Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mythology Talk: Songlines in Australia

Question: Could you please talk about the songlines of the people of Australia?

This is a very old question from the question box of yore, but a reader peeked in to remind me of it and ask for it not to be forgotten, and I'm happy to oblige! The Australian gods and native spiritualities are not yet represented in Hero's Journey, but they might in the future, and in the meantime, they certainly exist in the world of the game!

First of all, this blog post is only going to barely touch on some of these ideas. Australia is enormous, and while there are many common features among different indigenous groups' beliefs, there are between two and three hundred different distinct native Australian peoples, so anything that tries to talk about them as all being the same is not going to be accurate. There are common features in much the same way there are common features across many European mythologies or many west African mythologies, so those are super neat to look into, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that means that Australian mythology is just one thing!

Songlines in indigenous Australian history and spirituality are almost literally "common threads" - they're oral narrative histories, geographies, and mythological stories that connect different territories and peoples within Australia. A songline might involve describing the local flora and fauna of the area and the most efficient or safest routes of travel through it, and it might do so by describing the creation of that place and those living things by ancient Heroes and gods. A strong theme in various indigenous Australian Dreaming tales is of ancient creators, traveling through Australia and creating the animals and natural landmarks, setting the cosmos in order and designing, sometimes on purpose and sometimes just by virtue of passing through, the way life would progress among animals and humanity alike. Songlines tell the stories of these ancient figures and their adventures and exploits, and they often connect different peoples with their own cultures together; for example, the Wiradjuri people of southeast Australia tell stories about Dharramaalan, the one-footed emu-hero, and his progress across the landscape, and their northern neighbors the Kamilaroi have their own stories of the same figure and what he did when he passed through the area in which they live.

By definition, songlines are always a great whole made up of many parts; different peoples' stories about the same heroes and gods added together into a greater narrative, and descriptions of the landscape and natural world tied together to create oeverarching oral maps of huge parts of Australia. Songlines were important tools for travelers in Australia in pre-industralized times, since they very concretely kept track of where things were and what natural phenomena to expect when you traveled through different areas; many scholars believe that indigenous Australian people were able to use them to travel enormous distances with very little equipment, and successfully navigate the vast deserts of the Australian interior that could otherwise prove lethal. Because songlines are oral traditions rather than physical landmarks, you would have to know the songline - or at least the part of it that concerned the area you were hoping to travel through - in order to use it for either navigational or spiritual purposes, although some of the petroglyphs and natural landmarks in Australia are considered marks of the same travels by ancient creators that the songlines represent:


There are a lot of associated rules and customs when it comes to songlines, too, some of them varying depending upon the specific people; some songlines can only be followed in one direction (i.e., you can tell the story forward, but you can't rewind it backward, and that includes traveling backwards physically as much as telling the story backwards orally), some songlines can only be followed by particular people (e.g., boys on their coming-of-age journey), and some songlines describe specific actions that someone reciting them must take, suiting their deeds to match those in the song. Songlines often encode information beyond just the literal words and names that are sung, too - for example, rhythms and tones that rise and fall to describe the topography of an area's geography, so that even if the songline passes on down to a people who don't speak the same language, they can still understand what it is telling them about places they have never seen.

Obviously, all of this is incredibly fascinating... and because so many oral traditions and indigenous spiritual practices were lost when European invaders arrived and started doing things like killing off local populations and outlawing the use of native languages, information is often scarce and not particularly accessible to scholars. Even if it were, this topic is also obviously much too complex to handle in a single blog post - but if you're interested in Australian indigenous spirituality and the songline stories, here are a few resources to check out!


Given that we're neither indigenous Australians nor have we so much as set foot in Australia, we're not the most authoritative source. Indigenous Australian scholars and writers will have way better perspective and information than we can!

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