Aboriginal deities have many roles and no single description or term can describe all of these. Based on their primary role, they fall into three main categories, and any one deity may belong to one, two, or all three of these categories:
Namarrgun, the Lightning Man in the Kakadu region
Photo: David M. Welch
(a) Creation Beings (also: Creation Figure). Many are involved with the creation of people, the landscape, and aspects of the environment, such as the creation of red, yellow or white pigments. Thus, they can be called Creation Beings or Creation Figures.
(b) Ancestral Beings. In many examples, these deities are regarded as the direct ancestors of the people living today and so they are “Ancestral Figures”, “Ancestral Beings”, “Ancestral Heroes”, or “Dreamtime Ancestors”. Here, the one term “Ancestral Being” is used to describe these deities.
Ancestral Beings have taught the first people how to make tools and weapons, hunt animals and collect food. They have laid down the laws that govern society, and taught people the correct way to conduct ceremonies.
Even though regarded as ancestors of the people, such deities may not appear in a human form, but may be plant or animal, for example. In Aboriginal religious belief, a person’s spirit may return in human, animal or plant form after death. So an Ancestral Being may have the appearance of a plant or animal, but have done deeds similar to a human in the past.
(c) Totemic Beings. / Totemic ancestors. A Totemic Being represents the original form of an animal, plant or other object (totem), as it was in the Creation Period. The concept of a Totemic Being overlaps with that of a Creation Being and an Ancestral Being because the Totemic Being may create the abundance of species, and people see themselves as being derived from the different Totemic Beings.
Aboriginal society throughout Australia is divided into groups. When there are two main groups, they are termed moieties. When there are four divisions, they are termed sections, and when there are eight or more divisions, they are termed subsections.
Every person belongs to one of these groups, generally signified by an emblem or totem. People may refer to their section or subsection totem as their skin name. The emblematic leader of each division is termed a Totemic Being or Ancestral Being, and these help define a person’s origins and connections with their land, with their world, and their relationships with the past, present and future.
For example, a person connected with a yam (native potato) totem might believe that he was a yam in a previous life, that some yams are his relatives, and that a particularly prominent rock feature in his clan estate represents the embodiment of his yam ancestor. This, or another area nearby, might also be an “increase centre” where rituals are performed to ensure the maintenance of this food supply. Each clan will have several totems, so this person will have a close human relative living on the same clan estate who is not of the yam totem. That person might belong to the kangaroo totem and similarly be related to kangaroos and have another feature of the landscape representing their kangaroo totem.
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