Aboriginal Australians

Aboriginal Australians – Many of the different language groups and peoples indigenous to Australia speak of “people of high degree” or “clever people.” These are usually elders with unusual abilities and esoteric knowledge who have exceptional skills as counsellors and/or diplomats. Clever people deal with illnesses and situations that resist the medical and religious knowledge (e.g., the use of particular plants or ceremonies) that is pervasive among traditional Aboriginal communities. Clever people are typically those whose inherent abilities are recognized in childhood, encouraged and reinforced in initiation rites, and nurtured throughout life until they can be made full use of by elders.

Academics and Aboriginal culture teachers are divided about whether these traditional doctors can be called shamans or compared with shamans elsewhere. Features of Aboriginal cultures and practices that lead some to say that there are Aboriginal shamans include accounts of initiations in which people talk of being abducted, dismembered, and reassembled by powerful other-than-human persons or, perhaps, “spirits.” Crystals or other powerful substances are often “sung” or otherwise inserted into bodies (without leaving wounds or outward signs), often providing something like a “third eye” with “x-ray vision.” Although the mastery of spirits is not part of traditional Aboriginal worldviews and lifeways, engagement with powerful, co-creative beings is important. There are accounts that suggest the importance of altered states of consciousness, ecstasy, trance, or possession, but they are not ubiquitous practices of all Aboriginal doctors or clever people. Journeying or flying can be part of the clever person’s abilities. However, few if any of these seemingly shamanic abilities, experiences, and practices are unique to clever people. In their Aboriginal forms, they arise from and make sense in traditional cosmologies and lifeways for all Aboriginal people. It is probably wise to conclude that clever people do what all Aboriginal people are supposed to do if they live up to what their cultures indicate is appropriate to human behaviour. In this sense, the term is equivalent to elder, referring to those who are worthy of respect not principally for their age but for their accumulated wisdom and skill.

Similarly, it has been claimed that Aboriginal people have totem or power animals or plants, like shamans in other cultures. However, on the one hand, the interspecies clan relationships of traditional Aboriginal people are not entirely the same as those found elsewhere, since they fit within uniquely Aboriginal conceptions of everything as emerging from “the Dreaming,” and on the other hand, they are not specific to elders or clever people because every living being comes from the Dreaming and is member of a (totemic/interspecies) clan.

Mircea Eliade misrepresented one Dreaming narrative in support of his construction of shamanism, taking a reference to a pole as equivalent to the axis mundi that he claimed to find everywhere among shamans. Far from being about an “escape from history” or a “celestial withdrawal,” as Eliade presents it, this and other Dreaming narratives and rituals are intimately concerned with what Jonathan Z. Smith (1987) calls “terrestrial transformation and continued presence.” That is, the goal of Aboriginal spirituality is a greater engagement with the places in which people find themselves participants.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007