Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Land of the Dead

In Aboriginal Australia there were a variety of beliefs concerning death and an afterlife among different tribes and in different parts of the continent. Tribes also often differed, even from the neighbours, in how many spirits were left when a person died, each spirit taking on a different role. Those groups that envisioned a place where the spirits of the dead went often differed as to where that place was, in most areas it was a sky-world, some it was simply 'in the west'.

Along the Lower Murray River, a hero from the Dreamtime, Ngurunderi, travelled for a time on Earth then travelled to the west with his children (Meyer & Taplin, in woods, 1879: 55-62, 200-1, 205-6). When he noticed that 1 of the children was missing, he tied a rope to a spear and threw it in the direction in which he thought the boy would be. The boy grabbed the spear and his father pulled him to safety. Among the people of the Lower River Murray and Encounter Bay, there was a belief that Ngurunderi's sons continued the practice, throwing spears to dead Aboriginal People to guide them to the Land of the Dead. When the spirit of the dead person arrives Ngurunderi allocates him a place to live. The newcomer weeps and the tears, or lack of tears indicates the number of wives he left behind. If tears flow from only 1 eye he has left 1 wife, if from both eyes, 2 wives, if tears stop from 1 eye but continue from the other, etc., he is allocated the same number of wives in the Land of the Dead. In this version, the old are young and the sick are healthy.

In another versions, he told the people he was going first and they would follow him later, then Ngurunderi dived into the sea at the western end of Kangaroo Island to "cleanse himself of his old life (Berndt, 1940b: 182), then went up into the sky (Waieruwar-the spirit world). From that time the spirits of the dead follow Ngurunderi's track, spending time on Kangaroo Island before cleansing them selves in the sea prior to following him to the sky where they live with him. In this area, the platform the body is placed on is in the shape of a raft, the craft to transport the spirit of the dead person to Kangaroo Island.

Among the tribes in the area between Botany Bay and the Victorian border, a place where the spirits of the dead departed for the Land of the Dead was a rock on the eastern side of Coolangatta Mountain (Mathews, 1899: 5, 30-5). From this point the gap to the Land of the Dead is bridged by an invisible tree. As they pass along this tree they must undergo several tests, especially fire. When the spirit reaches the other side he must undergo further tests before settling in with his kin who had died before him.

Spirits of the dead are believed to travel to the sky, remaining with the creative beings, the beings from the Dreamtime, over a large area of eastern Australia, as well as some pars of the west and northwest (Howitt, 1904: 434-42).

Examples include the Wiimbaio from the area around the Murry River-Darling River junction, on the Victorian side, where the spirits are believed to travel along a particular track (Howitt, 1904: 434-42).

The Theddora from New South Wales have a similar belief. A neighbouring tribe, the Ngarigo, believed that after the spirits travel to the sky they meet Daramulum - of Baiame (Baiami) (Howitt, 1904: 434-42).

Among the Wuradjeri and their neighbours, the spirits of the dead are believed to climb a cord into the sky to be with Baiame and the other totemic and ancestral beings from the Dreamtime in Wandanggangura (Wantanggangura) (Berndt, 1947). In the beginning, the ancestral beings are believed to have passed through a fissure to enter Wandanggangura, and since that time the spirits of the dead have to follow the same path through the fissure. The barrier they must pass consists of 2 continuously revolving walls through which a small aperture appears from time to time. There are 2 guardians of this aperture, on one side sits Moon Man, and on the other Sun Woman. Moon Man has a penis that is so long he carries it wound around his waist, while Sun Woman has a long clitoris covering the fire from which daylight and sunshine emanated. The spirit must remain unafraid to pass any further. If he does, he is confronted by Ngintunginti and Gunababa, 2 ancestral men from the Dreamtime. The spirit must remain silent as the men cross-examine him. They begin to dance in front of him, each with an erect penis, singing humorous songs, during which he must not smile or show any reaction. This test passed, 2 women dance erotically in front of the spirit, as with the 2 men the spirit must remain completely unresponsive. according to the Berndts, this is similar to experiences native doctors have said they experienced, claiming they had travelled to the sky world. All tests passed, the spirit is permitted to meet Baiame and Gurigada, his wife, who has a body like rock crystal (Berndt & Berndt, 1964).

Among the Wuradjeri, each person is believed to have 2 spirits, a harmless one, warangun, and djir, a malignant one. The djir lives independently but affects the warangun. It is the warangun that eventually travels to the sky world. The Djir is connected with the initiation of native doctors.

Spirits of the Kulin and Wotjo are said to ascend into the sky along the "bright rays of the setting sun" (Howitt, ibidi, 431).

Among the Kimalaroi, the spirit goes to Maianba, the dark patch in the Magellanic clouds, the endless water or river.

The Milky Way is the path taken by the spirits of the dead among the people in the area of the Herbert River in northeast Queensland (Howitt, ibidi, 431).

Among the Dieri each person has 3 spirits or souls, 1 of which travelled to the sky world.

In the eastern Kimberleys, the Land of the Dead is in the west. The spirits were believed to return occasionally to the country and to the graves in the gorges where their bones had been placed. In this case, the afterlife "does not offer compensation and benefits to those who have been denied them during their lifetime" (Kaberry, 1939: 210-11).

On Bathurst Island and Melville Island, the mobadidi, the spirits of the dead, return to their birthplace at various totemic sites "where they maintain self-contained communities and continue to behave in much the same way as living people (Mountford, 1958: 61-3). When a small child dies, it is a mobadidi, for the duration of the mourning, after which it returns to the mother to be born again. When adults die they become young again. Mountford does no specify if they are reborn (Berndt & Berndt, 1964).

In western Arnhem Land, the Gunwinggu believe that the spirit goes to the sky-world, sometimes known as Manidjirangmad (Berndt & Berndt, 1951a). On reaching the sky-world, the spirit meets Gunmalng or Margidjbu, general terms for a powerful being, who knocks out the middle teeth of the spirit. If the gum bleeds, the spirit is returned to the body which revives. If the gums don't bleed, the person is deemed to be really dead, and the spirit continues along a special path to Manidjirangmad. Along the way the spirit disturbs a white cockatoo. The sound of the cockatoo alerts the wife of the guardian that a new spirit has arrived. Feeling sorry for the dead person, she distracts her husband by offering to delouse him, allowing the spirit to pass by. She tells her husband she can see a spirit coming, but waves her free hand to signal the spirit to take another road. she tells her husband she has seen the spirit, but when he jumps up grabbing his spears, it is too late.

The spirit next comes to a large camp of people eating fish. When they see the new spirit they weep because they feel sorry for him. The weeping rouses another guardian who asks why they are weeping. They tell him they are weeping for fish. If the guardian knew the new spirit had arrived he would cut the spirits legs off. When the guardian goes back to sleep, the spirit continues on, and on reaching a river, calls for a canoe. The canoe keeper brings an old canoe for the spirit if is a man, then beats the spirit all the way across to the far side, the real Land of the dead. If the spirit is a woman, he brings a new canoe, lifts her into it and paddles gently across the river, in the expectation of being paid for his trouble with coitus. There are many people in a large camp on this side of the river (Berndt & Berndt, 1964).

Among the Maung, the story has a similar ending. The spirit was believed to go to Andjumu, a billabong near the mission station. Here the spirit waits until a canoe takes him to North Goulburn Island. Walking along the beach the spirit reaches 2 high sandhills, 1 each for men and women. Climbing the appropriate sandhill, the spirit calls out "We are here!", while facing in the direction of Wulurunbu Island, far away to the northeast. When Jumbarba, a giant, that was sometimes identified with a falling star, hears the spirit calling he brings his canoe. In the canoe he has a fighting club with which he beats the sprits of men all the way. As in the version of the Gunwinggu, he treats the spirits of women gently for the same reason. After death the spirits of people are young, regardless of their age at death.

Among the Gunwinggu and Maung, it is assumed that at least part remains in the country of the dead person. The Berndts say there is a lot of uncertainty regarding exactly which part returns to its own country. In a number of rites and invocations of various kinds there is the assumption that that spirit returns to its home site that it belongs to, a waterhole or another dreaming centre, whether it is the place of conception or birth. Ideally this can be in the father's Namanamaidj country. The unattached spirits were believed to be at least potentially malicious, like the non-humans, spirits of the region, and they are unpredictable. One of the terms used for them among the Gunwinggu is mam, that was sometimes used for both a corpse and a non-human spirit. Like the corpse, they are aid to smell like a decaying body. The opinions on the appearance varies, but they seem to be similar to skeletons from which most of the flesh has decayed. This is the basis for the unpredictability, as the lack of a brain makes it impossible to come to amicable terms with them, as they can't think. The spirits of the newly dead are said to be the most dangerous of all, as they strongly resent their changed state, especially when they see living people enjoying life, and worst of all is seeing married couples making love. In their fury can could try to destroy the couple.

In some ways, the range of views on the northeastern side of Arnhem Land display some similarity with the overall picture, but each moiety has its own Land of the Dead. Much information on this point is contained in stories and songs, but here also they don't all agree on specific details. It is often said that after death the spirit of the dead person takes 3 shapes, dividing into 3 parts. One of these returns to the totemic centre, such as a sacred waterhole, to await rebirth. The mogwoi, another part, a trickster spirit that is also bound to the locality, but is much more mobile. It is the third part that goes to the Land of the Dead, to merge with the creative beings and the spirits of the dead.. The spirits of the newly dead are said to be present when the djungawon rituals are performed, being in the rangga objects that are used in the rituals (Warner, 1937. 1958: 280-1). It was believed that even if the spirit goes to the island of the dead, of they are taken to a totemic site on the back of a whale, they return to the rangga. This applies to both men and women. According to Warner, the local people said that a woman becomes a birimbir spirit wonger (Dreaming). Her spirit could go to the same well as that of a man, and like the spirit of a man, her spirit could return to the rangga.

The Land of the Dead of the Jiridja moeity is Badu, a collective name that includes several of the Torres Strait islands, as well as the southern coast of New Guinea (Berndt, 1984b). In other versions it is Mudilnga, an unidentified island to the northeast of the Wessels. This island could be included in the Badu complex. This island has villages, coconut palms and exotic food, and there are freshwater streams that cross the beach that is fringed with coral reefs. On this island there are a number of spirits whose job it is to look after the spirits of the dead. These spirits are known by many names, one of which is Duriduri, also known as Duradjini, Giluru, Wuramala and Babajili. She is associated with the turtle, and his body, distended from overeating, is covered with cloud designs. There are also 2 other Guldana (Kultana), also known by multiple names, the husband lights large fires on Mudilnga to guide the spirits of the dead to Badu. In his free time he hunts stingrays in the mangrove swamps, while scratching mosquito bites. His wife spends much of her time in the forest fringing the beach gathering wood and jungle foul eggs.

After the wet season, when the northwest monsoon has finished and before the southeast trade winds begin, various items wash up on the beaches around Cape Arnhem and Yirrkalla. Among these items are coconuts, breadfruit, pandanus cones, long seed pods, as well as timber and the occasional canoe. The people in these areas believed these to be gifts from the jiridja spirits to the relatives who are still living. They also believe the northeast winds and the clouds are also gifts to the them from the jiridja spirits. The living send the spirits of their dead by performing the mortuary rites and singing the appropriate songs.

For the Dua moiety, Bralgu Island was the location of the Land of the Dead. This island, the identity of which is not known, was visited by the Djanggawul on their journey to Australia by canoe (Berndt, 1952a). It is the abode of some of the beings of importance to the Dua moiety, who administer tests to newly arrived spirits as they arrive there. The spirit of a newly dead person of the Dua moiety is ferried to the island by Nganung, the paddle maker. The spirits on this island send out Morning Stars to different parts of Arnhem Land as they dance. In the Dua moiety mortuary Ritual of the Morning Star a large pole is used on which are feathered strings and balls of seagull feathers to represent the stars. The actions of the living people in this ritual is said to be an imitation of that carried out by spirits of the dead on Bralgu. The spirits on Bralgu send out strings with the stars attached each night and pull them in again as daylight returns. The stamping of the feet of the dancing spirits on Bralgu raise clouds of dust that rise to the sky, changing to clouds they blow over the mainland.

The spirits of the dead pay the canoe man when they reach Bralgu, then carry on along the track through the Bralgu swamp yams, the food of the local spirits. The guardians are alerted to the arrival of a new spirit by the birgbirg bird (Australian bustard), then receive and test the spirits as they arrive. They check his teeth to make sure 1 has been removed and look to see if his nasal septum has a clear aperture. If he fails this test he is sent back. If he passes this test, he must pass unflinchingly as he is threatened with spears. The 2 spirit women stop digging bualgu  and tempt him. If he passes all the tests he joins the other spirits and ancestral beings.

From some parts of Aboriginal Australia there are stories of living people having visited the Land of the Dead, not all voluntarily. There is the story of Red Man (he had been painted with red ochre after his death) from the Lower River Murray in South Australia. He had been placed on a platform with a slow fire beneath. The next day he revived and told the story if his travels to the home of Ngurunderi.

Native doctors were said to visit the Land of the Dead occasionally (Elkin. 1945). In eastern Arnhem Land, a man called Julngura visited Bralgu (Warner 1937/58: 524-8). The Berndts heard the same story in 1946 at Yirrkalla and in 1961 on Elcho Island. According to the story told to the Berndts, a yam leaf blown by the Dua wind landed near Jalngura. As he looked at it he decided to travel to the Land of the Dead. Building a canoe, he fitted it out for the trip, then he told his wives and children where he was going. He left from Bremer Island, paddling for several days until he came to Bralgu. To gain extra power he rubbed himself with sweat, then picking up his basket and special cylindrical spear thrower, that had a fringe of human hair at one end, of a type first made by the spirits on Bralgu. The spirits greeted him as a friend. A bird flew across his path, calling his name in his language as it passed. They gave him yams, and when he finished they gave him clapping sticks. He sang for them while they danced. Then he was given 3 young girls who he slept with. The spirits offered to let him see the Morning Stars, demonstrating how they were sent out each night and brought back each night, but the old woman who kept them hidden in a basket at first refused to show him. He kept asking to see them, and eventually he sang a magic song and she relented, taking the balls of feathers attached to strings out. He immediately recognised them as the those his people used in the Morning Star rituals. He sang the Morning Star cycle, the old woman sending out the 'ball' stars to different places over the mainland to his accompaniment, and he named each as it was sent out. As the light began to return to the sky the old woman pulled the stars back in a put them in her basket. As he prepared to return home the old woman promised to keep sending out the stars each night and he promised to return eventually with his wives and children. As he left for home, with his canoe full of gifts from the spirits, his spirit wives came to the beach and cried for him. His family were waiting for him on the shore of the mainland. That night, as he was having intercourse with one of his wives, he broke his back and died. It was said his back had been weakened by paddling too much, but the real cause was that his spirit wives had taken his soul.

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: 30/09/2011

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