A STUDY OF THE MYTHS OF AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES

Mitsuru Onda

    Australian Aborigines had a unique way of life and culture that we should learn from and that may give us cause to reconsider our lives fundamentally. Let me start with introducing points of their culture in those days and let many people know how wonderful and clever they were.
    More than forty thousand years ago, they started from many regions of South Asia seeking peaceful places where the climate was warm and food was plentiful. It took a tremendously long time for them to find and settle a new continent. During their long, long journey south, several hundred generations passed. They did not cultivate any lands or stock any animals; instead they gathered food such as kangaroos, goannas, emus, fish, shellfish and many kinds of fruit.
    First of all, I will explain how the Aborigines traveled down to Australia. About fifty thousand to twelve thousand years ago, the climate was much colder and the sea level was at least 120 meters lower than it is today. The Australian continent, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were combined into one land mass. In addition, the seas between Java, Borneo and the Australian continent were so shallow that the Aboriginal people could easily travel down to Australia. The migration from the north probably lasted for thousands of years, before the end of the ice age. Australian Aborigines did not change their environment in forty thousand years, whereas settlement by white people has changed it completely for about 200 years. Certainly, Aborigines did not build roads, farms, factories, cities and so on. It is difficult to discover their culture precisely because they left no written records or the remains of ancient tools. However, we can surmise their culture by investigating their myths handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. There are many interesting stories in their mythology called "Dreamtime myths", which refer to their ways of thinking, life and culture in ancient times.
    Now, I will begin with introducing a couple of interesting stories from the book titled “Legends of The Dreamtime”. The first story, "The Sun-woman and the Moon-man", starts as follows:

    One day, Purukupali (the first man in the world) and his companion, Japara, were rubbing two sticks together just to see what would happen when, by chance, they found out the way to make fire.

    This story so far describes how to make fire, which is not anything new or special, but the rest of the story is very interesting. Purukupali transferred the fire to torches and gave a big torch to his wife, Wuriupranala, and a small torch to his friend, Japara. Both of them flew up into the sky; then she transformed into the "Sun-woman" and he transformed into the "Moon-man".
    
    In Western countries influenced by Christianity, I am not able to find that the woman symbolizes the sun and the man symbolizes the moon.? On the contrary, I can easily show you some examples not only in Japan but in many Asian countries. I would like to describe two examples, and then introduce a part of the characteristics of the Japanese mythology. The first story is my digest translation of the passages from Nihonshoki.

    Amaterasu Oomikami, whose name literally means "God, shining in the sky or dominating the world"? is the principal female deity or goddess of Shinto mythology, is identified with the sun and is regarded as the ancestor of the Imperial line.

    According to the Nihonshoki (720 A.D.), which is the oldest history book in Japan, she was the offspring of the incestuous relationship between brother Izanaki and his sister Izanami. She was assigned to rule Takamagahara, which literally means "the high celestial plain". As Amaterasu Oomikami was deeply offended by the bad behaviour of her younger brother Susanoo no Mikoto, she hid herself in a cave called Ama no Iwaya (Iwato), and left the world in complete darkness and chaos. One day she was tempted by the merrymaking of the other deities dancing outside the cave, then she went out of the cave and? gave light to the world again. Let me reconfirm that Amaterasu Oomikami, who symbolizes the sun, is a female deity. The Kojiki (712 A.D.), the oldest mythology, also describes almost the same thing. According to these two books, the female deity, Amaterasu, who literally means “god of the sun shining the universe” and the male deity, Tsukuyomi, who literally means "God of the moon or counting months" appeared in this world.

    I would like to introduce the second example from the Ainu mythology considered to be the oldest story in Japan. Some researchers insist Ainu mythology must be the roots of Kojiki and Nihonshoki.

    Okikirumui (the creator of the universe in Ainu mythology) had created almost all of the world and said, sitting on the top of the mountain, "I am very tired. Something is not enough." Okikirumui asked? "God of Night" to make something nice. "God of Night" thought alone for a while what he should make. He dug up some mud from the ground and played with it. Soon he made a shape of a human being and inserted some stems in it and added some grass to it. Then he made a lot of human beings and presented them to Okikirumui. He was very pleased with the work of "God of Night". Soon all the human beings died out because they were nothing but men. So Okikirumui asked "God of Day" to make another creature. "God of Day" made a lot of human beings and presented them to Okikirumui. They were all women, so two types of human beings appeared and they began to love each other, as the result it, human beings increased in number. Then "God of Night" who made men and "God of Day" who made women were both deeply praised by Okikirumui, afterwards men became the moon and women became the sun.
(My translation of the extract passages from Mythology of Ainu)

    By the way, you have already noticed that there is a difference between Aboriginal culture and Western culture, as well as a similarity between Aboriginal culture and Japanese culture.

    I can indicate one of the reasons, which must be the social structures in each region in ancient times. The way of life or thinking must often depend on social structures, whether it is a paternal society or maternal society. In the case of Aboriginal society and Japanese society, they were both maternal societies in those days. We can surmise that a mother was the center in the home and respected more than a father.
    Well, we have to explain the other reasons from the side of Aboriginal culture. When hunters killed a kangaroo on the green or in the woods, they always brought it to their settlement and shared all the meat equally in their society. The most remarkable thing to which we should pay attention was that a way of distribution of the game. According to the book, LEGENDS OF THE DREAMTIME, it is described as follows:

    The distribution of the food is governed by wise laws, decreeing that everyone receives a share, whether the amount be large or small, or the recipients men, women, or children. Further, though meat is highly prized, the hunter gains little advantage from his prowess. The hunter's share is the lesser portion; his kill is of more value to his family than to him. His reward is in the joy of achievement and the approbation of his fellows.

    In their society, women were respected and the weak such as aged persons or children were treated very warmly. It is? correct that there must be a tight connection between the woman symbolizing the sun and women being highly respected in those days. So we cannot help reconsidering the way of life and the way of thinking today, whether the development of the civilization was good or not for us.
Now, we will turn to the second story, "The Numbakulla and the First Aborigines", which describes creation of human beings. This is a myth of central Australia where there are very few trees, grass and rivers around, and only rocky mountains, blue sky, and reddish soil can be seen. This story is very different from the Japanese myth mentioned above.
    On the contrary, Japan is surrounded by sea, and we have many woods, lakes and rivers. It is natural that there should be a big difference between the two stories of creations of human beings. We would like to summarize the story and make a few comments concerning the background of the story.
Numbakulla brothers descended from the sky to the desert and found a great rock, in which the shapes of human bodies could be seen. Numbakulla brothers took the incomplete bodies out of the rock with stone knives and made them into human beings. When we suppose the environment and climate of the outback in Australia, we can understand the contents of this story.

    Australian Aboriginal Mythology has many remarkable stories concerning the birth of animals and creation of nature. Some stories refer to them. In the long-distant past, which the Aborigines called poetically the "Dreamtime", only human beings existed in the universe. However, some human beings transformed into the sun and the moon, other human beings transformed into mountains, rivers and various animals, after some experiences on the earth. We can find such an interesting case as follows: In a certain story, there are two stars twinkling over the sky; one was a result of a good deed, but the other was a result of a bad act. It is very interesting for Japanese that the? Aborigine could be a beautiful star, in spite of doing a bad act.?

    In Japan, a country influenced by Buddhism, it is believed that someone who profaned or committed a certain religious crime had to go to hell and be transformed into an animal. In Japanese culture, thought of "Inga Ouhou" or the concept of retribution is widely spreading, but we can never find such a concept as retribution in the Aboriginal culture.
In conclusion, there are many stories about transformation in Aboriginal mythology. It must be a reflection of the facts that there are many animals around their existence. Aboriginal mythology describes that all the creatures used to be human beings and transformed into various things, animals and so on. We surmise their way of thinking as follows: They thought that all the beings in the universe were their fellows in spite of transforming into the other beings. Therefore they regarded themselves as a part of nature and lived with it harmoniously. They loved Mother Nature deeply as if it were themselves.

    It is believed that we can live happily in a civilized country. Can it be always true, compared to their real life? We cannot imagine so, because we are destroying nature continuously and making war repeatedly under the pretext of development and peace. We have to insist that their traditional culture must be superior to contemporary civilization and we should study and learn more from their culture.

Bibliography

A List of Books Cited
・”LEGENDS OF THE DREAMTIME” by AINSLIE ROBERTS Australia, Rigby, 1986, P.20,48)
A Bibliography
・『アイヌの神話』(北海道北見美幌・菊池儀之翁伝承)
・『アイヌの神謡』(立石 久雄 西田書店? 1991)
・『カムイユカラと昔話』(萱野 茂 小学館 1988)
・『日本書紀(上)』 (宇治谷 孟 講談社学術文庫 
1991 P.18-46)
『古事記(上)』(次田 真幸 講談社学術文庫 1987 P.40-41)

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Copyright 2002 Mituru Onda. All rights reserved