Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal  Mythology

  1. Myths - The body of mythology providing relatively standardised expression.
  2. Rituals (rites) - Organised action, more or less conventionalised, that express the mythological features
  3. Material objects or representations - they symbolise or represent certain animals or spirits, human body parts, etc.
  4. Local sites - country associated with various beings - myths and rituals are always localised to some extent

Creation Myths


Ritual and mythology complement each other but never completely coincide. Rituals involve acting out events or instructions expressed in the myths, mythology substantiating, justifying or explaining a range of rituals. The most common content of myths has to do with matters that are of great importance to humans, life, death, fertility and relations between people and nature. The Aboriginal People had a subsistence economy, being totally dependent on animals and plants provided by nature, with no crop plants or domesticated livestock to fall back on. Being subsistence hunter-gatherers, they depended entirely on being able to find food every day. So increase rituals would be expected to be part of their religious life, performing ceremonies believed to ensure the continuance of their food supply, the availability of water, etc.

The word myth can be used in 2 ways, one is to infer that the story isn't true, the other, that is used here, refers to a narrative or story or series of songs that have religious significance, enshrining a special body of beliefs, or expressing instructions from certain divine beings. As with the myths of other religions, the stories are believed to be true by the followers of this religion. Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are no less provable than the mythology of any other religion. And as with the archaeological support for the biblical stories, the Dreamtime stories of northern Australia, such as the Djanggawul sisters and brother, archaeology is suggesting that the Aboriginal People did in fact arrive by canoe from the north.

In Aboriginal Australia all the stories are not connected with religion, many are ordinary camp stories, some are told to children, which may be outlines of the main stories from their mythology. The most important religious stories are known only to the fully initiated men who are responsible for the care of the sacred sites and objects connected with the totems whose myths they are responsible for. They may not be allowed to tell others the stories, or in some cases, they are the only people who are permitted to recite it. This applies in northeast Arnhem Land, the eastern Kimberleys, Central Australia, and northwestern South Australia. Among the Aranda, only the men belonging to a certain part of their country, that own the myths associated with it, are permitted to repeat them, and to perform the associated rituals. Men from other parts of the territory must get their permission before they are allowed to recite them or perform the rituals, and they need to have a very good reason for asking. The 'real' owners may dance while others assist them by decorating or making sacred objects, and sometimes with the singing.

Part of the community, such as children, may not know the major myths. In areas where boys undergo the first part of their initiation at a young age, they may be introduced to the stories earlier, and may be told more of the stories associated with their totems and their country. There are some stories that women are not allowed to know, in some cases, even when the stories relate to them. There are also a few which are known only to women. Usually, most adults have some knowledge of the main totemic and sacred sites in their territories, and the main Dreamtime beings associated with them, if not all the sacred stories. Among the Aranda the women are not initiated, so never get to share in the mythology of the tribe. They are never told any sacred stories. The women are prohibited from seeing the sacred ceremonies. In reality, the women got to know something about the mythology, but not officially.

The sacred version of stories usually contain much more detail than the widely known version, including the explanation of the symbolism. Nearly every story has no version that is accepted as the only correct version. Within certain limits, variation is allowed, even with personal interpretations. When men of a local group tell a totemic story, even one very intimately associated with them,  they often tell slightly different version of it. The agreement between these versions is more likely to agree, at least on main points, if a number of them are present. The versions given by each man when they are not together varied more, at least with the minor points.

Sacred myths don't take the form of spoken narrative over most of Australia. The songs used to tell the myths give key words or references rather than full descriptions. The meaning lies in the associations of each word, so simple translation is not enough to convey the full story. In northeastern Arnhem Land a word used in everyday speech can have several sacred equivalents with slightly differing meanings, as well as a further series of  'singing' words'. These types of songs are usually sung in a special sequence during sacred rituals. Specific localities often have sacred myths and corresponding actions connected with them. Sacred objects are sometimes associated with these localities. Songs are an aid to remembering the details. Sites having some importance, such as waterholes in the desert, a place with an unusual feature, like a special rock formation or an oddly shaped hill is connected to a myth or part of a myth. Usually the only places that don't have some story associated with them are places of little interest, like barren places.

Kangaroo Island mythology

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Myth Content

Most religious stories have as their main theme the wanderings and activities of various beings, in this case, the Dreamtime beings. These wanderings usually take them over a number of areas, not just the one held by the people with a particular dreamtime story. Another characteristic of these stories is that the being often arrives from another area or leaves across another area, or sometimes both. They tended to move along a route that took them along a series of waterholes, rivers or crossed the country to the next. They did various things at the places they stopped along the way, such as putting water in a waterhole, creating people or animals and plants, and they often meet other Dreamtime beings, creating various natural features, naming the places and plants and animals, singing songs and instituting  rites to be followed by their descendants.

The tracks followed by the ancestral beings in the Dreamtime trace many routes that spread across the continent when viewed together, each group of people having part of the travels in their mythology. As these routes criss cross the whole of Australia, often crossing each other, it has  been suggested that maybe they have a basis in fact, representing the trade routes between the tribes. It is known from archaeology that goods from one area have been found on the other side of the continent. While it is unlikely that people walked across the continent, it is much more likely that these goods were traded along established trading networks. Far-reaching trade links seem to have existed in Australia for a very long time.

An example of the widespread nature of the Dreamtime stories telling of the wanderings of the Dreamtime beings is the Kunapipi series. Along the various tracks it is said to have followed, its name changed several times as it passed through the territory of about 35 tribes. According to the Dreamtime stories, it travelled northwest from Roper River through Rose River to Yirrkalla and Milingimbi, northwest along the Wilton Rriver to the Liverpool River and Oenpelli, it turned westward to Katherine, then swinging northwest again to Daily River, then southwards to Tennant Creek. From Newcastle Waters it turned west and southwest to Stuart Creek. More tracks lead up to the Victoria River and Fitzmaurice Rivers, another track leading to Wyndham. As it crossed into the different territories, its name changed and parts of the local mythology was incorporated into the story.

In other Dreamtime stories the Wadi Gudjara travelled across almost the whole of the Great Victoria Desert and the Western Desert. Its travels took it through the territories of dozens of local groups, speaking 25-30 dialects. No local descent group, clan or dialect unit owns a complete myth, each group owning only part of the full myth, the part of the being's crossing through their territory, so they can only perform the rites connected with its actions in their country, Occasionally the members of several local groups came together to perform the rights or dances connected with the being, each group doing only that part of the myth that belonged to them. Because of the widespread nature of the travels, the complete myth would never be performed, because the owners of the separate parts are too widely separated to come together.

It is difficult to get reliable information from writings of the early observers of much of the southern parts of Australia, the first part of the country to be colonised by Europeans, and the first parts were the Aboriginal People were detribalised, by one method or another, so that much of their culture was lost before it could be properly documented. Some of the early writers paid too little attention to what the people actually told them, and some omitted or glossed over things they considered distasteful, obscene or shocking. Much of the information gathered in the southern parts depended on memory and hearsay, because the cultures were no longer functioning.

If information had been gathered systematically, information from the southern parts of the country might have been very interesting. What there is gives glimpses of what seems to have been a mythology that differed from the parts of the country where more accurate recording took place. At least some of the tribes of the southeast of the country were reported to have believed in a male god, a supreme being. In 1904 Howitt spoke of an 'All Father', suggesting that Nurrundere (Ngurunderi), Nurelli (Nepele), Bunjil, Mungan-Ngana, Daramulun, and Baiame (Baiami) 'all represent the same being under different names'. Too little is known about the mythology and ritual associated with them to be sure if they had 1 supreme being. Among the Kamilaroi Baiami was believed to have created everything. Among the Yuin, Daramulun lived on the Earth with his mother, Ngalalbal. 'there were no men or women, only animals, birds, and other creatures. H placed trees on the earth. Then Kaboka, thrush, caused a flood which destroyed all but a few of the people Daramulun had made, They crawled out of the water onto Mt Dromedary, Daramulun went into the sky, where he now lives, looking down upon the affairs of men'. Such a fragmentary outline could have easily been influenced by alien contact.

In 1943, the Berndts were unable to get the details of the Baiami myth, he was still well-known, but was alluded to mainly in the context of initiation and magic. And also, his appearance during certain rites. The emu was under his direct protection, so there were probably totemic affiliations. His wife, Guriguda, mother of Wakend, the Crow, left the Earth in the Dreamtime, going up into the sky to Wandanggangura, the place beyond the clouds. One night she was sitting in the same camp as her son Wakend and his wife were eating together. Wakend would give nothing to his mother. Guriguda was angry, but Wakend grew tired of her constant grumbling and speared her in the knee. Instead of pulling out the spear he left it in the wound, and it was on this that she climbed into the sky. Guriguda resembles an ordinary woman, but instead of skin she is covered all over with quartz-crystal, and as she turns rays of light flash in every direction. Her assistant totem (called jarawajewa. the 'meat which is within') is the emu, so that she and the emu are identified.

There is a more complete myth among the Ngurunderi of the lower Murray River in South Australia. This is a version from an old man, Albert Karloan, who has since died, who was the last of his people to be initiated.

The ancestral hero Ngurunderi paddled his bark canoe down the small creek which was later to become the River Murray. He had come from the Darling, following the giant Murray cod. As this swam, its tail swept aside the water, widening the river to the size it is today. When Ngurunderi paused to rest, the cod swam on into the Lake, and he gave up all hope of catching it. Then he thought of his 'wife's brother', Nepele. Quickly getting into his canoe he quickly rowed to Bumongdung, and from there called out to Nepele, who was sitting on a red cliff named Rawugung, Point McLeay. Nepele pushed out his canoe, rowed it to some shoals, and waited with spear in hand. The cod swam down towards Nepele, who speared it opposite Rawugung and placed it on a submerged sandbank there. When Ngurunderi arrived they cut the cod into many small pieces, throwing each into the water and naming the fish it was to become. Finally they threw the remaining part into the lake saying, 'Keep on being a Murray cod.'

Ngurunderi continued his travels. Eventually he reached Bamundang, where he disembarked and pulled up his canoe: his footprints are still there. Carrying the canoe he walked to Larangangel, where he left 2 large mounds of freshwater mussels. One day, on his way back from granangung, he saw some people at a place called Ngirlungmurnang. They were frightened of him and hid in the reeds. But Ngurunderi could hear them whispering, and he transformed them into a species of blue bird. At this juncture Ngurunderi's 2 wives appeared. They were at Gurelbang cooking the dugeri (silver bream), taboo to women, and the breeze from that direction carried the small to him. Having no further use for his canoe, he stood on the 2 mounds of Larlangangel, and lifting it up, placed it in the sky where it became the Milky Way. He then set off for Gurelbang. In the meantime, the 2 women, thinking Ngurunderi might smell the fish, had made their escape on a reed raft, poling their way across Lake Albert to Thralrum, on the western side. There they left the raft, which was metamorphosed into the reeds and yaccas found at that point today, and continued down into the Coorong.

When Ngurunderi reached Gurelbang and found them gone he too made a raft, and followed them into the Coorong. Here he met a malignant spirit named Barambari. Ngurunderi asked whether he had seen the 2 wives. But Barambari started a quarrel and speared him in the thigh. Ngurunderi laughed, pulled it out and threw it away. Then he threw his club, knocking Barambari unconscious, and thinking he was dead turned to go.  But Baramberi regained consciousness, and manipulated his magical spear-thrower in such a way as to stop Ngurunderi from walking on. Ngururderi returned and killed him with his club. He lifted some large gums and other trees, piled them into a heap and set them alight, then lifted Barambari's body and placed it on top of the blazing pyre so it would be completely consumed. Turning around he tried again to walk away, but again could not do so. He picked up all the congealed blood and threw it on the fire, and after that he was able to continue. At Wunjurem, he dug a waterhole in the sand to get fresh water, kneeling down to drink he put his head against the sand, and this impression was transformed into rock.

Eventually he came to Ngurunduwurgngirl ('Ngurunderi's home'), where he lived for some time, giving up all hope of finding his wives. Later he continued his wanderings down the coast along Encounter Bay, and after a number of adventures was about to cross over from the mainland to Kangaroo Island when he saw his wives starting to do so. It was possible, at that time, to walk across to the island. When they reached the centre Ngurunderi called out in a voice of thunder, 'fall on them, you waters'. Immediately the sea rose and they were drowned; but they were metamorphosed into Meralang 'two sisters', now called The Pages, northeast of Cape Willoughby on Kangaroo Island. Ngurunderi then went to Kangaroo Island, called Ngurungaui, meaning 'on Ngurunderi track', referring to the path taken by all spirits on their way to the spirit world. He made a large Casuarina tree, under which he rested. Then he walked down to the western side of the island, and threw away his spear into the sea; rocks cam up at that place. Finally he dived into the sea to cleanse himself of his old life, and went up into the sky, Waieruwar, the spirit world. But before disappearing he told the Jaraldi people that the spirits of their dead would always follow the tracks he had made, and eventually join him in the sky-world.

This seems to be fairly typical for southeast Australia, where the totemic aspect does not seem to be stressed in this context. Shape-changing ancestral beings are common in northern South Australia, Central Australia and central Western Australia, to the Southern Kimberleys. The human elements appear to dominate in some cases or circumstances, the non-human in others. The essential qualities of one of these characters is assumed to be constant, whatever form he adopts, his words and actions carrying equal weight. Examples are the great djundagal snake who travelled through the east Kimberleys; Bangal, the creator Bat also in the east Kimberleys. There is also the Moon Man of the djanama subsection, with his many wives, all nawala, who today are the dark patches on the moon's face. These mythical figures are more than human. The final change from human to non-human shape results from a climax, either the end of  a myth, or an episode in a myth, though sometimes it is the other way around.

The muramura beings were well-known among the Direi and Lake Eyre area. In the Dreamtime, these beings wandered around the area creating and instituting the rituals. In one of the myths about these beings, in the beginning the earth opened in the middle of Perigundi Lake and a number of mardu (matrilineal clan totem) emerged. After lying in the sun for a while until they were strong, they stood up as men and spread out across the country.

People of then Western Desert say there are still wandering djugurba beings like those among the Dieri. . They are part human and part animal - reptile, bird, etc., but they are thought of as mostly human in the mythology. The Wadi Gudjara, Two Men, are among the most important. One was called Gulgabi or Milbali, the white goanna, the other was Jungga, the black goanna. On their travels they created many local sites and instituted a number of rites. Njirana and Julana are names used interchangeably for the ancestral man and his penis. There were also many others, Wadi Malu (Kangaroo Man), Minma Waiude (Possum Woman), Wadi Gulber ('Blue' Kangaroo Man), Minma Nganamara (Mallee-hen Woman), Wadi Galaia (Emu Man), Minma Mingari  (Mountain-devil Woman), and Wadi Bera (Moon Man). The mythology associated with all of them is very long, mostly in song versions.

The  total myth is made up of hundreds of incidents. In one story the Wadi Gudjara, Two Men, chase Minma Nganamarra, Mallee-hen Woman, to obtain her eggs. Wadi Bera, Moon Man, seduces one of Wadi Gudjara's women at Mindel-jari, they later castrate him and his severed penis is metamorphosed into a stone.

The Rainbow serpent is a common theme over much of Aboriginal Australia, being known by various names, but it always associated with water or rain. In some areas it is male and in others is female. Its link with sacred ritual varies widely throughout the country. The Rainbow is called Wonambi, living in rock pools and billabongs, in major parts of the Great Victoria Desert. It plays a major part in the initiation of native doctors. It is associated with rock paintings, and with rain and spirit children in the Kimberleys. He is always male and maybe associated with the Lightning snake in eastern Arnhem Land.  Among the Maung of Goulbourn Island in western Arnhem Land it is male. It is sometimes male but more often female among the mainland Gunwinggu. Ngaljod (Ngal- is a feminine prefix) is one of her ordinary names. She is believed to bring floods to drown people who break certain taboos and children who refuse to stop crying. In myths she can be summoned by people who want to destroy a whole camp and suicide at the same time. Menstruation and childbirth are associated with her. She may also take different forms in different contexts. She made all living things, the first creator, in one version.

Most ancestral beings have mixed human and non-human forms in the desert areas and central Australia. They are more often human only in form on the northern coast, but they are associated with a large variety of totems, directly and indirectly. One of the major myths of the Gunwinggu of western Arnhem Land involves a woman, most commonly known as Waramurungundju, though she was also known by other names.

East from the East Alligator River, a lot of the country consists of river gorges and creeks between rocky hills and sandstone ridges. The rock formations can be spectacular, so it comes as no surprise that many have been connected to various Dreamtime beings in mythology. A recurring theme in the mythology of the area is the Rainbow, Ngaljod. In many stories she swallows the various beings, vomiting up their bones which turned into the rocks. In the translation of these stories the term used to describe these events is that 'they came into dreaming'. Among the Gunwinggu, the term djang is the term used for this kind of representation. A djang is an object, creature or spirit containing some power or essence that derives directly form the Dreamtime. Taboos cover some djang sites, they are said to be dangerous to certain parts of the community, such as women, children or in some cases everyone but the very old. Some are avoided by all members of the group, being considered too dangerous for anyone to go near. The term -djamun, set apart - not for everyday use, is used by the Gunwinggu. The term is also used for sacred rites and objects, the men's sacred dancing ground, and food to be used for ritual consumption. The djang are mostly of minor importance compared to beings such as Ngaljod. They are connected to specific localities, and have a limited range of influence, some more widely, e.g., Wuragag, Tor Rock, a prominent landmark. People knowing the name of a feature of the landscape, not directly connected with the person or their family, often don't know the myths associated with it.

In western Arnhem Land, the ubar, a long wooden gong shaped like a hollow log, is one of the most sacred objects. Among the Gunwinggu it is the uterus of the Mother, sometimes identified with Ngaljod.

The mythology surrounding the ubar is a bit different among the Maung of Goulburn Island. The ubar is still the uterus of the Mother, but more emphasis is placed on its phallic aspect. The ubar is also the penis of the male Rainbow Serpent.

The Djanggawul, or Djanggau,  sisters, usually in conjunction with their brother, are 2 principal Fertility Mothers in northeastern Arnhem Land. The elder one is Bildjiwuraroju, and the younger is Miralaidj.

The mythology connected with them tells how the 2 sisters and their brother Djanggawul, and in some versions a companion, Bralbral, came across the sea from the north-east. After pausing for a while at Bralgu, an island somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the home of the dua moiety dead. Then they followed the path of the sun to the east coast of the mainland.

The sun is female in this area, and is connected with the 2 sisters. In other areas it is considered male. At Millingimbi the sisters are called 'Daughters of the Sun'. They symbolise the sun with its life-giving properties. In other parts of Australia  this concept is not found to the same degree. In places like the central deserts where the sun's heat can be dangerous. On the north coast the northwest monsoon brings heavy rain during the wet season, making surface water very plentiful.

An example of  the things the Djanggawul siblings brought with them, objects or emblems having symbolic associations, the emphasis being on fertility. One of these objects was a round plaited mat rising like a shallow cone to a peak in the centre.

There are several versions of the Djanggawul cycle, owned by the dua moiety men, though jiridja men participate in the ceremonies. This cycle was probably the most important in northeastern Arnhem Land.

Sources & Further reading

  • R.M. & C.H. Berndt, The world of the First Australians, 1964, Ure Smith, Sydney
  • Jennifer Isaacs, Australia Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers, 2005


The Dreaming Origins


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 15/04/2013
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