Aboriginal Spirituality (Australia)
Bush Chapel. In chapels like this, Christian services are held in
harmony with underlying Aboriginal spiritual beliefs.
Spirituality for Indigenous Australians takes many forms. Its forms and
practices have been profoundly influenced by the impact of colonialism,
both past and present.
Some Indigenous Australians share the religious beliefs and values of
religions introduced into Australia from other cultures around the
world, particularly Europe. But for most people religious beliefs are
derived from a sense of belonging-to the land, to the sea, to other
people, to one's culture.
The form and expression of spirituality differs between Aboriginal
people and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal spirituality mainly
derives from the stories of the Dreaming, while Torres Strait Islander
spirituality draws upon the stories of the Tagai.
"So the sad thing about it all was the missionaries didn't realise that
we already had something that tied in with what they'd brought to us.
They saw different as inferior, and they didn't ask us what it was that
we had. And it's very sad because if they had asked... things may have
been different today.
"Our people, before the white man came were very spiritual people. They
were connected to land and creation through the great spirit, there was
a good great and a great evil spirit... And Satan was the great evil
one. So there wasn't much difference in what the missionaries brought
and what we already had..."
Wadjularbinna Doomadgee, Gungalidda Leader, Gulf of Carpentaria, 1996.
Since the European colonisation of Australia, Indigenous Australians
have had contact with missionaries and their missions. This relationship
has been a difficult one. In some instances missions became instruments
of government policy, engaging in practices such as forcibly separating
children from their families in order to maximise control over the
child's education into Christian ways and beliefs. In this way, missions
contributed to the suppression of Aboriginal cultural practices and
However, not all missions were agents of government policies. Some
respected Aboriginal ways of life and the importance of ceremonies and
What is the Dreaming?
"The Dreaming means our identity as people. The cultural teaching and
everything, that's part of our lives here, you know?... it's the
understanding of what we have around us."
Merv Penrith, Elder, Wallaga Lake, 1996
The Dreaming has different meanings for different Aboriginal people. It
is a complex network of knowledge, faith and practices that derive from
stories of creation <http://www.dreamtime.net.au/>, and which dominates
all spiritual and physical aspects of Aboriginal life. The Dreaming sets
structures of society, the rules for social behaviour and the ceremonies
performed in order to maintain the life of the land.
It governed the way people lived and how they should behave.
Those who did not follow the rules were punished.
The Dreamtime or Dreaming is often used to describe the time when the
earth and humans and animals were created. The Dreaming is also used by
individuals to refer to their own dreaming or their community's
During the Dreaming, ancestral spirits came to earth and created the
landforms, the animals and plants. The stories tell how the ancestral
spirits moved through the land creating rivers, lakes and mountains.
Today we know the places where the ancestral spirits have been and where
they came to rest. There are explanations of how people came to
Australia and the links between the groups throughout Australia. There
are explanations about how people learnt languages and dance and how
they came to know about fire.
In essence, the Dreaming comes from the land. In Aboriginal society
people did not own the land it was part of them and it was part of their
duty to respect and look after mother earth.
The Dreaming did not end with the arrival of Europeans but simply
entered a new phase. It is a powerful living force that must be
maintained and cared for.
What are Dreaming Stories about?
Dreaming stories vary throughout Australia and there are different
versions on the same theme. For example the story of how the birds got
their colours is different in New South Wales and in Western Australia.
Stories cover many themes and topics. There are stories about creation
of sacred places, landforms, people, animals and plants. There are also
stories of language or the first use of fire. In more recent times there
are stories telling of the arrival of the first Europeans on ships or
stories about trading with Macassan fisherman in Northern Australia.
The Tracks of Life
The journey of the Spirit Ancestors across the land are recorded in
Dreaming Tracks. A Dreaming track joins a number of sites which trace
the path of an Ancestral Being as it moved through the landscape,
forming its features, creating its flora and fauna and laying down the
Laws. One of these Spirit Ancestors is the Rainbow Serpent, whose
Dreaming track is shared by many Aboriginal communities across
"And that... is the resting place of the Rainbow Serpent, and all of the
gullies and all of the lagoon itself was about the Rainbow Serpent
created after he had created the universe and all the dry gullies is the
tracks that he's made looking for a resting place."
Carl McGrady, Aboriginal Education Assistant, Boggabilla, describing the
path of the Rainbow Serpent at Boobera Lagoon, northern New South Wales,
The Rainbow Serpent is represented as a large, snake-like creature,
whose Dreaming track is always associated with watercourses, such as
billabongs, rivers, creeks and lagoons. It is the protector of the land,
its people, and the source of all life. However, the Rainbow Serpent can
also be a destructive force if it is not properly respected.
The Rainbow Serpent is a consistent theme in Aboriginal painting and has
been found in rock art up to 6000 years old. The Rainbow Serpent is a
powerful symbol of the creative and destructive power of nature. Most
paintings of Rainbow Serpents tell the story of the creation of the
landscape particular to an artist's birthplace. Some aspects of Rainbow
Serpent stories are restricted to initiated persons but generally, the
image had been very public. Today, most artists add personal clan
designs to the bodies of Rainbow Serpents, symbolising links between the
artist and the land.
The Mimi Spirits
The Mimi are tall, thin beings that live in the rocky escarpment of
northern Australia as spirits. Before the coming of Aboriginal people
they had human forms. The Mimi are generally harmless but on occasions
can be mischievous.
When Aboriginal people first came to northern Australia, the Mimi taught
them how to hunt and cook kangaroos and other animals. They also did the
first rock paintings and taught Aboriginal people how to paint.
"I'm as much a Torres Strait Islander irrespective of where I live
because my feelings of being a Torres Strait Islander live inside me. It
is not predicated by what is outside me, it is determined with my
feelings and my spirituality."
Bilyana Blomely, Academic Co-ordinator, Lismore 1996
The people throughout the Torres Strait are united by their connection
to the Tagai. The Tagai consists of stories which are the cornerstone of
Torres Strait Islanders' spiritual beliefs. These stories focus on the
stars and identify Torres Strait Islanders as sea people who share a
common way of life. The instructions of the Tagai provide order in the
world, ensuring that everything has a place.
One Tagai story depicts the Tagai as a man standing in a canoe. In his
left hand, he holds a fishing spear, representing the Southern Cross. In
his right hand, he holds a *sorbi* (a red fruit). In this story, the
Tagai and his crew of 12 are preparing for a journey. But before the
journey begins, the crew consume all the food and drink they planned to
take. So the Tagai strung the crew together in two groups of six and
cast them into the sea, where their images became star patterns in the
sky. These patterns can be seen in the star constellations of Pleiades