Australian Bight, it was a huge totem board, a symbolically decorated sheet of bark (Ker Wilson 1977:1–28), and among the Gundungurra in south-eastern New South Wales, it was a giant turtle (Smith 1992:4).
13 Mathews 1905:79–80.
14 Berndt and Berndt 1989:284.
15 Smith 1880:30.
Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia eternal.16 It was also possible in some areas to gain access to the skyworld by tunnelling through the earth to the other side of the sea.17 A myth explaining the sky-dome structure is told by the Mandalbingu people of northern Arnhem Land.18 They tell the story of the first sunrise: how long, long ago, the sky was so close to the earth, it shut out all light. Everyone had to crawl around in darkness until the magpies, regarded as one of the more intelligent species of birds, decided that by working together, they could raise the sky. Slowly, using long sticks, they propped it on low boulders, then gradually onto higher boulders above their camp. As they struggled to lift the sky even higher, it suddenly split open to reveal the first sunrise. The beauty, light and warmth delighted the magpies, who burst into their distinctive warble.
As they sang, the blanket of darkness broke into fragments and drifted away as clouds. Magpies, it is said, still greet the sunrise with their call.
Another myth from the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee River reiterates this same idea. The people from this region also envisaged the sky as once being very close to the earth, forcing people, plants, birds and animals to crawl. One day, the wife of an important elder ran off with another man. The elder took off after them. The couple took refuge in the waters of the river. In his search for them, the elder found a bright golden rod which when held up grew, pushing the sky upwards. Birds originally loathe to leave their cramped sky also went up. The elder is still somewhere pushing up the sky, and when he gets tired he lets the rod down. Whenever this happens, clouds cover the earth and fogs spread over the ground.19 16 Worms 1986:104.
17 This was a notion held for example, by the Wuradjeri (Berndt 1946–7:337).
18 Retold by Mountford (Roberts and Mountford 1974:98) and Gulpilil (Rule and Goodman 1979:15–23).
19 Peck 1925:30–37.