Art / Australia / Civilization / Dance / Education / History / Music / Mythology / Poetry / Politics / Racism

Old Songs

File:Ships and kangaroo on crocodile - Google Art Project.jpg

The history of what happened to the first nations of Australia at the hands of the Europeans is a sad and cruel one and it is not really over yet, a story of genocides, murder, enslavement, suppression, cultural destruction, a story of crimes, but I am not in the position to tell this history since my knowledge of it is, at present, still quite limited.

However, I want to make a  note on the oral literature of the ancient Australians. I first became interested in this topic in the 1980s out of a general interest in linguistics that caused me to have a look into some books about Australian languages. The more I read about it, the more fascinated I became. But there is always some feeling of sadness mixed in.

In one of those books ((R.M.W Dixon – The languages of Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1980) I read:

Typically, every community has a number of cycles of stories and songs. […] For instance, Ronald Berndt describes the Djang’kawu myth that is associated with the Dhuwa moiety amongst Yolngu-speakers in Eastern Arnhem Land. There is a prose narrative and about 200 songs (each of about 10 – 40 lines), portraying the explorations of three ancestral beings…

Let’s make some rough calculations based on this. There must have been about 600 groups with about 200 different languages among them, many of which are now extinct or on the brink of extinction. Assume that there were 5 such story- and song cycles per group. If the number of 200 songs is typical and the average length of a song is 20 lines, that would be about 4000 lines of poetry in one cycle. Times 5 makes about 20000 lines. Times 600 gives us more than one Million lines of poetry, embedded into several thousand stories.

I don’t know if this is an overestimate, but even if it might have been less, the amount of stories and poetry lost is staggering. These songs had melodies and music to them. There was dance and ceremonies, and sometimes associated paintings. The performance of a complete cycle of stories and songs could have taken several days.

The total amount of this oral literature, if written down, might have filled one bookshelf. Our modern culture has a million times more information in it. But how much of that does each of us actively know?

The average western couch potato is culturally passive, a mere consumer. The word “primitive” comes to mind if I think of some of the average westerners I see every day, but I want to avoid that word because of its bad history.

The average ancient Australian, on the other hand, knew all that poetry of his community by hart. Somebody who knows several thousand lines of poetry by hart is, by any means, a highly learned, cultured and refined person deserving respect and admiration.

We live in a culture that maximizes consumption, but does not give us much meaning and makes many of us culturally passive. These people, on the other hand,  lived a comparatively simple life in terms of their material culture but were culturally sophisticated and active members of a culture that provided meaning. Their culture was sustainable and survived for thousands of years, while our culture, on the other hand, is destructive and on the way to self-destruction.

But probably there is no way back. For most members of Australian first nations, going back to the old life style is probably no option, although some parts of the old cultures have survived in some places. But in any case, there is reason for them to be proud of the traditions of their ancestors and there is reason for all other Australians to respect them.

Efforts must be made to preserve what has remained of the old cultures and efforts should be made to teach all Australians about it. In fact, knowing something about this should be part of the general education of all of us.

A culture that requires for its members to learn thousands of lines of poetry is demanding; in our culture, only specialists, like actors, will learn so much text by hart. Aboriginal Australians must find out for themselves what role the ancient culture can play in their lives in the future. But since this was a culture that emphasized, like few others, the education of each member into a learned person, it might play some role in the resurrection of these battered people.

At this time, many aboriginal Australians, deprived from the riches of the culture of their ancestors and refused full participation in modern life, live at the margins of society. Many end up homeless or in prison.

Guilt, I think, cannot be inherited, but it can be renewed if the injustice created by one generation is not tackled by the next. The attitude of the Australian society towards its first nations has to change. On the other hand, there might also be a need for aboriginal Australians to change their attitude to themselves. Lack of pride and self-confidence is probably part of the problem, resulting in problems like alcoholism and violence.

Racism is an as-if-construction in which people pretend that they are different and are of different value. One side of the society looks down on the other, as if they had no value, and many of those affected, it seems to me, look down on themselves the same way. But racism only works if people swallow the dirt thrown at them. They should stop doing so.

And if they look at the cultural heritage of their ancestors, even if only a fraction of it has survived, there would be every reason for them to be proud.

Australian songs are not epic, they typically describe a single scene. They are like illustrations to a book. They are lyrical. In translation of poetry a lot is always lost, the more so if it comes from a totally different language and culture. You can only get a glimpse, especially without the context of mythology and ceremony into which this was embedded; but nevertheless, here is a translation of one of the songs from the Djang’kawu cycle mentioned above:

Splashing, a fish swishes its tail as it rises, close to the whale’s ‘whiskers’.

A splashing catfish, turning over on to its belly…

From Bralgu, from the mouth of the whale…

It splashes, its spike protrudes as it swims before the gaping mouth of the whale,

Splashing and chasing it, ‘I (says the whale) am splashing. I chase this fish under the water.’

Touching the fish with its ‘whiskers’. The catfish splashes…

Splashes before the open mouth of the whale,

Spraying, dragging its spike through the sea…

And the noise of the sea, being churned up…!

Waves rising and splashing, caused by the fish…

Noise of the water and foam from that fish…

Waves spreading out, spraying and splashing, caused by the fish…

File:Red ochre fish - Google Art Project.jpg

(The top pictures are from


6 thoughts on “Old Songs

  1. This is wonderful. I agree that we as westerners are the primitives and that the ancient people, where native American, native African or Australian have or had access to higher culture beyond the average so called modern day consumer.

    • Not to forget the San people and other similar groups of southern Africa.
      I think that modern civilization opens the possibility of becoming culturally lazy. This possibility probably arose already when economies evolved that had a higher amount of division of labour. You then have cultural specialists, like bards, druids, priests, griots etc. With the invention of writing, the texts are then put out of the heads and into the books. The total amount of information in the culture goes up but the average amount of information in the heads goes down. With radio and TV, many people who had made their own music and entertainment before now don’t learn that again. The endpoint of this development is the aptly named couch potato.
      It is really ironic. Australia was inhabited by highly educated people whom the Europeans perceived as naked savages and the Europeans who came (many of them prisoners and convicts) thought themselves to be civilized but where probably in many cases totally uneducated members of the British underclass. Unfortunately, they where superior in their weapons technology.

      • The last part of the comment explains westerns ‘superiority’ over every indigenous people of a land they invaded. We talk of ‘advancement’ but I am 100% sure we are in fact, regressing in so far as valuing earth, culture and spirit.

  2. I like your treatment of such matters as cultural richness. Whereas it may not be possible to relieve these ways, it is good to learn what it is the ancients knew and did and why they did them if only to inform the present.
    Great post mate.

  3. Pingback: Increasing the Bandwidth | The Asifoscope

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