The Aboriginal PeopleNo Comments | February 2014
The Aborigines of Australia make up 3% of the population, largely in the northern territories. Recent studies suggest that these people migrated from Europe and Africa via South Asia into Australasia around 50,000 years ago.1
As such, they are one of the longest surviving races, and have by far the longest claim to the land of Australia. The British did not land on the shores of the country until 1788, just over 200 years ago! Their ancient religious beliefs also span a huge era, probably well before many of the dominant religions in the world emerged. The arrival of European settlers almost led to the extinction of the Aborigines.2
Their route to Australia may have taken them through India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Having arrived in Australia, the Aborigines dispersed into different regions, eventually forming 400 distinct groups with their own language and culture who remained largely isolated from each other for long periods, and yet there are many common threads across them.3
The Aboriginal people are very spiritual, and have a close affinity with nature and the creations around them, just as the Native Americans did. Aboriginal faith is preserved as oral traditions handed down through the generations and now considered as mythology. There is truth in the myths, but the modern interpretation might make the stories seem absurd.
They revere many beings depicted as animals, plants or other natural features. For them, their tribes and communities are aligned not just to the land they inhabit, but also groups of stars, specific plants and animals, and even specific rocks and geographical.4 Their revered beings tend to fall into three categories:
Creation Beings – involved in the creation of people and the environment.
Ancestral Beings – ancestors of the aborigines from Dreamtime who taught the original people to survive, hunt and how to live. In many ways, these ancestral beings would be seen as Prophets in Abrahamic faiths, and many of them may well have been Prophets of God for the Aboriginal peoples.
Totemic Beings – the original form of an object, plant or animal from Dreamtime.
Dreamtime represents the period of active creation of the universe. Aboriginals recognise an eternal Creator God (‘High Gods’) who initiated creation, but then retreated to a ‘distant realm of heaven where human beings cannot reach him’.5 It is interesting that for so many unique Aboriginal tribes that had remained isolated from each other, to all hold the concept of a single eternal creator for many millennia provides strong proof for the existence of God rather than the concept of God as being a figment of human imagination.6
According to beliefs, the second creation which included life on earth was managed by a number of celestial creation beings who then severed the link between the sky and earth. These beings can travel between the earth and sky using a ladder or tree, and aboriginals feel their presence in sacred caves, rocks or trees. At this time, mountain ranges and lakes were created, plant forms emerged. For aborigines, dreams are often interpreted as the memories from that period or a transformation back to that creation period, hence it is called Dreamtime.
The third creation was that of the creation of the aboriginal culture through ancestral beings.
Dialogue with Aboriginal elders suggests that they also view dreams as a true dialogue with their Creator, the true meaning of which is only known to a few elders in the community.7
Life and death
Many aboriginals such as the Tiwi people believe in two sky worlds, the earth and also an underworld called Ilara. Life is sacred for aboriginal people. Some believe that death is the result of magic, and after death, the person travels to heaven but without the use of their physical body.8 The term magic here might mean forces or actions that are not understood by man, or sins that take man away from a pure state.9 Most communities accept that after death, there is still a ghost or soul that persists, and the need to send this soul back to its ancestral Dreaming site, or to the Island of the Dead from which the soul ascends to the sky world.10 This is not too dissimilar to Abrahamic concepts of the passage of the soul to heaven or hell. At the time of a death, aboriginal people paint themselves white as a sign of remorse for the loss and perform rituals and prayers to help the soul reach its destination.
There is a story of the moon helping to revive the dead on their journey, a story shared with some Hindu customs. For the ancient people, watching the phases of the moon every month drew parallels with death and rebirth, so it is not surprising that they equated the moon to the revival of the soul after death.
Uluru (Ayer’s Rock)
Uluru, more commonly known as Ayer’s Rock, is a large rocky outcrop in central Australia, and is the most sacred place for Aboriginal people to which they travel for pilgrimage. People go there to contemplate in the many caves and pools. Just as with other pilgrimage sites, Uluru is preserved for future pilgrims by the custodians from the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara peoples.11
The Aboriginal people of Australia have a rich and ancient culture, deeply engrained in spirituality and a recognition of their position in nature. They have a belief in a single eternal Creator and life after death which can be understood by monotheists. They have a respect for elders, society and nature. For millennia, their society was stable based upon generations of existence in the same lands and a stable culture, yet the last 200 years since colonisation have been ruinous for them. Although they have started to absorb more recent influences, it is their ancient traditional faith that underpins their psyche.
1. “Hair Unlocks Aboriginal Origins,” BBC.com, sec. Science & Environment, September 23, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15020799.
2. Fernand Braudel, History of Civilizations, (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1993), 518.
3. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, (Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications, 1998), 217-219.
4. Nyoongah Mudroooroo, Aboriginal Mythology,(London, UK: Aquarian, 1994), 7.
5. Mircea Eliade, Hilary Wiesner, Loan Couliano, The Eliade Guide to World Religions, (New York, USA: Harper Collins, 1991), 23.
6. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth,(Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications, 1998), 220-221.
7. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth,(Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications, 1998), 224.
8. Mircea Eliade, Hilary Wiesner, Loan Couliano, The Eliade Guide to World Religions, (New York, USA: Harper Collins, 1991), 24.
9. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth,(Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications, 1998), 225.
10. Nyoongah Mudroooroo, Aboriginal Mythology,(London, UK: Aquarian, 1994), 40.
11. Nyoongah Mudroooroo, Aboriginal Mythology,(London, UK: Aquarian, 1994), 169-170.