The Songlines

Bruce Chatwin (1987) republished Vintage 1998 (out of print but obtained, through Amazon, from Oxfam Walthamstow for £0.01 plus postage).

I read this many years ago, but wanted to re-read it after reading the description of the illiterate stone  age people speaking hundreds of different languages in Papua New Guinea (Vanishing Voices). It is hard to imagine a society, until recently without writing, largely isolated in their mountain villages and trading with people speaking non-cognate languages. I remembered The Songlines about the Australian aborigines, which describes the life of nomadic hunter gatherers, whose languages are embedded in a culture utterly different from ours.

I found it hard, when I first read The Songlines, to make the imaginative leap into a culture so alien. I had to think hard about what it means to “sing the land into being”. This is what I have made of it:

Before the invasion of the Europeans, there were hundreds of exogamous clans in Australia, each clan speaking its own language. Each clan had its own part in a shared mythology which gave them their identities both as clans and as individuals. When a person’s mother felt him stir in the womb for the first time, he would be given the name of the place where she happened to be, such as “lizard” or “wombat”. The place would be a location in the story told along the songline passing through the place. The baby would inherit that part of the songline and be responsible for maintaining and passing it on.

The songlines encode a map of the continent with locations (hills, waterholes etc.) and distinguished by their resemblance to the totemic creatures identified with the clan and the individual creature. Stories about these creatures are sung as people walk the routes between camp sites, stories relating to the sites en route. They were sung at walking pace as the people moved to the next site.

The people had to keep travelling, partly because the land would not support them for long, and partly to find marriage partners from outside the clan. When they met another band of travellers they would sing the songlines to establish the rights in the land. Sometimes  Their languages would be mutually incomprehensible, but the rhythm and melody of the song would enable them to realise where they were and sing the same song.

There was a complex relationship between the clans. Each clan member had a member of a neighbouring clan checking that he was maintaining his songline.This is used now as a way of ensuring that people do not betray the secrets of the songlines to the White Man.

All this knowledge is sacred and secret. It is preserved in the songlines and also in “tjuringas”, which each person is given when he is initiated. This is an oval plaque which contains a diagram of the information about the land and the clans’ rights in it are encoded in a painting or diagram (also secret and sacred). A person may exchange his tjuringa with a member of another clan, thus sharing the right to use the land. Aboriginal painters use the iconography of the tjuringas in their paintings for the White Man, but do not betray the secrets of the real tjuringas.

All this sacred knowledge is related to a creation myth. Before time (in the Dreamtime) the earth was “without form and void”, but the potential cosmic entities lay like seeds in the ground. First the Sun rose out of the ground, followed by the Moon and other heavenly bodies. The clan Ancestors also rose to life from hollows that became waterholes. The Ancestors “sang the land into being” through the songlines. Eventually, they returned to the earth, leaving their human successors to maintain the system they had devised.

Bruce Chatwin was writing a travel book, not an academic paper. He brings to life the magic of the songlines as he discovered them and his description is clouded by the uncertainty surrounding them.



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