Myths / Mythologies / Legends
Aborigine Myths from Central Australia
Archive file# m110199a
donated by James Vandale
Aborigine Myths from Central Australia
How the World Began
Creation Stories from Central Australia
By Peter Holden
Peter Holden is a freelance writer living in Maryland.
The giant rock monolith called Uluru is the reposititory of aboriginal
and a metaphor through which the aborigines interpret the universe.
Deep in the arid center of Australia lies the huge rock monolith called
Uluru. It dominates the desert plain in which it lies, appearing to rise
sheer from its surroundings. From a distance, Uluru appears as an integral
unit, without seam or cleavage. Move closer and you will notice the
ribbing, valleys, and caves. Many stories center on the giant rock.
Uluru is the repository of aboriginal myth. It is a metaphor
through which the Aborigines interpret the universe, and the location is
imbued with spiritual significance. Through the rock, the local
people--who call themselves Anangu--are connected.
I visited the site, known to most Australians as Ayers Rock, in
the early 1980s and had my own spiritual experience, of sorts. I traveled
up from South Australia in the sweltering summer heat along a route that
was no more than a sandy trail. The sense of expectation of seeing Uluru
Immediately on arrival, I jumped at the chance to climb the rock.
I stumbled up the 1,143 feet to the summit and gazed out over the plain of
red-ocher sand and small shrubs. But, silly me, I had forgotten to bring
along any water. Consequently, that night, I was overcome by heat
exhaustion. I still remember the waking dream/nightmare I experienced.
I dreamed of reaching for a penny on the ground, but however hard
I strove to bend and pick it up, I could not. Scene change: I was walking
though a huge warehouse stacked with skids piled with paper money. I was
told by my guide that I must acquire all the money in the building. Scene
change: back to the penny, ad nauseam. Interpretation? Perhaps I was
sensing the state of postindustrial man's striving after material gain and
losing his connection to the natural world.
Where dreaming tracks cross
My experience was at odds with that of the Anangu. The natural
world is their physical and spiritual reality and forms the basis of their
oral history. Their stories explain the world's creation through the
exploits of mythical ancestors who lived in the Tjukurpa, or "Dreamtime."
These origin myths form the basis of the law governing all aspects of
traditional behavior, but Tjukurpa does not refer to a collection of ideas
obtained from dreams.
Under aboriginal law, each group is obliged to look after the
dreaming places, or sacred sites, created by the ancestral heroes and to
hand on the traditional songs, stories, and ceremonies that commemorate
the ancestors' adventures in that territory. Neighboring groups help each
other and share an obligation to protect and commemorate that tradition.
Uluru is one of three major locations in central Australia where
the tracks of several ancestral groups cross. These tracks are often
referred to as dreaming tracks and eventually tie together living desert
people throughout central Australia. At Uluru, local Aborigines take the
casual visitor on guided walks along some of the dreaming tracks. Many
areas are out of bounds to all but the initiated Anangu. Some areas are
also off limits to either male or female members.
When Anangu storytellers recount their genesis stories, they often
point to the rock's features to substantiate their claims. Because the
stories sometimes summarize the detail of the epic song cycles, different
men may tell the same story in different ways, and on successive occasions
one can learn more and more of the details in a narrative that at first
seemed a simple story with little significance. Let me retell some of the
stories that I have heard told in the shadow of Uluru.
Arisen from slumber.
In the beginning, before there was any life in the universe, the
world was a flat, featureless plain extending to the horizon. It was
unbroken by mountain range, watercourse, or any typographic feature. This
was the Tjukurpa.
The essence of life then stirred in the land. The characters of
the Tjukurpa rose out of the desert plain where, for countless ages, they
had been slumbering. Some appeared as giant humans, others were equivalent
to plants or animals, and still others were unlike any known living
These mythical people behaved like Anangu today; they made fires,
dug for water, and performed ceremonies. They then traveled widely,
leaving behind an altered landscape as a result of their activities. The
features of the landscape are the places of great battles, shelters,
grinding stones, and digging sticks.
Anangu believe that the bodies of Tjukurpa men and women were
often transformed into isolated boulders or piles of rock. The places
became sacred, and Aborigines born near a sacred site automatically became
members of that particular dream ancestor's clan or totem. The journeys
undertaken by the Tjukurpa ancestors are perpetually relived through
stories and songs. And sites of special importance along the paths they
traveled are often named to retain special significance.
The great creators of the land were also the forebears of the
Aborigines themselves. And since everyone claims descent from these
mythical beings, it follows that every man, woman, and child is linked,
though myth and genealogy, to his tribal country.
Great events in the Dreamtime
There is no single story describing how Uluru came into being
because the Anangu do not look upon it as a single spiritual object. Its
formation and specific characteristics are the outcome of several stories,
which are not necessarily connected. The monolith is an integral part of
the landscape crisscrossed by the characters of the Tjukurpa stories.
Having said that, Uluru was initially formed by two characters known
simply as the Two Boys.
How Uluru was formed.
The Two Boys were hunting and traveling together from what is now
South Australia. They became intrigued by the sound of the Mala Wallaby
people holding an inma (a religious ceremony) around a rock hole that is
now part of Kantju Gorge on the northwest face of Uluru. The Two Boys
traveled toward the ceremony to see what was happening. They were
uninitiated and had no knowledge of men's ceremonies. They were curious.
The Mala, meanwhile, were separating into their men's and women's
camps preparing for the inma the next morning. The Mala were in a dilemma.
Shortly after they arrived and began their inma, another people arrived
from the west with an invitation to join their inma. The Mala had to
refuse because they had previously planted a pole in the ground, and from
that moment everything had become a part of their ceremony.
Now, prior to the inma, even everyday jobs, like hunting,
gathering, and preparing food, collecting water, talking to people, or
just waiting, had to be done in a proper way. This has been the law for
men, women, and children ever since. But for the Mala to refuse would
anger the people from the west.
The Mala continued their preparations. When they were not dancing,
the women gathered food for the whole group. The women's camp was at
Taputji, the small isolated dome on the northeast side of Uluru. One of
their digging sticks can still be seen here, where it was transformed into
stone. The Mala were soon interrupted by an savage black doglike creature
called Kurpany. It was an evil spirit created by the insulted westerners.
Kurpany attacked and killed many Mala men, women, and children. In
terror, the remaining Mala fled to the south with Kurpany chasing them.
When people trek along the base of the north face of Uluru, the Anangu
believe, they are surrounded by the Mala Tjukurpa.
During the Mala preparations the Two Boys began playing at the
waterhole, mixing water with the surrounding earth. They piled up the mud,
higher and higher, until it was the size that Uluru is today. Then they
started playing on it. They sat on the top and slid down the south side of
their mud pile on their bellies, dragging their fingers through the mud in
long channels. The channels have since hardened into stone and now form
the many gullies on the southern side of Uluru. The Two Boys' play was
interrupted when Kurpany attacked and pursued the Mala.
The Two Boys managed to escape Kurpany's wrath. They resumed their
hunting and searching for water, turning north toward Mount Conner. One
boy threw his wooden club at a hare wallaby, but the club struck the
ground and made a freshwater spring. (The dream ancestors' creative power
could be directed through their artifacts.) This boy refused to tell the
other where he had found the water, and the other boy nearly died of
thirst. They fought and made their way to the tabletopped Mount Conner.
Their bodies are preserved on the summit as boulders.
The python people.
One time, the dream ancestors known as the Kuniya converged on
Uluru from three directions. These people took the form of pythons. One of
the Kuniya women carried her eggs on her head and buried them at the
eastern end of Uluru. Small circular depressions on Uluru's summit were
made when one of the Kuniya people rested during the creation times in the
soft sand of Uluru.
Everything went well then at Uluru. The women set out every day to
gather vegetables, grass seeds, and fruit, while the men captured
kangaroos, emus, and wallabies. While they were camped at Uluru, however,
they were attacked by a party of Liru (poisonous snake) warriors. On the
southwest face of Uluru are pockmarks in the rock, the scars left by the
warriors' spears. Two black-stained watercourses are the transformed
bodies of Liru.
The fight centered around Mutijulu Gorge, on the south face of the
rock. Here a Kuniya woman fought with her digging stick. The features of
the Liru warrior she attacked can be seen in the west side of Mutitjulu,
where his eye, head wounds (transformed into vertical cracks), and severed
nose form part of the cliff.
The Liru leader and a young Kuniya man engaged in single combat at
Mutitjulu Gorge. They stood face to face and gashed at each other with
their stone knives. On the western face of the gorge are two long,
vertical fissures, which are believed to have been cuts made on the leg of
the Liru leader. Despite his wounds, he continued to fight and succeeded
in slashing the leg of his opponent so badly that the young Kuniya man was
in danger of bleeding to death.
Delirious from pain and loss of blood, he made a track that is now
the watercourse that flows into the gorge. Here the Kuniya man died, and
the places where he rested as he bled to death are now three pools high up
on the rock face. Above Mutitjulu is Uluru rock hole. This is the home of
a Kuniya who releases the water into Mutitjulu. If it stops flowing during
a drought, the snake can be dislodged by calling "Kuka! Kuka! Kuka!"
(Meat! Meat! Meat!).
On the eastern side of Uluru, at ground level, are two cylindrical
boulders. One is believed to be the transformed body of Kuniya Ungata, and
the other the woman Kuniya Ingridi. If the Anangu rub one of the stones in
the proper season, while chanting the correct song, they believe the life
essence of the pythons will leave the stones and impregnate female
pythons, thereby increasing the food supply.
From the fire, and the Blue-Tongued Lizard men survive as two
Trends and life lessons
These Tjukurpa stories are not regarded as dry history. Often,
there is a moral lesson to be taught, and during initiation ceremonies
young Anangu are introduced to the deeper meanings of the ancestral
stories. In the Mita and Lunkata story, the antisocial behavior of the
Blue-Tongued Lizard men illustrates what people think of those who refuse
to divide meat with those entitled to share it, although the consequences
were more dramatic than they might be in everyday life. The ancient
stories teach the many crosscutting economic, political, and religious
obligations associated with the Tjukurpa stories that form the basis for
The ancestors who appear in the inma are described as men and
women: They used tools and weapons, but they also behaved in ways
illuminated by their animal counterparts. Another tale, for example, tells
of the Possum ancestor who steals two Carpet Snake girls from Uluru and
ties them up with a love song in the same way he clings to branches with
his curling tail.
The worldview expressed in the narratives gives meaning to many
aspects of traditional social life. The creation period is remembered as
an age when the consequences of the heroes' behavior established the form
of the everyday world. So the dilemma of the Mala community of
Uluru--having to refuse to help the men from the west prepare for their
dances--is said to explain why today men from Uluru and Kikingkura wear
different kinds of body decoration. And when the Two Boys quarreled over
the water that one, through his selfishness, concealed, they created a
division in language. It was the selfish boy who first spoke a different
The characters of the Tjukurpa form the aboriginal pantheon. It is
a pragmatic community of individuals with different personalities and
temperaments. Soon after birth, a new arrival to the Anangu is associated
with a specific ancestral being. The identity is based partly on the
birthplace and partly on the child's perceived character. Long family
trees are not found in this society, but by giving each individual a
personal dreaming, the community reaffirms its links to the past and
constantly re-creates the ancestral world. On death, a person becomes his
dreaming. To die and be buried in one's own country ensures that this will
The idea that ancestral beings shaped the landscape is known to
many white Australians through the awareness of sacred sites. It is
possible to think of the features at such sites as a living record of the
ancestral saga, because a particular being leaves a visible imprint of his
activities at a series of locations. Aboriginal people can point to them,
saying, here is the Blue-Tongued Lizard men's shelter, here is the emu
meat. These stories of the mythical past are expressed in all forms of
aboriginal culture. They are the core of ceremonial life, the theme of
ritualistic songs, the subject of their art. In these ways, the Aborigines
of Uluru keep alive the ties that bind them so closely to the rock, the
great monolith under whose shadow they were born.
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