In the late 1970s I was introduced to ritual magic and was promptly motivated to question the assumptions that were made about practices developed in the northern hemisphere and their application in the southern hemisphere.
I am a long-time, but futile, campaigner against how the Australian Christmas was celebrated – at the wrong time of the year and with symbols that did not fit. I have long craved an authentic Australian spirituality in which our place here is acknowledged and owned as a real presence in a real landscape and a proper season.
I have been reading on Indigenous culture and tradition for many years – out of a need to better understand the Indigenous inhabitants of a land white people decided they should settle on. As a teenager who went bush in Tasmania as often as I could I had a profound sense of being embraced by the spirit of the island. There was no sense of adopting archaic and traditional ways. They were too alien to me. I needed to craft my own sense of relationship and connection. But my psyche was filled with the lore of the UK, and I had to disrupt that.
An Aboriginal friend alerted me to Paul Callaghan’s (with Uncle Paul Gordon) The Dreaming Path, released as an audiobook on 1 July 2022. I finished it yesterday (6 July). Here I want to reflect on that book.
The author and the book
Paul is a Worimi man with a diverse professional background who now runs Callaghan Cultural Consultancy. Worimi country extends from Foster/Tuncurry south to Port Stephens on the New South Wales coast.
Paul had a nervous breakdown and part of his recovery involved reconnection with country and culture through his relationship with Uncle Paul Gordon. This book reflects strongly on that process of recovery.
The Dreaming Path is centred on Indigenous culture, tradition, and beliefs, but Paul refers a far wider, but predominantly European, array of sources – spiritual and philosophical. In doing so he did two important things for me:
- He anchored Australian Indigenous law and lore within a shared heritage of Indigenous peoples (of which we white people remain heirs – if we understand our pre-Christian cultural roots.
- In so doing he made it possible to think the ideas he presents as a common heritage, rather than a matter of cultural appropriation. He offers nothing that would encourage such appropriation in any case.
The truths are shared but culture is particular
I have read in many traditions. I developed a particular affection for Taoist and Zen thought, but never felt even slightly motivated to adopt either as a belief system or lifestyle. I am flat out of Irish stock, with maybe a wee taste of Scottish. But I live in neither culture.
My parents arrived in Australia with me and my twin sister in 1955. Some time in 1956 I had an experience that anchored my spirit in this country. We were living on a sheep station in western Victoria, and I wandered away from the adults up a track. The country had been eaten down to bare earth by sheep. Their dung was everywhere. The sun was hot. I remember the call of crows and the smell of a sheep carcass somewhere on the wind. There was a pond or pool with a fringe of grass. In the pool 2 snakes swam. I gazed upon them in wonder, transfixed. My mother’s frantic voice cut through my trance. History? I don’t know. But that memory has been with me ever since. It was the day my spirit was joined with this land. It changed me.
I was who I was. I had my history as a stranger in this very strange land. I have never wanted to be anything else other than a white fella in this place – owning who I was, and the history of the culture that brought me here. My culture’s history makes me feel conflicted. I have needed to stare it in the face and acknowledge what it is – and how it has shaped me.
Learning about, and practicing, Wicca was a huge growth for me. I could trace my present passions and sensibilities back to my own genetic and cultural heritage. As I listened to The Dreaming Path I heard stories, values and practices that were familiar.
As Paul observed – if you have connection with country, and you rely on country to sustain your life, your values will be the same.
Universality of message
The Dreaming Path is a handbook on how to live well as an individual, as a community member, and as one living on country. It cuts through historical and cultural baggage to remind the reader that humans were once all dependent on country and, as such, shared a common ethos expressed in spiritual and culture laws and lore. Specific cultural traditions will vary, but they all have that common foundation.
What The Dreaming Path does most potently for me is remind me that the foundation of the values to live well are a common human heritage, and that they were here in this country when we arrived here. Why look elsewhere?
We in the ‘advanced’ west are forever looking backwards for our spiritual values. Christianity is 2,000 years old. Buddhism is older, as are other Eastern philosophies and traditions. The Western Mystery Tradition harks back to Ancient Egypt. Wicca goes back to pre-Christian times in Europe.
Paul Callaghan reminds us that what we can find in those sources we can find in Indigenous Australian lore and law. We can find what we need in our own country.
But we have to be fully here. We can’t tap into what we need if we insist on enacting rituals and ceremonies that are out of synch with place and time. We can honour our European roots, but we must equally honour our antipodean realities, if not more so. We can bring memories of elsewhere with us, because they are part of who we are, but we must knit them into landscape, climate, season and culture of where we are now.
In 1997 I travelled back to my birthplace in Northern Ireland. When I left Australia in 1996, I happily, if not proudly, proclaimed myself Irish. Thirteen months in the UK taught me I was not at all Irish. I may have been born there, but not an atom of my physical body was Irish. Nothing of my cultural upbringing was Irish – it was way more British. I was, in fact, completely and utterly Australian – physically, mentally and spiritually. I had to leave to discover that.
In Northern Ireland, on the righthand side of Tullygandary Road as it snaked out of Newtownards, I sat on a pile of stones on a February night under a crisp clear sky. I sent my spirit into the earth, questing. This is what I found in my imagination – a nest of 3 dragons. One stirred languidly and said “What are you doing here? There is nothing here for you. Go home.” That confirmed what I was sensing. I had no purchase here. Home was Australia.
The message of spirit is not dependent upon place or time or culture or tradition. I am not saying these things may not matter, just that they do not have to do so.
The Dreaming Path is a universal message. It just happens to have an Australian theme. It is, thus, Indigenous without being specifically Aboriginal. True, the Aboriginal theme is present, but there is no hint of cultural adoption.
Time to get real
It is important to set the record straight. The deep age of Aboriginal culture is distorted in the eyes of The Enlightenment mentality as a failure to evolve through mental and moral failings. Rather than seeing a highly sophisticated lifestyle, what we saw was, in the language of the day, the primitive lifestyle of “savages” tens of millennia old. But over scarcely 2 centuries later, we newcomers have done incalculable harm to country and its inhabitants.
It is clear that the early ‘settlers’ saw this land as a distant version of England, one that required no significant adaptation. We imported plants and animals and cultural traditions and beliefs. In the south we clung to northern ways. I recall a Christmas in western Victoria. We sat on a stifling summer’s day in a kitchen with a wood fired stove to eat a northern baked meal. Our neighbours were outside under canvas, to ward the sun off. They had a southern light meal. The kids my age had a paddling pool. All I had was sweat.
I want to be here wholly. I do not want the sentimental trappings of Europe hanging here. That much I think I owe the indigenous spirit of this land. Christmas on 25 June with no fools in Santa suits. No reindeers, no snow, no yule logs. Of course, what is seasonal on that date is okay. But no Christmas on December 25! It’s a seasonal festival, not a birthday. The birthday colonised a seasonal festival. So, it can surrender it just as well.
And Easter in September too. This fertility festival celebrating the arrival of the northern spring became host to the drama of the resurrection because the theme of a ‘rebirth’ suited both. This a universal theme as a seasonal festival, though in some climates that ‘rebirth’ is less dramatic. Likewise, the spiritual ‘rebirth’ is universal. It’s just that not all traditions treat it the same.
Christianity is riddled with pagan festivals and traditions, celebrating place and time and season. Christianity has colonized pagan festivals, gods and heroes. We who are not Christian need not abide by old habits. We can create new ones that more fully acknowledge our debt to, and dependence upon, this country. We owe it truth, surely.
I do not have an antithesis toward Christianity. It’s just not my faith. That’s it. The fact that many of its major festivals are aligned to northern pagan seasonal festivals means that can share equinox and solstice times of celebration, each on our own terms, and in our own ways.
But I do have an antithesis toward the unwillingness to formulate a clearly southern hemisphere spirituality that is aligned to our seasons and uses our symbols and images. The degree to which our religious/spiritual beliefs are rooted in country and the natural world is little acknowledged.
North v South
We from the north cannot abandon our traditions utterly. Our psyches are too attuned to them. We cannot surrender the reside of our pagan past for Aboriginal traditions and symbols. But we can intentionally move toward being more fully here. That doesn’t mean ‘going native’, and certainly not engaging in cultural appropriation, but it does mean being more fully open attuning ourselves spiritually to where we are – and allowing ourselves to being changed in an adaptive way.
I have no doubt that some people are doing that in various and individual ways. But I am not seeing evidence of successful melding, just a sympathetic leaning in the desired direction.
We of northern extraction must be more fully conscious of living south. For example, we think of clockwise as a particular direction without being aware that it is derived from the direction of the sun in the sky in the northern hemisphere – it is sunwise. In the south the sun moves across our sky in a direction we would call, with our northern condition,anticlockwise – antisunwise.
The Dreaming Path was a liberating experience for me. Paul opened up a perspective on Indigenous spiritual lore and law I was unaware of. Yes, it is universal, but it is also Indigenous. We can be specifically Australian in our spirituality in a way that links us to Aboriginal culture and tradition (but without risking cultural appropriation), to the Indigenous people across the planet, to our own deep cultural traditions – and in a way that accords with contemporary aspirations. We are able to link the deep past (epitomised by Australia) with the present.
And the strange thing? There’s nothing astonishing, nothing that taxes us mentally in the book. We may be taxed by the demand for personal authenticity, however. There isn’t a mystery at this level. That’s not to assert that there are not levels of mystery, just that they are not necessary to living a good life – which must be the foundation of anything before we go beyond.
My first reaction, as I listened to the book, was who is this for? Aboriginal people who had lost connection with culture, country, and law? White folk in need of spiritual reconnection?
At the end, I decided the answer is ‘most of us’ – if we have the humility to be open.
Paul straddles the north/south boundary. He opens up an opportunity for a dialogue through which the law keepers of the Australian Indigenous tradition may offer what is okay for northern oriented people to adopt and adapt from southern and Australian Indigenous thought.
It’s a conversation I’d like to be a part of it. It is the root of any serious effort at what we call ‘reconciliation’, but more importantly it is about laying the foundation for an Indigenous southern spirituality. Yes, this is universal in essence, but we need to evolve a culture which has traditions and symbols that are wholly present here.