If there is a sense, when tourists climb off the bus from the city and begin snapping photos of the tribesmen and women who live near Ayers Rock, that something sacred is being profaned, it is because the sightseers are ignorant of a realm of existence the Aborigine recognizes as omnipresent.
“Spirits are still in the land,” the natives caution the visitors, “the past and the present are now.”
But the cameras click, and the vacationers shop for souvenirs. The Aborigines appear more disheartened than threatened. These busloads of people are blind to a rich world flowing around and through them. How can they not be aware of it?
Of course, the tribesman sees it because his eye has been acutely trained to recognize it. From his youth, he has been engaged in a lifelong, ever-deepening initiation into “Dreamtime,” where all things simultaneously exist in past and present, and are concurrently worldly and divine.
The Divine Past
Eliade tells us that myth is always found “at the beginning of religion.” The Aborigine’s religion begins with the myth of the world’s creators, supernatural beings who also happen to be his ancestors. The Wulamba myth tells of the Djanggawul, who came from the land of the dead. These beings possessed enormous reproductive organs, that they dragged across the earth, forming valleys and ridges, with every movement and each location immortalized in the myth. The Djanggawul progeny ultimately became the Aborigines, who navigate this landscape still, and view its features as evidence of their primordial past. In replicating the movements of the
Djanggawul, their offspring observe what Eliade describes as “[their] present institutions and ceremonies,” and sustain a relationship with the supernatural ancestors who are said to have ascended to the heavens, from which they “supervise the tribe.”
The Worldly Present
It is this replication and relationship that imbues the Aborigine’s environment with divinity. Eliade says that “[Dreamtime] can be reactualized through ritual.” But, if the lay of the land is an imprint of the gods, and moving within it a replication of ancient events, then ritual becomes ubiquitous. This means the “fabulous primordial past” of the Dreamtime is also eternally present. It is not just replicated, it is “lived again,” with the native assuming the role of his ancestor god. When he traverses the crevices of the rocky beach, he is the Djanggawul in action, creating the world as he goes. His gaze focuses simultaneously on the present and the past, as every hill and gorge “reveal themselves as proofs of his first and glorious existence on earth.”
The Aborigine is not born with this ability to move simultaneously within two worlds. Instead, this consciousness is cultivated by the tribesmen, as the elder, fully indoctrinated men gradually reveal secrets of their faith to young initiates. Perhaps the youth is taught preparatory stories or songs when very young, but it is only near puberty that ceremonial rites begin to offer the full truth to the novitiate, and the process of revelation continues throughout his life. The knowledge he is given has been handed down through the generations, in an unbroken line pointing back to the gods and the dawn of mankind. And so it is the gods who teach him, the gods who return to the earth to regard it through the native’s eyes, and once again negotiate its terrain by way of the tribesman’s feet. In practicing his faith, the Aboriginal man brings the ontological experiences of his body into unity with the spiritual understanding of his mind, becoming the gods, and creating the world anew. The activating mechanism of his religion is simply the man’s “being” (living) at one in these two realms. And of course, when reality is understood in this way, it is correct to say that the gods are still alive, that there are “spirits in the land,” and that the “past and present are now.”
Eliade tells us that, for the Aborigine, informed by his faith, “it is always possible to be ‘oriented’ in a world that has a sacred history.” But his world and history only extend to the borders of where his “being” brings it to life – beyond that lie unknown regions which are excluded from the tribal world. It is from these unfamiliar lands that the tourists emerge, blindly taking photographs. But the Aborigines do not seem to resent the visitors, so much as pity them. “They are ‘new’ people,” they say among themselves. “They have not yet learned wisdom.”