Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Myth as Explanation of Ritual                                                                                                           Last updated 27/06/2010

Myth may be used to give a reason why one tribe includes practices like circumcision in its initiation rituals while a neighbouring tribe doesn't. The supernatural being from the Dreamtime that instructed the first people of the tribe to do so, or began the trend by being the first to practice it, whereas the being who gave rise to the neighbouring tribe did no. The Berndts give several examples of myths explaining the practices of the descendants of the Dreamtime Beings.

There is a myth in the Western Desert which has as the central characters Malu the kangaroo, Ganjala the euro and Djurdju a night bird. Djurdju, who is uninitiated, is the mother's brother of Malu and Ganjala, who are both much older and are fully initiated. They passed some night owls, gungara, at gabi Gungara, near Everards. It was there that the 2 nephews spurted arm blood over Djurdju as he sat shivering, to begin his ritual death, Malu and Ganjala began killing him by 'breaking him up'. Then they went to hunt wallaby, leaving him dead. On returning they saw that Djurdju had come back to life and had made a windbreak for himself. They then taught him the dancing that was associated with this ritual.

A second example given by the Berndts comes from the Western Desert. It is comprised of 2 parts from 2 series that are closely interrelated. The dingari, referring to both the Dreaming and to a group of mythological beings who were said to have travelled across the whole of the Western Desert, especially in the region of the Canning Stock Route. These beings were known all the way from Laverton in the south to beyond the Victoria River in the north, the tribal country of the Djamindjung. Over this area there are hundreds of songs telling of their wanderings and the rituals they introduced, often called gurangara (kurangara). They are referred to collectively as dingari in many cases, in sections of the mythology individuals or individual groups may be singled out in more detailed discussion. The dingari-gurangara, in one sense associated with darkness, is contrasted by Petri (1960a) with the bugari-gara, the "second period of creation", when the Two Men brought light to the world. The pushed the sky away from the earth with their sacred boards.

A thirds example, found in western Arnhem Land, is a myth that relates the ubar ritual.

A fourth example describes an additional justification for subincision, though not relating the origin of the practice. According to this myth, that completely ignores any esoteric aspects of the practice, the reason for doing it is because it appeals to women. It is said that a man that does not undergo subincision would be unable to keep his wife happy, leading to a much greater risk that she would stray, having 'wrong way' relations with lovers. The example is from the Djamindjung people, from the Fitzmaurice River area.

As with most important actions of daily life, nearly all ritual has a basis in myth, providing sufficient reason for it.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964
  2. Petri, H., 1960b, Anthological research in the Kimberley Area of western Australia, Anthropological Society of Western Australia  (mimeographed).
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                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading