Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Law and Order                                                                                                                           

In all parts of Aboriginal Australia government was mostly loosely organised and informal. As with all parts of Aboriginal society, the laws and rules of behaviour were set in the dreamtime by the ancestral creation beings who are said to have given the people the laws they were to live by.

In most of traditional Aboriginal Australia the loyalty was locally based, to the land and the people they know. Strangers were regarded with suspicion, so the further apart 2 tribes are, the more the mutual distrust. At times of great ceremonial occasions, and when trading, these attitudes were put aside as they were expected to be on friendly terms for the duration of the ceremonies or trade negotiations. Neighbours who shared beliefs, as when an ancestral being was believed to have travelled through the territories of both during the dreamtime, shared the associated ceremonies and were more friendly than if they believed they were connected to the wanderings of different creation beings.

Nowhere in Australia were there any wars over territory, unlike elsewhere in the world where it is a feature of human life that goes back a very long way, though they did have quarrels and fights, sometimes on large scales, but never to take over a territory. They felt a connection to the land of their territory, the resting places where their spirits waited to be reborn were on the land. When they did fight there were rules to cover the fighting and peacemaking after it.

The rules given to them by the ancestral beings that formed the basis of Aboriginal life, the rituals they performed collectively, such as the movements of a particular dreamtime being through their territory, constantly reinforced the social identity and solidarity of those taking part, as well as introducing the religion and rules to the young. Their way of life was had a religious basis, being based on the teachings of the dreamtime beings.

Not all actions of the dreamtime beings are expected to be followed, being more actions to avoid. In the Djanggawul stories the brother and his 2 sisters commit incest. Other stories deal with murder, adultery, and theft.

In the dreamtime the ancestral beings prescribed the roles of men and women for all aspects of life, sacred and secular, marriage, child bearing, death as well as the economy of the group. They also warned of the consequences if the taboos and avoidances were not adhered to. The dreamtime beings were law-givers, but were above the law, in some of stories about them they tell what to do and in others what not to do. In some cases the meanings of their statements are inferred by the stories and songs associated with their rituals.

In some cases acts that were not normally permitted assume a sacred quality, as in fertility rites in which sexual association between people that normally must avoid each other.

Some of the rules given by the ancestral beings have a practical purpose, as when it helps the people in a particular environment to survive. The fact that it is viewed as sacred, having been given by an ancestral being, gives it authority, though it may be the accumulated wisdom of generations of ancestors who learnt the hard way how to survive in a particularly harsh environment.


Children growing up in a particular tribe would usually accept the teachings of their tribe without question. The only problems would come when they had contact with other tribes with varying views on some part of their tribal beliefs. In practice, not all behaviour dictated by the ancestral beings were strictly adhered to by all. Some variation was tolerated as long as it was on a matter of lesser importance. But there were limits beyond which it was not permitted to stray, especially with the actions that were considered more important.

When deciding if an action was to be tolerated or not the older people, the elders, were considered to be the most knowledgeable, though there was no defined official, the person who would usually be regarded as a person of final authority on such matters would be an older man who was fully initiated, so would have the most knowledge of the rituals associated with the dreamtime, and hence the actions of the ancestral beings, as well as a lifetime of practical experience. Other members of the tribe could make their point, but the final word would come from the unofficial leader.

Discipline for minor offences & children

For children and for minor offences, discipline was usually maintained by the immediate family. Childhood was generally a time of permissiveness, the rules of their society being learned by example and informally, such as being told and shown things as part of daily life, rather than formal lessons. They were told what to do without explanation, and if they disobeyed too much they could be slapped. Severe punishment was extremely rare.

For boys, the permissiveness ends when they reach the age of their first initiation, their discipline is no longer in the hands of their immediately family. Through the various levels of initiation they are taught the rules as well as the rituals they are expected to perform, and the way they are to act in adult life. This period of initiation varied across the country, in some places it involved physical operations, such as sub-incision, in others there were only the introduction of food taboos.

Puberty is the time when girls are introduced to the ritual life of the group, as when she is taught in a more formal way the rules she is expected to follow.

Positive Sanctions

Children are gradually introduced to the rules they are to follow and the things they are not to do from an early age. There are stories told that illustrate to the young the actions that are considered inappropriate, such as a mother-in-law abusing a son-in-law, who are expected to avoid each other.

Adultery is not allowed, but some release from this taboo is allowed in some rituals, and in the practice of wife-lending, probably in the hope that such permitted extramarital relations will head off straying. But elopements and adultery did occur.

Rewards for conformity could be in the form of ritual and secular leadership, though over conformity was not liked, sometimes leading to criticism. Or simply as social approval.

Negative Sanctions

In this category are such things as ridicule, the role of a man in the punishment of his biological or classificatory sister, fear of supernatural punishment, fear of sorcery, the threat of physical violence, and worst of all, killed and not being accorded usual mortuary rites. The forms of negative sanction used in different parts of Australia, the order of importance of the different sanctions, varied across the country.

Ridicule. This form of sanction is powerful, but doesn't always work because it can often cause or exacerbate quarrels. This form can sometimes be used against people who have no control over their actions, such as the deaf or those with mental problems. It can sometimes lead to partial ostracism, and very rarely to complete ostracism. Many people with mental or physical impairments are cared for by other members of their family and group. Swearing or the use of obscenity is also in this category, but it can also be dangerous, as in some rare cases it has been known lead to the immediate killing of the speaker. (Berndt & Berndt, 1964). Malicious talk about a particular person could be used to change the behaviour of people who thought it might affect them, but it could also cause trouble.

The brother-sister taboo. Where this was used, in some parts of Australia, a man could be expected to discipline any of his sisters, whether biological or classificatory, for such things as using bad language or if she neglects her work, family or ceremonial duties or for fighting.

The possibility of supernatural punishment for offences such as breaching some taboos or sacred laws, or for failing to perform certain songs, dances or ritual correctly. Kaberry, 1939, said it was difficult to assess the degree to which the Dreaming (ngarunggani) is used as a sanction and threat of supernatural punishment for the breaking of taboos. Examples were sore eyes as punishment for associating with a tabooed relative, incest could lead to death immediately or in the near future, and a malignant disease could develop if tabooed food was eaten, such as the animal or plant associated with a person's totem. The threat of supernatural punishment was associated with straying from the patterns of behaviour as set down by the spirit beings in the Dreamtime. Some threats were in the form of 'If you do this, which is wrong, the great Djanggawul, Ngurunderi, or some other spirit being will punish you.' (Berndt & Berndt, 1964). Mostly they were less explicit 'If you do this, which is wrong, you will become ill and die.' (Berndt & Berndt, 1964). If they failed to heed the decrees of the spirit beings they knew what to expect.

The fear of sorcery was a powerful force keeping people on the straight and narrow. It appears retaliation  by sorcery could be incurred by minor fences. Fear of being a sorcerer was also present. If a person has a misfortune or gets sick of even dies, a person known to hold a grudge against him could be accused of sorcery. Suspicions of this kind were not always associated with claims of the person holding the grudge used magical rituals. 

When writing about the area around Oenpelli, Berndt and Berndt state that if a woman has a lover or lovers over a long period of time without her husband's approval, and he dies she may be accused of being responsible for his death, either by weakening his heart, or being careless about his belongings, that were subsequently taken by a sorcerer. Men usually keep track of their wives' affairs, if he knows about them unofficially he may retain the right to find out about them officially if he decides it is time to stop them, possibly because they are becoming too frequent or blatant. The threat of a husband's 'dreaming' of a wife's affairs, with the subsequent arguments that would follow, tended to keep the straying wife's affairs to a reasonable number.

The threat of physical violence. Some breaches of accepted behaviour could incur punishment that could involve death or injury. As with the infamous 'witch trials', in some cases this was occasionally used to settle a grudge, while appearing to maintain conformity to the rules of the tribe.

The threat of not only being killed but being denied funerary rites. This was a serious punishment, involving the spirit of the offender as well as the body. The Aboriginal People believed in re-incarnation, the spirit travelling to a resting place, such as a waterhole, while it waited for a woman it could enter to become a baby and be born again. The threat of not having the funerary rites after a person's death would have been a powerful deterrent, as it could prevent, or at least make difficult, the return of the spirit to the waterhole. When this punishment was carried out the relatives were prohibited from handling the body, if they ignored the prohibition they could be condemned to the same fate.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R.M. & C.H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1964


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 22/11/2013

Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading