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The Dreamings are our ancestors, no matter if they are fish, birds, men, women, animals, wind or rain. It was these Dreamings that made our Law. All things in our country have Law, they have ceremony and song, and they have people who are related to them …
[…] In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the Dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive. That is the most important thing, we have to keep up the country, the Dreamings, our Law, our people, it can’t change. Our Law has been handed on from generation to generation and it is our job to keep it going, to keep it safe.
~ Mussolini Harvey, of Yanyuwa, Burrulula country in the Northern Territory. [1]

This series of posts have been primarily a call to animistic and earth-based practitioners of European Ancestry, of pagan ilk, if you will, to start to engage with the wisdom, beauty and power of the words and stories of our Indigenous brothers and sisters here in Australia. It has been an effort to place the culture(s) of these strong peoples where it rightfully should be; in a primary position for those of us who would walk with the Spirits of this Ancient Land. This final instalment I want to present an understanding of key Aboriginal terms from that non-Indigenous perspective. And I must reiterate that non-Indigenous perspective. For better or worse, (I think for the better) my ancestors came here. And now I share this house, this nation with many people. But not one of those people knows the land better then she or he who has the oldest of its stories. It is true that we do not share a practice, but we do share a Land. It is true we will see things a little differently, but those perspectives do not need to be at odds with each other. It is true that I, as a non-Indigenous person, will never have a compete picture, even of one Indigenous Nation, but the time has come to recognise these things Indigenous Elders have given us as a great gift, and elevate them beyond the “childhood stories” we have relegated them. But to do so, we, I, need to understand how to use them, what they actually are, and enter into an empathetic perspective of the Aboriginal Worldview. Which of course is an impossible task. But not entirely hopeless.

In this regard, this post is not going to be a retelling of anthropological and philosophical definitions of Aboriginal Spirituality. Though I have had to engage with these things myself to understand. Rather, I want to demonstrate how I have translated these things in order for them to inform my Craft and life. There may be a lot of “alike to”s and “similar to”s. The stories of the Dreaming and Dreamtime are analogous to our own myths. They are however written differently. When we can enter into some idea of this language, the power of, and how we can incorporate these stories become ever more evident.

“Once upon a time in Middle Earth…”

I’m going to use J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale The Lord of the Rings as a bit of a guide. Because it draws on European myth, and is in English words, usually appearing on paper, and most people are familiar with it. It contains within it many characters, occurring in many different areas, speaking different languages, doing different things that form together one saga, a story of a whole. The Dreaming of Indigenous Australians is exactly like that, all except for the English and the paper. One whole story, with many characters, moving through different areas, doing different things in different places, in different languages, and altogether, they form a single saga that we might call The Lore of Ancient Australia.

Let’s consider the LotR character Gandalf. A central character who appears in lots of different areas, doing various things. He has different names according to the various languages of the people of those different areas, and he has different characteristics. Depending on what he is doing, to whom, and where, how he is understood by other characters varies wildly. In The Shire, at the beginning of the saga he is the benevolent bringer of party fireworks. At least in the perspective of most Hobbits. If you happen to be Frodo, then Gandalf is also sort of a guide, the initiator, setting him on his own journey. If you are a Balrog living in Moria, he is neither of these things, but a foe, at whose hands you meet your end. For the Elves of Riverdale, he is something else, perhaps a peer, counsel, a trusted ally. In various places and different times he is called Gandalf the Grey, or Gandalf the White, The Grey Pilgrim, Mithrandir, Stormcrow and the list goes on. But only when all the words, sentences, and paragraphs representing of all the things he did and names he has from the perspective of all the other characters across all chapters and books does the whole character of Gandalf come together. And even then, he is still only one part of much grander saga. Gandalf alone is not LotR.

Just like, for example, the Rainbow Serpent in our LoAA.

The Rainbow Serpent is also known by different names, in different countries, and he does different things and interacts with a host of different characters. In some places he is the benevolent bring of water, in others a destructive primordial spirit. He is as evident across the continent as Gandalf is in Middle Earth. For us, the difference is how he is written.

In LoAA a word is a single stone, a sentence a small stand of trees, a paragraph a stretch of track, a chapter a waterhole and all its aspects. And to read his story you have to walk his Songlines, the way your finger would track a sentence on a page. The book is country.

Indeed, as all the characters of LoTR are written in words, so are all the characters in LoAA written in Land. One bit of Land here says “This where this character rested”, or “here this character did this”. Some characters appear only in one place, others move about. There is no need to describe abstract places and landscapes, because that is already part of the story! In this way, if you have LoTR in English, and you don’t read English, and consequently don’t read it, it is likely any reference to Gandalf will be gibberish. The thing is, reading Land is not a terribly difficult language to acquire.

In the same way that Frodo has one part of Gandlaf’s story, and Bilbo another, and Lord Elrond yet another, the stories of different characters written in LoAA are kept by different people.

One of the Characters

What part of the story of which characters an individual person will have, in LoAA depends on a few things. In the first place we have to understand one big difference. In LoTR we are not a character in the story. In LoAA every Aboriginal person is a character.

And as such, taking on part of the story can happen by way of birth, what Dreaming one’s parents have passed on, what the Land you are born in already has written on it, and also, the occurrence of characters at the beginning of one’s story. Totem animals, for example, are often the result of this. Either because of location, or season, or just the strange show up and say hi sort of visitation when a person is born. We can see a lot of similarities to Frodo. Who has both Bilbo’s story by way of relation, and Gandalf’s by virtue of Gandalf just happening to show up at the beginning of Frodo’s story. Every time someone picks up LoTR Frodo and all the characters go through their story from beginning to end the same way every time. Thus the story sort of lives, and continues to live. For Aboriginal people, as characters in the book of Land, this has a serious ramification.

If you are a character, keeping the stories of other characters, then you have to do like words do all the time. You have to constantly renew the story. Learn it, share it, and most importantly enact it.

Walking Country, often described as “Walk-a-bout” is the process by which the individual who keeps a certain aspect for the Dreaming, re-reads, connects, maintains and preserves that Songline or Dreaming Track. And why, when walking his Dreaming Track or Songline, and Aboriginal person will speak the Dreaming Story aloud. Within that process may be seasonal observations, changes and omens, and maintenance. Maintenance may include, for example, controlled burning. Everything in a single community has ties back to the Dreaming, collecting food, what species are hunted, what are not, where to find water, how omens are read in the night sky, when certain things can be done, and when certain ceremonies have to be enacted.

Aboriginal ceremonies, like the speaking of Dreaming Stories on the Dreaming Track are exactly that; the direct engagement with the Dreaming by those who keep it. Re-enacting it in the place it happened, from bringing about abundance of certain things, to keeping banished various nefarious spirits, and at its simplest form, preserving the Creation stories. Consider if you don’t read LotR, then Frodo won’t go on his journey, and the story will not happen.  (Probably not something one should think too long about when one considers the horrific rate of threatened species, and numbers of extinct species, loss of natural heritage and poisoned land and water, on the continent.)

Thus, each community not only keeps, but constantly renews/re-enacts (re-reads) the stories of their country, which like the books of LotR might as a whole be seen as one book in the saga that is our LoAA. But not simply as passive observers, but as a cast of characters, connected by a long line of ancestors, human and other, who also played their part in the story.

For those of us who engage with our own Myths and Creations stories by way of ritual, this should be a very easy to understand concept. We will often take on the marks and masks of the Great Spirits, Ancestors, and Gods, perform their actions and participate in their works, connected by our ancestry, and re-enact their stories, thus keeping them alive and vital. In the ritual space, our myths are things that are happening now and also have happened in the mythic space. We might say that our ritual space in which we re-enact and participate with the myths as they are happening now is our Dreaming, and the Myths that inform that practice, the “first source” are our Dreamtime.

The difference of course is that our Myths have long been (mostly) removed from the Land they were first written on. Although, we should be well able to see the animistic qualities therein and the significance of those homelands to empathise with Indigenous peoples worldwide. And recognise where they still are very much anchored in place, like the holy wells of Ireland, the Pilgrim roads of Western Europe, and the various ancient monolithic sites. For the most part though, particularly those of us in the New World, we now have words written on pages, rather than stories written in stone.

What does that mean for non-Indigenous people?

In the first place, when you look out your window, you should immediately recognise one major thing. The process of colonisation and Western development is akin to book burning. Where there was only one copy. Imagine if I walked in your house and ripped out and burned several chapters of your copy of LotR without invitation or asking. Even though there are countless copies, it’s likely you’d be horrified. Consider if that book was a one of a kind, written nowhere else, and you kept that one copy. So much of the story would be rendered gibberish, you would struggle to piece it together from memory, destroyed forever. Sucks to be you, no?

Of course, we can not go back, but we can go forward with this understanding. We can weave these Ancient remnants of LoAA into the story we are all writing on this land together, for the future.

An Indigenous friend of mine in a recent conversation quipped after watching a program on SBS NITV “If you couldn’t see the land he was sitting on, you’d have no idea what he was going on about”. There can be a sort of vague sense in some Dreaming and Dreamtime stories we see written or told when they are removed from the paper on which they were written. To contextualise the stories, Land sort of needs to be inserted the way Tolkien described the landscapes as his characters moved through it and the story. Certainly, without the Tolkien’s maps LoTR would lack a little- Direction. And this is very obvious to the Indigenous person listening/watching the stories of other countries. It’s not so obvious to the non-Indigenous person who is used to the paragraph set up of scenery before the action begins.

As quoted in my last post in this series, ‘Look Out & “The Sight to See”’:

The visual landscape is so important that without it the stories would be lost. The visual, Nature, is telling the stories to the oral; of the power, of the mechanics of that power of the elements, how they combine to create, to bring creation into being.

If we want to understand the stories we first need to go out to where they are written.

Being able to understand that language, contextualise the story, allows us to begin to use the stories we have of this Land, by the gracious sharing of Indigenous elders, understand that they are shared because they are as important as our Eddas, as the Mabinogion, the stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

How we use these stories in our practices does not need to be any different to how we use the myths of our European Ancestors. Rarely if ever does one re-enact the entire Poetic Edda in a single ritual, but draw instead from individual stories, characters and events within that to aid our purpose. Perhaps we chant the Nine Herbs Charm to heal, perhaps we simply recite the Creation as in the Völuspá as an act of honour and remembrance.

Working with many native species as I do, I come across many stories from various nations across the continent. One of my favourites is the story of the She-OaksDahl’Wah, told by Aunty Francis Bodkin of the D’harawal  people of NSW. Though I am a long way from the Dreaming Tracks of South Western Sydney, I still use this story when I meditate with the She-Oaks of the Hobart area. Because like one part of a story, like our example Gandalf, who is both the Smiter of Balrog and the Benevolent Bringer of Party Fireworks, the She-Oak is many things, and also one thing connected by the Songlines that connect all the countries together. And if the words of the Myths of Europe hold any power still on the other side of the world, the names and words of the continent we live on, must like keys in a secret lock, open up to us the experience of the power and beauty of our Land.

Songline by Walangari Karntawarra

Songline by Walangari Karntawarra

I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Land and her Ancient Lore and Stories, their ancestors, past and present, of Hobart, the Mouheneener tribe; of the Land on which I was born, beside the River they call Tucoerah, the Cabrogal Clan of the Dharug Nation and peoples of the Dhurawal and Dharuk Nations.

[1] “White people ask us all the time, what is Dreaming?” Indigiquotes http://indigiquotes.com/index.php/indigenous-quotes/dreamtime/70-white-people-ask-us-all-the-time-what-is-dreaming retrieved 12/10/2014

This post is the fifth in a series titled Two Worlds.
Click here to read the first: Two Worlds: Utopia
Click here to read the second: Two World: Just Listen
Click here to read the third: Two Worlds: kunanyi / Mt Wellington
Click here to read the fourth: Two Worlds: Look Out & “The Sight to See”
Click here to read the sixth: Two Worlds: Tales from the Rainbow Track – Part 2

P.S. ‘T’ is for ‘Tales’. This post participates with The Pagan Blog Project 2014.