Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Native Doctor Initiation                                                                                                             

Across Australia the initiation of a native doctor was broadly similar with some variations between areas.


An example is among the Wuradjeri, where a person is eligible only when he is considered a social adult. A requirement for a boy to be accepted for initiation is that he must have shown a leaning towards the 'profession' throughout his early life (Berndt & Berndt, 1964), as well as being close to a reputable practitioner who guides him through a probationary period, instructing him and even taking him 'in spirit on his teacher's nocturnal wanderings' (Berndt & Berndt, 1964). At a later point he is given an assistant totem (bala) that is sung into him. He is then taught the songs and rituals that will release it from his body when it is required. Baiame tells his father or his father's father in a dream, often after several years, that he is now ready for initiation. The postulants with their guardians are taken to place that is sacred to Baiame where Baiame appears to them after singing. His appearance is the same as normal people, but light is shining from his eyes. Sacred water, gali, imbued with great power, issues from his mouth, that is said to be liquefied quartz crystal. When it falls on the postulants it enters them. After a while feathers appear, then Baiame departs. Several days later Baiame teaches them to fly when the feathers have grown into wings.

Baiame teaches them how to use quartz crystals and sings a piece into their foreheads to give them x-ray vision. He sings fire from his body into their chests, telling them to sing away their wings and return to their guardians. The final rite is when he returns and removes a thick sinew cord (the maulwa cord used by doctors for a number of purposes) that he sings it into each of them. Before they return to the camp as doctors they spend a period of time trying out the powers. Variations on this theme were recorded by Howitt (1904, 355-425, Elkin, 1945).


A special experience was thought to be involved in a person acquiring the power to perform beneficial magic as well as sorcery among the Dieri (Berndt & Vogelsang, 1941). If a man wanted to be a doctor after subincision he could be trained by a gungi, a practitioner. After completing the training with a gungi he becomes a gungi when he receives the power from gudgi, a spirit. The gudgi can assume various shapes such as an animal or even a willy-willy (whirlwind). The willy-willy is disliked, and sometimes feared, by a number of tribes, including the Dieri. Howitt (1904: 446) reports seeing a man chasing a willy-willy, trying to kill the gudgi with boomerangs. The man said later that he had fought with this gudgi, that had growled at him. He died a short time later. The Dieri refer to the 'making' (Berndt & Berndt, 1904) in which a postulant who has been specially decorated, is taken to the bush by a gungi, where he spends some time in seclusion and meditation. His parents mourn him as he leaves the camp. It is said his old life is forgotten. The spirit visits him while he is in trance, replacing his mind with a gungi mind. The spirit returns to perform certain rites the following day. The next day the spirit completes the making by giving him powerful gifts that he can use for magic. As a result of the making he is said to be reborn, having had a spirit snake inserted into his stomach by the gufji during one of the rites. He is believed to then visit the sky world. Gungi can fly to the sky world by a hair cord where they drink water that gives them power (Siebert in Howitt, 1904: 359).


The native doctor candidates of the Ngadjuri from central Australia has to endure a similar experience, seclusion, meditating, talking with spirits, trance and visions. He is considered to be dead during the seclusion part of the initiation, being reborn when it is completed, as a mindaba (doctor). Among the Ngadjuri, women can also be initiated as mindaba, with powers equal to those of male mindaba.

There are at least 2 main waterholes in the Great Victoria Desert that are connected with initiation of native doctors (gingin) (in Berndt (1964), Berndt, 1942-1945; see Elkin, 1954; 284-94), gabi Djabudi, to the west of Ooldea and Lake Darlot, Western Australia. Both of these waterholes are associated with Wanambi, the Rainbow. At the start of the initiation the man is led away from the camp by gingin. His relatives and close friends wail for him as though he had just died. He was said to be going to receive power, daramara ('cut into pieces'). He was blindfolded at the waterhole and led to the edge of the water, where he was said to be swallowed whole by Wanambi, then the gingin return to the camp. The gingin brought food to the snake a bit later, then when he eats it, he expels the postulant into the air so that he falls to earth in a nearby rock hole. The gingin search the rockholes until they find him, now in the form of a small boy, which they carry as they fly back to camp.

The next stage of the fire rite, in which the child is placed in the centre of a ring of fires, the heat of which causes him to grow to adult size. After a period of meditation, the next stage is the use of an eradji australite in the ritual dislocation, or 'cutting', of all his joints. A meban, a small pearl shell disc, is placed in each cut. These shell discs have life-giving powers so revive his limbs. They are also put into the man's ears and jaw which is said to allow him to speak all languages, which allows him to speak with the spirits. He is enabled to see with x-ray vision, as well as the power to divine,  by the placement of a shell disc into his forehead. A shell disc in his stomach is believed to make him invulnerable. When he is aroused he has completed his training and initiation. On his return to the camp all the initiated men throw spears at him, which are said to bounce off him because he is protected by the life-protecting meban.


In this tribe in the Northern Territory the native doctor initiation is very similar to that of the Ngadjuri, but in this case it is said the native doctors and the postulant fly on the Rainbow.

In the eastern Kimberleys, the Rainbow Snake and the spirits of the dead give a sorcerer his knowledge (Kaberry 1939: 213,217). Among this people a woman may not be a sorcerer, though she may use poison revenge, by using a white substance. There is often an association between the Rainbow Serpent or other snakes.


The spirits of the dead are the main source of power among the Gunnwinggu from western Arnhem Land, the native doctor having 1 or more spirit familiars, which provide advice and information he needs. In some cases the power is received by him directly, which allows him full use of the power. It was said that usually a man becomes a margidjbu (native doctor) while hunting alone. In this case he receives the power from the ghost of a close relative, such as his mother or her brother, his father or his father's brother, his son or his brother's son or one of his immediate grandparents. When this occurs he is believed to have collapsed to the ground and is too weak to move other than to nod his head, staring at the ghost. The ghost then tells the man it has come to give him the power to become a margidjbu. The ghost inserts a small rod like a miniature spear into the man's head and breaths power into all the openings of his body, and tells him to use the power for healing. At this point the man can't speak, only nod, and the ghost breathes more power into him that allows him to stand, though at first he moves slowly as though he has just woken up. Once a man has been made a margidjbu the power cannot be revoked by the ghost who gave it to him, even if they later argue. Some margidjbu were believed to have more power than others. Such powerful margidjbu were said to heal the sick by following the patient's spirit in a dream, catching it, and returning it to its body, which was said to be useless without its spirit. Alternatively the margidjbu may take the sick person to the land above the clouds, again in a dream, where he can heal the patient.

There are a number of things a margidjbu should be capable of, such as having a knowledge of diagnosis and healing using physical means like massage, bathing and 'medicine'. Another requirement is that the patient must be co-operative and have confidence in the doctor, who must also have confidence in his own abilities. Sometimes a margidjbu would reject a case because they claim they were brought in too late, or simply because the patient or his relatives didn't co-operate. One method of judging if it was too late or not was to tug on the patient's hair, if it came loose easily they were considered to be untreatable. Occasionally a doctor was rejected by the patient because their fee was too high.

Other authors writing on this topic are Roheim (1945), and Spencer and Gillen (1938: 522-33), suggesting 3 distinct schools in the making of medicine men (native doctors). In one of their categories the rites are performed by iruntarinia, who are spirit doubles of tribal ancestors. In this type of initiation the postulant's tongue is pierced by the spirit. An example of this ritual is seen in a photo by Spencer and Gillen which shows a man with a hole in his tongue. There are other rituals, some involving taboos. Occasionally women are initiated by this method.

In another category the rituals are carried out by orancha, mischievous spirits associated with time of the Dreaming. This series of rituals is used to initiate both men and women.

The third type of initiation is by other native doctors. With this initiation crystals removed from other native doctors are inserted in holes made under the fingernails of the postulant. He also has his tongue cut. There are also taboos involved.

Beneath all the methods of magical initiation is the theme of ritual death and rebirth with new powers and the ability to do the work of a native doctor. Common to all these is the belief that he has received these powers through a mystical experience. In different areas the native doctor has been attributed different sets of powers. He can have the power of foretelling the future, making rain, curing the sick, using his power to divine a murderer, and having the power to defend against magic.

The native doctors used a number of objects as well as using spells and rituals to cure the sick. These objects included australites, pearl shell, quartz crystals, bones and stones (Berndt & Berndt, 1964). The various native doctors used a number of techniques, some of which would probably work without any physical treatment, even on modern non-Aboriginal people, as they used the power of suggestion, or the placebo effect. According to Berndt & Berndt, (1964), some of the methods used were slight-of-hand, ventriloquism, massaging and sucking. Steaming over medicinal herbs was used by the doctors along the lower reaches of the Murray River in South Australia.

They used small pearl shell discs for divination, and for healing they depended on their x-ray vision. According to Berndt & Berndt (1964) there were a number of powers that these men were believed to possess by their patients, in different combinations in different places and practitioners of differing experience and reputation, included hypnotic power, supernatural abilities such as thought transference, clairvoyance, and mind reading. Some were believed to produce a magical cord, in some cases from the navel, or an assistant totem in the form of a spirit familiar. Some were believed to have the power to speak with ghosts and spirits, fly or travel at super human speeds, become invisible, change into smoke or wind, or into an animal such as a reptile, and create illusions.

In western Arnhem Land, some of the practitioners with the highest reputations where believed to be able to do such things as use the swarm of flies around their bodies to disguise their approach to another person without being seen. They could also attack an enemy by sending swarms of stinging insects, to at least make him uncomfortable.

Elkin has given examples of activities, such as among the Wuradjeri, in demonstration ceremonies during which a native doctor lay on his back beneath a tree, produced his maulwa cord by singing it out as a spider produces threads of web, then use it to climb to the top of the tree.

Sources & Further reading,

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


  1. The Dieri
  2. World of the First Australians - Magic and sorcery



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011
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