March 5, 2012

Aboriginal Stories of Australia, Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales, and Aboriginal Words of Australia (#90-#88)

Aboriginal Stories of Australia, Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales, and Aboriginal Words of Australia by A.W. Reed

What I said then:

They’re pretty much what they say on the tin, collections of Aboriginal dreamtime fables. I originally bought them as research for a long-delayed writing project.

What I say now:

Okay, I'm no expert at this sort of stuff, but the universality to the stories in these collections was pretty mind-blowing. By that I mean, if you replaced boomerangs and nulla-nullas with spears and swords, and swapped Wahn the mischievous crow for an evil witch, and changed the tribal elders to Kings and Queens, the vast majority of these dreamtime stories would be pretty much indistinguishable from a tale out of the Brothers Grimm. No matter who we are, or which corner of the globe our descendants wandered to back in the dawn of man, we all tell the exact same sorts of stories to try and explain the world around us.

That's pretty amazing to me. Aboriginal Australians arrived on this continent somewhere between 40,000 and 125,000 years ago, and never had contact with any outside influence until the late eighteenth century. And yet, despite that enormous gap when they were evolving separately, the stories they told around their camps were, in every narrative essential, exactly the same as the people of Europe (at this point I should admit my ignorance of the rest of the world's mythologies). It's not surprising that Joseph Campbell collated folktales from all over the world to create the idea of the 'monomyth' --- what's surprising is that it took someone so long to twig that we were all telling the same stories all along. If you ever needed more evidence that the very idea of racism is ridiculous, the universal nature of these stories would, I imagine, make anybody who reads them more aware of the fact that deep deep down, we are all the same. Heck, there's even one story, titled The Coming of Death, which is a nearly exact replica of the story of Adam and Eve.

(It's worth noting that these stories were all collected by white men, and it's impossible for a casual reader like me to know how much the narratives have been changed from their original form. It is certainly possible that the story's collectors and translators have adapted the tales to fit a more European narrative form, which could at least partially explain the universality I'm talking about. To get a definitive answer on that point would take a hell of a lot of time and research, but I feel it would be remiss of me to leave it unremarked. Reed's versions contain one element which points to this ambiguity: when specific geographical locations are mentioned, he uses their current names. It's hard not to realise that there's been editorialising by a white man when you're reading an ancient fable that's been given the title How the Murray River Was Made.)

One other fascinating element to these stories was the way that animals were once men, who had turned into animals as punishment for their misdeeds in a sort of reverse evolution. Many of them begin with the different animals in human form, then use the narrative to explain how each animal gained their unique characteristics. Why the kookaburra laughs in the morning, for example, or why koalas don't have tails, or where the galah got its unique plumage. Often devolving from human to animal is a punishment dished out by Baiame, the Great Spirit, or one of the other God-like beings that populate the sky. Often it's not actually possible until the end of a story to tell if it is about animals, or about dreamtime humans with animal names.

I probably shouldn't have include Aboriginal Words of Australia on my list of books to read in the first place. I'd thought it included essays and analysis of the language differences within the continent, but I was remembering wrong. It was actually just an alphabetical list of words, like a two-way dictionary, so obviously I didn't bother reading that. Apologies for the faulty memory (but I'm not too sorry, because hey, that's one more book down).

Anyway, reading these was a fascinating experience, and has me wanting to better explore and understand Aboriginal culture, as well as explore the oral histories and folk traditions of other regions of the world. And I should probably give Joseph Campbell a look as well, I guess.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
books to go: 87