The Songs of Aboriginal Dreamtime, Part Two of Three – Australian Songlines

The Songs of Aboriginal Dreamtime, Part Two of Three – Australian Songlines


Hello my friends,

When we left off last month, we’d taken a look at the way the Australian aboriginal Ancestors sang the world into being.  For the native people of Australia, the land was itself story, a story in sung form.  This was more than a way to navigate a hostile environment, but also the spirit that animated each of them.

From David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous:

These meandering trails, or Dreaming tracks, are auditory as well as visible, and tactile phenomena, for the Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it.  Indeed, each ancestral track is a sort of musical score that winds across the continent, the score of a vast, epic song whose verses tell of the Ancestors’ many adventures, of how the various sites along her path came into being (and hence, indirectly, of what food plants, water sources or sheltering rocks may be found at those sites).  The distance between two significant sites along the Ancestor’s track can be measured or spoken of as a stretch of song, for the song unfolds in an unbroken chain of couplets across the land.  One couple for “for each pair of the Ancestor’s footfalls.”  The song is thus a kind of auditory route map through the country: in order to make her way through the land, an aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming, the appropriate Ancestor’s song.

The Australian continent is crisscrossed by thousands of such meandering “songlines” or “ways through”, most of them passing through multiple tribal areas.  A given song may thus sing its way through twenty or more different languages before reaching the place where the Ancestor went “back in.”  Yet while the language changes, the basic melody of the song remains the same, so that a person of the Barking Lizard Clan will readily recognize distinct stretches of the Barking Lizard songline when he hears them, even though those stanzas are being sung in a language entirely alien to his ears…  Knowledge of distant parts of one song cycle – albeit in one’s own language – apparently enables a person to vividly experience certain stretches of the land even before he or she has actually visited those places.  Rehearsing a long part of a song cycle together, while sitting around a campfire at night, Aboriginal persons apparently feel themselves journeying across the land in their collective imagination.

Every Ancestor, while chanting his or her way across the land during the Dreamtime, also deposited a trail of “spirit children” along the line of his footsteps.  These “life cells” are children not yet born: they lie in a kind of potential state within the ground, waiting.  While sexual intercourse between a woman and a man is thought, by traditional Aboriginal persons, to prepare the woman for conception, the actual conception is assumed to occur much later, when the already pregnant woman is out on her daily round gathering roots and edible grubs, ad she happens to step upon (or even near) a song couplet.  The “spirit child” lying beneath the  ground at that spot slips up into her at that moment, “works its way into her womb, and impregnates the foetus with song.”  (Abram is quoting Bruce Chatwin’s book “Songlines,” which we will visit in Part 3.)  Wherever the woman finds herself when she feels the quickening – the first kick within her womb – she knows that a spirit child has just leapt into her body from the earth.  And so she notes the precise place in the land where the quickening occurred, and reports this to the tribal elders.  The elders then examine the land at that spot, discerning which Ancestor’s songline was involved, and precisely which stanzas of that Ancestor’s song will belong to the child.

If, for instance, the Ancestor who walked there was a Wallaby Man, then the person is said to have a Wallaby Dreaming, to be a member of the Wallaby Clan.  And he has a profound responsibility to the land along the Wallaby Dreaming track, or songline, a responsibility to keep the land as it should be – the way it was when it was first sung into existence.