Core values in Aboriginal religions

I hope you will forgive the formality of my reading a prepared talk – anybody who has heard me speak would know how unusual this is – but the subject I’m speaking about today is complex and I could not hope to do it without detailed notes.

I would like to begin by making two quite general points on the subject of Aboriginal religions:

Firstly, I think we have to realise that the detailed study of Aboriginal religions is in fact a comparatively recent one. It took non-Indigenous observers the best part of 150 years to realise that the indigenous population of this country even had a religious life, let alone to begin to understand the very great depth there is to that life. And for most people even now, that point of understanding has not been reached.

This is not to offer excuses but in some respects it is not surprising that Europeans failed to recognise Aboriginal religion when they encountered it.

* In the first place, the religious framework of Aboriginal Australia is so very different to that from which the colonisers came; and certainly few if any of the immigrants would have been exposed to anything like it previously;
* Moreover, few of the newcomers were trained to look for or appreciate the more spiritual aspects of life;
* but even those individuals who did have some an understanding of religion, and particularly their own religion, were still disinclined to see anything positive in the Aboriginal way of life. For example, the Rev Joseph Orton, (who came to Victoria to set up a Wesleyan mission), in August 1836 wrote back to his Headquarters, about the Aborigines:

After the minutest observation and strictest inquiry I could not discover that they possess the most indistinct notion of a Supreme Being - nor have I been able to ascertain that they have the slightest vestige of religious worship or superstitious observance. (HRV, 2A, p.86)

And one of his brethren, the Rev Francis Tuckfield, likewise wrote in February 1839

"their mind as it regards religion seems to be a rude chaos presenting an awfully distressing vacancy of thought." (HRV, 2A, p.114)

In the main the general view these men had of Aboriginal culture, like that of the overwhelming majority of whites, was one that mitigated against their either recognising or acknowledging the presence of a religious sphere in Aboriginal life.

The second point that I should make is that when we speak of Aboriginal religion we have to speak in the plural. There is no single Aboriginal religion - there are in fact scores, if not hundreds of them.

But, notwithstanding the cultural diversity that existed across the continent, it is clear that Aboriginal religions were similar in kind. Although there was widespread diversity of belief, across Australia there was a likeness in the organisation of activities that involved ritual expression.

It is possible, then, to make some general statements regarding the core values of these religions as a whole. In this regard I cannot improve on what Professor William Stanner wrote in a number of places.

As Stanner has put it:

There is a tetrad in Aboriginal culture, which consists of living people, their countries, their totems and their ancestors. These four elements are bound together with inherent and imperishable links.

Indeed, such is the nature of these links that, in truth, it isn't possible to consider one without considering all. It is virtually impossible to talk about any specific aspect of Aboriginal culture in isolation; the religious and social connections of people to their land and all that is in it, and all that made it, infuses every aspect of their life.

Nonetheless, and once again following Stanner (1979 & 1998), there are a number of general statements that might be asserted by way of characterising the broad parameters of Aboriginal religions.

1. Aboriginal people believe that ancestral beings left a world full of signs to show their beneficent intent toward the people they had also bought into being. Further, these outward and visible signs could - through wisdom about living which was cherished by traditional experience - be interpreted to indicate that people's lives had to follow a perennial pattern and, if they did so, people would always be provided for.

A great deal of attention has been focused on Aboriginal mastery of their environments, through their subsistence strategies and use of segmentary social organisations. But these strategies are more than just a means to ensure physical survival; they are underlain with an absolute belief in the efficacy of their religious system, as expressed through ritual observance. Aboriginal people see within nature a pattern that it is their role to maintain and renew through proper religious observance. The relationships between the physical world, human and other life and the role of humans in that world were laid down for all time in that period usually referred to as the Dreamtime – more correctly the Dreaming. At the same time humans, along with all other beings were endowed with their good and/or bad properties, including (in the case of humans) what constituted right and proper behaviour.

2. The human person, compound of body and several spiritual principles or elements, had value in himself and for others, and there were spirits who cared.

There is a high degree of ritual within the life-cycle of every individual in Aboriginal society; at some time or other each person is honoured above all others, suggesting that a high value was placed on human life generally. This is implied also by respect for totems and totemic places, and emblems that stand for individuals, the unquestioning care of the sick and elderly, and respect for the memory of the dead. Moreover, in many parts of Australia there are thought to be spirits - in some cases great spirits, in others lesser guardians - whose role it is to care for humans.

3. The main religious cults in Aboriginal Australia were concerned to renew and conserve life, including the life-force that kept animating the world in which humans subsisted and with which they were bonded in body, soul and spirit.

Aboriginal people everywhere across Australia were pre-occupied, sometimes to the point of obsession, with the symbols, signs and portents of vitality. Through numerous myths and rites things of vitality - water, blood, fat, hair- vibrated, and natural things such as green leaves, rain, lightening, whirlwinds, shooting stars and the heavenly bodies, were animated. The evidence from all parts of the continent points to the perception that Aboriginal religions were among the least materially-minded and most life-minded of any of which we know.

4. The material part of life, and of humans themselves, was under a spiritual authority, and the souls of the dead shared in maintaining the authority and the providence over them.

There are many qualifications that one could make on this general proposition (for example, there was no one spirit that had authority over the entire material world; and some parts of nature were simply inanimate things). However, the proposition is substantiated in the recognition of two sets of beliefs:

* firstly, those concerning the impregnation of women by child-spirits that act under their own volition;
* and secondly, those concerned with the necessity of humans to release the potential of life (of plants, animals and humans) that pre-exists in totemic places.

5. The core of religious practice was to bring the life of an individual under the discipline that required that person to understand the sacred tradition of his or her group and to conform the person's life to the pattern ordained by that tradition.

Much of the mythology of Aboriginal Australia points to the frailties of human nature. Original man is egotistical, self-willed, sometimes wanton, greedy and envious, etc. The body of religious rites serves the function of keeping these all-too-human features in check – by fashioning uncompleted humans and transforming them into beings of higher worth.

6. The underlying philosophy of Aboriginal religion was one of assent to the received terms of life; this is, it inculcated a strong disposition to accept life as a mixture of good with bad, of joy with suffering, but to celebrate it nonetheless.

Although Aboriginal people accepted the authority conveyed by the Dreaming, there was no sense of fatalism or pessimism on the one hand or rebellion or complaint on the other. The world was as it was and always must be.

Something of the importance played by religion in traditional Aboriginal society should be clear from the foregoing. As anthropologist Ronald Berndt has said (1998):

Aboriginal religion is a total way of life; and the transcendental is viewed as a necessary component, inseparable from ordinary living.

Thus there are no agnostics, no non-believers in this society. Men, women, children of all ages are a part of the religious community.

Some reference needs to be made to the roles and practices of women in Aboriginal religions. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that anthropological studies carried out by male fieldworkers (e.g. Stanner, Warner, Maddocks) tend to downplay the importance of the women's role; studies by female anthropologists (e.g. Berndt, Goodale, Bell) on the other hand do the reverse. (To some extent these differences may be a reflection of the fact that the fieldworkers join with their own gender group.) Thus, perhaps the most interesting field work studies are those done by couples (e.g. Catherine and Ron Berndt, Noel and Phyl Wallace).

However, there are at least two aspects of Aboriginal life and lore that might suggest women's part in religious observance is an important role - both for the women themselves and society at large:

1) Given the role of women in day-to-day subsistence or economic activities—where they play an important part but can be essentially independent—it seems reasonable to assume that in ritual and religious matters they have a similar standing;

2) In the traditional myths and stories of a number of areas, far from being passive participants, women are in fact major characters, including creative beings

Following Diane Bell, we can suggest then, that:

1. Women trace their rights and responsibilities for the maintenance of their religious heritage to the past in diverse ways. But women's ritual roles appear to be the structural equivalents of men's
2. In secret rituals that are closed to men, women celebrate their relations to the land, its sites and the Dreamings. Their focus on health, emotional management, and resolution of conflict benefits the whole of society, not just women.
3. In women's ceremonies the dominant theme is that of woman the nurturer.

Ritual and myth

Most of what I have said thus far has been by way of defining a conceptual framework. But of course as in all religions, there is also a central core of practice in Aboriginal religions, which certainly needs to be considered. One way of looking at this practice is through the study of two closely related aspects of Aboriginal religious and social life, that is, ritual and myth.

Both of these areas are immensely complex of course, and could easily occupy us for the rest of the day. I have already briefly alluded to the place of rituals and myth within religious practice and in the time left to me here I can elaborate only a little.

Looking firstly at ritual, we can say that, basically, the ceremonies and rites that are such a fundamental part of Aboriginal religious life can be arranged in four groups, each of different kind:

(1) ‘commemorative’ or ‘historical’ rites - these are concerned to honour relevant life-giving ancestors of a clan or sub-clan, and are generally carried out at the site that is sacred to the emergence into the world, or of the activity, of those ancestors;
(2) so-called ‘increase’ rites, which take place at the site associated with the particular totemic being and where the spirit power of that totem dwells; such ceremonies are actually ill-named since what is intended is maintenance not increase;
(3) ‘initiation’ rites - are primarily concerned to bring the initiate (male or female) by stages into the fellowship of the most knowledgeable members of the group. More than all other rituals, those associated with initiation have the purely practical aspect of ensuring that individuals acquire the level of knowledge that will allow them to survive;
(4) finally, there are death and mortuary rites, which were concerned to firstly ensure that the deceased could be quit of earthly ties; and secondly to place his or her spirit within its proper country. In some cases this had the corollary of permitting that spirit later to inhabit a human host.

This classification is by no means clear cut or accepted; there are some blurred edges. For example, the rites associated with death might be considered as ceremonies marking a specific form of initiation.

However, to a greater or lesser extent all of these rituals are an acting-out or a re-telling of stories that elaborate the conceptual parameters within which the rituals have a meaning. That meaning may be secular or sacred. Moreover, there are stories that are just stories. We can say that although there is a great deal of variation and diversity across the continent, there are, once again, similarities – in this case in the intent and nature of content of the stories. To this end, Stanner has pointed out that:

‘If one analyses the hundreds of tales about the Dreaming, one can see within them three elements.

* the first concerns the great marvels - how all fire and water in the world were stolen and recaptured; how men made a mistake over sorcery and now have to die from it; how the hills, rivers and waterholes were made; etc
* the second tells how certain things were instituted for the first time - how animals and humans diverged from a common stock; how black-nosed wallabies got their black noses, the echidna its quills etc.
* the third element creates the impression that many of the main institutions of present-day life were already ruling in the Dreaming, institutions such as marriage exogamy, sister-exchange and initiation, as well as many of the well-known breaches of custom.’


In conclusion, it might be said that we have evidence of a huge body of religious experience across the continent, from within which we can draw a number of parallels and generalisations. Although in Aboriginal Australia there were no deities, no veneration or prayer, there was certainly recognition on people's part of a dependence on powers outside their being, and there was devotion.

From what I have said here, it should be clear that the study of Aboriginal religions, as indeed the study of any religion, is an extremely complex one. I thank you for the opportunity to speak about something that is of interest to me and hope that I have provided not only an insight into the complexity of Aboriginal religions but also hints, for those of you who are interested in further study of such things, into ways in which the thought and practice of these religions might be usefully compared with those of one or more of the world religions.


Bell, D. ‘Aboriginal women and the religious experience’ in Charlesworth, M. (Ed), Religious business. Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 46-71,
Berndt, C.H. 'Mythical women, past and present' in Gale, F. (Ed) We are bosses ourselves
Berndt, R.M. 'A profile of good and bad in Australian Aboriginal religion.' in Charlesworth, M. (Ed), Religious business. Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 24-45
Maddock, K. The Australian Aborigines A portrait of their society. Penguin, 1972
Orton, J.R. Letter to Wesleyan Missionary Society, August 1836. In Historical Records of Victoria Volume 2A: The Aborigines of Victoria 1835-1839. Victorian Government, 1982, pp. 80-89
Stanner, W.E.H. 'Some aspects of Aboriginal religion' in Charlesworth, M. (Ed), Religious business, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 1-23, 1998
Stanner, W.E.H. 'Religion, totemism and symbolism' in White man got no dreaming: Essays 1938-1973, ANU Press, 1979, pp. 106-143
Tuckfield, F. Letter to Wesleyan Missionary Society, 20 February 1839. In Historical Records of Victoria Volume 2A, The Aborigines of Victoria 1835-1839. Victorian Government, 1982, pp. 112-115.
Warner, W.L. A black civilization. (Revised Edition) Harper & Row, 1964

©Gary Presland, 2013. Presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, May, 2013