Ancestral Beings

In order to keep the terminology manageable, the term “Ancestral Being” is used here to describe all Aboriginal deities, rather than including the terms “Creation Being” and “Totemic Being”. There are hundreds of Ancestral Beings throughout Australia, recorded by Aborigines in their stories, songs, body paintings and art. This includes recordings in the rock paintings and petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating back thousands of years.

Some Aboriginal stories relating to Ancestral Beings were recorded by early Europeans and published as children’s story books.

Ancestral Beings are an intrinsic part of Aboriginal belief and everyday thought. As one moves through the day, walking past a particular rock or creek, spearing a particular animal, catching a goanna (large lizard), or collecting other bush foods, the Ancestral Beings who created these places and things come to mind.  Even making tools and weapons will bring to mind the myths and legends of the Ancestral Beings who taught the Aborigines these skills.

Each Ancestral Being has its own creation story, has performed specific activities in the Creation Period, and has played a specific role in relation to laying down the laws for people to follow or in creating the landscape. This information is contained in the body of songs, dances, stories and paintings for each clan or tribe and is revered during certain ceremonies.

The Creation Period – The Dreamtime

Similar to other religions, there was a time in Aboriginal belief when things were created. This “Creation Period” was the time when the Ancestral Beings created landforms, such as certain animals digging, creating lagoons or pushing up mountain ranges, or the first animals or plants being made. The Aboriginal word for this Creation Period varies throughout Australia and each linguistic region has its own beliefs pertaining to that particular area. For example, it is known as Alcheringa (Aldjuringa) amongst the Aranda of Central Australia, as Lalai in the Kimberley, and asNayuhyungki amongst the Kunwinjku (Gunwinggu) east of Kakadu National Park.

Aboriginal people often interpret dreams as being the memory of things that happened during this Creation Period. Dreams are also important because they can be a time when we are transformed back into that ancestral time. This linking of dreams to the Creation Period has led people to adopt the general term “The Dreamtime” in order to describe the time of creation in their religion. The term “Dreamtime” in Aboriginal mythology is not really about a person having a dream, but rather, a reference to this Creation Period.

All aspects of Aboriginal culture are full of legends and beings associated with this Creation Period, or Dreamtime. Each tribe has many stories, often with a lesson to be learned or a moral tale, about the Creation Period deities, animals, plants, and other beings. These stories are told to children, discussed around campfires, and are sung and acted out in plays and dances during the times of ceremony. When an adolescent progresses through their phases of initiation, they learn the more important, senior and secret parts of these stories, and this knowledge is reinforced by the acting-out of more secret-sacred rituals, songs and dances.

Men Dancing

Men dancing, holding a boomerang in one hand and a club in the other.
Cobar, New South Wales.
Photo: David M. Welch

Images relating to the Creation Period are a feature in art forms on weapons, utensils, body painting, ground designs, bark paintings, and rock art. The stories of The Dreamtime form the basis of Aboriginal religion, behaviour, law and order in society.

How long ago was the Creation Period in the minds of Aboriginal people? What is their concept of its timing, since they had no written chronicle of time?

Archaeological studies currently show that Aboriginal people have been in Australia at least 50,000 years. In the 1970s that figure was thought to be 40,000 years, which is the limit of how far back carbon dating can go. This latter figure was widely publicised at the time and many Australian people, including Aborigines, know the 40,000 year figure. So, if you ask an Aboriginal person today, they will tell you the Creation Period / Dreamtime goes back before 40,000 years. But what was their concept before this knowledge? This question was put to people in the past, and the answer was about five or six generations of people previous to the existing time. In other words, a person would have a knowledge of their father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather, but the next generation or a few more before that was when their relatives lived in the Creation Period and were kangaroo people, plant people, or took on some other form.

This shortened concept of time may be universal within the origin of religions. For example, in the religions of Judaism and Christianity, the Bible’s Old Testament tells how God created the entire universe, including the four major rivers local to Babylon (now Iraq and Iran), in 6 days. It then goes to great lengths to describe many of the people who lived following Adam and Eve, the first people. The earliest bible stories may have only been in oral form, later becoming written in Aramaic and Hebrew possibly around 1700 B.C.. and read as though the time of creation was about 4,000 B.C.. However, since modern dating techniques have placed the earth’s age at about 3,600 million years, many people embracing those religions today still believe that God created mankind and the universe, but imagine this happening over a different time scale to that described in the bible. For all of us, the concept of a million years of humanity and thousands of millions of years of existence for our planet is beyond our comprehension.



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