Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stories from the Dreamtime

So normally we spend our blog days talking about everything under the sun in regards to the mythologies at play in Hero's Journey. And we're not going to stop doing that at all, but there's a massive world of mythology out there that we've barely scratched the surface of, and that's worth some awesome blogging time, too! And today a questioner is asking for just that: Mind enlightening us with some gods from Australia?

Australian mythology is a really difficult subject for research, most especially for those of us in the west, because of the intense scarcity of information on the subject. Prior to European invasion and colonization of Australia, it was positively brimming with native religions; there were over six hundred different cultures, each with their own traditions of oral storytelling and cosmological mythology, and many of them were interlinked thanks to various groups being nomadic and likely to cross paths with one another and share and mix their myths. Unfortunately, European invasion decimated many of the native Australian populations; their lands were confiscated, their languages and traditional narratives forcibly removed from common usage, and in many cases their populations were damaged almost beyond repair, leading to several cultures being completely wiped out and their stories lost to the world for good.

Although we do have art, mostly petroglyphic (materials were limited in the often very hot and dry climate of Australia, especially its interior), of mythological beings and ideas, the vast majority of Australian mythology was (and is) preserved orally, in tales told and retold by storytellers who passed them on to each new generation orally. The attempts of colonizers to stamp out indigenous languages and convert all local cultures to Christianity meant that many mythological tales were lost or reduced down to the stereotypes of the versions of them recorded by Europeans.

And as if that weren't challenging enough, some Australian mythological stories are specifically meant not to be told - or at least, not to be told to certain people or under certain circumstances. Various Australian cultures have myths that are told only to people of a specific gender and never to those of other genders, that are told only during specific rites or times (such as circumcision, coming-of-age or marriage), or that are told only to the next generation of storytellers but otherwise kept a secret from everyone else. Such stories were kept intentionally secret during Australia's colonization and are still kept secret now, and belong exclusively to the people who created them and now keep them alive.

There's a temptation for those of us who are far away from Australia to talk about its mythology as if it's exactly the same across the entire country - which is of course completely ridiculous. Australia's not just a whole country, which would be reason enough not to assume it had only one culture in it, but it's a whole continent with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups. There definitely are some common threads among different Australian cultures' myths; the figure of the Rainbow Snake is especially common to several different peoples and popular in artwork, and the idea of a mythical time before our current world - often referred to as the Dreamtime or variations on that name, depending on the people - appears in many different Australian mythologies and describes an idea of mythic and creative time beyond the simple now and then of everyday life.

In addition, the theme of the wandering culture hero - a god or hero that travels nomadically, like many Australian groups did themselves, and shapes the world as they go or brings ideas to new places - is widespread across many different Australian mythologies, which is a handy way of linking them together. If one culture met and learned about the heroes of another culture, they then told their own stories about those heroes, and claimed that they did these things while in their territory while acknowledging that another peoples' stories of the same figure might be entirely different.

Now, I know you asked for some gods, and believe you me, there are many gods in Australia. But since they come from many different peoples, some of whom have a large cast of gods and some of whom only a totem or two, they are not organized into a pantheon structure in the way that many European sets of gods are, and it's totally beyond the scope of a single blog post to talk about all of them. But heck, here are a few anyway, because they are mad awesome.

This famous painting - and for those wondering, this wicked neat art style is sometimes called "x-ray style" because it resembles painting the skeleton of a person instead of the person as they would normally appear - is located on the Nourlangie Rock, which was probably called something closer to "Nawurlandja" before English-speakers started trying to pronounce it. It is a sacred painting of importance to several indigenous Australian groups, including the Yapa, Warramal, Badmardi and Anangu; like many other Australian myths, it means different specific things depending on what people are viewing it and telling stories about it, but generally it depicts the family unit of Namondjok, the creator god and lord of the sky, who was exiled from his family after committing incest with his sister but nevertheless continues to actively support and sustain the world with his powers. To the right of him, surrounded by a sphere that may indicate lightning, is the storm god Mamaragan or Namarrgan; like most storm gods, he has a wicked temper and causes major storm events and fear in the populace when angered, but as the bringer of rain that is often sorely needed in the sandstone flatlands surrounding the stone he is also a very necessary and important part of the universe. Also, he lives in a sort of pocket dimension that he enters by jumping into puddles after he's caused rain, and it's hard not to love that.

Much farther to the southeast, we find Bunjil, another creator god who just so happens to also be a giant eagle half the time:

Bunjil (or Pundjel; transliteration from Australian languages has never been standardized and is another layer of scholarly difficulty for folks trying to figure out if Author A is talking about the same person as Author B) is part of a family of deities in his own area that includes his brother Waang, the crow-god and his partner in founding humanity, his other brother Balayang, the bat-god and would-be creator who often causes problems for the world in his quest to be respected just as much as Bunjil, and for the Bunurong and Kulin people Bunjil is also the father of the rainbow serpent. Stories about any of these gods tend to be interconnected and concerned with creating family groups and giving order to human lives; in one tale, Bunjil saves humanity by preventing a lethal flood but only on the condition that they begin to follow a code of laws, and in another Balayang accidentally creates two swan goddesses out of mud, which become Bunjil's wives and the basis for the complex marriage laws having to do with family line and descent that the Kulin adhered to.

And then we have Gnowee or Gnowi, the goddess of the sun for the Maligundidj people of southern Victoria. When she was first born, the entire world was dark and night was eternal until she went out one evening to look for food, leaving her young son asleep at home. She could not find any nearby food, however, and traveled so far that she went all the way under and through the earth and emerged on the other side. She was then so disoriented that she could no longer find her way home, and rose into the sky with a blazing torch in order to search for the way back home to her little boy. Each day the sun's progress across the sky is her progress as she searches for him, and should she ever find him, she would extinguish her torch and the world would once again live out both day and night in darkness.

These few deities are just the tip of the Australian iceberg; hundreds more exist, and while we can mourn all day for all the stories we've lost, many others are still alive and thriving and just waiting to be learned and shared. Of course, native Australian peoples still exist, and many of them are in the process of reconstructing their culture and telling their ancient stories in new and creative ways - some of the best sources for Australian myths are Australians themselves, who not only know some of the old tales their ancestors told but have updated their mythology for the modern world in which they now live, and tell new stories that have grown organically out of the hardships faced by their peoples in the last few centuries.

A whole continent of myth, and we are just a few readers out here hoping to scratch the surface.