Only since the 1950s have anthropologists understood that religion and
the Dreamtime myths are at the core of Aboriginal society (4,12,13-15,18,34-36).
Only recently have Aborigines written or recommended books that accurately
portray their own culture (7,16-18,21,26). Many Aboriginals now prefer
the traditional name Koori, as used in central New South Wales (21).
Interaction for trade and ceremony has produced a common set of basic
religious beliefs about the Dreamtime. Their basis is an essential unity
and harmony between humans, the land and the Dreamtime (4). The arid climate
made a close bond with the land essential. One's birth place is seen as
the essential link with the inner self (the spirit world). Aborigines
are thus very attached to their sacred sites, and they feel alienated
when displaced from their homeland into cities.
The term Dreamtime was first used in 1896 by Spencer and Gillen as a
rough translation of the Aranda term "alcheringa". Aborigines later adopted
"Dreamtime" as their own word (5,p.9). Other tribes use words such as
bugari, djugurba, tjukurpa, wongar and ungud. The Dreamtime is at least
three things in one (16,17,35):
A sacred heroic time long ago when spirit beings set the sun, moon and
stars in their courses, and created the earth, material life and spiritual
life. The spirits also created laws (rituals) to provide meaning and to
perpetuate this way of life.
The storage of spirit power into plants, animals and sacred sites, for
example, a rocky outcrop or waterhole. It provides a meaning for, and
a way of life both to individuals and society.
The term "The Dreaming" refers to an Aboriginal's awareness and knowledge
of the Dreamtime. The term "dream" is a metaphor suggesting that awareness
is enhanced by dreamy, quiet, vague, visionary, fantasy or trance states.
The land and ritual serve as reminders; monuments and churches are not
Stanner states that Aboriginal beliefs were mystical (26,p.26). In 1977
Elkin recognised that the Dreaming would today in part, be called a mystical
or spiritual experience (5,p.281; 13,p.137). The Dreamtime myths also
contain fragmented memories of early Aboriginal history (17). In an Arnhem
Land myth, the creator spirit came from "over the sea", consistent with
archaeological evidence for their arrival from SE Asia 40,000 years ago.
Tribes can be distinguished by their Dreamings (34, p.26). Aboriginals
believe there is a "oneness of person, body, spirit, ghost, shadow, name,
spirit site and totem" (35). The Dreamtime is not an historic event. It
corresponds to the whole of reality (34, p.26). It has a beginning, but
is eternal the Aborigines have no word for abstract "time". The Dreaming
is a "vertical line in which the past underlies and is within the present"
(15, p.93). The power of the Dreaming is still available, as shown by
Christian religious conversion of the Wonajagu people in 1963. Knowledge
of sacred sites is secret and imparted to few. The Dreamtime is a "unity
of waking-life and dream-life" (22, p.17;35). For example, to conceive,
a man first finds a child in his "dreams", and directs it to his wife.
An artist produces a new song by dream contact with a spirit.
Spirit beings and totems
There are two categories of spirit beings (16).
A few all-powerful transcendental beings who created the earth. Often
called All-Father. An example; the Sky Beings, called Baiame in New South
Wales and Bunjil in Victoria. The Wondjina, primal beings of the Kimberley
District, are depicted with halos in huge paintings.
Numerous lesser spirits belonging to single tribes. Symbolised in the
material world as animal or plant totems. Examples; the Lightning Brothers,
and the Red Kangaroo Man. Most spirits are good but some are bad, such
as the Bunyip who lives in swamps and billabongs (cut-off stream branches).
Two types of tribal spirits exist: eternal (from the Dreamtime); and human
(spirits of the dead). The latter leave the body and return to their "home"
(the sky, an island, or cave); they may return to haunt people (2; 24,
p.83). The Rainbow Serpent the rainbow personified - is a myth bridging
both categories. He arrived soon after All-Father, and carved the valleys
and hills with his writhing body.
Myth and ritual
The link to the Dreaming is reinforced by rituals and ceremonies (corroborees)
- stories, dancing and singing during which an Aboriginal acts as, and
becomes, a spiritual being or totem (4,9,23). Myth and the rituals of
art, song and dance reinforce each other. The main myths, guiding all
aspects of life, concern life, death, rebirth and fertility. The myths
involve the actions of spirits, and their travel between sacred sites.
All Aboriginals can outline these myths but only a few men - or rarely,
women - are told the meaning of the most sacred myths. This is the medicine
man, man of high degree, clever man or shaman (11,13).
A medicine man is selected because of a history of trances and visions.
Medicine men initiate new recruits with magic rituals involving spirit
beings. Rituals involve fear, isolation and suggestion (13, p.139). He
may prepare for initiation by a two-month fast. He may be given "new insides",
and quartz crystals may enter his body to provide power. He is given magic
(astral) rope enabling him to fly through the air (have an out-of-body
experience or OBE). He acquires X-ray vision from maban stones.
Healing and divining
There are two types of medicine man; diviner-doctor (who heals) and sorcerer
(who creates illness). The same man may play both roles. Power is drawn
from faith, ritual and special knowledge of the Dreaming. The exact techniques
do not matter. The main point is that it is believed (3,4,9,13,24,25).
Healing involves songs or spells, in the presence of quartz crystals,
tektites, shells or special stones. Techniques include sleight of hand,
ventriloquism, massaging and sucking, and acute perception and hearing.
Divining involves consulting the spirits of the recent dead to find if
sorcery or murder was involved. The diviner can then cast counter-spells.
Sorcery and voodoo death
The sorcerer casts spells onto victims or their goods ("singing", at
times to death). He can inflict bad luck or injury by look alone ("evil
eye"). Kadaicha men lead avenging expeditions involving pointing the bone.
The victim is stunned or speared and magical operations are performed
on him. The bone is magically projected into the victim's body. Blood
or the soul is withdrawn from the body along a magic cord (as in "psychic
From 1969 to 1980, a psychiatrist studied Aboriginal men in Arnhem Land.
Sorcery syndrome (gross fear of death) was common. Symptoms were agitation,
sleeplessness, visions and protruding eyeballs. Fear was precipitated
by trauma, for example, death or serious illness of a close relative,
or a dispute over wives. A few victims died. The victim was outcast and
deprived of water; thus dehydration rather than fright may have caused
Starting in the Kimberleys in the 1930s, Elkin collected many reports
of psychic phenomena, later published as a book in 1944 (13). Medicine
men supposedly had such powers at will; they were excellent magicians.
Ordinary Aboriginals had them only at times, such as on the death of a
relative. Psychic abilities resulted from openness to experience, lack
of attention to time, and the quiet and solitude of the bush. Anecdotes
included seeing spirits, healing (in part, psychic surgery), sorcery,
telepathy over huge distances, X-ray vision, sending the "dream familiar"
out of the body (OBE), hypnotism, and fire-walking (12,13,27,30,33). Prophecy
is rare (5, p.26).
Curiously, Elkin, a staunch Anglican, criticised psychic cults in his
own culture (10,39).
The Rose tests
Elkin encouraged Ronald and Lyndon Rose to conduct experimental tests
that were funded by the Parapsychology Foundation, New York.
In 1949, the Roses tested half-castes at Woodenbong mission, North NSW,
for ESP using standard Zener cards. Ronald shuffled the cards and watched
the sender (or acted as sender). Lyndon recorded guesses. Receiver and
sender were either in separate rooms, or inside and outside. Onlookers
were placed so they could not whisper nor signal. Subjects found the card
symbols strange. The highly significant score was caused mostly by one
subject Lissie, an old diabetic. Her best hits were when she held and
talked to her unruly two year old grandson. Her scores fell as the series
During 1950 and 1951, the couple tested tribal Aborigines in the central
Australian desert. There was no evidence for ESP (30,31). In 1955, the
Roses did new ESP tests at Woodenbong.
Psychic abilities resulted from openness to experience, lack of attention
to time, and the quiet and solitude of the bush.
They again got highly significant results. Lizzie again scored highly;
her grandson is not mentioned (32).
Rose later wrote up a popular book (33). Elkin criticised the book; Rose
had put words into the mouth of Aborigines, though taken from papers by
Elkin or others (14).
The McElroy tests
In 1952, psychology graduate William McElroy and Elkin visited Arnhem
Land. His tests were poorly controlled he used Zener cards that replaced
the usual symbols (such as circle and star) with a goanna, spear, snake,
fish and wallaby (more meaningful). The subjects were motivated only when
cards were revealed after each guess. They lost interest and guessed in
sequence. They were puzzled when rewarded with tobacco. No significant
ESP was found.
The subjects were better motivated in a test to choose the tobacco tin
in a row of five containing tobacco rather than unscented soap. The number
of hits was significantly below change (20).
Until Europeans arrived, the Aborigines used few drugs. The main one
was pituri from the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii (7,19,37). The active ingredient
is nicotine, the same alkaloid as in tobacco. "Pituri" is also used more
broadly to include wild tobacco weed. The chemistry of pituri differs
widely (19,37). In the Northern Territory, the drug is actually non-nicotine,
four times more toxic than nicotine. Aborigines there prefer tobacco weed.
Aborigines used pituri to inspire mirth, to increase stamina and courage
before warfare or firewalks. Pituri can induce trances, thus accessing
the Dreamtime, that is psychic and mystical experiences. Nicotine is also
commonly used in American shamanism (38).
Pituri also refers to the dried leaves and stems of the shrub. Aborigines
smoke "quid", a mixture of leaves with ash from the acacia bush, thus
increasing drug potency (19). Leaves are placed behind the ear, or on
other body parts. Nicotine is absorbed through the skin (37). Nicotine
in quid -three times more concentrated than in cigarettes - produces stupor
and catalepsy, a trancelike pain-free state (19,37).
Pituri is hoarded and the shrub localities kept secret. It grows over
much of Western Queensland, Eastern Northern Territory and Northwestern
NSW, where it was widely traded (1,37).
Pituri can induce trances, thus accessing the Dreamtime, that is, psychic
and mystical experiences.
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