The Universe of the Aborigine


by David Jensen


The Australian Aborigines felt a strong connection to nature which shaped their view of the universe and their place in it. They believed they were an element of a much greater entity called nature. Nature to the Aborigines was the environment in which they lived and everything in it, living or non-living. They realized the importance of nature and sought to preserve it. They expressed closeness to nature through totems, or affiliations with a particular aspect of nature, which in turn shaped their mythologies and their vision of the world.

The Aborigines essentially had a symbiotic relationship with nature. The Australian Aborigines were a people of hunters and gatherers that lived off of the harsh desert land. Their livelihood depended on what their environment would provide them for food, shelter, and water. The Aborigines had a clear dependence on nature. Nature was an entity that included everything in their Australian world, from living creatures and plants to geological formations and weather. Nothing was excluded and nothing was insignificant. Everything had its place and function in nature and they believed man to be included in this system as well. Human beings were to honor different living things or natural phenomena by performing rituals. To the Aborigines this worship benefited both themselves and the collective natural world. The Aborigines received food, water, shelter, and other necessities in return for sustaining the natural world with their ceremonies and rituals. Elkin writes that there was a “common life which man and nature share”and there was “a mutual dependence of one on the other.”(207) They held the belief that “man and nature belong to one order”(Elkin, 205) and to survive in this order man had to cooperate with the forces of the natural world. Mudrooroo says that the Aborigine did “not pillage and destroy, but co-operated and tolerated, nurtured and cared for the whole universe with it’s myriads of living and breathing things.”(xi) In the hierarchy of nature the Aborigines did not place themselves above anything. They believed everything in nature was equal and worthy of respect. Elkin notes this by writing, “Human beings are not separated from the natural species and objects, but grouped with them.”(206) This unity with nature was the backbone of Aboriginal totemism.

Totemism is how the Aborigines classified man, natural phenomena, and living organisms one unified system. A totem was anything in nature that an Aborigine associate with and worship. A totem was not necessarily restricted to an individual. Many could share and did share certain totems. As Elkin states it, “Totemism is a means of expressing the unity of man and nature as one big tribe.”(207) Since the Aborigines could not adequately respect every single aspect of nature, they divided up their worship by means of their totems. The classifications of totems were: 1) individual, 2) sex, or gender, 3) moiety, which partitioned the tribe in half, 4) section and subsection, which dealt with groups within a tribe, 5) clan, or immediate family, 6) local, which was based on a specific location, 7) and multiple in which a number of natural things were associated to a group. With such classifications and divisions the Aborigines could adequately respect and worship the entire natural world. Totems allowed the Aborigines to cooperate with their environment and provided them with confidence in nature. A totem was virtually anything found in nature. This includes: plants, animals, flowers, wind, rain, storms, thunder, lightning, the stars, the sun, the moon, clouds, tools, weapons, food, cosmetics, fire, smoke, water, body parts, desires, sickness, health, animal organs, and object parts (Bernt, 226). Totems were the Aborigines’manifestation of their kinship with the natural world and totems “unit[ed] them with nature’s activities and species in a bond of mutual life-giving.”(206). Totemism was the central structure of the Aboriginal world and as a result it helped form their “social groupings and mythologies, [it] inspired their rituals and linked them to the past.”(Elkin, 140)

Although all Aborigines shared general beliefs of nature and the universe there was much diversity in specific beliefs, stories, and myths about the world which was due to totemism and the number of Aborigine tribes and clans. However, there were a few key similarities in their belief system and mythology. They respected medicine men and their powers, they performed rituals to their totems and ancestral heroes, they believed “in a personal sky-being”and “in auxiliary spirit-beings,”and maintained the “existence of holy objects left behind by the sky-being.”(Stanner, 232) Most Aborigine mythology dealt with nature specifically the land, as opposed to the sky and ocean. Mudrooroo, a native Aborigine, said “Many, if not most, of our stories and myths are land-centered.”(ix) There was little need to record astronomical observations in Aboriginal life so much of their cosmology is based on mythology and general astronomical observations. Many myths are stories of ancestral heroes, associated with specific totems, tribes, or clans as well as myths of creation, the sun, moon, and other celestial objects. When discussing myths it is usually best to start with creation.

In most Aborigine creation myths the period of creation was called “Dreamtime.”In several myths, the world, man, animals, plants, and nature were created and named by supernatural beings who later disappeared into the earth or into the heavens. The universe was made from pre-existing material, “it was not a creatio ex nihilo,”or created out of nothing, as Eliade (1) puts it. This explains that the Aborigines were practical in their creation myths. After all how can something be made from nothing? In some myths the earth starts out as a featureless plain, which highlights the Aborigine closeness to the land. The landscape was transformed by awakened beings such as giant serpents that created the landscape. These serpents “pushed upward and writhed across the void, creating as they went along the landscape in which we live today.”(Mudrooroo, 52) Many of these supernatural beings were the ancestor-heroes of specific totems who taught totem members the rituals they were to perform. This universe, created by super-natural beings, had a definite structure of the earth, heavens, and the underworld.

The structure of the Aborigine universe varied little across Australia. It consisted of three planes: the earth, the sky, and the underworld. The earth was circular and flat covered by the dome of the sky which stretched out to the horizon. The sky was the plane upon which super-natural beings or the ancestral-heroes lived. The sky plane was also where the soul of a person went after they died. The Aborigines believed that the sky “was a rich country with a plentiful water supply.”(Mudrooroo, 31) This belief must have been prompted by the lack of water on their plane, the earth plane. In the eyes on an Aborigine, if the sky plane was divine and the place of the afterlife then it would be natural for it to have more water than the earth plane. The stars represented the campfires of the beings that lived in the sky plane. Some myths include that the sky was held up by giant props at the corners of the earth. The Aborigines also believed that certain shaman, or medicine men, had the ability to travel between the earth plane and the sky plane. They did this by means of trees between heaven and the earth. One such tree was seen in the night sky in the Milky Way. Which such abilities the shaman was a very influential figure in Aboriginal society. Under the plane of the earth was the underworld plane. The underworld plane was much like the earth plane and inhabited by people like those from the earth plane. Another belief was that the underworld was uninhabited and always dark. It contained two mountain ranges with a valley and a river between them. It was through the underworld that the sun-woman and the moon-man returned to the east horizon from the west horizon. Some tribes believed in a sky world further beyond the first. Here was where several star-women and men of the Milky Way lived. Certain celestial objects were also explained in Aboriginal mythology.

The sun for all Aborigines was female and associated with light and goodness. This reveals that the Aborigines believed women to be intrinsically good, for they are they ones who brought human life into this world. In one myth the sun came out of the earth at a certain place, which is marked by a large stone. It came out of the earth with two other women, who were left behind while the sun rose into the sky. Every day thereafter the sun rose into the sky and at night it returns to the spot where it first arose. Another myth tells how a woman left her son in a cave while she searched for food. Since it was dark she lost her way and wandered in to the sky region. Every day she travels through the sky with her torch, lighting up the sky, looking for her son.

The moon in Aborigine mythology was male. One myth explained how a member of the opossum totem had a shield with the moon on it to hunt opossum at night. One time a member of the seed totem stole the shield and ran away. The owner of the shield chased after him and when he could not catch the thief he yelled to him and told him to release the moon into the sky so that everyone could benefit from its light. Another myth told that a man of the opossum totem died. Shortly after, he arose from his grave and grew into a man, grew old, and died again. At certain points he would rise again from his grave as a young boy and grow old again. This process explained the phases of the moon.

The Pleiades and Orion were important groups of stars to the Aborigines and the myth concerning them was shared throughout Australia. The Pleiades were seven sisters who traveled together and one time they land in their favorite place and found Yayarr men there. These men chased the sisters until all but one became tired and stopped. This one man kept pursuing the sisters. When one of the sisters left to get some water the Yayarr man followed her. As she was getting the water he startled her and to keep her quiet he swung a stick at her but keep missing. Each time he missed he made marks on the land which can still be seen today. When the sister ran she saw that her sisters were in the sky. She rejoined them, which makes up the Pleiades, and the Yayarr man followed, who is represented by Orion.

Some celestial objects had stories which related morals. For instance the stars in Scorpio show an example of the punishment for a newly initiated that has had sexual intercourse before he had been purified. The story relates how a young initiate was seduced by a woman and broke this rule. They fled into the sky and his teachers went after them and threw boomerangs at him, but missed. They all became stars to show that because the initiate broke the rules he was not able to finish initiation.

The Aborigines had myths to explain other astronomical objects and events. An eclipse of the sun was thought of as evil or Arungquilta, which is an “evil or malignant influence”(Spencer) They believed the Arungquilta wanted to live in the sun and an eclipse was when it tried to do that. When an eclipse occurred the medicine men performed rituals to drag the evil spirit away. The Magellanic clouds were also Arungquilta that sometimes visited the earth and choked people in their sleep. An alternate belief was that they were called Inja-kinja-tera and were the camping grounds of two ancestral-heroes. Mushrooms were also evil because they were considered fallen stars.

The Aborigine relationship with nature shaped their view of the universe. It related their place in the world by means of classification in to totems which allowed them to cooperate with nature. The totems structured their world and provided a basis for their mythology.