Aboriginals of High Degree

“Aboriginal land rights” does not mean that the people are simply entitled to land. Nor does the term mean that the land owes anything to the people. Aborigines do not [and should not] justify land rights in terms of economy, accommodation, or possession. Rather, Aboriginal land rights represent a whole set of responsibilities, among which is the obligation to preserve the unique essence of their original law. Aborigines have the responsibility to be custodians of land, sea, and sky. They must remain accountable to the ecological world, which accepts indigenous intrusion and use of that ecology only on sound practices of interaction with the spirit of the land, manifested in strict rules of respect and protection. ~ Jim Everett: Aboriginal Writer (June 1993)

QUESTION: And if they don’t, what becomes of Aboriginality, authenticity, and cultural uniqueness?


The following is excerpted from Aboriginal Men of High Degree by AP Elkin (1977, 1994).

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…the magical substances on which the doctor’s power depends are called maban, the term used across the desert at the Warburton Ranges and down to Ooldea. …the medicine man is made by, or receives his power from, the Rainbow Serpent, or else a water snake, which can also be seen in the sky.

…this mythical snake makes the doctor, killing him being the first step in the process. … He then inserts in him maban (quartz crystals) and little rainbow snakes…

The powers of medicine men are supernormal, usually supersensory, and are derived from two sources: first, the cult-heroes of the craft—sky and totemic heroes, spirits and ghosts, who may be all one; second, the long line and hierarchy or order of medicine men, which leads back to these same heroes of the eternal dreamtime. …

Medicine men’s powers enable them to do many supernormal things, but they are all psychical in character. Healing or killing (by sorcery), “divining” a murderer, practicing hypnotism, telepathy, telesthesia, and clairvoyance, holding séances or visiting the sky—all these depend on the psychic training and faculties of the medicine man and the induction of the right state of receptivity (aka acceptivity) in the mind of the patient, victim, mourners, dreamers, or audience at a ceremony. …

An important faculty that the clever men possess, and that is assiduously trained, is “the strong eye”. This means not so much the power of looking into another person’s mind as the power of looking into and through a sick person’s body to see whether the soul is present [or afflicted] or not, and also being able to see the spirit of a “murderer” and even the spirits of the dead. In short, to possess the strong eye is to have the faculty of seeing spirits [sensing energy], of the living and of the dead. …

In Aboriginal society, the medicine man, the man of high degree, is the detective and coroner. …

…Aborigines spend much time with their own thoughts, reflecting on dreams, and being ready, at any moment, to enter a condition of receptivity. The quietness and silence of so much of their life, the absence of rush and of urgent appointments, and the fewness of their numbers facilitate this occupation with the psychic. Moreover, their totemistic and animistic view of life predisposes them to it. …

The following is a description by an Aboriginal informant of an old man meditating.

When you see an old man sitting by himself, … do not disturb him, for if you do he will “growl” at you. Do not play near him; because he is sitting down by himself with his thoughts in order “to see”. He is gathering those thoughts so that he can feel and hear. Perhaps he then lies down, getting into a special posture, so that he may see when sleeping. He sees indistinct visions and hears “persons” talk in them. …he tells his friends to strengthen that power within them, so that when they lie down they will see and feel people not present [or become aware of entities], and in that way they will perceive them.

This describes how certain persons, abstracting themselves from what was happening around them and concentrating on the psychic power within them, practiced something akin to recollection. …In other words, they were clairvoyant. Indeed, during such periods of meditation and vision, when this power and his own thoughts were as one, the clever man would see visions unconnected with earthly life. He would go to the world of ancestral beings. …

… To reach that high degree of psychic power by which one can send power out to bring death or life, to gain knowledge and to transfer thought without any hindrance of time or space, and to see visions requires much practice, courage, and perseverance. Dangers and terrors must be faced—dangers of a psychic nature, the creation probably of one’s own psychic exercise or perception. …

… It is possible that there are some historical [perhaps genetic] connection between the yoga and occult practices of India and Tibet and the practices and psychic powers of Aboriginal men of high degree. …Moreover, the Aborigines hold the doctrines of pre-existence and of reincarnation…

Apart from the interesting problem of origin, Australian Aboriginal religion, with its emphasis on mysteries and degrees of initiation, its doctrines of pre-existence and reincarnation, and its belief in psychic powers belong to the Orient [Australasia], not to the West, and can only be understood in the light of the Orient. In the past, the custom has been to study and judge Aboriginal religion, and magic from the point of view of the Occident. We have found the external universe of overwhelming interest and sought, with much success, its explanation in mechanical and physical laws. …The Oriental approach is one of experiment [and experience] and observation. …

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…Aboriginal medicine men, so far from being rogues, charlatans, or ignoramuses, are men of high degree, that is, men who have taken a degree in the secret life beyond that taken by most adult males—a step that implies discipline, mental training, courage, and perseverance; they are men of respected, and often of outstanding, personality; they are of immense social significance, the psychological health of the group largely depending on faith in their powers; the various psychic powers attributed to them must not be too readily dismissed as mere primitive magic and “make-believe”, for many of them have specialised in the working of the human mind and in the influence of mind on body and of mind on mind; the ritual [event] of “death and rising” by which they receive their powers includes and causes a deep psychological experience; and, as long as they observe the customary discipline of their “order”, this experience continues to be a source of faith to themselves and their fellows.

In brief, Aboriginal men of high degree are a channel of life.

… The tribes of the western desert of South Australia gathered around Ooldea in 1941-42 may be considered as one cultural group, because of the fundamental unity of their language, social organisation, totemism, and mythology. Among them, the kinkin (doctor) is also said to be a clever man. Like other individuals in the tribe, he can practice sorcery, but he is also a healer (nangaringu, one who sucks out), a rain-maker, an oracle, and a diviner of the cause of deaths. As well, he can counteract alien magical influences and can send his spirit in the form of his cult-totem to gather information from a distance.

The ritual and experience of making take place at Djabudi waterhole, southwest of Ooldea (SA), which is associated with a great snake, Wonambi, who is alive today, even though his mythical exploits belong to the ancestral dreamtime. He is the guardian of all doctors. … Wonambi is a cult-totem and as well as dwelling in certain sacred sites, appears in dreams. …Wonambi plays an important part in the mythology and cult-totemism of western South Australia and the adjoining region of Western Australia, which can be justly described as a great desert region.

…near Laverton [WA], a great snake, there called tarbidi, protects the waterhole in the same way as Wonambi, and standing up like the rainbow (which he is), smells strangers. … [tarbidi] is the supplier of shells, which can be found in the soak, and which he is said to bring there from under the sea in another country. In other words, he is associated with pearl-shell, or marbain, which is a source of power to the medicine men. The doctors of this area act as coroners, as well as healers.

…In northern South Australia, a medicine man (nangari) accompanies the revenge expedition, the members of which wear the “magical kadaitja shoes”. …

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Among the Arunta (Aranda), any man may employ sorcery, but the medicine men alone can counteract its effects. They can cure the sick, conduct inquests, accompany the kadaitja revenge expeditions, and act as mediums. Incidentally, dogs as well as medicine men can see spirits. …

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The future of the “Order” of men of high degree depends on an unbroken succession of qualified persons. Only by and through them can the knowledge, psychic insight, mystic experience, and personality authority that distinguishes the Order be passed on. The selection, testing, reception, and instruction of new members are their responsibility, and they themselves must keep certain rules of life and observe taboos, or else they lose their power, status, and influence.

…the making of medicine men… ”inherent their special powers from their fathers,” that is, from “the spirits of their dead patrilineal forebears” and their ancestral totemic beings…with whom they must keep in effective communication. Some of the powers attributed to them, however, suggest that they were made in a mystic experience that included visitation by spirits and receiving maban inside them. These powers include being leaders on dream-spirit journeys, especially those associated with the religious life, taking persons’ dream spirits on a journey … protecting people against attacks by malignant spirits. …

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Not only full-blood Aborigines recently removed from their own traditional way of life, but also great numbers of “advanced” Aborigines, including part-Aborigines, still attribute illnesses and death (except possibly of the elderly) to magical practices, to the activities of the spirits, usually spirits of the departed, and to the breaking of taboos. …

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The difficulty in many regions today is to find “doctors” who are “men of high degree,” who have not only learned the ritual and manipulative actions they should perform, but also have had the spiritual experience that gives them the strong or inner eye, the addition of magical “substances” to their “inside,” and the assistance of personal totems. The depth of their knowledge and the essence of their power lie in this experience. They have been through great fear and even “death” and can impart confidence to those who have similar trials.

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The Order of Men of High Degree together with the belief in associated psychic, psychological, and physical aspects of its members’ “making and powers” has seemed to many observers doomed to pass away as Aborigines accept Western ideas of illness, its cause and cure. …

… Western influences are all-pervasive. Missions provide spiritual interpretations and ministrations; educational and medical services teach and practice our understanding of sickness and death; and, in our opinion, the marvels of modern technology must surely outdo the wonders of the clever-men; we think of telephone, radio, television, and X-rays, of gramophones and tape recorders, of trains, motors, airplanes, and space vehicles.

In the Aborigines opinion, however, all this knowledge and all the beneficial activities of priests, teachers, physicians, and technologists are manifestations or developments in the white man’s world of what the Aboriginal clever-men know and do, or did, in their world. The doctor-blackfellow cures the sick or finds a reason why he fails to do so; the Flying Doctor and wireless are marvellous in our eyes, but the medicine man by means of his cord or through the help of his totem or spirit-familiar can send word through the air with the speed of thought—”all a same wireless”; moreover, the actuality of dreams, the personal experience of dreams, is more significant than the picture on the television screen; and the penetrating power of the inner or strong eye enables the medicine man to see directly the condition of a sick person’s insides without an X-ray machine and electric power. So, too, the extraction of magical objects and bad blood or other matter [energy] from his insides by rubbing, sucking, sleight of hand, and other ritual acts is in line with our surgeon’s use of the knife to remove whatever is causing the trouble and pain. …

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The decline in the number of men of high degree throughout the decades of racial and cultural contact, until in some regions they are barely a memory, has been unfortunate [and often tragic]. … [They] were and are the family doctors of their people … Moreover, they could help their people to cope with the strains and anxieties resulting from contact, as well as those arising from the ups and downs of life. These are not idle words, for the true doctor-men impart a sense of power and confidence. The psychiatrist Dr J.E. Cawte wrote, as a result of a field study… “If faith and hope are healing emotions, the punmun [medicine man] mobilises them as do psychotherapists in other cultures” and does so by using “elements common to all psychotherapeutic systems” together with scientific knowledge available in his culture. …

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In Aboriginal thought, man is twofold. He is visible body, but he is also spirit. The latter is invisible except to those with special sight. Moreover, it is with the spiritual phenomena that the doctor-man’s speciality lies. He works with and through the invisible: for example, drawing out from a patient’s body an “invisible something,” which he casts away; reading a person’s thoughts whether he be nearby or out of sight or far away; practicing meditation, clairvoyance, telepathy, and hypnotism; sending his assistant spirit or totem to gather information; and, in trance and dream, visiting the spirits of the dead, of nature, and of the sky-world.

To specialise in the invisible aspect of a man’s life, and in the sphere of spirit generally, a person must be “made,” that is, transformed, and so qualified. Aborigines are familiar with the concept of qualifying for status and role. Every man must pass through the several psychological and physical tests of initiation to be a “made man” …

Likewise, the would-be man of high degree must qualify for his role… So he “takes” the high degree. Apart from being expert in folk remedies, he must know how to deal with fears and anxieties, as well as physical illnesses, even if he uses what may seem to be conjuror’s tricks. Thus massaging and sucking the skin may in fact tone up the area treated and relieve pain, but more important, they are the preliminary part of a sacramental* rite; the “bad blood,” the animistic “badness,” and the material object that is apparently extracted are the outward signs that the cause of pain, illness, and anxiety has been taken away.

Effective performance of symbolic acts that heal and cure flow from the psychic power received by the doctor-man in his own prior mystic experience as a postulant. He is told by his mentor or mentors what to expect, and in “retreat,” in isolation and fasting, he ponders somewhat fearfully at the edge of the spirit world about what will happen. At length, be it in dream or trance, he believes [knows] that he is visited by a sky cult-being, by spirits of the dead, or by a nature spirit. Thus, he is made. He receives the inner eye and new insides or “something in him” that mediates power from the spirit world.


* Sacramental: sacred-mental [wordplay by Djubba]

Excerpted from Aboriginal Men of High Degree by AP Elkin (1977, 1994)

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1 Comment

  1. … not all have forgotten, for we must get back to understanding the laws of LORE, only then can we turn around the repeat offenders, the trauma of the past and remover the invading life forms, entities, spirits, and other bigger forces, including the clusters that have taken over our communities.
    Know where you are from, know why you are here, know where you are going and know what you can do.
    It is up to us to make the change to better the future cycles of time.

    Reply: Thanks for taking the time to read & leave a comment. Your interest and point of view is appreciated and regarded. Cheers

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