Interfaith Work

Somewhere between the Dreamtime and the New Age

Somewhere between the Dreamtime and the New Age: Aboriginal Performance Art as a Tool of Transformation

One of the great attractions for American Pagans attending the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions in Australia is the opportunity to learn from an indigenous people who have a 40,000 year history in this land and whose religious beliefs and traditions have not been entirely erased -- at least not to the extent that our European pagan traditions have been lost over the last millennium.

It is true that the Australian Aboriginal people suffered for centuries as European colonizers attempted to destroy their culture, taking children from their parents and forcing them to attend "white Christian English schools," but when those children returned to their families and to their tribal lands, there were still elders there who remembered the old ways and who were willing to teach them. Without doubt much has been lost, but much has also been preserved. Rather than having to reconstruct their traditions from descriptions written by the conquerors, or trying to guess the purpose and intent of artifacts left behind by ancestors, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have been able to preserve many of their spiritual traditions and pass them on from one generation to another. There is a continuous tradition of stories, teachings, sacred art, and rituals preserved and passed on from one generation to another, and there are many living today who learned from their elders the ways of their ancestors.

Two Aboriginal men, healers who use their art and music and stories to teach people all over the world, presented sessions at the Parliament: "Landscape of Faith: Sharing Wisdom for a New Vision of Community: The Arts as Transformation" by Gary 'Jagamara' Simons and Jeremy 'Yongurra Yerin' Donovan, and a performance, "Walking with Wisdom," by Jeremy 'Yongurra Yerin' Donovan. They used the visual arts, music, dance, and narrative, to tell their stories and the stories of their people. They spoke of ancient beliefs, and they shared spiritual wisdom that has much in common with New Age thought today. Maybe some truths are timeless, and when stories are told that hold the truths of humankind, they are the stories of all peoples, different only in the details. Each tribe, living in different territories in Australia, having different totem animals and experiences, has their own variations of the stories, and often different words to express them. These are the stories, the bits of history and wisdom shared.

Jagamara ("snake dreamer") was dressed in a red loincloth and had leafy branches tied to his arms and knees. His face was painted with white clay, and his body with white dots, which he explained symbolized raindrops, a life giving gift of the Earth, for in this dry land, without rain the people would die. He began the session with deep, haunting sounds from his didgeridoo, unlike music... more like the voices of the ancestors, a beast from the deep, the song of archaic spirits. When we had quieted, he stood and showed us the instrument, saying, "You call this a didgeridoo, but that is a Gaelic word, not the word we use. This is a "Yigi yigi" -- in our language it means "to blow the breath of the Mother."

He began, "You came to this room thinking I was going to tell you stories? You are all sitting there in rows, looking to me for your stories, and I am standing up here, supposed to entertain or enlighten you, and by that arrangement, we are separated from each other. That is not how you learn. You come up here, with me, and we will learn together, we will tell the stories to each other with our bodies and our movement. Come! Together we will be emus and kangaroos and hunters and birds."

We laughed, and a few of us stood up, but he didn't give up. "You can't learn sitting in chairs. Take off your shoes! Don't you know you are standing on holy ground? You are standing on the Mother, and she wants a massage from our feet. She doesn't want to feel hard shoes! Push the chairs back and come into this sacred circle where we can walk again with the animals." The animals give Aborigines everything they need to survive; nothing is wasted, not one bit of sinew or bone or skin or meat. It is a partnership between animals and humans. They are spirits just like we are, and in your last life, or your next life, your spirit may take the form of an animal, so they are deserving of our honor and thanks for the gifts they give us.

He handed out leafy branches of the "gum" tree and scattered the rest on the floor, where they gave a lovely wild scent to the room. We waved the branches as if we were eagles in flight, and we learned to stand like trees, perfectly still, with only our leafy arms waving in the breeze -- a necessity for the next part of the story, which was about how to sneak up on a kangaroo. We need to learn to think like the animals we are hunting, and that sometimes means behaving like a tree.

First we did kangaroos. We learned to jump like a kangaroo, make sounds like a kangaroo, pick up imaginary fruit with our paws and eat like a kangaroo. If you are tracking a kangaroo and it looks your way out of the corner of its eye, you want it to see just another kangaroo hopping around -- nothing to be worried about. If it looks directly at you, that is when you become very treelike, standing on one leg with the other curled around like a branch, covering your face with the leaves. The kangaroo will think "It's just a gum tree after all" and go back to its grazing. Of course, if you've been hopping around all afternoon, you are likely to be hot and sweaty, so the kangaroo may smell you, but again the branches come to your aid, because if you chew a few leaves and then wipe them under your arm, they will replace the smell of your sweat with the sweet scent of eucalyptus, again fooling the kangaroo until you are close enough to throw your spear.

Every animal has a different role to play. The eagle is the one who swoops down when we are ready to leave this body and carries our spirit back to the place where all souls once gathered. For the Aborigine, that spirit realm is not a heavenly city paved with gold, but a place far more valued -- a Great Water Hole. It was there that our souls dwelt before birth, when we all sang together for the Creator in the Dreamtime when Creator Spirits were first forming the land and the creatures who inhabit the Earth. It is there that we will rest until we are ready to take our place in another body, whether human or animal. I asked if there was a hierarchy of bodies: "If you're a very good emu, for example, might you be allowed to come back as say an eagle, or if you were an exceptionally good eagle, you can become a man in your next incarnation?" He said yes, some bodies were more desirable than others, but I erred in thinking human was at the top of the list. If you were a very wise elder, the most honored among humans, you could choose to return as the most sacred animal, the salt water crocodile. I had never quite thought of that as a goal to strive for!

After the first session, I introduced myself to Jagamara, telling him that as a Pagan, I felt a kinship with him and his people in their respect for the natural world and all its creatures. I acknowledged that our histories, experiences, and beliefs are greatly separated by time and geography, and so I wondered if he felt that it was presumptuous of me to imply a shared perspective by those of us who are trying to walk the path of nature spirituality without having a continuous tradition to follow. Was he even aware of "Pagans" in the European tradition, and if so, did he think that we shared something of an understanding in our shared attempts to honor the Earth and walk the paths of our ancestors?

I suppose I was hoping that he would affirm the intent of my spiritual path, or that he would congratulate me for my insight into earth-based spirituality, or some other such nonsense. I underestimated his insight. His response was, "Pagan is just a word, like 'water' is a word. You can say the word 'water' in many languages, using many different words, but the word will never quench your thirst." He went on to say that we use words to make our experiences known to others; I tell him I am a Pagan, and yes, he is aware of the word and the path, in America and in Australia, but what is important is not whether I call myself by that name, but whether the trees talk to me, whether I feel the presence of the spirits in the Earth, whether I recognize my kinship with the animals who cross my path, and whether I honor the ancestors who lie beneath my feet in the way I live my life. He asked if I had chosen that path of my own volition, if it resonated with my spirit. I told him I had walked many religious paths in this life, but the one I walked now was the one my spirit chose, the only one I could walk with will and joy.

He offered the opinion that so much of the stress and depression that people experience today are due to their attempt to live in ways contrary to the call of their own spirits, and we will only know peace, both inner and outer, when all peoples are free to choose the spiritual path that is their natural heritage, that "fits" with who they are at their spiritual cores. No one can give you a religion or a way of life; rather "We must reconcile our consciousness with the vessel we travel in, our body." "Religion is a powerful tool that can bring us together or tear us apart. We can use it to tap into the creator, no matter what sound we use to communicate our experience."

"State of mind becomes state of body; state of body becomes reality."

He then expounded at some detail about his beliefs, ranging far and wide into his personal spiritual mythology as well, and philosophical explanations that used what must have been Christian education combined with New Age metaphysics, using both the Garden of Eden and the Sisters of the Pleiades as agents of creation.

In the beginning, spirit beings came from the stars as guardians of this world. Not what I had thought of as the Dreamtime -- I had imagined spirit beings like those described in traditional books of Aboriginal mythology, but his explanations seemed to be a combination of Christian mythology and New Age thought.

Gifts of the senses: We were given the gifts of hearing, of smell, of taste and of touch, all ways that our bodies can perceive and experience physical reality. The last sense given was that of sight, and that was sad in a way, because when we could see each other, we began to judge by appearances rather than learning to know each other. What we saw separated us one from another, based on superficial things. Among Aborigines, a blind child is called "gifted" because he isn't misled by appearances.

Ancestors: Who neglects their dead will also neglect their newborns. There is no continuity; we become like the animals who see one of their kind fall, and they walk on and leave the body there. It is only humans who bury their dead, and that is what separates man from beast. We bury the dead with honor; we put the physical body, the vessel in which we carried this life, back into the Mother, back into the womb that gave it birth.

The land belongs to the one whose ancestors sleep in the ground.

We are consciousness, and my consciousness is joined to yours. All living things are relations; the only difference is the physical vessel we are in at the moment. We see appearances, like we see the stars, but there is more space between the stars than there are stars. There is more air than objects in the world, and even in a physical object, there is more space between the atoms than there are particles.

35 nations of the world hold Aboriginal remains as artifacts. They need to be brought back to be buried as living souls. They are sacred to us.

Less than 5% of non-aboriginal Australians have ever met and talked with an Aborigine personally.

We are the Dream keepers of today, the Dream holders of yesterday; the dream makers of tomorrow."

- Sylvia