Aspects of Aboriginal Religion
A well-known anthropologist reflects on a typical Aboriginal account of the primordial world. There is a rational
structure and life impact of the ideas behind the mythic account. For the sake of organization, notes are in
1. Three domains of the primordial world: (a) the sky, (b) the surface of the earth, and (c) the
within the earth.
2. In the sky: a nameless Father, and his wives and children. They were young, sempiternal (never-ending
duration; eternal), there being no death. They were self-existent and undescended from anyone. They lived to
themselves, self-sufficiently, in a land perennially green, free from drought, and full of trees, fruits,
flowers and birds, but no other animals. The sky-beings had no interest in the earth or its beings, and had
no power over them.
3. In the terrestrial domain: This was dark (being sunless and moonless, lacking even an Evening Star); cold, featureless,
and desolate; without plants or animals. There was a sort of life in the form of innumerable diminutive
beings, somewhat human-like (but barely foetal) – they were immobile and helpless. They were alive but unable
to develop, age, decay, or die.
4. In the sub-terrestrial domain: There was humankind, in the form of a great many mature persons of both sexes. While being
truly human, they were also superhuman – or at least more than human in that, intermixed with their essential
humanity, were animal, plant, and other vital life-principles and capacities. They lay under the surface of
the earth, as they always had, deeply asleep. Spontaneously, they awoke and, of their own will, broke through
to the surface. As they did so, the sun rose and brought light and warmth.
The sometime sleepers now revealed, or assumed, a four-fold distribution:
a. One group had forms of animals but thought and acted like humans.
b. A second group looked like perfectly formed human beings, but had inward affinities with species
of animals and could change at will into them.
c. A third group was human in form, but had plant affinities.
d. A fourth group, the smallest, were human in form – but with neither animal nor plant
5. Schema: A schema
of (1) over-world, (2) underworld, and a (3) tween-domain is not a novelty in mythology.
6. Also not a novelty in mythology are the equations:
a. Over-world = ideal
b. Underworld = causative
c. Tween-domain = actuality
7. The underworld
(or the “underneath”, or the “inside”) is the locus of spontaneity and energy, and of creative, disturbing,
and other like forces in human affairs.
8. Furthermore, the underworld (or the “underneath”, or the “inside”) has been made into the symbol
of sleep (also frequently an
Aboriginal metaphor of “secrecy”, “privacy”, or perhaps even of “sacredness”).
9. To have gone on to make dreaming, as the activity of sleep, into the master-symbol to which the whole
corpus of Aboriginal religious life vibrated, is impressive.
10. The Dreaming, as activity, is represented as a continuing highway between ancestral superman and
living man; between the life-givers and the life, the countries, the totems and totem-places they gave to
living men; between subliminal reality and immediate reality; and between the There-and-Then of the
beginnings of all things and relevances and the Here-and-Now of their continuations.
11. There is an implicit theory of something very like the unconscious in all of this. That is, a
theory that elemental forces, antecedent to the formation of the mature human being in society, operate below
the level of the waking or conscious mind by continuing perennially through sleep and dream, as major
determinants of conscious human conduct.
12. A consideration of what the idea of three domains seems to convey or “say” through its
a. Sky-beings (in the sky): transcendent
and eternal beings, other than men but not wholly other, disinterested in humans, with an absence
of power over them.
b. Earth-beings (terrestrial domain): were to become true men as having been less than men, but as having had a
beginning as men at a point in time. They were made into men by a power beyond themselves.
c. Earth-sleepers (sub-terrestrial domain): their spatial locus suggests immanence rather than transcendence,
were “self-existent”, other than men but not wholly other, had true human feelings, interest in and
compassion for earth-beings.
13. Six ideas which are authentically Aboriginal:
a. Some sort of entity pre-existed independently before the cosmos was transformed into the system
and the state in which it now exists.
b. Power or energy was part of the primordial scene.
c. The power itself, and the right to use it, were both speciated and inviduated.
d. The world was, or was made, one of determinate relationships in which the relevance of anything
to anything else was established.
e. Human will has always played a decisive part in men’s affairs. All the myths make much of the
fact of private will and of the conduct that may be said to express it – from stubbornness and indifference
to egotism, pride, jealousy, cruelty, deceit and treachery.
f. The founding drama of the cosmology – a great event occurred with calamitous consequences of the
“forever after” kind. The clear suggestion is that men were not meant to die.
Source: W. E. H. Stanner, “Some Aspects of Aboriginal Religion”, in Essays on Australian Aboriginal
Spirituality, ed. Max Charlesworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4-10.
Photo credit: Intellimon