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By Alfred de Grazia

Part Three: Working of the Mind



Towards the Napier Peninsula of Arnhem Land in Australia, there dwell a native people of the stone age, whose singing is the most developed of their arts. They are of the Wonguri linguistic group of the Mandzikai clan.

Their traditional songs are rich in myth and often very long. They are arranged in groups to form particular cycles. Although complete in itself, each song is related to a central theme. It reconstructs some event or portrays some happening of the traditional post.

There are sacred and secular song cycles, songs known only to the men or to the women respectively, or those of interest where both sexes join in and children take part. There are sacred ceremonial songs, secret songs, of the women, camp songs, love magic songs, children's songs. There are gossip songs and mourning songs, and songs for every event in a person's life.
Nearly all songs, even when... they are presented by one particular man in any given area, are for the collective entertainment or well-being of the whole community; and it is in this respect that we can observe one of their main functions, the bringing together of all or a section of the people for the purpose of expressing and renewing tribal unity and cohesion. The majority of songs, too, are correlated with ceremony and ritual, with dancing, and the use of certain objects, which explain or represent the events related in the songs.

There are secular and sacred song cycles but all partake of holy myths. Ronald M. Berndt, in reporting a classical Wonguri song, the Moon-Bone Cycle, writes that it is a secular version of some sacred songs of the moity, incorporated in a larger cycle for age-grading ceremonies.

It is in the sacred version that the full myth is explained, and the totemic beings and their actions are sung. In the Moon-Bone Cycle given here, the whole myth is viewed, so to speak, in retrospect.
If a sacred song cycle had been chosen much more discussion would have been involved, owing to the nature of religious concepts, to the extreme length of these cycles and to the fact that the majority of words in each song need extensive commentaries... The sacred singing (which we cannot discuss here) relates episodes of the Moon's adventures in the same region; these songs bring into perspective the concept of the Eternal Dreamtime.

In the dreaming period, the period where the utmost past and present are united, the Moon who was "one of us," lived with the Dugong, his sister the sea-cow, who was also one of us. The whole region was flat and became flooded in the wet season. There was a large clay-pan here and

the Moon, after making it, lived here, and later it became his reflection. Here the Moon and Dugong collected lily and lotus roots (which were to become the Evening Star). One day when the Dugong was collecting these edible roots, digging them out with her tail, the leech bit her. She returned to her brother and said: "This place is too dangerous for me, the leeches are always biting me. I like this country but the leeches spoil it for me. I am going out into the sea, where I will turn into a dugong."

"And what shall I do?" asked the Moon. "Why, Moon, you can stay in the sky; but first you must die."

"But I'm not going to die like other people," the Moon answered.

"Why do you not want to do that, brother?" asked the Dugong.

"I want to die and come back alive again," he told her. "All right. But when I die, I won't come back and you can pick up my bones."

"Well, I'm different," the Moon said. "When I die, I'm coming back. Every time I get sick I'll grow very thin; then I'll follow you down to the sea, and I'll go with you a long way out into that sea. And when I'm so thin that I'm only bones, I'll throw them away into the sea and die. But after three days, I'll get up again and become alive, and gradually regain my strength and size by eating lily and lotus roots."

"All right, brother," the Dugong answered. "You can stay in the sky, it is better for you."

The author resumes the tale: "At the same place of the Moonlight and of the Dugong, a little after the Dugong and Moon went out to sea, a large fight took place between the Totemic Beings." As the Kangaroo-men were living around the clay-pan, collecting lily and lotus roots, a Rat-woman gossiped to them that other men were coming to spear them, and went about "setting one group against the other for no reason at all." Each began to distrust the other. They began to dance war-dances and kill each other with spears. "Many of these Totemic Beings were killed, and they were unable to become alive as the Moon does; they followed the pattern the Dugong had set." They say that women today gossip like the Rat woman did, and start fights.

So the cycle of songs begins and goes on; both single words and songs are repeated frequently so that the whole cycle is rarely completed in one evening. "On such occasions, the song man becomes the teacher of a small group of men who are of his own particular clan and linguistic group. Stories relating to the songs are discussed, meanings are explained and the arrangement of words in a song taught by constant repetition." Sacred "inside" terms and "power names," as well as alternate and composite words occur in the songs, and what follows is a set of self-descriptive songs.

The Moon song is begun; the people camp in the area of the Moon and Dugong. They store their clubs as if preparing for the great battle of the Dreaming Period. They construct carefully shade coverings worthy of their important headman who is related to the Totemic Beings of the past. They gather like clouds and they work and rest. Then they venture onto the clay pan looking for roots and disturbing the birds there. The kangaroo-rats leave significant trails on the clay. Ducks come to leave eggs. The people dive into the waters for lotus and lily roots. The leeches loosen themselves and fasten to people. Prawns are burrowing all about. Tortoises swim. Berry-laden vines spread across the waters. Then night comes and the Moon rises and reminds them of the whole story (already told) of the Moon and Dugong. The Evening Star or Lotus Bloom rises and sets, held by its stalk to the place of the Moon, to whom it owes its attachment to the billabong or clay-pan. The song goes:

Now the New Moon is hanging, having cast away his bone: Gradually he grows larger, taking on new bone and flesh. Over there, far away, he has shed his bone: he shines on the place of the Lotus Root, and the place of the Dugong, On the place of the Evening Star, of the Dugong's Tail, of the Moonlight clay pan...

And Berndt says, "At the rising of the New Moon and the Evening Star the wooden 'trumpet' is blown, the singing sticks are beaten and the songs begin; the shuffling steps of dancing women are heard..." The Holy Dreamtime has begun. The group is now where it was in those days, illud tempus. Those were the days of creation, when, with intimations of catastrophe, the Moon and Venus rose into the sky, prompting the first human beings to war amongst themselves. Myth, music, and dancing begin to sublimate the otherwise unforgettable grave early events.


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