soldier bird

Victorian Aborigines

The Indigenous Australians of Victoria, Australia shared many characteristics with those elsewhere on mainland Australia.


Religious systems

There were five religious systems in pre-contact Victoria defined in terms of initiation rites, class systems, descent systems and totemism: the Kurnia, the Kulin, the tribes of South Western Victoria (the Maara), the Wergai, and Barkunjee tribes of the River Murray, with the Yaithmathang seen as a unique system because they have their own unique combination of initiation rites and descent.

Totemism and tribal organisation

Tribal organisation in pre-contact Victorian Aboriginal society was based on totemism. Howitt notes that the term totem refers to the name borne by certain groups or divisions of the Aboriginal society. The members of the groups according to Howitt are “...considered as being of the same blood and decent is... borne by the individual...[being inherited from the mother or the father according as decent is counted in the female line or in the male”.

Based on Elkin's ‘Studies in Australian Totemism. Victorian Aboriginal totemism was made up of : 1) individual totemism, 2) matrilineal moiety totemism, 3) matrilineal clan totemism 4) patrilineal moiety totemism, 5) patrilineal clan totemism, 6) section totemism, 8) sex totemism, 9) dream totemism and 10) mortuary totemism, which Elkin does not mention, but appears to be peculiar to Victoria ie the Wergai (Wotjoballuk) of the Western district.


Though it is generally accepted that the Aborigines had a religion, some commentators deny the presence of gods within Aboriginal religion. E.A.Worms in Australian Aboriginal Religions makes the point that "neither known writings about the Aborigines nor our own lengthy observations, nor those of W.E.H. Stanner and T.G.H. Strehlow allow us to suppose that the Australians believed in a god and in particular a 'high god.'" Worms seems to mean by a god a being which is a creator; since in talking about the higher being in Australia he claims that "these beings are creators only to a very limited degree since they merely finish of a pre-existing world...". As a result of this characterisation of Australian Aboriginal high beings Worms adopts the word 'dema' to refer to the Australian Aboriginal high beings who were not creators, but instead finished of a pre-existing world.

Thus the ascertaining of whether the Victorian Aborigines believed in gods is a matter of what definition is used; if we adopt Worms's criteria then it can be said that some Victorian Aborigines believed in a god. Though Worms's schema of demas and gods is arbitrary it is nevertheless useful in the case of Victoria, since there are in fact two distinct and different types of supreme beings to be found in Aboriginal Victoria, gods and Dema. It should be pointed out that while there are two different names used for the supreme beings in Victoria, Dema are a special type of god.

It appears that throughout Victoria there was a belief in either a god or Demas. It is fairly certain that the Kurnai believed in a Demas like those tribes of the Barkunjee nation of North Western Victoria. The belief of a god seems to be restricted to the Kulin nation and the Wergai of the Western district. With the exception of the South of the Western district and sections of the Kulin the supreme beings were too distant from the Aborigines that they played no part in the lives of them. In the case of the Kulin and the South of the Western district, and perhaps the Yaitmathang there seems to have been a reverential attitude towards the supreme being. It is interesting to speculate that where the supreme being was a god then we find and attitude of reverence.

Initiation ceremonies

There are five forms of initiation throughout pre-contact Victoria. The Kurnia had the Jeraeil where for the rite of passage the initiates are put to sleep as boys and are awakened as men. The Kulin nation had had the Jibauk where the rite of passage for the initiates was the cutting of the boy hair like a cock’s comb, plastering pipe-clay over their head and shoulders and white pipe clay painted in a band from ear to ear. The initiates then had to beg for their food in the tribe and upon their hair growing long the Jibauk’s were then introduced to the tribe as men. The south Western tribe's rite of passage was the pulling out of all the body hair. The Wergai’s rite of passage was roasting the initiates over a fire. The rite of passage for the tribes along the Murray from Mildura to Echuca was tooth extraction as it was for the Yaimathung tribe.

Dreamtime beliefs

The only recorded Victorian Aboriginal word which translates as 'dreamtime ' is the Wemba Wemba word Jemeragi recorded by L. Hercus. The Wemba Wemba belong to the Western Kulin linguistic group and their language is akin to the Djadjala of the Wimmera. The Wemba Wemba term being the only recorded word meaning 'dreamtime' should not cause as to think that the Victorian Aborigines did not have a term for this period. The Wemba Wemba belonged to a linguistic stock which encompassed the whole of the Western district of Victoria; of this stock R. Dixon notes this stock had about 70% of their vocabulary in common. Consequently it could be reassembly assumed that other Aboriginal tribes of the Western district had terms for the 'dreamtime'

For the Western district Stone in 1911 records a Giurrmjanyuk (of the Wemba Wemba) word Nuil mea goon which he translates as "a long time ago". Dawson in 1881 records the Chaap Wuurong (Wadawurrung) word Mulla meea, the Kuurn kopan word Wuulaekitto, and the Peek wuurong word Mulli yitto all translating as "long time ago".

Wadiwadi - Murray River Tribes

A.L.P.Cameron writing in 1884 records what appears to be the 'dreamtime' beliefs of the Wathi Wathi (Wadi Wadi. According to Cameron the Wathi Wathi believed in a being called Tha-tha-puli. This being was regarded as having supernatural powers, he made men, women and dogs - who used to talk before he took the power of speech from them. The Wathi Wathi believed that the earth was originally inhabited by a race called the Bookoomuri. These Bookoomuri were famous for their fighting ability and hunting.

Wemba Wemba - Murray River Tribes

In 1861 Beveridge records that the Lake Boga tribe, the Gourrmjandidj of the Wemba Wemba Aborigines, believed that originally they were animals and birds - unlike the Wathi Wathi. In the beginning there was no sun the earth was enclosed in darkness. After a quarrel between the native companion and the emu the native companion threw an egg up into the sky which then broke upon a pile of wood - which was prepared by the good spirit Gnawaderoot - causing the wood to break onto fire and flooding the earth into light.

Wadiwadi, Jarijari, Ladjiladji, Waikiwaiki - Murray River Tribes

In 1883 Beveridge gave a somewhat similar, though more detailed account of the 'dreamtime' cosmogony of the Boora Boora, Watty Watty (Wadi Wadi), Yairy Yairy (Jari Jari), Litchy Litchy (Ladji Ladji) and Waiky Waiky of Aborigines of North Western Victoria. In the long forgotten past the only light upon the earth (tungie) came from the moon (mitian) and the stars (toorts) no people inhabited the earth ; only animals. One day during this semi darkness the female native companion (koortinie) and the emu (kurwie) were quarreling. The native companion during this quarrel throw an emu egg up into the sky (tyrrily) where it broke upon a pile of wood prepared by Ngondenont the good spirit. The concussion of the breakage caused a spontaneous fire which flooded the world in light. Ngondenont saw the advantage of the light for the dwellers on the earth and there from vowed never to leave the earth in perpetual darkness from then on.

Wergai - Western District

Stanbridge writing in 1861 gives an account of the 'dreamtime' beliefs of the Boorong tribe of the Wotjobulak [Wergaia] of the Wimmera. According to the Boorong the earth is flat and it was in perpetual darkness before Pupperimbul made the sun (Gnowee).Pupperimbal was one of a race that inhabited the land at this time, this race was called the Nurrumbung-uttias or old spirits. These beings possessed fire and had all the characteristics of the present race

Wadawurrung Djarglurwurrung - Central Victoria

The information regarding the 'dreamtime' beliefs of the WadaWurrung and the DjaraglurdWurrung is non existent; though Stanbridge in passing gives as some interesting information as to what these beliefs may have been. Stanbrigde gives a very concise account of the Wergaia beliefs regarding the creation of the heavenly bodies; these accounts are terrestrial aetiologies, much like the Greeks. Stanbridge notes that "all the tribes (WadaWurrung, Djaraglurd Wurrung) have traditions and particular families have the reputation in their respective tribes of possessing the most exact knowledge of them (the stars).

Woiwurrung - Central Victoria

Howitt gives a 'dreamtime' account, of the beginning, of the Woiworung (woiwurrung) possibly the Urunjeri-balak clan. According to Howitt the Woiworung believed that in the beginningthe supreme being Bunjil and his sons, Thara (hawk), Yukope (musk lorikeet), Jurt-jurt (nankeen kestral), Dantun (Blue mountain lorikeet) and Turnung (brushtailed phascogale) lived upon the earth. While Bunjil and Balaiang (bat) where feuding Bunjil sent his sons to burn all the country towards the Murray river. In this fire the bat was burned and thus has remained bare and grinning ever since. After this event Bunjil and his sons went up into the sky and became stars.

Bunwurrung - Central Victoria

The Boo-noo-rong (Bunwurrung) yet again have another creation myth. According to the Boo-noo-rong Pun-jil or Bun-jil with the help of his son and brother made all things except women Pun-jil had a wife whose face he had never seen called Boi-boiI Pun-jil had a brother called Pal-ly-yan and a son Bin-beal. Pun-jil always carries a large knife (bul-li-to kul-pen-kul-pen gye-up with which he had made the earth and many mountains, rivers and creeks. The Bunwurrungpeople were marked by their big noses.

Djadjawurrung - Central Victoria

E.S.Parker writing in 1854 gives an account of a Jajowurrong [Djadjawurrung] Dreamtime eitology. It should be born in mind that Parker notes that "these crude traditions evidently vary with different localities" According to Parker the Jajowurrung believed in a benevolent being called Bibeal. The Jajatwurrng believed that originally there was only one kangaroo and one emu. Punjil or Boonjil, a being of suprem wisdom took these animals and cut them up into small pieces from which he made the larger number of these animals; which thus stocked the world. Boonjl it is said taught the manufacture and use of weopens and spears. Boonjil finally went up into the sky where his name is given to the planet Jupiter.


According to the Kurnai of Gippsland long ago a being called Mungan-ngaur lived upon the earth. This being as well as teaching the Kurnai of that time to make canoes, weapons, in fact all the arts the Kurnai now know he also gave them their names. Mungan-ngaur had a son called Tundin who was married and is regarded as the direct ancestor of the Kurnai - the Weintwin or father's father The Jeraeil or initiation ceremony of the Kurnai was instituted by Mungan-ngaur and conducted by Tundun - who made the instruments which bear his wife's and his name. A tribal traitor revealed the secretes of the Jerail to women with the consequence that Mungan-ngaur sent fire, which filled the whole space between the earth and the sky. Fathers killed their children, husbands killed their wives and brethren killed brethren; all in all men went mad with fear over the fire. Another consequence of the fire was that the sea flooded the land drowning nearly all mankind. The ones that survived the flood became the ancestors of the Kurnai. Some of these ancestors turned into birds, animals, fishes and reptiles; Tundum and his wife became porpoises. Mungan-ngaur left the earth and went up into the sky; where he still remains.

The ancestors of the Kurnai are known as the Muk-kurnai - or collectively as the Muk-jiak that is excellent meat, while other animals used for food are called Jiak. These Muk-kurnai (translated as 'eminent men or in another sense the grandfathers) where composite creatures i.e a bird-man, reptile-man or animal-man. Along with these Muk-kurnai there were also the Muk-rukut - being eminent women. The Kurnai believe that in his endeavors to advance their race in the beginning the Muk-kurnai helped Mungan-ngaur.

The Muk-kurnai were twenty one animals :Boran the pelican, Gala the koala, Bataluk the goana; Djirra the kangaroo; Barndagrin the mopoke; Tuk the musk-duck; Kartu the blue heron; No-yang the congar eal Takwun the wallaby; Watun the possum; Gwamurmurung the eagalhawk; Barn the dingo; Wreng the black duck; Turtbring the red-breasted robin; Nartut the wombat; Tide-lek the frog; Gurun the porpoise; Gandu the whale; Kuni the cormorant; Biwing the sea-eagle - Bewing and the soldier bird, because they made a lot of noise, where sometimes referred as the Muk-rukut. Howitt says that the crow was also one of the Muk-kurnai.


Further reading

  • Beveridge, Peter, (1889) The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina: as seen by Peter Beveridge. Melbourne :M.L. Hutchinson
  • Cameron, A. L. P., Notes on the tribes of New South Wales, Journal of the Anthroplogical Institute, Vol.x1v, pp.344-370.
  • Clark, I. D. (c1990) Aboriginal languages and clans :an historical atlas of western and central Victoria, 1800-1900:Dept. of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Melbourne, Vic.
  • Dawson, J. (1881) Australian Aborigines :the languages and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, George Robertson Melbourne
  • Dean, C. L. (1998), The religions of the pre-contact Victorian Aborigines, Gamahucher Press, Geelong ISBN 187634704X
  • Fison.L, & Howitt, A.W, Kamilaroi and Kurnai - Account of the Kurnai of Gippsland
  • Hercus.I, Australian Linguistics, Mankind, Vol.6, No.5, 1965.
  • Howitt. A.W, (1996) The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press ISBN 0855752750 (first published 1904)
  • Massola.A, The Aborigines of South Eastern Victoria: As they were
  • Morgan.J, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley.
  • Parker.E.S, The Aborigines of Australia, in E.Morrison ed Frontier Life in the Loddon Protectorate, Dalysford, 1962.
  • Standbridge.W.E, Some particulars of the General Characteristics, Astronomy, and Mythology of the tribes of Central Victoria, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, Vol.1, 1861, pp.286-304.
  • Stone.A.C, The Aborigines of Lake Boga, Royal Society of Victoria (ns), 11, 1911, 433-468.
  • Smyth.R.B, The Aborigines of Victoria, Vol 1, Vol 2, With notes relating to the Natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania
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