Singing the World into Being

Aboriginal Rock Art, Ubirr Art Site, Kakadu National Park.

I first read about the Songlines in the late Bruce Chatwyn’s eponymous book, and even then the concept fascinated me. The Songlines are massively complex, but essentially devolve to the creation mythology of the Aboriginal Australians. In this, every animal had an anthropomorphic first ancestor—so there was Kangaroo-Man, Koala-Man, Lizard-Man and so on. Each human tribe is also derived from one of those ancestors. In the dawn of time, these ancestors walked through the world, literally singing it into existence.

The words they sang are the Songlines, handed down through the millennia of human life on the continent.

That on its own is a pretty amazing idea. But then I realised that these Songlines were more than just myth. For a start, they reached from coast to coast of the continent, across many different tribal areas. Secondly, they criss-crossed each other with enormous frequency. As a Creation Myth it was right up there with the most spectacular I had ever come across, and left the Biblical one (a watered-down version of a far more interesting Sumerian tradition) looking very dull and unimaginative indeed.

Through Chatwyn and later reading, I realised that the Songlines are not forgotten but are a part of contemporary Aboriginal culture. The men still learn them, word, by word. Each tribe learns the parts of all of the Songs that apply to its tribal area, but more than that, each tribe has a totem animal, and so a totem ancestor, the original ‘man’ of that animal. This Songline they learn in its entirety.

Now the Songlines are fascinating. They’re not hypothetical. They don’t describe mythical places or events or heavens or hells, but the real world, in which we live. They are a living geography.

This was all pretty astounding, but it got a lot more so when I read a paper, years ago, by J B Haviland, about the Guugu Yimithirr (GY) language. This is one of a group of related Aboriginal languages. It’s the one that gives us the word ‘kangaroo’. This language is fascinating because it does not have ‘egocentrically relative’ directions.

Let me explain. In English and all other European languages, we use terms to describe location that are related to ourselves or something else. We say ‘in front of me’, ‘behind me’, ‘to the right or left of’ and so on. We also use locators that use the same system, but related to something else, for example another person or an object—say the house. ‘The church is in front of my house.’

GY doesn’t do this, nor do they have words that would allow them to. Instead of these relative directions, based on the position of ourselves or another object or person, they use cardinal directions—to the North, South, East or West. So to an Aboriginal thinking in GY, the church is not in front of the house, but to the South of it; and the snake is never behind you, but to the North, South, East or West of you.

Now we are able to use and understand this terminology, though apparently many Aboriginals think we can’t, because in general, we don’t, unless we are being very formal or precise. The point however is that GY speakers never give relative directions, only absolute, cardinal ones.

Think about that a moment. Aboriginal men learn all the Songlines of their area, which describe in fine detail the land they live in. These Songlines are in a language that places everything in terms of absolute position and direction. Everything.

What this means is that every person who has learned them is carrying around a virtual map of the entire territory, with everything accurately located in it, in their heads! No wonder they could wander around for weeks and never get lost, which amazed the European colonists, who needed such mundane things as compasses and maps to do what an Aboriginal could do just by singing..

Now that is pretty damned impressive.

But it gets better, because the Songlines are not static. They change—or at least they are changed—whenever the landscape changes. People walking the Lines, singing them out loud, alter them when, say, a flood has caused a river to divert its course, or some other physical change has happened. Then, they sing the new version to their tribal brethren and the update enters the culture. This they do at ceremonial meetings called Corroborrees, which are normally closed to anyone other than fully-fledged adult tribesmen.

(Women are not present, nor do they learn the Songlines, but that discussion is for another day.)

This just has to be one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena that exist; it is a highly sophisticated, communally held, virtual model of the world which is reliable and constantly updated—and not one graphical map exists within it. It’s similar to the way landscapes are plotted out in computer games—not with visual representation, but with code. It allows a person to travel not only throughout the land their tribe inhabits, but following their own Ancestor, right across the Australian continent and back, and never get lost or have to ask for directions, always knowing where water, shelter or game can be found.

Furthermore, because this is a part of their creation mythology, their religious belief, walking the Songlines is not merely a pleasant jaunt in the country, but a deeply spiritual experience, like a pilgrimage. It is a reaffirmation of the creation mythology, of the religion and culture itself. And as long as Aboriginals walk and sing, their culture will persist.

Amazing. It just blows my mind every time I think of it.


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