Wisdom from the earth

“Many Aboriginal myths divide the land into different elements, each an Ancestral Spirit with its own history and personality.”

Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury (1997)

This is the first sentence in the section on ‘Elements of the Earth’ (p. 69) in the book Wisdom from the earth: The Living Legacy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. This book documents the relationship that Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have with the land and the Dreamtime. The book authors continue by saying:

“Earth is considered primary, and from it water must be liberated – this is the second element. From water, the third element, fire, must be released and from it in turn – and symbolised by the smoke of a camp fire – air comes forth.”

Earth, water, fire and air are the four elements that humans have had an intuitive relationship with since time immemorial. The fifth element, variously referred to as aether, void, spirit and heart, is not directly referred to in the ‘Wisdom from the earth‘ description of the elements. That is most likely because the vitality of the earth and sky pervades Aboriginal spirituality. All life is considered one. The spirit is universal.

'Wisdom from the earth', by Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury, published in 1997 by Simon & Schuster, Australia.

‘Wisdom from the earth’, by Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury, published in 1997 by Simon & Schuster, Australia.

The front cover of the book Wisdom from the earth shows an Aboriginal Australian drawing in sand with their finger. Christine Watson, in a book chapter titled ‘Touching the land’ (in ‘art from the land‘ 1999), writes about the importance of touch in sand drawing for the Kutjungka people in north-western Australia (also known as the Kukatja people). She writes about their skin originally being open to the elements and available to receive sensory information about the environment, about connecting with the earth through their bodies and feet.

The following excerpt from Christine’s chapter (p. 165) highlights the importance of the earth to Kutjungka people:

“The Kutjungka people, walya (the earth, dirt, sand or ground) is saturated with gender symbolism and the bodies, power, bodily fluids and songs of ancestral beings. The surface of the land is both male and female. Landform elements, from tiny mounds of earth made by ants to plants, trees, rock holes, creek beds, and major hills are gendered depending on their shape and their involvement with the actions of the ancestors. The bodies of the Dreamtime heroes, male and female, animal and human, are present within the land at sacred sites…….The transformed bodily fluids and excreta of ancestral beings present in the earth at these sites infuse the land with their power. Also present within the earth in the form of vibrations are the names and songs of the ancestors.”

Christine Watson's chapter 'Touching the land' is found in the book 'art from the land', published in 1999 by The University of Virginia.

Christine Watson’s chapter ‘Touching the land’ is found in the book ‘art from the land’, published in 1999 by The University of Virginia.

Kutjungka notions of the land as embodied and as embodying ancestral beings at specific sites hold consequences for the way in which they touch the earth. Earth, the primary element for many Aboriginal Australians as related by Voigt and Drury. The relationship between the intuitive elements and Aboriginal Australians, as well as other Indigenous cultures, is one that I will explore further as this blog develops. There is much to learn from this very rich and rewarding topic.

2 thoughts on “Wisdom from the earth

  1. I was interested to read your observation that indigenous Australians didn’t refer to the fifth element as a separate entity because they perceived it as being present in everything.

  2. That’s my feeling about why the fifth element was not explicitly mentioned in this context. Swami Nityamuktananda in her book ‘The Five Great Elements Rediscovered’ also notes that daily life for Aboriginal Australians is permeated by spirit. It makes sense to me based on my experience over many years.

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