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


Hello my friends,

It’s time for our final installment of the Australian aboriginal songlines, a spirituality that entwines land and music in an ongoing relationship.  In our first installment we learned that the ancestral spirits walked the land at the dawn of time, singing and walking the land into being, the animals and plants into being.  In our second installment we learned that the modern aboriginals each have their own stretch of song, that ties them to a particular spot in the land, and that they can learn each other’s songs and thus experience the land far from home.  Today we will explore the way they tend to their land, keeping it alive and well.

Again, we draw from Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous:

The Dreamtime is not, like the Western, biblical notion of Genesis, a finished event; it is not, like the common scientific interpretation of the “Big Bang,” an event that happened once and for all in the disttant past.  Rather, it is an ongoing process – the perpetual emerging of the world from an incipient, indeterminate state into full, waking reality, from invisibility to visibility, from the secret depths of silence into articulate song and speech.  That Native Australians chose the English term “Dreaming” to translate this cosmological notion indicated their sense that the ordinary act of dreaming participates directly in the time of the clan Ancestors, and hence that that time is not entirely elsewhere, not entirely sealed off from the perceivable present.  Rather, the Dreaming lies in the same relation to the open presence of the earth around us as our own dream life lies in relation to our conscious or waking experience.

What happened once happens again and again.  The Dreaming, the imaginative life of the land itself, must be continually renewed, and as an Aboriginal man walks along his Ancestor’s Dreaming track, singing the country into visibility, he virtually becomes the journeying Ancestor, and thus the storied earth is born afresh.

In Songlines, Bruce Chatwin describes being witness to such a ritual.

One of the Aboriginal men got to his feet and began to mime (with words of pidgin thrown in) the travels of the Lizard Ancestor.

It was a song of how the lizard and his lovely young wife had walked from northern Australia to the Southern Sea, and of how a southerner had seduced the wife and sent him home with a substitute.

I don’t know what species of lizard he was supposed to be: whether he was a “jew-lizard” or a “road-runner” or one of those rumpled, angry looking lizards with ruffs around their necks.  All I do know is that the man in blue made the most lifelike lizard you could ever hope to imagine.

He was male and female, seducer and seduced.  He was glutton, he was cuckold, he was weary traveler.  He would claw his lizard-feet sideways, then freeze and cock his head.  He would lift his lower lid to cover the iris, and flick out his lizard-tongue.  He puffed his neck into goiters of rage; and at last, when it was time for him to die, he writhed and wriggled, his movements growing fainter and fainter…

Then his jaw locked, and that was the end.

The man in blue waved towards the hill and, with the triumphant cadence of someone who has told the best of all possible stories, shouted: “That… that is where he is!”

The nearby hill, in other words, is that place where the Lizard Ancestor had metamorphosed back into the earth – his spirit power, or life, now inseparable from the life of the hill itself.

The enactment of such stories, songs, and ceremonies is done less for the human persons than for the land itself – upon which, of course, the humans depend.  In the words of the anthropologist Hellen Payne:

The maintenance of a site required both physical caring – for example the rubbing of rocks or clearing of debris – and the performance of [ritual] items aimed at caring for the spirit housed at it.  Without these maintenance processes the site remains, but is said to lose the spirit held within it.  It is then said to die and all those who share physical features and spiritual connections with it are then also thought to die.  Thus, to endure the well-being of life, sites must be cared for and rites performed to keep alive the dreaming powers entrapped within them.

I am thinking the next time I take my daughter walking in the woods, we might bring a bag to collect debris, and sing as we work, connecting back to the spirit of the land.