Australian Aboriginal Storytelling — Helen McKay

Dreamtime stories

Dreamtime stories are the oral form of the spiritual Dreaming which comprises: Art: the visual form, Customs: the practical form, Dance: the physical form, Music: the acoustic form, Totems: the spiritual forms, Lore: the cultural form, Lands: the geographical forms. Altogether they form an all-encompassing, mystical whole: The Dreaming.

Since colonization over 200 years ago, non-indigenous people have perceived these art forms as separate entities – rather than – as part of a whole. The result has been a fragmented overview of the Aboriginal culture.

The Dreamtime stories are more than myths, legends, fables, parables or quaint tales. They are definitely not fairytales for the amusement of children. Dreamtime stories are the oral textbooks of the Aborigines’ accumulated knowledge, spirituality, and wisdom, from when time began. The storyteller custodian’s role was really that of cultural educator.

While they are fascinating to hear, the structure and form of a traditional Dreamtime story is quite unique and cannot easily be copied. A Dreamtime story of ten minutes’ length can cover several topics and subject matters and be suitable for all age groups. They are structured with valuable lessons for children, or for bringing renewed understanding to older people.

For instance: twenty or more lessons can be found in a single story, teaching such subject matters as: the spiritual belief system, customs, animal behaviour and psychology, land map of the region, hunting and gathering skills, cultural norms, moral behaviours, survival skills and food resources.

Every genre of storytelling and hundreds of categories are used within Dreamtime stories. The stories: “Brolga” and “First Platypus” are excellent examples of Stranger Danger; “The Murray Cod”, is a Creation Map story; while “The Min Min Light”, is a Space story.

The Aboriginal community regularly sat under the stars at night around the campfire – following their evening meal – and listened to storytellers unfold the stories from the Dreamtime, or tell of daily happenings, such as hunts, battles, etc. The written word was unknown to these people, so the Aboriginal culture was an oral one. The storyteller’s role was not just to entertain but to preserve their culture, while educating the growing generation of children and young adults – in the history, traditional values and lore of their people.

Often the “aunties” (older women) told children stories, to help protect them from dangers – both inside and outside the boundaries of the camp – and to enforce the taboos and traditions of the clan. Women took the girls approaching puberty aside and taught them secret “women’s business”, preparing them for their roles as wives and mothers to the next generation. Many secret women’s stories were passed on at this time – stories that men could not be told.

The men taught the young boys stories of hunting, teaching vital information about survival and bushcraft that were embedded in the stories they told. Storytelling also played its part in the sacred initiation ceremonies where “secret” information was passed on to young boys approaching manhood. Women were not allowed to know these stories.

When telling the children stories, the storyteller gave no explanation of the meaning of them. All the stories they told carried hidden knowledge which reached down to a much deeper level of understanding.

Aboriginal storytelling is similar to our peeling of an onion. Familiarity with the story, peeled away different levels of knowledge until finally the vital information contained in the story would unfold. When people heard the stories again they were asked to repeat them to one another and gradually – with repetition – came understanding.

Some stories from the Dreaming – the song lines – rhyming couplets passed on information about their heritage of lands. Through story they learned vital survival information such as: how people found the sources of drinkable water and the mythology associated with it.

Often a storyteller told stories of how the figures of animals and people they saw amongst the stars above them came to live in the sky. Through stories they identified important stars that helped them navigate their way around the country, helping them to survive when in unfamiliar territory. Some were space stories that explained the arrival of showers of meteorites from outer space.

Through stories they learned the habits of all living creatures – animals, birds, fish, insects and plants – stories, which explained the creatures’ behaviour in certain seasons. Told in the form of oral stories, this information taught how these creatures fed and how to track them when out hunting for food. Through story they learned which berries and fruits were safe to eat, and when they were ripe for harvesting.

Stories told of the wild forces of nature, such as: the “whirlie whirlie” winds, violent electric storms, floods, and bushfire and how best to survive them; while stories, warned listeners of the dangers of witchcraft, magic and poisons. Stories told of battles and the heroic achievements of their ancestral warriors, while others told of sorcery and duplicity.

The storyteller custodian was very skilled and held a highly respected place in Aboriginal society. The stories they told had to be sufficiently entertaining, to hold their audiences’ attention.

When one is searching for a particular Aboriginal story, their storytelling appears complicated, because there are approximately 700 ways of telling the story; depending on the people, land region, type of country and the creature’s habitat. For instance: there are as many different versions of “How the Kangaroo Got Her Pouch” as there are of “Cinderella” in the European culture.

Some early European anthropologists who’d studied the Aboriginal people brought back some “secret men’s and secret women’s stories”, and “secret, sacred stories”, and published them, without first asking permission to use them. This, lack of understanding by outsiders of the significance of these sacred stories that were part of Aboriginal cultural property greatly offended the Aboriginal people, who had shared their deepest secrets.

Note: It is courteous if you find an Australian Aboriginal story you wish to tell to always attempt to find the source and ask permission from the Aboriginal Elders to tell it.

Gadi Mirrabooka – 33 Australian Aboriginal Tales From The Dreaming, was written and edited by Helen F. McKay. Aboriginal Storytelling Custodians, Elders: June Barker, Francis Firebrace, and (the late) Pauline McLeod, told the authentic stories included in the book.
See www.gadimirrabooka.com for details of the book.