WHY DON'T THE GODS FLY SOUTH FOR WINTER?
As a sixth-generation Australian who grew up believing in
a spiritual home, I've been asked to write something about my
and my attempts to reconcile two homeland traditions. I stress that
in this essay is subjective, written from out of my personal
Others, it goes without saying, have had radically different
and come to different conclusions.
I live in Melbourne, the southernmost mainland city, with a
population of some 4 million. A good thing about my childhood was that
it was full of stories from all over the world. That multiculturalism,
however, was confined to the secular part of my upbringing. My parents,
although not religious themselves, sent me to a private school for
reasons. Various people there tried to make me into an Anglican, but I
never really got the hang of it. I couldn't make sense of the Jesus
though I remember always being moved by the story of the animals in the
stable knowing who He was. God gave me even more trouble. I got him
with Santa Claus, though at times he behaved more like Darth Vader. Mum
said God was everywhere. Fair enough, I thought. So, in Christian
class, when us 5-year-olds were required to draw God with our textas, I
drew a face with clouds for eyes, grass for a beard and a smiling mouth
made of red flowers. The teacher upbraided me: evidently I was supposed
to know that the Almighty looked like a very old geezer. I hadn't
George Burns yet, but I'd seen Sid James on the telly. At this point I
began to suspect that the C.E. teacher was trying to put one over me.
were supposed to want to be good like Jesus, but I wanted to be good
Princess Leia (good, but also good with a laser gun!) For a companion I
wanted Puff the Magic Dragon, with his fearless roar.
Years later I did eventually read the King James Bible where,
poetry of the Song of Songs, and in some of the Psalms, I found a
utterly unlike the one from school: a young, virile god I had no
admiring - along with Satan from Paradise Lost :-) Gods, for me, have
been nearly indistinguishable from characters in stories; they are all
figures, more or less powerful, in my imagination. That is one of the
of trying to transport a religion: when all of its stories and imagery
are bound up with the geography and history of one part of the world,
can you keep it relevant and natural in the new land?
Among the storybooks I had as a child were quite a lot by early
authors and illustrators, who told tales of European-style fairies in
bush and talking native animals. These aren't much in vogue now, but,
back, I can see how important they were. They made a connection between
the life of the imagination and the land I lived in. As I got older, I
inevitable found them quaint and childish, and put them away in favour
of more adult-oriented tales, from Beowulf to Mad
Max. The Mad Max films fascinated me, as they set a mythical
in a post-apocalyptic Australia: again, there was the connection
inner and outer worlds. A problem, however, was that I knew they were
in modern times. Max was never real; the connection between land and
history was an illusion.
At school, I was never interested in the history of European
in Australia. It was too recent; the facts were known, and by and large
they were sordid. I learned about exiled convicts, brutal military
and terrible crimes committed against the native population.
Where there was courage in early Euro-Australian history, it
of a bitter kind. Failed explorers who died because of arrogance,
they could survive in this country without knowing anything about its
The determined spirit of the pioneers was besmirched by a treatment of
the Aboriginal people which I can only call depraved; for instance, my
grandmother's grandmother remembered her mother putting arsenic in the
flour they gave to the local Aborigines. There were outlaws, cattle
and highway robbers, some of whom became folk heroes, but only because
we didn't find anyone better to admire. Perhaps this is a jaundiced
but it was the view I was taught. My people were the villains of the
vicious and bungling interlopers in the history of another culture,
robbers of a continent.
My imagination did not want to play in that time. There was
to recommend it. Better to go to other lands, and their mythic realms,
where tragedies and disasters were balanced by triumphs and wonders.
When I was almost nine, we went overseas for nine months, six
of that in England, while Dad was on secondment at Oxford University.
mother, especially, thought of Britain as a spiritual home, and passed
some of that sense on to me. While we were there I was reading The
is Rising and The Once and Future King. On the TV there was
Moon Stallion, a series about a blind girl and the Uffington White
Horse. On weekends, my parents took me around many of the old sites:
Avebury, Silbury, the Ridgeway, Glastonbury, the White Horse, the
Knights; they also took me to castles all over the place, including
For the first time in my life since those early books about bush
and talking koalas, the stories in my mind and the ground under my feet
were intimately related. Not only that, but there was a chance that
of those stories were based on actual events: there was a sense of
being kept alive, stories changed and retold, but not just made up out
of the blue. And, as importantly, there was no shame. Whatever disputes
there had been over this ground, they were disputes among my own
I could walk on it without feeling that I was trespassing. I can't find
words to do justice to the feeling that resulted. It was a haunting
and a profound sense of home, a sense of everything being connected, of
a gestalt, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Towards the end of our stay, however, I began to get homesick.
our own house in Melbourne, but for the desert, where I had only been
I was missing the wideness and the intense blue of the sky, the
of the sun, the dry air smelling of eucalypt. That, and the more subtle
but still tangible energies of Australia, the spirit of place, the
of which, at the time, I simply felt as a baffling ache.
I was happy to go home. But, as I got older, I started to feel
again. In the tumult of adolescence, when I was looking for an anchor,
Britain was one ready-made. The stories, the history, were there for
taking. My roots in Australia were tenuous, only a few generations
and while there were stories, there was no mythical dimension to them.
We might talk about the myth of the ANZACs or of the outlaw Ned Kelly,
but in a secular country and a secular, empirical age, myths will lack
the magical dimension. There are too many facts and not enough room for
speculation; those mythic figures, while they may be interesting or
are confined to their own time. The American gunfighter - and Elvis! -
have been more successfully mythologised. Americans have always been
adept at making myths than we Aussies have. They have created a living
myth of America; and whatever you may believe about the value of that
its power is enormous. But, for whatever reasons, Australians have
been inclined towards making gods of our famous figures, or carving the
faces of our heads of state into cliffs a la Mt. Rushmore. With some
instead, we erect giant concrete pineapples, koalas, bananas and other
items: devoid of significance other than as tourist attractions, they
our mocking kookaburra-laugh at our lack of a true mythology or
connection with this land. Our stories are, for the far greater part,
history - or, at a stretch, legend. This
is how a culture with more propensity for mythmaking made the Ned Kelly
story part of their own Dreaming. It was precisely this cosmic
that I felt to be lacking in my own culture.
I began looking. The search took me all over the usual places:
the cabbala, various pantheons, assorted spiritual and magickal
Through it all, I remembered what I had felt in Britain, and for that
the Keltic deities and heroes fascinated me the most.
Note: a discussion of practical magick in a new country would
subject of an essay - or a book! - in itself. I'll confine myself to
that some things work and some things don't, and that the problems
arise tend to be caused by a lack of harmony between imported forms and
Looking back, I think I drew on so many sources to try and
with quantity and variety, for the absence of the physical element.
Wicca as an example, it doesn't take much study to realise that a lot
the imagery and paraphernalia doesn't gel with the Australian physical
environment. It isn't just that the north is hot and the south cold,
that the sun appears to travel anticlockwise. Australia is not Britain
with reversed dates. For instance, winter here is a season of life:
when the rain comes. Summer brings death with drought and bushfire. Sun
is often intense, rain usually heavy, snowfall rare, animals and plants
very different, most native trees evergreen; the Antarctic chill is not
the same as the Arctic chill; the heat blowing out off the central
isn't the same as the heat blowing up off Africa. The smells, the
of dryness or dampness, are different: basically, none of it has the
vibe. There are a thousand differences, of both obvious and subtle
that make the transplanting of any mythology, religion or magickal
problematic to a greater or lesser degree.
In 1997 I was overseas with my husband. We were tired of the
in Morocco, and on impulse flew to London. I anticipated feeling that
of home I'd had as a child. But it didn't happen. It was a beautiful
but it wasn't my place; and the sense of magic I'd had was replaced by
something very melancholy, a sense of exile. Perhaps it was because I
believe the stories the way I did as a child; perhaps it was because I
had become more attuned to Australia than I realised; perhaps I was
We climbed Glastonbury Tor, where according to some stories
Nyddwr, my favourite character in British mythical literature, is
to have an earthly residence. Would something happen? Silently I asked
for contact, a sign. I wished I had been here for Samhain, instead of
over carpets in Fez. We looked at the mists below, and kissed in the
Meanwhile a part of me felt wrenched; uprooted.
I saw a single raven, flying around the Tor. I felt a sense of
but at a distance. The thought the raven inspired in my mind was this:
Go home. Remember where you came from, but start afresh in the new
Be of the place where you were born. Cut what must be cut.
I slept most of the way home, only really waking up after
Back in the heat, among the tropical plants that decorate Changi
I started feeling better. More comfortable. That was the first time I
to understand that I do have roots, and that the part of the world
I was born means more to me at a gut level than the part where my
had been dwelling.
Sitting in the plane, watching an animated map of our flight:
cartoon plane moves like an ant, closer and closer to the continent.
still dark below, so I only have the picture to go by. The moment when
the first pixel of the plane crosses over the first pixel of the
coast, I know, though I'm still thousands of miles from my city, that
on (well, above) home turf. It's a great feeling.
That isn't the end of the story.
I'm going to backtrack to the Nativity tale, when the animals
stable recognised the Christ child. That's the part of the story I
waited for. Never mind that it's apocryphal; for it's the part with the
greatest meaning: the divine recognises the divine; in cows, donkeys,
sheep, camels, angels - and surely the wolves in the dark hills, too,
if they're not mentioned. For a few hours the Circle of Life exists,
without its flip-side, the physical/temporal necessity of the Food
For once, all the barriers are down. The mask of form becomes
Everyone recognises everyone else, and in that glimpse of eternity
a night of peace on earth.
That experience of the universality of the sacred, or the
of everything, can be had anywhere; and it is certainly one of the
things in life.
I believe it is also a useful place to begin when trying to
a spiritual connection with a new land, especially a land which, some
of you feels, you don't have a right to be in.
In terms of spiritual life, when the image of one's god is
to another land, one lives half in the astral, because all the stories,
images, places and words belong to the geography, arts and language of
that other land. My theory, still tentative, is this: the great forces
at the higher levels of manifestation will be the same the world over:
but at the lower levels, where they link with the physical and
worlds, there must necessarily be differences due to geographic and
So, what do you do, assuming you don't try to transport your
cultural baggage and keep it unchanging like something pickled in a
You can radically alter the old mythology to fit the new situation,
like modernising a Shakespeare play, or attempt to synthesise it with
native mythology; you can try and make the native mythology your own,
you can build your own mythology, as America has done. You can do a bit
of all these things. But at some point, I believe, it is necessary to
the local forces without the intermediary of form: to start absolutely
from scratch. There are local concentrations of energies, local
which may have similarities with geographically distant energies, and
be related to the same cosmic form of a force, but are not identical,
cannot be effectively communicated with through the imagery of other
and other lands. And the forms through which the native peoples
with them may not be compatible with the workings of your own psyche:
has been my personal experience, though I can't speak for others.
When I returned home last year I soon began to feel stretched
belonging neither here nor there. For another year, I was still as lost
as ever. Part of my problem, I've come to realise, is that I like
temples, graven images - and, above all, stories. It comes back to
gods as characters, or, to put it another way, preferring to interact
anthropomorphised forms of the forces in the world. I find it easier to
establish a working relationship with something that, I can at least
resembles myself - 'Man makes God in his own image'.
The Native Australian cultures are magnificently rich in
those stories are rich in gods, spirits and legendary beings. It's
ironic, and rather depressing to me, that I have a lot of trouble
It was difficult for me to pinpoint the source of this
worked it out, however, and though the truth is pretty unpalatable, I
tell it. I am afraid of Aboriginal culture. Their traditional way of
is not one I would choose for myself. It is not the comparative
of going naked and without a roof that frighten me, but the absence of
the freedom I have as a citizen of the modern Pacific Rim. The
kinship ties and obligations, polygamy, strict taboos concerning who
may marry, the constraints on who and what a person can be, given that
many modern roles and professions simply don't exist in a
culture. In some tribes I might be obliged to be a sexual companion to
visiting males. All of which I might be fine with if I had been raised
in that culture. But my psyche has been shaped by a very different
To live a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle would be, for me, something
like going to hell.
There, I've said it.
Equally, I wouldn't want to live in Ancient Britain, or in
most of the
other past lands where legends come from. If I was a man I might feel
but as a woman, I can't think of a legendary world I would want to
unless I was a goddess, and a pretty tough goddess at that.
However, myths from the deep past can be detached from their
cultural contexts. The myths of a living culture cannot - at least, I
it impossible to separate them.
I can certainly appreciate aspects - many aspects - of
culture on an aesthetic level: painting, dance, the storytellers'
But I cannot imagine myself wanting to enter that world. I have tried,
but my imaginary doppelganger invariably becomes a spectre of Third
Woman: naked, digging in dirt, wedded to an old man. However unjust,
wrongful this image is, I have not yet been able to banish it. She is
terror, the personification of my fear that the freedoms women in
countries have won are fragile, and could be lost overnight.
I will not go too near to anything that might bring me closer
I would not touch her with a forty-foot pole.
These thoughts are insults. I am trying to banish them. But
still have them, they inform my whole perspective on the Australian
world. While I can appreciate and respect that foreign culture, I
engage with it. It is very much the same problem that I had with the
Christian faith of my school. And I suspect that if I actually went to
India, my enthusiasm for Hindu myth might be tempered by the first-hand
sight of conditions in contemporary Indian society. That's another
feature of Keltic myth: the culture which produced it has passed into
taking its baggage with it.
My fears may be based on an ill-informed notion of Aboriginal
status and roles. Less is known about women than men in traditional
culture, as some things can only be discussed among women, and there
been comparatively few studies by female anthropologists. (It's also
that those anthropologists, out of respect, haven't published
they've researched.) This year I am going to Central Australia, where I
hope I will learn more.
But if I'm still circling cautiously around Aboriginal
culture, I love
this land. I have felt spirits of place here: sometimes welcoming,
aloof, sometimes very strange and alien, sometimes hostile. But for the
most part I feel something positive.
At one level, everything is embraced, and the whole earth is
I still want a link between the stories that have shaped my psyche and
the earth beneath my feet. I was born here in this land of Australia. I
not only want to be a responsible custodian of my home, but I've also a
need to feel part of the place in a spiritual sense.
So, to begin with, I decided to find the spirits of my own
my own way.
Melbourne grew very fast, fueled by the sudden wealth brought
discovery of gold. In this great spread of habitation, there is little
history. There hasn't been time for many things to happen. Only at the
cricket grounds, the football ovals and the racetracks is there a sense
of history under one's feet and a living connection between past and
I felt this last November, when I went to the races for the first time.
I went to see a horse called Might and Power, a stayer who has been
compared with Phar Lap. I wanted to see this marvelous creature in the
It wasn't a particularly important race, but the crowd was
of other people were there to see this horse too.
He led the pack by a length or so for most of the way. As they
coming around towards the home straight, the horse in second place
to edge up. Effortlessly, it seemed, Might charged away, and kept
While the crowd chanted "Go Might! Go Might!" he thundered away home by
seven lengths or more. There was a standing ovation when he finished,
another when he walked back past the stands to the yard. I felt time
The figure of the horse was a link between old land and new, a constant
in so many tales from so many times. It was part of my own Dreaming.
That experience became an anchor. I began to be more curious
else might be around me.
My imagination had always been stocked with strange creatures
minimal resemblance to anything in conventional teratology. I'd never
much thought to why this should be so, but now the thought has occurred
to me that maybe they are the forms my mind is giving to local
I've found the Japanese idea of kami, or the spiritual
inhabit everything, to be useful. Every other morning I jog. Rather
just enjoying the beauty of the gardens and the trees lining the
I have started opening my senses to this kami. When I feel that there
some kind of acknowledgment or exchange passing between myself and
vegetable life forms, I no longer dismiss it as just my imagination
games. It's a beginning, I hope.
One thing, finally: I work in the middle of town, near the
Near our building, right near the water's edge, there's a sculpture, a
huge twist of steel - curvy, with a square cross-section. I always
it looked like giant dog-do. But I was walking past it one night, and
it was different. I got the strongest sense that it was inhabited by a
spirit. It's vaguely snail-shaped, and it looks as if it has come up
of the river and is trying to get under the bridge between us and the
mall. It seems curious, and rather melancholy, perhaps lonely. I'm
there's something in there, something benevolent; it seems to respond
a good feeling when I pay attention to it.
Such a sense of spirit might have been created with the art,
but I feel
that it is a spirit of the riverbank: with the mud all paved over, it
found a new home. Children play on it sometimes, and birds perch on
The challenge for me is to trust my instincts. I am not one of
people who can physically see the spirit world, but my hunches, my gut
feelings, are nearly always right.
Yes, I will say now: this is a beginning.
*note: the pictures accompanying this essay are not Aboriginal
They are simply my experiments with certain elements of that art,
with other sources, such as Sidney Nolan's "Ned Kelly" series. They
my appreciation for the aesthetics of Native Australian painting,
laying any claim to an understanding of its deeper meanings:- the
are my own.