Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Sacred Sphere of Ritual                                                                                                                            Last updated 25/06/2010

Degrees of sacredness of rituals were recognised in almost all of Aboriginal Australia, some rituals and ceremonies being regarded as bigger or more important than others. The same grading applied to myths, some myths or characters in the myths, were regarded as more significant than others. The most significant beings in the Dreamtime stories were the creation beings, those who gave rise to the various tribes and the environment they live in, as well as being the institutors of their laws and customs. They range from sacred to non-sacred or less sacred in a continuum, not a dichotomy. In some situations rituals could be a mixture, being not completely one or the other, often merging into each other. The themes and characters that appear in significant rituals can also be found in camp entertainment, though not in the roles they assume in the sacred rituals. Many examples of this occurred throughout Australia. The division between rituals that are sacred and those of lesser importance is not fixed throughout the continent, different groups taking various rituals more or less seriously than other groups.

According to Berndt & Berndt (1964), in non-Aboriginal society there is a tendency to regard magic as contrary to what we regard as natural laws, pseudoscience (Malinowski), and is seen as an individual matter, a person performing certain rites in an attempt to gain some personal benefit, or possibly to harm another person or persons. This has been suggested by Durkheim to be a major difference between magic and religion. On the other hand, non-Aboriginal society tends to think of religion as organised, with a body of beliefs and practices involving a god, with a body of  members, known as a church, being led by a hierarchy of leaders, priests or ministers, bishops, etc., There is usually a designated meeting place where the rituals are performed, a church, chapel, etc. According to Berndt & Berndt (1964), in Aboriginal society there is not a rigid demarcation between religion and magic, as is the case with mythology, at the level of empirical reality.

In the comparatively conventional or formal framework in non-Aboriginal societies it is easier to distinguish between religion and magic. In Aboriginal societies, as well as many others, it is harder, often much harder, to differentiate religion from magic. Among the rituals that were performed by the Aboriginal People were some that could not be said to be placed at either extreme on the continuum between religion and magic and have been classified as magico-religious. Some rites that have been treated as magic are very similar to those usually described as more sacred or bigger. To distinguish between the 2, those regarded as magic tend to be more impersonal, those involving personification of supernatural power, or an emphasis on personal relationships between a person and other beings, human or non-human, being religious. The Berndts don't regard this as wholly satisfactory.

Magic is seen as concerned with short-range aims, often connected with a specific person or persons, whereas religious rituals are concerned with the welfare of the community as a whole. Many of the more important religious rituals also have a practical and often immediate component. As with their mythology, the close bond between the people and their environment is one of the most pervasive themes in Aboriginal religion. They use their religion to try to perpetuate things such as the continuing cycles of the seasons, the continuance of animal and plant life, etc., because they realised that their very existence depended on the natural balance of the world they lived in. The rituals were a way of influencing the supernatural powers to keep things in balance. Other themes may be overlain, or this theme may be the dominant one in the rituals, as it is in the big fertility cults found in northern Arnhem Land. It can also be seen in the djarada or the jawalju, examples of love-magic ceremonies the women perform. In these ceremonies it is obvious the immediate aim was the obtaining of a sweetheart. The rituals are placed in a religious or semi-religious context, even though the women talking part may each have their own personal reason for performing the rituals. Specific spirit beings may be mentioned in the associated songs, or be invoked, and special objects may be involved, to obtain mythological sanction for the desires of the women taking part. The definitions used, and whether they are treated as all or nothing affairs, with no overlapping, determines whether these rituals are regarded as sacred.

According to the Berndts, there has been a tendency to use the term 'sacred' in a rather restricted way, using a definition in which the known fact is that the adult men control much of the ritual or sacred life. Women have a relatively small amount of formal authority in community affairs, which include those connected with ritual. They have a greater measure of responsibility for matters involving their own concerns, which include internal family problems and their involvement with matters of a kinship or of an economic nature. It appears some writers reserve the term 'sacred' for rituals exclusively concerned with men, from which the women are excluded. The Berndts have suggested that this use of 'sacred' is based partly on the fact that men control all the big, important rituals, but also because those involving the men are more colourful and spectacular than those of the women. It is common to regard a rite, myth or song, or bark or cave painting, that is restricted to initiated men, the women, children and uninitiated men being excluded from seeing or taking part in the rituals, as 'sacred'. On this basis a ritual that can be seen by women and children, or that they may take part in, is classified as non-sacred, profane or secular. The Berndt's believe this approach fails to take into account the way in which the Aboriginal people involved use the term that is usually translated as 'sacred'. It also fails to take into account the context of the rituals, myths or paintings.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964
  2. Durkheim, E., The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Swain trans.), Allen & Unwin, London, 1915/54
  3. Malinowski, B., Magic, Science and Religion, in Science, Religion and Reality (J.Needham, ed.), sheldon Press, London, 1926
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                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading