Myths / Mythologies / Legends

Aborigine Myths from Central Australia

archived 11-01-99
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 myth
and a metaphor through which the aborigines interpret the universe.
January 1998

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 was overpowering.

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 creature.

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 halried boulders.

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 aboriginal law.

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 dialect.

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 occur.

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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