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by Vicki Grieves

(Aboriginal) traditions embody a unique and profound view of reality that may even now be developed by Aboriginal scholars to enrich the mainstream of human thought. The skills are precisely what the nation needs to appreciate and to conserve a unique environment in real danger. - Charles Rowley 1970

Like all human societies, Aboriginal society has operated on a core set of values and beliefs that are complex and that form the basis for religious practice and ways of being and doing. This philosophy constitutes a set of "truths" for people that define the parameters of knowledge, reality and cultural practice.

Human culture is learned, shared and complex. It is continually adapting beliefs, values, attitudes, language, patterns of thought and communication, religion and knowledge as well as tools and technology. Adaptation is a human response to changes in the environments in which they live. Aboriginal society has never been static but it has been essentially non-materialist and extremely conservative of the environment.

The colonial encounter has meant that Indigenous cultures, including the Aboriginal Australian, have been robbed of their integrity and viability by implying that they are not as advanced as that of the colonising power. It has been through the colonial encounter that terms such as primitive, pre-literate, stone age, underdeveloped have been used to imply that Indigenous cultures are simplistic and unworthy. Similarly, Aboriginal religious practice has been characterised as simple, crude and irrational, from a Christian and Eurocentric perspective, and has been variously described by terms such as magic, shamanism fetishism, animism, pre-animism and totemism that often fail to explain its true worth and significance.

In contemporary times, in the context of ongoing colonisation, we tend to measure other cultures against the lifestyles and values of the modern capitalist consumer societies. An alternative would be to measure the worth of societies and their philosophical bases by considering their longevity. A feature of many early civilisations is that they have sealed their own doom by an exploitation of the natural environment.{1} By contrast, Aboriginal civilisation has been notable for its survival over at least 80,000 years.

The key to this survival lies in Aboriginal philosophy, expressed in religious practice that has been paramount in peoples' day-to-day lives, informing all their actions. For any human society: " religion represents a symbolic view of people and their universe which regulates their actions, supports them in crisis, orders their lives, gives their actions meaning and validity - it represents their conception of the world" (Eckerman 1995)

For Aboriginal people, this is embodied in the canon left by the supreme beings who created the landscape, all species and humans, transmitted in an oral culture and commonly known in English as "the law".

The concept of the Dreaming
Aboriginal religious philosophy has come to be called "the Dreaming " in English. This was the understanding reached by the early anthropologists Spencer and Gillen from their research published as The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899). Arrente elders had endeavoured to explain the basis of their religious philosophy to them by describing the alcheringa, their religious philosophy, as the mythic times of the ancestors of the totemic groups. They had not initially grasped its full meaning and later Spencer explained that this past mythic time was only a part of the meaning of alcheringa, that it also meant "dream". Since then it was commonly adopted by Aboriginal people across Australia that the ancestral heroes, their past times and everything associated with them is encapsulated in the English language word "Dreaming". While there is an equivalent concept to the Arrente alcheringa in Awabakal, it is not known to the author at this time.

Thus Aboriginal philosophy comes from the time of creation when the world was very "mixed up" and not at all like it is in modern times. Supreme beings, great ancestors who were human, animal and bird all at the same time, anthropomorphs, were powerful enough to create order in this chaos. These ancestral heroes are responsible for life itself; life that arose in a time when all the natural species, the land and humans, were part of the same ongoing life force. They had powers to turn themselves into geographic or natural features, they descended into the ground and reappeared as a species of bird or animal, or as a waterhole, or they ascended into the sky and became constellations. As they moved around they created all the species, humans, the landscape and all the features of it, then they tended to settle down and remain as a feature of the landscape.

For the Awabakal, the supreme being who created their world is Biame, part human and part kangaroo or wallaby. In a rock cave on Bulgar Creek near Singleton Biame is depicted in a drawing approximately eight feet high as if his legs and arms are lying on the ground. The perpendicular lines drawn under the arms, three on right and four on the left, represent the seven tribes of the region for whom this supreme being had great significance: Worimi, Awabakal, Wonarua, Gamillaroi, Darkinjung, Gringai (Matthews 1893; Heath 1998).

The sites which mark the resting place or activity of the supreme beings have become special or sacred places. These are the places of the spirits of creation, where their spirit lives on, totem sites, with meaning described by the stories for that place, and the place from which the spirit of the new born child comes. Through the totemic site an Aboriginal person comes to have identity, an understanding of his/her relationship with the natural world and other human beings. Those people connected to it have sacred obligation to its upkeep, such as repainting the figures, and performing appropriate ceremonies. The stencilled hand prints of the custodians on the Biame cave wall are often freshened to this day; the area outside the cave a bora ring for ceremonies. (Matthews 1893; Heath 1998)

This concept has connected Aboriginal people inextricably to the land and all of creation and into a set of obligations and cultural practices that ensured the conservation of the natural world. All Aboriginal people are related to the species and to the landscape as kin, through the process of being born from a totemic site, as are the species to whom one is related.

Through totemism , everything - humans, animals, land, weather (sun, wind, rain), moon, sky, stars - belongs to a conceptual, spiritual and social whole. Thus it is that Aboriginal societies across Australia have a culture that accords metaphysical primacy to place rather than time. Thus, while Europeans ignore the Aboriginal notion of being in the world, of connectedness to place, kin, community, all species and the natural world, they have insisted on the perspective of time and history.

Stories, songs and ceremonies recreate Dreaming, explain the laws left for the people by the supreme beings and fulfill sacred obligations to kin, the species and the landscape. The conceptual framework of this philosophy is expressed through ceremonies that include:

  • Increase ceremonies - expressing human ties and responsibilities to land;
  • Initiation rites - the ways of making men and women in the proper way of knowledge and awareness
  • Mourning ceremonies - which guide spirits back to their sacred, totem site;
  • Healing and harming - which call on the power of the spirit ancestors to assist.

In colonial contexts the stories of the Dreamtime and supreme beings have been often portrayed in English as stories for children when they are in fact the expression of a profound and deeply held philosophy.

It is important to note that the core of Aboriginal philosophy and religious practice is subject to secrecy and knowledge on a "need-to-know" basis. Within Aboriginal society people are chosen as the eventual repositories of such knowledge, often over many years of proving their worth. There is much that is not known to the broader Australian society and non-Indigenous researchers such as those whose published work appears on this site, often have incomplete and sometimes puzzling information. Enright's account of Worimi peoples' behaviours around secrecy, when he was attempting to collect inforamtion from them, are informative of this. (Enright 1936)

Often the terms that are used in English are inadequate to the task of explaining Aboriginal ways of being and doing. For example, the term "trade" is inadequate to explain the complex system of ceremonial and obligatory gift giving that occurs in a society based around the fundamental value of "giving" as the primary motivation. There is no aim for a surplus, or to store more than is immediately required or to receive tribute from others - the impetus is to give, status comes from sharing. Similarly, one does not "own" land but rather is a part of it from creation and bound to ceremonial obligation and custodianship from the original "kinship" that flows from once having been at one with the land and all of creation. This is the basis of life.

Interpretations of Aboriginal ways of being and doing through western consciousness is often inadequate. For example, how to comprehend a society that is at once highly prescriptive of behaviours through philosophy and religious practice backed up by swift, apprehended punishments, and also lacking in heirachial authority, prizing a high level of individual and family group autonomy? In Aboriginal society group agreement or consensus is developed over extended periods of communication and is not designed for group decision-making but rather as an agreed position and a guide to future decisions by individual family groups.

Aboriginal philosophy is a wholistic template for living in the Australian environment, for the conservation of the species and the natural world, for minimising conflict in human relations and for ensuring the continuation of the conditions for survival. Aboriginal understandings of the process of creation and of peoples' place in the natural world, which does, after all, sustain all of humankind, is a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration for all peoples. Finally, Aboriginal "law" is fixed, immutable and constant:

One cannot fix the Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhere. We should be very wrong to try to read into it the idea of a Golden Age or a Garden of Eden, though it was an age of heroes, when the ancestors did marvellous things that men can no longer do…...clearly the Dreaming is many things in one…….among them a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for (Aboriginal) man.
- W E H Stanner 1979

Eckerman A Introduction to Aboriginal Societies 1995
Hiatt L R Arguments about Aborigines: Australia and the evolution of social anthropology Cambridge: University Press, 1996
Rowley C D The Destruction of Aboriginal Society 1970
Stanner W E H White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938 - 1973 1979

Further reading
Bell Diane Daughters of the Dreaming 1983
Hume Lynne Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness and Aboriginal Australia 2002 for stories of the Dreaming

{1} An interesting recent discussion of this issue by Prof Jared Diamond of UCLA, though he does not include Indigenous Australian civilisation in this discussion, can be located at:


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Citation: D.A. Roberts, H.M. Carey and V. Grieves, Awaba: A Database of Historical Materials Relating to the Aborigines of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie Region, University of Newcastle, 2002
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Last Updated: 23 January, 2003
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