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Songlines
in Aboriginal Culture


Paintings from the Dreamtime Including Two Birds, Australia, Pacific


Paintings from the Dreamtime Including Two Birds, Australia
by Dominic Harcourt-Webster
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Although there are residues of the idea in many myths, such as the Indian concept of the earth as body of the goddess, the vision of the sacred earth as a ledger of cosmology is unique to the Australian Aborigines. Unique also is the fidelity to these unwritten stories with which the Aborigines conduct their lives. The legends are sung and danced daily. Each Dreamtime story is designated and remembered by the place where it occurs. Each series of stories, therefore, define a path across the countryside that connects localities and the mythic episodes associated with them. These Dreaming tracks, or songlines, stretch in all directions, criss-crossing the entire continent of Australia. No local band, hunting group, or dialect unit "owns" a complete mythic line: each group "owns" only a section of these journeying pathways, making the "songlines" a network of communication and cultural exchange among people separated by great distances.

The mythic stories guide all the nomadic movements of the Aborigines. The connections between myths may or may not be concurrent with the fertility cycles in various regions. The Aborigines nonetheless primarily follow the mythic songlines in their hunting and gathering, they do not pursue a particular flock, herd, or seasonal growth. Their adherence to a mythic dimension rather than a practical knowledge of hunting or the seasons demonstrates their faith in the sacred relationship of the cycles and rhythms of nature, in accordance with the story of the earth's metaphysical creation. For them, as for perhaps no other culture, the earth is the center of the intelligence of creation; a symbol and memory of the primordial Dreaming; a receptacle of all seeds cosmic, metaphysical, and biological; the nurturer of all life, both visible and invisible. By listening to the songs and energies of the earth the Aborigines hear the voices of the universal Dreaming.

Indigenous people believe that the blood of the gods, the subtle magnetic, celestial flow, circulates in the veins of the earth. This concept underlies the extensive occult science known as geomancy, the study of ley lines. A number of anthropologists and scientists have found that the Aborigines possess an acute sensitivity to magnetic and vital force flows emanating from the earth, which they refer to as songlines. Perhaps the oldest geomancy tradition, songlines are fundamental to Aboriginal initiatic knowledge and religion. Songlines are so named because they are maps written in songs, depicting mythic events at successive sites along a walking trail that winds through a region. Each Aboriginal tribe inherited a network of songlines, and all travel in the lands of neighboring tribes was done along these lines.

Early anthropologists were amazed by Aborigines who had walked through immense desert expanses, unerringly finding their way to tiny water holes or distant mission settlements. One anthropologist has remarked that "no one has ever met a lost Aborigine". Aborigines young and old seem to move through the countryside instinctively, in a manner comparable to what we now understand about bird and animal migration.

Songlines and the Blood of Culture

The landscape of Aboriginal Australia mirrored a living organism. Each tribe was a stationary expression of the region of the earth from which it emerged; connecting these tribal regions throughout Australia was a circulation system called the songlines. Directed by a complex, unwritten calendar of ceremonies and rituals, tribal people would move along these songlines and interact with people of other regions. In earliest times, tribal movement was never an economic exchange of material goods. Only ritual paraphernalia, such as pigments, feathers, and carved sacred boards, were carried and offered as gifts. Interactions were governed not by materialistic enterprise but by a quest for increased understanding of the mythic law of the land. At the time of the European invasions, Australia was a land with many separate and widely distributed tribes. Each regional tribe had its own linguistic, social, and ritual characteristics, but the entire continent shared a basic universal law and world view. This universal culture was like the blood that unites all the functions and parts of a living organism.

The magnetic songlines guided the physical, ceremonial journeys of the tribes. Initiated men and women learned to travel these subtle and invisible energy veins using their psychic or spirit body. Thus they were able to exchange songs, dance, and mythic visions of the ever-unfolding Dreamtime reality over great distances. Tribal elders claim that not only Australia but the entire earth, at one time, was linked through the songlines. People did not have to abandon their relationship with the beloved region that "grew" them to relate to the world as a whole.

Mind and Landscape

When Westerners generalize about the physical environment, we categorize it with terms defining country, state, or regions. Aborigines do not apply such abstract terms to their environment but refer only to specific land formations. When Aborigines have to describe an area or give directions, they use a language strategy indicative of their world view. For example, if one tribal man is directing another to a place where a type of quartz crystal can be found, he begins by naming one near-by land feature to establish the locality, such as a prominent mound or significant tree.

He may then sing a line of a Dreamtime song that tells of a great Ancestor whose exploits occurred around or through the quartz-covered area. The sites he names in the fragment of song coincide with the extent of the stone deposit. While he is singing, he carefully observes how much the listener seems to be understanding. Mixing together oblique physical and metaphysical references to define a spatial area is consistent with the Aborigines' sense of reality.

This type of direction intensifies the relation between the land and mythic creation and allows the speaker to act on clues to the listener's cultural or initiatic level and his familiarity with the countryside in question. Aborigines relish oblique references because they encourage individual expression that adds to the possibilities for humor and cleverness in conversation. There are innumerable engaging ways to convey a single piece of information: the line of a song might well be replaced with a fragment of a dance or a tale of a fire or a death that occurred years ago in that vicinity.

  

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