In Judaism and Christianity,
the snake was the bad guy who tempted Eve in the Garden and Eden and so forever
damned humanity. In Aboriginal religions, the snake is the creator who was both
revered and feared. The different status of the
snake is just one of many differences between the religions of the middle east,
and the Dreamtime religions of Australia.
The Dreamtime refers to a time before time, or a time outside of time. In a sense, it is also a all-at-once time in which the past, present and future coexist at the same time. In someways, it shares parrallels with the story of Genisis as the Dreamtime was the time of creation. In other ways it is different as years are not recorded since the time of Genesis. Instead, life follows a cycle in which there is no real beginning and no real end.
story of the serpent began in the Dreamtime. The Aborigines told of a great snake
that emerged from beneath the earth, winding from side to side, making the great
rivers flow from its path. From its body sprang the tribes, the animals and the
birds of Australia. Sometimes the serpent was
depicted as a man. Sometimes as a woman. Sometimes as a man with breasts. It was
spoken upon in a hushed voice for it inflicted vengeance upon those who angered
it. Stories told of it swallowing people who had not observed taboos. It was said
to be responsible for causing natural disasters such as floods and droughts. One
story even told of the serpent swallowing an orphan boy, and all his tribe, because
the boy wouldn't stop crying. As the serpent returned to the earth, the boy and
his tribe also became part of the land.
Dreamtime myths connected humans, animals, fish, birds, and the land within a
vast network of relationships. For Aborigines, these relationships conveyed a
morality towards the land and the animals, and a way to live with them. The inter-connectivity
could be seen as a kind of environmental protection philosophy. This
philosophy could be seen most clearly in totems. Each tribe had a totem, which
was unique to a tribe. Each Aboriginal person believed they had three forms which
gave them a continuous life form. The totem was the form after human and then
to spirit. As the cycle continued, so did Aboriginal Culture.
the animal gave the Aborigines their tribal mark, in return the Aborigines become
the custodians of their totems and were responsible for their well being. If the
spirit, the human or the animal broke down, coexistence deteriorated, and so too
did Aboriginal culture. Consequently, an Aboriginal
tribe might have hunted every animal in its region, except for its totem which
it would protect. As every tribe had a different totem, every Australian animal
had a region where it was protected - almost like a game reserve.
Dreamtime myths also conveyed a morality in regards to how the individual should
live with other members of the tribe. One myth told of a duck ignoring the advice
of her elders and leaving the pond where she was subsequently raped by a water
rat. Her children were the first members of the platypus race. Another story told
of a greedy boy who stole the tribe's water and ran up a tree. He became the lonely
As Aborigines had no written language,
there was no bible to formally record taboos and myths. Instead, the religion
was regenerated with paintings, stories, song poetry and ceremonies. These
ceremonies were clearly divided into men's business and women's business. It was
a taboo for the gender roles to be broken.
in the Aboriginal religions was the kind of morality seen in the ten commandments.
Perhaps the origins of these commandments can be traced to the breakdown of the
tribal unit, and its subsequent replacement by the nuclear family. A
common theme in middle east religions was that of the lost sheep. In a sense,
the religions emerged to fill the community void caused by the demise of the tribe.
The religion was a new social group that gave individuals that sense of belonging
that they lost when they stopped living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Likewise,
the religion's morality was another adaptation to the lifestyle change. 'Thou
shall not steal' was never a morality needed by Aborigines because there was no
concept of individual possession. Within the tribal unit, whatever was owned by
one, was owned by all. To own something individually was to be like the greedy
koala. This would lead to a lonely life in the trees. Perhaps
people in the middle east needed the 'thou shall not steal' morality as they started
building permanent houses and subsequently collected possessions that they did
not want to share.
Studying the differences between
the dreamtime and the middle- eastern religions provides food for thought on the
role that religion serves in society. The dreamtime stipulated a way to live with
the land and within a tribe. Perhaps the middle-eastern religions were a product
of the loneliness caused by tribal breakdown, and the individual's need for guidance
as they adapted to a community where self-interest had become the dominant ethic.
Studying the dreamtime also helps one
understand why traditional Aborigines have found it difficult to adapt to life in mainstream
Australia where individual empowerment is enshrined in law, and self-interest
is the driving force behind community participation.
Commandments vs Dreamtime
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honour thy father and thy mother.
Thou shalt not kill.
7) Thou shalt
not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
9) Thou shalt
not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Thou shalt not covet any thing that is thy neighbours.
Dreamtime beliefs and social customs of hunter gatherers
- Multiple totems.
- No concept of a biological father but the conception totem was honoured.
- Aborigines were at war with neighbouring tribes. War served an important role
to maintain group identity, to control population and to spread genetic material.
- Aboriginal societies operated around a tribal family rather than a nuclear family. Women were communally
shared and women from other tribes were raped in war. These sexual practices were
essential to gain fresh genetics into the tribe at risk of inbreeding.
- Ritual was based more on environmental signs than on a calendar.
- There was no concept of individual possession in a nomadic society. What is owned
by one was owned by all. Within the tribe, theft couldn't exist because nothing was owned.
- Aborigines didn't live in houses so there was not really any concept of a neighbour.
In the tribe they were like one big family. There were neighbouring tribes. These were often treated with hostility, but there were
also corroborees where different tribes got together to form some kind of relationships.