Aboriginal Magic

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."

In Australia I have come across many examples of influential Aboriginal female elders being labelled by Christian missionaries as "witches" or, if men, as "witchdoctors". For example, at Philip Creek in Central Australia, the missionaries in the 1970s labelled the traditional female practice of "love magic" or yilpinji as "witchcraft" and called its practitioners "witches". Some Aboriginal men had since used this missionary labelling against women, in order to diminish the power and influence of the women. (Bell p 162) Much the same may have happened in 18th Century England when the "Cunning Folk" who serviced many local communities with magic and were mostly male, disparaged the mostly female practitioners as "witches". (Ref Hutton latest 98)

The Aboriginal women's love magic employed songs and chants centred on the power of one's country or of nature. In these songs, they might use "country" as a metaphor for a loved one. They would sing of their longing for their country, their sorrow at its absence and their anticipation of seeing it again.

Bell wrote: "Yilpinji is achieved through a creative integration of myth, song, gesture and design against a background of country. The circle, the quintessential female symbol, finds expression in the body designs, the rolling hands gesture and patterns traced out by the dancing feet... Ownership of myth and the rights to perform certain rituals provide the power base for the women's claims. ... in yilpinji the women (describe their social world and ) attempt to shape their world." P 173-5 Bell. For example, a woman who wants rid of a husband because he is playing around, may ask her group to perform yilpinji to help make him leave her. Yilpinji, love magic, is invariably based in the empowering link with land possessed by everyone in Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal women might also attempt to help restore a person to health by gifting them with something that carried their own energy. This could be a gift of blood or body secretions from under the arms or from the eyes. (P161). Some senior healers, known in Central Australia as ngankayi, worked in a different way. They were believed to have special abilities in the removing of foreign bodies from the sick person's body. (which Western medicine might partially agree with - calling these foreign bodies germs or bacteria) Blood from a person causing an injury in a fight might be kept by the victims and later used in a revenge magical attack. Aboriginal people believe that they live in a world full of Ancestral Dreamtime energy and, as part of this world, they have access to this energy.

At Mapoon the missionaries wrote of "Awari (Lizard) or better known as old William, the witch doctor and rainmaker. The other is Namatu (Crocodile) .. Namatu's bearing is dignified ... he takes a leading part in the midnight councils and is held in esteem by all. Under these circumstances it seems strange that although he has been greatly influenced by the preaching of the Gospel... he has never openly confessed Christ." (P51 M.book 2)

The anthropologist Professor Robert Tomkinson, in a marvellous study of the Jigalong Aboriginal community in Western Australia entitled: "The Jigalong Mob: Aboriginal victors of a desert campaign" (1974), told of how Aboriginal people kept their religion intact despite the missionaries trying to suppress it since "the missionaries view the Aborigines as the children of he devil and the antithesis of Christian virtues". Tomkinson's work is very different in kind from that of the first Professor of Anthropology in Australia, A. K. Radcliffe-Brown who was a student of Emile Durkheim. He wrongly reported that in Aboriginal culture the world of the sacred is reserved to men while women had no religion, only "magic."

Through my work with Aborigines I learnt to much respect the magical way both the women and men worked with nature, drawing on the strength of the earth that cared for them and which they in turn cared for and honoured. Without any drama I had felt I was becoming more and more immersed in this same magic - not by joining in Aboriginal rituals but by simply associating with them, taking part in their fight for land rights and learning to become more and more sensitive to the energies within this vast ancient landscape. It was not my continent by birth right but it was part of the earth that birthed me. I fell in love with her as I got to know her better. My conviction also grew that was that what I was learning from Aborigines was akin to the oldest traditions of my own people of the British Isles.

Aborigines had their own words for healers and magic work. Since they knew the word "witchcraft" from missionaries who translated it into their language as meaning "a worker of harmful and evil magic", those who held fast to the Old Ways might well deny their spiritual work was anything to do with this missionary defined word "witchcraft.". This is also true among other "missionised" indigenous peoples. Many of today's Sami in northern Scandinavia hold the work of their shamans to be sacred and will thus deny it has anything to do with "witchcraft". (The influence of bible translating societies on tribal societies has been documented and deplored by such human rights organisations as Survival International in its book: "Is God an American?")