Sunday, June 9, 2024

Australian names of the shaman, and astral apprenticeship


Anthropologist R.M. Berndt visited the Menindee Aboriginal Station on the Darling River in New South Wales in 1943 and sat with two Wuradjeri elders who were willing to talk to him in detail about the qualities and practices of "native-doctors". Jack King belonged to the mallee hen totem, Joe Biggs to the bandicoot. Berndt's informants told him that you can always tell a medicine-man by the intelligent look in his eyes, and that great ones are enveloped in a peculiar atmosphere which causes people to feel different. In his lengthy field report Berndt noted that

"A Wuradjeri native-doctor was called wiri:nan ('powerful man') bugi:nja ('spirit' or 'spirit of the whirlwind') since it was the custom of his spirit-self to travel in a whirlwind; ki:ka:wi:lan, or more generally walemira, translated as 'the clever one.' The word walemira meant not only clever in the ordinary manner of speaking, but also intellectually clever, and having the ability, with the help of spirit and psychic agencies, to perform wondrous feats, the way in which these were carried out being incomprehensible to the lay observer.
He was also called walemira'talmai (i.e. "one to whom cleverness has been handed on" or "the passing on of cleverness") which refers to the 'power' which his forebears, through their own extraordinary capabilities and guidance, had passed on or handed down to him." Berndt observed that this language laid stress on the fact that "the initiation of the native-doctor was insufficient without the possession of that 'power' which had been derived from one's predecessors and which had its orogin in the far-distant past." [1]

The psychic power of the clever man "enabled him to thrust his mind forward into the future, into the spirit-world, or over great distances, purely for its own exercise.  With his power  he could know of some incident taking place a great distance away, at the very moment of its occurrence." [2]

The apprenticeship of a clever man began in early childhood, when the elders noticed signs of vocation - something in the eyes, dreams of the departed, how birds and bush animals behaved around the kid, lizard-quick intelligence and ability to disappear. By the age of ten, the apprentice's most important lessons were conducted in dreaming, through astral encounters with a clever man who agreed to play mentor and guardian. The guardian met the spirit (waranun) of the candidate and guided it on excursions beyond the body. One of Berndt's informants told him, "when the little fellow is asleep, the father [guardian, not necessarily a close relative] takes him every night; he has got to fix him up when the child is young. His spirit takes the spirit of the child and they go away together. Their bodies are still lying alseep in the camp." [3]

Preparation for the day when the guardian would sing one of his own spirit animals into the novice's body, joining the totem animal he had from birth. The spirit animal was visible to the receiver, who might see it being pressed betwen his ribs or into his abdomen. Master and novice could now go dreamwalking together in the form of their companion animals. 

The candidate was not yet a made man, a clever man. He would normally be between twenty and thirty years old when his guardian received a dream of calling on his behalf - a dream in which Baiami, a creation being who came from the sky and was regarded as the master of all master shamans, announced his will. Other clever men received similar dreams on behalf of postulants under their care. They met together in a special place and sang for Baiami to come out of the sky. The sky Ancestor showed himself, looking no different from other clever man except for the light that blazed from his eyes, and the sacred fluid (kali) that streamed from his mouth like liquid crystals to bathe all the candidates. As it dried, feathers sprouted from their arms, turning them into wings. 

One by one, they were called from the camp to meet Baiami up close. He gave them flying lessons. He performed shamanic implant surgery on them. He sang crystals into the third eye, so they could see inside things and across any distance. He sang fire into their chests. 

Back at the camp, they each had a magic cord, probably made from human hair (Berndt does not say) twisted around their necks, ends touching their feet. The cord was sung inside them. They learned to let it out, like a snake, and shoot it in any direction like a spider's webbing thread. On nights when there was no important clever work to be done, they could show off by seeming to walk on air, with the cord stretched invisibly between trees.  [4] Not for show was how they might use it as a psychic lasso.

Berndt observed that among the Wuradjeri there were "clever women" as well as "clever men". He stated that their roles appeared to be more restricted but then there were no doubt aspects of a female shaman's business a male white anthropologist was not permitted to see.

1. R.M. Berndt, "Wuradjeri magic and 'clever men'" Oceania vol. 17 no.4 (June, 1947) 331-2..
2. ibid, 331. 
3. ibid, 333.
4. ibid, 342 

Top: Satellite photo of Menindee Lakes. It looks so much like an Aboriginal painting that you might wonder whether some of those artists rendered landscapes they had seen in ecstatic flight. 
Botton: Eastern barred bandicoot by John Goold.

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