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Songlines: Mapping the Journeys of the Creation Ancestors in Australia

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Songlines (known also as dreaming tracks) are believed by the Aboriginal people of Australia to be the journeys taken by the creation ancestors (or creator-beings) across the land during the Dreaming.

In the Australian Aboriginal belief system, the Dreaming was a point in time when the earth was being created. It is believed that during this period of time, the earth was a featureless void. Then, the creation ancestors emerged from the earth and sky, and began to travel across the land. In the process, they formed the landscapes, created living things, and even instituted the laws governing human society.

The paths of these ancient songlines are preserved in traditional songs, stories, dances, and art. This form of knowledge has been passed down from one generation to the next, and each Aboriginal group has its own set of songlines.

Navigating the Land

Songlines serve a variety of functions in the societies of the Australian Aboriginal people. One of the most famous of these is that the songlines served as a means for navigating the land. It has been asserted that by singing certain traditional songs in a specific sequence, people were capable of navigating the land, often travelling across vast distances across all types of terrain and weather, without getting lost. This is due to the fact that numerous features in the landscape are contained in the songlines, thus allowing them to be used as oral maps.

One Yolngu (an Aboriginal group inhabiting the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory) songline, for example, describes the path taken by Barnumbirr (a creation ancestor associated with the planet Venus) as she crossed the coast, bringing the first human beings to Australia from the east.

Yolngu use hollow logs in traditional burial rituals. They are also an important "canvas" for their art, Aboriginal Memorial.

Yolngu use hollow logs in traditional burial rituals. They are also an important "canvas" for their art, Aboriginal Memorial. ( NGA)

This song is contained in the Yolngu Morning Star ceremony, and includes the location of various features, such as mountains, waterholes, landmarks, and boundaries. Over time, as people followed the songlines, glyphs and etchings were left along these routes, which served as landmarks to aid future travelers in their journeys. This can be seen, for example, in Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, where many Aboriginal rock etchings have been discovered.

Routes Across the Sky

Instead of describing paths across the land, some songlines describe routes across the sky. The Euahlayi and the Kamilaroi (Aboriginal groups inhabiting the south-eastern part of Australia) possess such songlines.

Songlines from Chartwin’s Songlines.

Songlines from Chartwin’s Songlines. (travel-studies)

It is known that the Aboriginal people have been using the stars as directional points for navigation. With these songlines, however, the stars are used by the Euahlayi and the Kamilaroi as “a reminder of where songlines go, often months before they travel to their destination.” In some cases, the songs are said to contain instructions telling people how to navigate, as well as information for the identification of places on the ground with places in the sky.

Defining Groups

Apart from navigation, songlines also serve other important functions. For example, songlines help to define the various Australian Aboriginal groups. As mentioned previously, each Aboriginal group has their own unique set of songlines. These songlines in turn are said to define these various groups, including the land they live on, the laws they live under, and the ceremonies and obligations they have with relation to the land they live on.

Although the songlines allow the various Aboriginal groups to differentiate themselves from each other, they may also function as a unifying factor for them. It has been said that songlines transcend the borders of individual groups. One consequence of this is that peoples from neighboring language groups become connected to one another. Beliefs regarding the creation ancestors and the laws relating to them are shared, and cultural knowledge between these groups may be exchanged, hence enriching each group.

It has also been pointed out that the songlines can be mapped. For this undertaking to succeed, however, major consultation between the different Aboriginal groups is required, as each group possesses its own set of songlines. It is only through co-operation that such a grand map of songlines may be produced, creating “a kind of cultural network of stories that ties all of Aboriginal Australia together.”               

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