Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Afterlife in Aboriginal Australia

Ideas about the afterlife were fairly similar over much of Aboriginal Australia, though the details varied between areas (Elkin, 1954: 319). There were basic similarities throughout Aboriginal Australia, though there was no single uniform belief about an afterlife. A person's actions during life had no bearing on the wellbeing of his spirit in the afterlife, there is no hell or heaven, as referring to a place where only those who were 'good' during life were allowed to enter. The uncertainty as to whether a dead person's spirit is allowed to enter the Land of the Dead is based more on whether they display physical signs of having taken part in certain rites, such as initiation, and to whether or not the mourners have carried out the appropriate mortuary rites correctly. The sanctions applied here are usually very vague.

One belief that seems to be universal, or at least almost universal throughout Aboriginal Australia, is the indestructible nature of the human spirit, though there are occasional statements to the contrary. The spirit of a deceased person is believed to retain the individual identity of the person immediately after death, but generally this is a temporary state. The loss of personal distinctiveness, or separateness, is not seen as the destruction of the spirit. It is perceived as one approach to the concept of immortality, regardless of whether of not reincarnation is involved.

The concept of the Eternal Dreaming was basic to the view of the world held by people throughout Aboriginal Australia, as well as a person's relationship to the social and physical environment. The span of a person's earthly life is a framework for explanations for the meaning of life that are based, generally, on a body of belief, more or less systematised, centering on birth, death as a transition, and rebirth. Death is seen as a transition rite ensuring the continuance of the cycle, the main emphasis being on essentially an unchanging panoramic view of life.

The Land of the Dead was fairly consistently defined as being in the sky, the sky-world,  in a particular place, such as Bralgu, or even in a particular direction. A dead person's spirit could be seen as either residing with, or merging with the great creative or ancestral beings. They could also be believed to return to a totemic site that was intimately related to the them. This was widely believed among the tribes of Central Australia, whether nor not they believed in a single or multiple spirits of a person after death. Concerning the Aranda, it has been suggested that "death to him is the last great catastrophe which leads to the eventual complete destruction of his own body and of his own spirit" (Strehlow, 1947: 42-6). The western Aranda believed the spirit goes to the island of the dead in the northern ocean, where lightning during a storm finally destroys it. According to Strehlow, the Aranda had no hope of a future life, still, every person is an incarnation of a totemic being. Death is the destruction of the body but not the spirit, this returns to its source. Like the totemic beings, it is indestructible. Even though in the Dreamtime stories they were sometimes "killed" or "died", their spirits remained part of the Eternal Dreaming stream, which included human beings. The Aranda believed in the spiritual essence residing in the sacred tjurunga of each person. There is still the nucleus of unborn spirits awaiting  rebirth. The spirit, or part of the spirit, of a dead person returns to its totemic site until it can be reborn.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 15/04/2013
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