The metaphysics of songlines

Mike Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


A bush track. A dusty Toyota. My only companion is an old man, a man with all the quiet dignity and presence of a senior Aboriginal man. As we drive, he directs me to veer right or left with a barely perceptible flick of his hand. As we reach the edge of his country, the old man becomes animated and begins to sing quietly. In between snatches of song, I am treated to an avalanche of disjointed information about the Dreamings that we cut across. About how there is a big story here. About how that kangaroo came through here. ‘Snake head, that one’, he explains, pointing out rocks that represent agitated snakes. Later, we stop and look at ripple marks in sandstone, which are,
in his eyes, the track of an Ancestral snake.

It is hard to miss the implication that the country is a web of mythologies, a storied landscape. But these clips of detailed mythology are bewildering and seem jumbled and inchoate. What does it all mean? My companion gives me no clues. At no stage does he tell me any of the mythological stories as a linear narrative, with a beginning and an end. We always seem to start somewhere in the middle with just a snatch of the narrative. And what he tells me seems to be elicited by the bit of country we travel. He offers no reflection on the meaning or purpose of these mythologies. Nor does he give character sketches of key dramatis personae. In fact, he does no editorialising at all, apart from the bald statement that this is the Dreaming.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSonglines
Subtitle of host publicationtracking the Seven Sisters
EditorsMargo Neale
Place of PublicationCanberra, A.C.T.
PublisherNational Museum of Australia Press
Number of pages6
ISBN (Print)9781921953293
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Ancestral tracks
  • Aboriginal
  • Dreaming
  • Songlines


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