Songlines of the Australian Aborigals


“…the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Lore’.  This is Bruce Chatwin’s description of songlines.  It is a delightful blend of travel log, fiction and non-fiction.

When a song is sung in the proper sequence, the indigenous Australians are able to navigate huge distances. Australia is criss-crossed by songlines, some of them hundreds of kilometres long. They traverse through lands of many different tribes with different languages,  cultural traditions, totems. The song transfers from one tribe to another seamlessly through the  rhythm of the song. In effect the songs are a map of the land, the sacred sites, spiritual traditions and creation.

In Echoes of Dreamtime I wrote about Australian Aboriginal artwork. The authentic paintings are the visual evidence of Songlines in dot paintings. It is possible to view them as aerial maps of the landscape once you understand the symbology of the images.



Bruce travels outback Australia with the Russian Arkady Volchok whose job it is to map Aboriginal sacred sites. It will inform the building of a new railway between Alice Springs and Darwin.

In his travels he meets some very colourful and eccentric people. One of them is the first Aboriginal Catholic priest, Father Flynn. Or rather, the ex- priest, as Flynn grew to intensely dislike the white man and what was happening to his land, culture and people. He had some very loud and colourful clashes with the Mission priests. So he took matters into his own hands. A letter written in perfect Latin was sent to the Holy Father in Rome, whom he had met. In it he asked to be released from his vows. It was granted.

‘Flynn then wound  up the conversation by outlining the issue which had vexed so many anthropologists: the question of dual paternity.

Early travellers in Australia reported the Aboriginals made no connection between sex and conception…this of course was nonsense. A man knew very well who his father was. Yet there was, in addition, a kind of parallel paternity which tied his soul to one particular point in the landscape.

Each Ancestor, while singing his way across country was believed to have left a trail of  ‘life-cells’ or ‘spirit-children’ along the line of his footprints….

What you had to visualise was an already pregnant woman strolling about on her daily foraging round. Suddenly, she steps on a couplet {part of a songline}, the ‘spirit-child’ jumps up – through her toe-nail, up her vagina, or into an open callus on her foot – and works its way into her womb, and impregnates the foetus with song.

“The baby’s first kick,” he said, “corresponds to the moment of ‘spirit-conception’.”

Another character Bruce meets in his travels is the Irish Father Terence. ‘He was a short man, with reddish hair, what was left of it, and not too many flaky brown teeth. He wrapped the teeth in a hesitant smile…he offered to walk me along the beach. I took off my boots, hung them by the laces round my neck and the warm sand squeezed between my toes. Crabs scuttled sideways as we came close and there were flocks of waders which would flutter up and settle on ahead.

On a calm day he liked to snorkel for hours along the reef. The Customs’ boat had spotted him once – and mistaken him for a floating corpse. ‘And I was in birthday suit, I’m afraid.’

The artwork screened on the Sydney Opera House sails in this video starts around the two minute mark. Vivid Sydney Songlines  gives the background story of how this display came about. It also has  the full 16 minute version of this stunning display.

Bruce met Bruce, Proprietor of the Burnt Flat Hotel . He was not just eccentric. He was downright rude and at times nasty.  Bruce had  a scroll pinned onto the wall of his pub-

Yea, though I walk through

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

I will fear no Evil

For I, Bruce, am

The Meanest son of a Bitch in the Valley

Bruce was a mean S.O.B who did not take kindly to the aboriginal folk coming into his pub.

Hanlon gave Bruce a hard time of it when he called in to see him with Arkady.

“Whatzamattawithya?” he cackled. “Never seen a man naked before? Come on in, boys!”

For a man in his seventies, Hanlon looked in good shape. He was skinny, taut-muscled, with a short flat head and a craning neck. His hair was crew-cropped and white, and he would pat down the bristles with his hand. He had a broken nose, wore steel-framed spectacles , and spoke in a loud nasal voice.

We sat and he stood. He stared earnestly at his privates, scratched his crotch and bragged about a lady pharmacist he’d tupped in Tennant Creek.

‘Not bad for seventy-three! he looked down at himself. Serviceable knackers! Reasonable set of teeth! what more would an old man need?”

If you want to learn more about Australia, warts and all, and its rich indigenous heritage, I think you would enjoy Bruce Chatwin’s book.

© Raili Tanska

This is a reblog from Sept. 2016

Steps for Peace

Let us journey together in peace

Images from Pixabay


17 thoughts on “Songlines of the Australian Aborigals

    1. Nature speaks to the Indigenous people. Their history is embedded into it. You can’t ‘see’ it – it is felt, intuited; or in the case of the Indigenous folk, it is part of their Soul, hence the sacred sites.

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