FIRE AND WATER
A.W. Howitt, an ethnographer from the late 1800s, was familiar with this south-eastern part of Australia (and elsewhere). He wrote “The Native Tribes of South-East Australia” (1904) republished n 1996 by the Aboriginal Studies Press Canberra A.C.T.)
“It may be laid down as a general rule that all Australian tribes are divided into two moieties, which intermarry, but each of which is forbidden to marry within itself.
The division of the people of the tribe into two classes is the foundation from which the whole social organisation of the native tribes of Australia has developed.
In two tribes very far apart from each other, not only in geographical position but in customs, there are analogous legends purporting to explain how this division of the tribe came about.
These legends have no historical authority, but are good evidence of the belief of these aborigines that this universal basis of their social system was brought about by intention, and according to one of the legends had a supernatural sanction.” (Howitt pp 88-89)
Howitt has sketched out how each social formation had its own ‘mythic charter’, and we have had a glimpse of how this operated in the high country with the division between the Fire side and the Water side, with people from both sides of the ranges coming together, in their respective moiety groupings, at either Lake Cootapatamba (Eagle, origin of Fire) or Blue Lake (Crow, Snake? Water).
I think we can add that Lake Cootapatamba is ‘high’ just as Blue Lake is (relatively speaking) ‘low’. In an indigenous cosmos, these matters can be of real importance.
While Lake Cootapatamba is explicitly identified as the Great Eagles nest – aerie – I am not so sure about Blue Lake. My hunch is that it may be the lair of a Great Serpent – or (more accurately) Great Rainbow Serpents.
Picture – Blue Lake, Google maps.
The association of Rainbow Serpents and water is well documented in anthropological literature. These fabulous creatures are closely connected with the shaping of creation in First Peoples cosmologies and ongoing world views.
The late Claude Levi-Strauss had some interesting things about Great Birds and Giant Snakes in Native American cosmology.
Having started from a particular South American myth, about a bird-nester who is stranded in a tree, and having taken his reader on a wide-ranging and trail-blazing exploration (over several dense volumes) of the features of an indigenous American noosphere, Levi-Strauss, eventually provides a useful summary of a fundamental feature:
“In the four volumes of Mythologiques I have shown that, in America, what is at stake in this struggle between the people Above and the people Below is cooking fire.” (Levi-Strauss The Jealous Potter 1988:11)
He mentions “… the notion of a cosmic battle between the Thunder Birds and the chthonian Snakes, in which pottery is the stake (or one of the stakes) …” (1988:32)
Chthonian? Dwelling below the surface of the earth/underworld. Blue Lake would make for a good chthonian opening – a place from on low for the emergence of a giant snake of the kind associated with Rainbow Serpents.
“The connection between pottery and jealousy is directly or indirectly linked to the cosmic struggle between the Great Birds, the powers Above, and the Snakes, the powers Below. This connection is a fundamental feature of Amerindian thought.” (1988:33)
Placing concerns about pottery and jealously to one side the notion of a cosmic struggle over the domestication of fire between these great creatures represents a powerful image of a key event in the emergence of humanity – the possession of fire.
To see some more images of Great Birds battling Great Snakes see
Questions of jealousy would certainly provide a rich area to be explored in Dreaming stories – jealousy and solutions to jealousy. One of the main themes in many Dreaming stories is the refusal to share – and the life-forming consequences which flow from that refusal. How jealousy relates to notions of reciprocity I have yet to explore.
In terms of a form of life acquiring a cultural item, is difficult to imagine a more important event than the acquisition of fire. In mythology, the acquisition of fire can represent the acquisition of culture itself.
And in some First Peoples Dreaming stories, fire is acquired by one side of life and given to the other side, perhaps in return for their water-making services as rain-makers.
This contrasts vividly with the blander narrative of modern Western science which regards the mastery of fire as something which is gained by an undifferentiated ‘humanity’ and simply a sort of ‘property’ of all.
Unlike the modern Western ways of thinking about life – which operate without social differentiations of the moiety type – fire (for First Peoples) is obtained by one moiety and exchanged with the other moiety in return for other services, such as Rain-making.
This pattern is in keeping with a wisdom in which everything has its place, and its place is never everywhere. Never ‘all over the place’. Life is conceptualised along complementary opposite lines, and only in this way forms a complete totality. (Compare the human brain, which has two hemispheres to form a complete whole.)
The linguist C.G. von Brandenstein (1982:103) speculated that fire, in First Peoples cosmologies, could refer to cooking fire on the one hand and to the highly destructive bush-fires (which shaped the world at the beginning) on the other .
Spencer and Gillen (1904) recorded a Warumungu story which recounts how two Hawks (‘mates’) brought fire to earth, and it escaped with destructive consequences (one Hawk-mate so badly burnt that he died), shaping much of the country in the process. Signs of its former presence can still be read in the country by indigenous lawmen – much in the same way geologists may read features of country in terms of events associated with the passing of great periods of time.
The domestication of fire in Australia must mention the role of using fire to shape country on a seasonal basis by way of fire-stick farming. Country was regularly burnt in a relatively controlled way to fashion the country-side.
Bill Gammage mentions that this must have greatly reduced the threat of extremely hot fire and destructive fires.
The massive bush-fires of recent times in Australia have taken place in the absence of these regular burn-offs of fuel load. No government department can match the resources formerly provide by the many, many many groups of First Peoples across Australia who walked country everyday with a firestick at hand.
The arrival of fire is a key event in the grand drama of our form of life – the acquisition of fire – and, by extension, culture. Eagles fly high in the sky – close to the sun – and can play this Dreaming narrative role of mediating between high and low, bringing fire from the sun (maybe) down to earth.
My understanding of this process has two parts. Firstly, I have long been convinced that – wherever it was that fire was originally obtained by our kind during the period modern anthropologists call the Palaeolithic – that it was followed by great destruction.
This is not an original thought of mine but something suggested by some aspects of First Peoples’ Dreaming stories and commented on by others..
The terrestrial arrival of fire in Warumungu Wirnkarra (Dreaming) stories immediately results in the death of one of two Hawk ‘mates’ who brought it to earth – and then set off a vast bush-fire which fashioned the landscape.
One of the other features of Warumungu higher life, and I personally knew the men responsible for maintaining this law at Warapunji (Fire-Hill) country, was that the great conflagration threatened to break out again if the law was not properly obeyed and the proper practices followed. They took pains to ensure the proper law was followed, and were greatly concerned when prospectors travelled around indiscriminately chipping at rocks in special places.
My ‘working hypothesis’ is that, firstly, the domestication of fire originally resulted in great destruction and that, secondly, as a result of this we learnt that fire must be properly handled if it is to be used as a means of maintaining life balance. This great responsibility is bestowed upon members of one half of Warumungu society.
I have found, over the years, that most people (many modern anthropologists included) have little understanding of that ‘Paleolithic’ period. Old or new stone tools are not a relevant marker. I prefer to think of it as a time when life was reproduced in keeping with an eternal life-design.
Life in that time – at least that part of it leading up to the changes which mark a neolithic transformation – was both settled and connected over vast distances by a commonality of culture.
All manner of problems – such as the extension of our killing powers by way of weapons – had been solved the hard way, though lived experience.
Lethal powers vis-à-vis other forms of life were subject to restrictions, and homicidal lethal powers had also be channelled into less destructive arrangements. ‘Praxis’ is the word that comes to mind for this process. And the lessons learnt were incorporated into lived practices. By such means we construct our cosmos.
In short, our form of life had learnt from the great gifts life had bestowed upon us – firstly, by experiencing what goes wrong thet are unchecked and, secondly, how to turn them to our advantage in terms of maintaining our privileged place in the overall scheme of things.
This results in a mode of Being in relation to creation which is afar cry from modern notions of progress, getting ahead etc.
Prior to the ‘neolithic’ transformation, problems caused by the acquisition of new technologies had been long solved, and meaningful ways of life – based on life as eternally recycling soul energy – were in place globally. These solutions made use of a system of complementary opposition which denied allowing power to concentrate in the hands of any one group.
Fire and water provide two of the key ingredients for an enriched existence. The Masters of Fire can never be the Masters of Water – and vice versa. One moiety can never dominate the other. Both are necessary for a full life, And life must be continually be brought into balance by a dynamic interplay of opposing forces.
The Warumungu men I worked with in Central Australia – the Wurlurru men with their Fire Dreaming – had complex counterbalancing relationships with Kingile men of the Water Dreaming side of life. Only taken together could life be seen as complete.
I visited the adjoining Rain-makers several times and, with the late Ken Maddock, was fortunate to see an important Rain-making ceremony located far away from the modern world and, it seemed to me at the time, in a completely different world.
In that world, people seek to respectfully communicate with greater cosmic minds – and do not seek to attempt to dominate life. Respectful relating is a means by which life’s important messages flow. The men I was with on that occasion were seeking to encourage rain on the country of another group of men, not for themselves.
It is interesting to observe that when Anglo-Australia is in the grip of severe drought, and all the prayers have been said, and the crisis depends, people turn to the indigenous Rain-makers as a sort of last-resort.
One of the duties of the Rain-makers was to prevent the return of a great deluge and flood. In this their duties counterbalanced those of the Fire Men (to prevent the great conflagration).
To restore balance to life on this planet at this time, according to such ancient wisdom, we need the return of the Masters of Water – until such times as both sides are brought back into proper balance.
Can we say that present events (from the industrial revolution) Eagle-hawks won out over the Crow people with the ‘expansion’ of Indo-European practices, then it is to the enabling of the Crow people that we must turn for global healing purposes.
It is ironic, given the site for the arrival of fire in this part of Australia, that we now encounter an aspect of life’s mismanagement in the snow fields of Australia, where the prognosis for the presence of snow itself in the future has been called into question by those who attribute a (late- neolithic) human agency in global warming.
As a small example, ski lodges faced with renewing 50 year leases may now need to think long and hard about just how much skiing will be going on during those 5 decades.
And, taking a wider picture, how does that possible loss of snow fit in with the role of snow as being a slow release source of so many rivers? Along with the abused Snowy, both the Murray and the Murrumbidgee rise in these ranges. If there is no snow, will the rains simply run off the ranges as they fall, sending water down the rivers in the wrong seasons?
The last two centuries have seen industrial fires consuming fossil fuels at rates previously impossible. There have been no brakes on this one-sided form of activity. Too much power in too few hands. No restraints, no constraints – no means of saying, we have done enough and should not overshoot the mark.
Rather, some bizarre notion of ‘growth’ dominates the market-based values being spun out daily. One anthropologist – Sir Edmund Leach – called this a “runaway world.”
It is maturity, not more adolescent growth, we require.
And the Ways of Australia’s First Peoples contain a wisdom which can assist us – the great uninitiated peoples of Australia – to a coming of age.
The pattern of Australian bushfires suggests that these too have been far hotter than would have been the case when regular small fires were made by First Peoples on a daily and seasonal basis. In place of a well-tempered cosmos, a wild and chaotic mess. The build up of litter loads on the forest floor – and in choked and now scrubby former grasslands – is regarded (by some modern eyes) as ‘habitat’.
So when it comes to a cosmic drama – we can read an opening chapter in the Dreaming story attached to Lake Cootapatamba – but the ongoing drama is to be found in very latest developments in our unfolding creation around us.
The counterbalancing forces to those of excessive use of fire are missing from this picture.
Clearly, acknowledging the place of First Peoples – and their practices – in the Australian high country is a crucial step in the healing process.
I have not made a proper study of First Peoples Ways in South-East Australia, and these days it would be better to look to them for guidance on such matters. But there is something of a glimpse to be gained from non-indigenous sources who, in many cases, actually recorded information from indigenous peoples in the first instance.
I have done a little of that here drawing on my limited knowledge of such matters to be see a cultural landscape – and what is missing from this iconic Australian landscape.
But there is a danger that what was recorded in the past was only ever a small and perhaps misunderstood part of a much larger and dynamic picture. For instance, a contemporary map of indigenous groups shows a good part of this area of the Australian Alps as being Ngarigo country and not Wolgal.
Howitt himself recorded his opinion that Wolgal ‘tribe’ had almost been extinct. Those opposing recognition of traditional owners may invoke such things in part of their attempt to retain privilege in their own hands.
Then we read:
“Koch has found that ‘unique items of vocabulary combine with the distinctive pronoun forms to support the idea that [Ngarigu, the Canberra language, Wolgal, and the Omeo language] were dialects of the same language, …” (I Clark – reference at end)
So it is wise to allow the real experts – surviving First Peoples – to instruct us in contemporary realities. It is the height of Western cultural arrogance to believe that First Peoples Ways cannot reassemble themselves (in keeping with an ancient orthodoxy) from the fragments resulting from the savage impacts of a brutal form of colonisation.
Maybe in the future, when the rights of traditional owners to the area presently known as the Kosciuszko National Park have been recognised, there will be in a fair-dinkum Southern Hemisphere festive – the first full moon after the spring equinox, or even the summer solstice – where we, who respect such matters, may be invited to this special place in the Australian high country for an annual pilgrimage and staging of the ceremonies of the Great Eagle and the Great Snakes?
More reading ——————————————————
(reference to H. Koch forthcoming “Aboriginal languages and social groups in the Canberra region: interpreting the historical documentation.” provided by Ian D Clark in “Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang languages and social groups in north-east Victoria – a reconstruction.” See http://epress.anu.edu.au/apps/bookworm/view/Aboriginal+History+Volume+33/4591/ch09.xhtml)
Also , Michael Young, Ellen and Debby Mundy, The Aboriginal People of the Monaro, NSW NPWS, Canberra, 2000.