Anthropology Friday: Aboriginal Folklore

Today I have an excerpt from Aborigine Myths and Legends, by William Ramsay Smith, c. 1930. (As usual, I am dispensing with block quotes for the sake of readability. I have added pictures.)

Waddies made by the Aranda people (wikipedia)
Waddies made by the Aranda people (wikipedia)

What some Aboriginal carvings mean

At Manly, about six miles from Sydney, there are to be seen aboriginal carvings cut into the flat surface of the rock. Among them there is a figure of a male aboriginal with both arms outstretched and holding in one hand a waddy. Another human and a form represents a shark. In another group, there are four male figures, with a boomerang above the head of one and a fish between the legs of another. And, again, there are two figures, almost oval in shape, and one of the ovals has small circles cut out around the edge. All these, as well as the carvings, have a meaning. Each of the objects, whether an animal, bird, reptile, or fish, represents the totem of a tribe.



Aboriginal engraving, Manly, Australia, courtesy of Lonely Planet
Aboriginal engraving, Manly, Australia, courtesy of Lonely Planet

Tribe Totems.–As in the case of the Manly figure, where a fish is placed between the legs of a person, he fish is the totem of the tribe living in that locality. Before a tribe can occupy a hunting-ground it must select a totem—a fish, animal, bird, or reptile–anything, in fact, that has an existence. It may be sun, moon, wind, lightning, or thunder. Thus, in some instance, one may see a figure representing the sun or a half-moon. Sometimes one notices figures of a kangaroo and an emu, or two other forms. The kangaroo might be the totem of the tribe of the chief, and the emu might be the totem of his wife’s tribe.

This totemism plays an important part in the social life of the aboriginals. If, for example, a person has committed an offense, or has broken tribal law, he becomes a fugitive. He may travel to some distant part of the country. … He creeps along stealthily, listening intently for any sound, peering through the dense foliage in every bay or cove to see whether his path is clear, noticing every footprint on the way, reading every mark on the tree-trunks and on the surface of rocks, and scanning every mark to see whether there is hope of protection and friendship. To be seen would mean death to him. By and by the keen eye of the fugitive catches sight of the figure of his mother’s totem. Casting aside all fear, he walks boldly along the beaten track that leads to the camp, and presents himself to the chief. He produces a string of kangaroo teeth, made in bead fashion, and a bunch of emu feathers… . This is a sign that he belongs to the Kangaroo totem tribe, and that his mother belongs to the Emu totem tribe. He is received into either of these tribes, and becomes one with them, and participates in all their privileges.

Nulla-nulla, with thanks to
Nulla-nulla created by and for sale from Jagalingu.

At Manly one may notice two figures: a wallaby footprint and a kangaroo, a man figure and a weapon–it may be a boomerang or a nulla-nulla. This means that the Wallaby totem tribe occupied that country, and the Kangaroo totem tribe came and did battle with the Wallaby totem tribe and drove them away and took possession. … From the different figures carved on the surface of one rock one may infer that tribes of different totems shown in the figures occupied that locality.

There are other figures hewn in the rock. The oval with the small circles, referred to above, may represent the sun in its course; in other words, it may show that the aboriginals had knowledge of the earth’s motion. There are old men in each tribe who study the heavens at night; and at certain times of the year every night at intervals they will give a call, “The earth has already turned.” [Footnote: The aboriginals appear to have believed that the earth went round, because there is a saying which means, “The earth has turned itself about.”] This may be done with the idea of teaching the younger generation something about astronomy.

[EvX comments: while interesting, the earth-centric model of the universe is so immediately obvious and the heliocentric so difficult to prove that I am skeptical of such claims.]


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