Monday, June 14, 2010

Religion - Australian Aboriginal religion

Dreaming stories form the basis of Australian Aboriginal religion. They provide explanations for how and why the world is the way it is, which usually relate to the actions of ancestors who created the world. The world depicted in these stories is much more complex than that of most Westerners, for whom the natural and supernatural, past and present, sacred and profane are separate. For Aboriginal Australians, these planes of existence are intertwined. Ancient ancestors created the world and everything in it, including rocks, lakes, animals, humans, the wind, and rain, but are also active in the present. Their past actions cannot be separated from present actions, especially in ritual, which remakes the world each time it is undertaken. The song lines or footprints of these ancient ancestors continue to cross the Australian continent and carry information back and forth from one community to another. Sacred spaces along these lines coexist with everyday or profane spaces, often materialized in rocks, rivers, and other geological features. Because of this continual sacred presence and the association in English with sleeping, many Aboriginal people prefer not to use the term Dreaming to refer to their religious beliefs but instead rely on the term used in their own language. Anthropologists sometimes use “the everywhen” to refer to the context of Dreaming stories in order to indicate their timelessness (Bourke, Bourke, and Edwards 1998, 79).

As is the case with specific kinship structures, Aboriginal religion is another area of indigenous culture in which 19th-century concepts and ideas may not represent beliefs and practices that are as ancient as the Aboriginal population in Australia as a whole. As mentioned, there is little evidence for the rock art that depicts Dreaming stories in Australia prior to the post-LGM period. The archaeologist Bruno David takes this argument even further, claiming that modern Dreaming did not emerge until between 3500 and 1400 BP (2002, 209). He reminds us that “modern Dreaming stories cannot be used as evidence for the Dreaming’s great antiquity, despite the possibility that a story’s contents may represent traces of particular historical events passed down in folk memory” (2002, 91). That said, there is solid archaeological evidence that Dreaming has been the basis of Aboriginal Australian religion for several thousand years, affecting both belief and practice through the present.

Another feature of Aboriginal religion is the sacred or totemic nature of certain plants, animals, geographic features, and other aspects of nature, including the Moon. Each clan not only is represented by its totem but is said to embody and be descended from it. For example, members of the kangaroo clan are believed to have had the same ancestor as contemporary kangaroos; the same is true of the spinifex clan, witchety grub clan, and so on. As a result, these animals and plants are sacred to their particular groups, who must not hunt or eat them or use them for other profane purposes.

As do other religions, Aboriginal religion has a body of myth contained in its creation stories, rules and prohibitions to follow, and a series of rituals that bring the myths to life. Religious rituals, regardless of the tradition in which they originate, are about regularly enacting the sacred moments of the believers’ history. For example, Christians partake in communion to reenact the last supper, when the apostles gave life to Jesus despite the sacrifice of his body on Earth. Aboriginal rituals likewise reenact the most important moments in the lives of their sacred ancestors as a way of connecting past and present. Rituals also provide moments for younger Aboriginal people to learn from their elders the words to songs, the moves to dances, the beat to songs, and the power of the ancestors in the past and present world.