Oceania: Aboriginal, Melanesian & Polynesian Cultures

Oceania covers a vast and sparsely populated region of the globe. Geographically and culturally it is divided into four main regions: Australia, including Tasmania (Aborigines); Melanesia, including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and other surrounding islands; Micronesia, covering many tiny islands such as Guam, Kiribati, the Marshalls and the Marianas; and Polynesia, which extends from New Zealand (Maoris) in the south, to Hawaii in the north, and eastward to remote dots of land like Pitcairn and Easter Islands.

Despite their scattered and varied nature, all Oceanian cultures share a common mythic view: spiritual power can exist in people and places, in actions and objects. All things have both a physical and spiritual existence, and shamans are those who can tap into both realities. In Polynesia, this concept of ubiquitous spiritual power is called mana; among shamans it is envisioned as a force or substance inherited from ancestors. The Aboriginal people of Australia call this sacred energy djang; it accumulates in certain natural objects and places which can be recognized by some striking or unusual feature: a lone tree, a sudden outcropping of rock in the middle of a plain, and the like.

The Dreamtime of the Aborigines
  The dual nature of reality takes on a particular expression among the Aborigines. Their myths speak of altjeringa, or the "Dreamtime", an ancient period when the world was inhabited by giant creator beings. When those beings departed, they left behind a spiritual energy in every aspect of the world. As a result all things have a place in the landscape which is both spiritual and physical, and the Dreamtime continues to mingle with the physical world. Stories of the Dreamtime are told along with more recent legends and events, as if the Dreamtime were just yesterday. This may seem contradictory –- that the long-ago and here-and-now are so close –- until one understands that to the Aborigines space, not time, is the continuum within which all things exist. Myth is a living part of consciousness; everything that occurs in the land becomes part of the land itself. In this context, time does not separate one thing from another, and it is not just the shamans who walk in two worlds.

The Ever-Presence of the Ancestors
  Aboriginal shamanic practice and myth emphasize a spiritual connection to ancestors, and the ability of the shaman to bridge the gap between the dead and the living. While in most respects a shaman’s life is quite ordinary, he also "keeps company" with the ancestors, and is typically seen as having been taken over by a dead medicine man of the past. Some traditions hold that the ancestors come to him while he sleeps, leading him off to the spirit realm to instruct him; in other traditions, the shaman accesses the spirit world by going off into the desert and into a trance -– sometimes referred to as a "walkabout". Far from being a random wandering, this trance-journey is described by the shaman as following the "dreaming tracks" or "song lines" of the ancestors. However he reaches the spirit world, the shaman returns from it with knowledge to heal and protect his people, or to predict what is to come. The Aborigines share their land with an array of spirits, and they are everywhere: in the forests, the hills, and underwater. Most are harmless; some can pass as human and live among the people themselves, whether to help or to harm.

Maori Spirits
  The Maori of New Zealand tell stories of the patupaiarehe, a sentient, fair-skinned and tattoo-less race of non-humans. Their coloring is the pallor of death, and they are believed to be lingering spirits who are unwilling or unable to find a final resting place. Akin to the Celtic faeries, they inhabit the forests and hills and interfered with humans, for good or ill. The evil ones are sometimes perceived as ogres, goblins or fish.





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