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Australian Mythology - Summary

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

FROM a consideration of the Australian cosmogonic myths alone, the inference was drawn that the central and north-ern portions of the continent exhibited a type of mythology which was unlike the southern and eastern; and this conclusion is, on the whole, strengthened by the evidence derived from the animal and miscellaneous tales. The former class of explanatory myths appears to be much more fully evolved in the southern and eastern portions of the continent than in the central and northern; where, on the other hand, we find a high development of the peculiar type of tales which recount both the origin of the totemic ancestors by coming up out of the ground, and their wanderings and activities as instructors in ceremonial and social usages. In the central area the great bulk of all the mythology so far published is concerned with the doings of these totem ancestors, and there is a relative absence of tales relating to heroes or mythological personages which are not directly associated with limited groups of people, but are the common property of the whole tribe. Totem clans and ceremonies form an integral part of the organization and life of the southern and eastern tribes just as they do in the central area, but they do not so completely dominate the mythology. In the distribution of particular tales or incidents, in like manner, there are certain ones which belong to one or other of the two main areas, but relatively few which are common to both. Thus the distinction between the central and northern areas on the one hand, and the southern and eastern on the other, which has been recognized on linguistic grounds, apparently finds a fair parallel in the mythology.

When we come to compare the Australian myths with those of the other portions of the Pacific area, one or two points seem to stand out clearly. Resemblances to Melanesia, both in general type and in specific details, are most marked in the southern and eastern portions of the continent. Only here, apparently, do we meet with such themes as the swan-maiden or the arrow-chain; and it is here that the animal stories are most abundant, and that we find cosmogonic tales referring to the creation both of the world and of man. The closest affiliation of Australian mythology with that of Melanesia seems to be with the Melanesian rather than with what has been tentatively called the Papuan. There seems, however, to be little trace of the wide-spread Melanesian dualistic ideas as revealed in the tales of the wise and foolish brothers; al-though possible suggestions of this may be found in some of the Queensland myths or in the New South Wales stories of the two Brams. The mythology of the central and northern portions of Australia, on the other hand, stands more or less alone; and so far as its peculiar tales of totem ancestors are concerned, it seems to be unique. In its lack of cosmogonie tales and in its numerous myths which are restricted to relatively small local groups or classes in the community it shows many resemblances to the Papuan type as this has been defined in Melanesia, although the similarity is not very striking. The task of unravelling the relationships of Australian mythology is made much more difficult by the complete lack of all knowledge of Tasmanian beliefs and of those of the western and south-western portions of the Australian continent. If, as seems probable, the Tasmanians represented in their isolation the oldest stratum of the Australian population, it was from them, and from them alone, that a knowledge of really aboriginal mythology could have been obtained. Cultural, linguistic, and physical evidence clearly shows that the present inhabit-ants of the continent are a mixture of this earliest stratum with at least two groups of invaders. The linguistic data have been taken to indicate that the central and northern tribes is the later of these groups and represents a Papuan wave from New Guinea; but on the basis of mythology it would seem that an alternative hypothesis is rather more in accord with the facts, and that the central and northern tribes represented the earlier (and presumably Papuan) group, driven back into the less favourable portion of the continent by a wave of Melanesian peoples spreading from the north-east, thus repeating a process which had already taken place in Melanesia itself. It is very difficult, however, to harmonize this view with the evidence derived from other sources, and we cannot hope for a solution until such time as we possess adequate information in regard to the mythology, culture, and physical characteristics of the Papuan tribes of Melanesia.

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