Aboriginal Tradition, Geomythology and the Importance of Place



I recently read a Smithsonian article that suggests the legends of the Aboriginal Australians (Aborigines) could hold some crucial information for scientists about geographical landmarks of previous scientific events, specifically where meteorite impacts have occurred. Here’s the article:


What I found most interesting about the article was my introduction to the term “geomythology.” Geomythology is a study of legends and myths that refer to occurrences of scientific interest. For example, this particular article talks about the site of a meteorite impact in Australia. An Aboriginal tale about the spot warns not to drink the water from the pools of rainwater there, for a “debil-debil” (devil) will fill your belly with iron. Scientists believe that this myth, preserved through the oral tradition, could be based on a living memory of an event that occurred thousands of years ago.

Geomythology is not to be confused with etiological myths. Geomythology considers myths that point directly to geological and/or astronomical events, which document natural disasters or phenomena. Etiological myths tell the stories that connect the origins and the geographical landscape of a people with their traditions. So, while a geomythical story would be an integral piece of the mythological base for a particular culture, it would have particular interest to a geologist looking for data to understand a particular landscape; other myths, such as how a particular mountain got there, and how that mountain relates to a tribe’s value system, is for the anthropologist.

Certainly the Aborigines’ myths should be rife with geomythical content, but I’d be remiss not to take this opportunity to bring up the astoundingly beautiful etiological mythic tradition of these people. Their stories are not only connected to the land, they are embedded in the land. Some cultures do use their physical environment in such a way, the rhythm and narrative structure of their stories directly connected to their sense of place. Within their stories, the people themselves as well as animals, trees, or other landmarks are all equally significant characters. Their storylines are referred to as “Dreamtime,” and not only document their cultural values, but also the animate nature of the land around them. In this dream space where their story-telling occurs, the past, present, and future are woven together to connect the people with their ancestors, future generations, and the land.

In fact, when Aborigine guides are asked to tell their stories outside of the context of their physical environment, or if they are being driven through the landscape and asked to retell a tale, they often are unable to do so: the stories cannot be told without the storyteller being in a particular place for a particular point of the narrative. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram writes:

Such anecdotes make vividly evident the felt correspondence between the oral language and the landscape, and alliance so thorough that the speaker must pace his stories or songs to match the speed with which he moves through the terrain…it is not the native person who speaks, but rather the land that speaks through him as he journeys across it.

So, not only are their myths deeply connected to their land, the land is a part of the ineffable sacredness that allows them to dream the world into existence, and connect them with timeless life.


One of the origin myths of the Aborigines goes something like this: In the beginning was a dark world called Il-ba-lint-ja, where a man named Ka-ro-ra slept. Ka-ra-ro dreamed the light and all the colors of the world into existence. Just to let you know, he also dreamed a whole bunch of bandicoots into existence:


Then he cooked them in the sun and ate them, and when he got lonely, he dreamed a bullroarer:


which fell out of his armpit and turned into his son. Those details aren’t important to my point, which I have, but I thought I’d throw them in there for entertainment value. There is also a part where everyone drowns in honey, but now I’m really off track…

Here’s my point: don’t forget about place. And I don’t mean theoretical “place,” I mean actual “place.” We are more than our ideas, and myth often serves to remind us of that. We should never assume that the geography of our stories aren’t significant, nor that our stories’ inspirations are geographically transferable. When I remember stories from my life, I’m pretty sure I always begin with where I was at that time in my life. And when I read a story, I always look for the textual clues that help me develop a picture of the place. Whether the stories we tell are geomythical, and indicate a significant geological event in our history, or simply make a particular place important to the story, we should be ever mindful of our worldly anchors that make our dreams real.


3 thoughts on “Aboriginal Tradition, Geomythology and the Importance of Place

  1. So interesting, and it jogged my memory of my summer at Harvard studying the Tain Bo Cullaigh and ancient Irish mythology. “Place” was an integral part of the Tain story, one which, at the time, I did not appreciate. Your essay helps to make it all clear! Thanks for that!

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