AIPR Information Sheet: Psychic and Mystical Experiences of the Aborigines

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 Dreamtime

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 needed.

Mystical experience

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.

Medicine men

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 surgery”).

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 death (8).

Psychic experiences

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 progressed (28,29).

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).

Pituri, intoxicant

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 differ 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.

Reading List:
1) Aiston, G. (1937). The Aboriginal narcotic plant pitcheri [pituri]. Oceania, 7,372-377.
2) Beckett, J. (1975). A death in the family; Some Torres Strait ghost stories. In, L. Hiatt (Ed.) Australian Aboriginal mythology, 163-182. Canberra; Australian Inst. Aboriginal Studies.
3) Berndt, C. (1984). The role of native doctors in Aboriginal Australia. In, Kiev, A., ed., Magic, faith and healing, ch.4. New York; Free Press.
4) Berndt, R M (1983). Australian Aborigines – religion. Australian Encylopaedia (4th ed.), 1, 158-165. Sydney; Grolier.
5) Charlesworth, M.etal., eds (1984). Religion in Aboriginal Australia. St Lucia; Queensland University Press.
6) Dobkin de Rios, M. (1984). The Australian Aborigines. In, Hallucinogens, 21-28. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
7) Djugurba (1980). Tales from the Dreamtime. Canberra: ANU Press.
8) Eastwell, H.D. (1982). Voodoo death and the mechanism for dispatch
of the dying in East Arnhem. American Anthropologist, 84, 5-18.
9) Eliade, M. (1973). Australian religions. Ithica: Cornell Univ. Press.
10) Elkin, A P (193x). Christian science. Morpeth: St Johns Press.
11) Elkin, A P (1935). Primitive medicine men. Medical Journal of Australia, 750-757.
12) Elkin, A P (1937). Notes on the psychic life of the Australian Aborigines. Mankind, 2(3), 49-56.
13) Elkin, A P (1945/77). Aboriginal men of high degree (2nd ed). St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
14) Elkin, A P (1957). Review of “Living magic,” by Ronald Rose. Oceania, 28, 78-79.
15) Elkin, A P (1969). Elements of Australian Aboriginal philosophy. Oceania, 40, 85-98.
16) Ellis, R (1984). Aboriginal Australia; Past and present. Sydney: Shakespeare Head/Golden Press.
17) Flood, J. (1983). Archeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney: Collins.
18) Isaacs, J (1980). Australian Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal history. Sydney: Lansdowne.
19) Low, T. (1987). Pituri Australian Natural History 22 (6), 257-260.
20) McElroy, W (1955). Psi testing in Arnhem Land. Oceania, 26, 118-126.
21) Miller, J. (1985) Koori: A will to live. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
22) Mol, H (1982). The firm and the formless. Waterloo; Wilfred Laurier University Press.
23) Poignant, R. (1967). Oceanic mythology, 110-136. London: Hamlyn.
24) Reid, J. (1983). Sorcerers and healing spirits. Canberra: ANU Press.
25) Reid, J. ed. (1984). Body, mind and spirit: Health and healing in Aboriginal Society. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
26) Roberts, A & M J (1981). Dreamtime – the Aboriginal heritage. Adelaide: Rigby.
27) Rose, L. (1951). Psi patterns among the Australian Aborigines. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 45, 71-75.
28) Rose, L & R (1950). Aborigines and extrasensory perception. Walk-about, Sept 1, 18-20.
29) Rose, L & R (1951). Psi experiments with Australian Aborigines. Journal of Parapsychology, 15, 122-131.
30) Rose, R (1952). Psi and Australian Aborigines. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 46, 17-28.
31) Rose, R. (1952). Experiments in ESP and PK with Aboriginal subjects. Journal of Parapsychology, 16, 219-220.
32) Rose, R. (1955). A second report on psi experiments with Australian Aborigines. Journal of Parapsychology, 19, 92-98.
33) Rose, R (1956). Living magic: The psychical practices and beliefs of Australian Aborigines. New York: Rand McNally.
34) Stanner, W (1966). On Aboriginal religion. Sydney: Oceania Monograph 11.
35) Stanner, W (1979). The Dreaming. In, White man go no dreaming, 23-40. Canberra: ANU Press.
36) Strehlow, T G H (1947). Aranda traditions. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
37) Watson, P (1983). The precious foliage: A study of the Aboriginal psychoactive drug pituri. Sydney: Oceania Monograph 26.
38) Wilbert, J (1987). Tobacco and shamanism in South America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
39) Wise, T. (1985). The self-made anthropologist. Sydney: Allen Unwin.