GOING NATIVE

or

WHY DON'T THE GODS FLY SOUTH FOR WINTER?

As a sixth-generation Australian who grew up believing in Britain as a spiritual home, I've been asked to write something about my experiences, and my attempts to reconcile two homeland traditions. I stress that everything in this essay is subjective, written from out of my personal experience. Others, it goes without saying, have had radically different experiences and come to different conclusions.

I live in Melbourne, the southernmost mainland city, with a multiethnic 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 academic 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 legend, 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 confused with Santa Claus, though at times he behaved more like Darth Vader. Mum said God was everywhere. Fair enough, I thought. So, in Christian Education 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 encountered 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. We were supposed to want to be good like Jesus, but I wanted to be good like 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, in the poetry of the Song of Songs, and in some of the Psalms, I found a Yahweh utterly unlike the one from school: a young, virile god I had no trouble admiring - along with Satan from Paradise Lost :-) Gods, for me, have always been nearly indistinguishable from characters in stories; they are all figures, more or less powerful, in my imagination. That is one of the problems 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, how can you keep it relevant and natural in the new land? 

southern cross

Among the storybooks I had as a child were quite a lot by early Australian authors and illustrators, who told tales of European-style fairies in the bush and talking native animals. These aren't much in vogue now, but, looking 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 hero-type in a post-apocalyptic Australia: again, there was the connection between inner and outer worlds. A problem, however, was that I knew they were invented in modern times. Max was never real; the connection between land and human history was an illusion. 

At school, I was never interested in the history of European settlement in Australia. It was too recent; the facts were known, and by and large they were sordid. I learned about exiled convicts, brutal military overseers, and terrible crimes committed against the native population. 

Where there was courage in early Euro-Australian history, it was mostly of a bitter kind. Failed explorers who died because of arrogance, thinking they could survive in this country without knowing anything about its realities. 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 rustlers 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 view, but it was the view I was taught. My people were the villains of the tale, vicious and bungling interlopers in the history of another culture, thuggish robbers of a continent.

My imagination did not want to play in that time. There was nothing 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 months of that in England, while Dad was on secondment at Oxford University. My 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 Dark is Rising and The Once and Future King. On the TV there was The 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: Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury, the Ridgeway, Glastonbury, the White Horse, the Whispering Knights; they also took me to castles all over the place, including Tintagel. For the first time in my life since those early books about bush fairies 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 some of those stories were based on actual events: there was a sense of legends 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 ancestors; 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 thrill 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. Not for our own house in Melbourne, but for the desert, where I had only been once. I was missing the wideness and the intense blue of the sky, the generosity 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 absence 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 lost 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 the taking. My roots in Australia were tenuous, only a few generations deep, 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 admirable, are confined to their own time. The American gunfighter - and Elvis! - have been more successfully mythologised. Americans have always been more 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 myth, its power is enormous. But, for whatever reasons, Australians have never 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 irony, instead, we erect giant concrete pineapples, koalas, bananas and other items: devoid of significance other than as tourist attractions, they are our mocking kookaburra-laugh at our lack of a true mythology or spiritual connection with this land. Our stories are, for the far greater part, merely 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 dimension that I felt to be lacking in my own culture. 

ned kelly

I began looking. The search took me all over the usual places: yoga, the cabbala, various pantheons, assorted spiritual and magickal practices. Through it all, I remembered what I had felt in Britain, and for that reason the Keltic deities and heroes fascinated me the most. 

Note: a discussion of practical magick in a new country would be the subject of an essay - or a book! - in itself. I'll confine myself to saying that some things work and some things don't, and that the problems which arise tend to be caused by a lack of harmony between imported forms and native forces.

Looking back, I think I drew on so many sources to try and make up, with quantity and variety, for the absence of the physical element. Using Wicca as an example, it doesn't take much study to realise that a lot of 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, and that the sun appears to travel anticlockwise. Australia is not Britain with reversed dates. For instance, winter here is a season of life: it's 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 desert isn't the same as the heat blowing up off Africa. The smells, the qualities of dryness or dampness, are different: basically, none of it has the same vibe. There are a thousand differences, of both obvious and subtle kinds, that make the transplanting of any mythology, religion or magickal system problematic to a greater or lesser degree.

In 1997 I was overseas with my husband. We were tired of the hustlers in Morocco, and on impulse flew to London. I anticipated feeling that sense of home I'd had as a child. But it didn't happen. It was a beautiful place, 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 didn't 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 just tired.

We climbed Glastonbury Tor, where according to some stories Gwyn ap Nyddwr, my favourite character in British mythical literature, is supposed 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 haggling over carpets in Fez. We looked at the mists below, and kissed in the tower. Meanwhile a part of me felt wrenched; uprooted.

I saw a single raven, flying around the Tor. I felt a sense of greeting, 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 land. 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 Singapore. Back in the heat, among the tropical plants that decorate Changi airport, I started feeling better. More comfortable. That was the first time I began to understand that I do have roots, and that the part of the world where I was born means more to me at a gut level than the part where my imagination had been dwelling.

Sitting in the plane, watching an animated map of our flight: the tiny cartoon plane moves like an ant, closer and closer to the continent. It's 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 western coast, I know, though I'm still thousands of miles from my city, that I'm 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 in the stable recognised the Christ child. That's the part of the story I always 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, humans, sheep, camels, angels - and surely the wolves in the dark hills, too, even if they're not mentioned. For a few hours the Circle of Life exists, miraculously, without its flip-side, the physical/temporal necessity of the Food Chain. For once, all the barriers are down. The mask of form becomes transparent. Everyone recognises everyone else, and in that glimpse of eternity there's a night of peace on earth.

That experience of the universality of the sacred, or the sacredness of everything, can be had anywhere; and it is certainly one of the finer things in life.

I believe it is also a useful place to begin when trying to establish a spiritual connection with a new land, especially a land which, some part 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 attached 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 mental/emotional worlds, there must necessarily be differences due to geographic and socio-cultural influences.

life circle

So, what do you do, assuming you don't try to transport your entire cultural baggage and keep it unchanging like something pickled in a jar? You can radically alter the old mythology to fit the new situation, somewhat like modernising a Shakespeare play, or attempt to synthesise it with the native mythology; you can try and make the native mythology your own, or 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 contact the local forces without the intermediary of form: to start absolutely from scratch. There are local concentrations of energies, local spirits, which may have similarities with geographically distant energies, and may be related to the same cosmic form of a force, but are not identical, and cannot be effectively communicated with through the imagery of other times and other lands. And the forms through which the native peoples communicate with them may not be compatible with the workings of your own psyche: that has been my personal experience, though I can't speak for others.

When I returned home last year I soon began to feel stretched again, 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 ritual, temples, graven images - and, above all, stories. It comes back to perceiving gods as characters, or, to put it another way, preferring to interact with anthropomorphised forms of the forces in the world. I find it easier to establish a working relationship with something that, I can at least imagine, resembles myself - 'Man makes God in his own image'.

The Native Australian cultures are magnificently rich in stories; and those stories are rich in gods, spirits and legendary beings. It's therefore ironic, and rather depressing to me, that I have a lot of trouble relating to them.

It was difficult for me to pinpoint the source of this trouble. I've worked it out, however, and though the truth is pretty unpalatable, I will tell it. I am afraid of Aboriginal culture. Their traditional way of life is not one I would choose for myself. It is not the comparative trivialities 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 intricate kinship ties and obligations, polygamy, strict taboos concerning who one 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 hunter-gatherer 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 world. 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 different; but as a woman, I can't think of a legendary world I would want to inhabit, unless I was a goddess, and a pretty tough goddess at that.

However, myths from the deep past can be detached from their real-world cultural contexts. The myths of a living culture cannot - at least, I find it impossible to separate them.

I can certainly appreciate aspects - many aspects - of traditional Aboriginal culture on an aesthetic level: painting, dance, the storytellers' skill. But I cannot imagine myself wanting to enter that world. I have tried, but my imaginary doppelganger invariably becomes a spectre of Third World Woman: naked, digging in dirt, wedded to an old man. However unjust, however wrongful this image is, I have not yet been able to banish it. She is my terror, the personification of my fear that the freedoms women in certain countries have won are fragile, and could be lost overnight. 

my fear

I will not go too near to anything that might bring me closer to her status.

I would not touch her with a forty-foot pole.

These thoughts are insults. I am trying to banish them. But while I still have them, they inform my whole perspective on the Australian Aboriginal world. While I can appreciate and respect that foreign culture, I cannot engage with it. It is very much the same problem that I had with the Protestant 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 attractive feature of Keltic myth: the culture which produced it has passed into history, taking its baggage with it.

My fears may be based on an ill-informed notion of Aboriginal women's status and roles. Less is known about women than men in traditional Aboriginal culture, as some things can only be discussed among women, and there have been comparatively few studies by female anthropologists. (It's also possible that those anthropologists, out of respect, haven't published everything 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, sometimes 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 home; but 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 place, in my own way. 

Melbourne grew very fast, fueled by the sudden wealth brought by the 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 present. 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 favourable compared with Phar Lap. I wanted to see this marvelous creature in the flesh. 

It wasn't a particularly important race, but the crowd was big. Plenty 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 were coming around towards the home straight, the horse in second place started to edge up. Effortlessly, it seemed, Might charged away, and kept charging. 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, and another when he walked back past the stands to the yard. I felt time compress. 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.

horses

That experience became an anchor. I began to be more curious about what else might be around me. 

My imagination had always been stocked with strange creatures that bore minimal resemblance to anything in conventional teratology. I'd never given 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 spirits. 

I've found the Japanese idea of kami, or the spiritual essences which inhabit everything, to be useful. Every other morning I jog. Rather than just enjoying the beauty of the gardens and the trees lining the streets, I have started opening my senses to this kami. When I feel that there is some kind of acknowledgment or exchange passing between myself and these vegetable life forms, I no longer dismiss it as just my imagination playing games. It's a beginning, I hope. 

One thing, finally: I work in the middle of town, near the Yarra river. 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 thought it looked like giant dog-do. But I was walking past it one night, and suddenly 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 out of the river and is trying to get under the bridge between us and the shopping mall. It seems curious, and rather melancholy, perhaps lonely. I'm positive there's something in there, something benevolent; it seems to respond with 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 has found a new home. Children play on it sometimes, and birds perch on it. 

The challenge for me is to trust my instincts. I am not one of those 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. 

sun

*note: the pictures accompanying this essay are not Aboriginal art. They are simply my experiments with certain elements of that art, mingled with other sources, such as Sidney Nolan's "Ned Kelly" series. They show my appreciation for the aesthetics of Native Australian painting, without laying any claim to an understanding of its deeper meanings:- the meanings are my own.

Kyrsten, our deep gratitude for this account of your insight and the sharing
of your quest and inner imaginings - it has taught us a great deal.  A real
illuminating experience to read!

Gareth
 

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