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Traditional Storytelling in Australasia and Oceania

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Australia

Storytelling is still integral to the way of life for Australian Aborigines. Stories are used to educate, to explain the history of the land and people, and give practical knowledge of nature. Traditionally storytellers are born into the role, but the role can be earned as well. As with many tribal cultures, there are public stories, but there are also stories that are sacred, secret, men-only, women-only or combinations of those restrictions, which may be used in certain ceremonies, gatherings or initiations. In the twentieth century the white population actively discouraged indigenous storytelling and many important tales were lost, but now Aborigines are struggling to re-establish their cultural identity and vitality without others appropriating or exploiting the stories that carry it.

“Gathered around the camp fire in the evening, on an expedition to a favourite waterhole, or at a landmark of special significance, parents, Elders or Aunts and Uncles use the stories as the first part of a child's education. Then, as children grow into young adults, more of the history and culture is revealed. Adults then take responsibility for passing on the stories to the following generations. In this way, the Stories of the Dreaming have been handed down over thousands of years.

“The expression 'Dreamtime' is most often used to refer to the 'time before time', or 'the time of the creation of all things', while 'Dreaming' is often used to refer to an individual's or group's set of beliefs or spirituality.

“Because the "Stories of the Dreaming" have been handed down through the generations, they are not 'owned' by individuals. They belong to a group or nation, and the storytellers of that nation are carrying out an obligation to pass the stories along. The Elders of a nation might appoint a particularly skilful and knowledgeable storyteller as 'custodian' of the stories of that people.

Stories of the Dreaming, Australian Museum.

“As dusk falls and the bunggul (traditional dance) ceremony gets underway, the yidaki [didgeridoo] assumes its traditional role. A call to people to come together in unity, its age-old sound is also a vital component in the retelling of the oral history of the Yolngu people. The Yolngu are the hosts of the five-day Garma Festival of Traditional Culture [held at Gulkula in the Northern Territory].

Tonight alongside a group of men singing and clapping bilma sticks, Djalu's circular breathing provides the rhythmic foundation for the Manikay: song cycles featureing the various ancestral spirit beings of the Yolngu clans. Music and dance are inseparable: bare-chested, body-painted male dancers in red skirts whirl through the sand, telling stories of birds, stars, rain and first contact with the outside world. Women with white-chalked faces shuffle on, heads down, elbows pumping, twitching sprigs of gum leaves. When things stop abruptly, a great and unsettling 'Whooo!' rises from huddles of Yongu in the audience.

“You can be a yarnteller - telling about something that may or may not have happened down the street or in the community - but it lacks the lessons. The true role of the storyteller is to pass on the lessons from the beginning of time.

“For me to be a reciter of stories--no--I don't want to be a reciter. I see myself as a traditional storyteller and therefore, the stories I tell are the ones in which I understand the laws, rules, culture and spirituality behind them--the Dreamtime stories.

Pauline McLeod, Aboriginal Perspective on Storytelling

Resources

Stories of the Dreaming - A project by the Australian Museum explains about the role of storytelling in indigenous Australian culture, and for twenty stories gives text, audio clips and video clips of traditional storytellers. Elsewhere on the site there is lots of information about traditional Australian culture.

Aboriginal Perspective on Storytelling - a long interview with traditional storyteller Pauline McLeod, where she explains the nature and role of stories in the culture, and the role of the storyteller, both traditionally and in today's challenging climate, and gives advice to people who are keen to become tellers or tell traditional tales.

Garma Festival - Australia's premier indigenous cultural event. Entry is booked exclusively with World Expeditions, and the permits required to enter Aboriginal land are granted with registration. Places for the public at Garma, prohibited before 2001, are limited to around fifty.

New Zealand

The whare wananga of the Maori are professionals responsible for keeping and reciting the oral history of the tribe.

Resources

The World of Storytelling, by Anne Pellowski.

This book is a prime source of information on storytelling traditions around the world, and includes a useful multilingual dictionary of terms. The revised second edition has extra material. The book covers types of storytelling, including bardic, folk, religious, theatrical, library, and campfire; styles of telling, including gesture and voice, musical accompaniment, use of pictures and objects, openings and closings; the training of storytellers, including inherited positions, apprenticeships, and informal training. All these elements are compared and contrasted in cultures around the world, to give an excellent overview with lots of detail.

'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994. [Now available in a new revised edition.]

A very large and thorough celebration, by many experts, of the musical traditions and styles of the world. As noted in the introduction above, storytelling traditions are often intimately bound up with music, so this is also a treasure trove of hard-to-find and up-to-date information on the keepers of the oral tradition worldwide.

'Traditional Epics', Guida M. Jackson. OUP 1994.

A huge book covering 1400 epics from all over the world - definitely the most comprehensive reference available, though the entries are mainly confined to the history and summary of the epics themselves rather than the traditions of telling them. Includes useful geographical, chronological, and genre indices, plus a long bibliography.

See the Cultural Traditions of Storytelling section of my storytelling web-links page for sites giving information on various specific places.

© Tim Sheppard 2003-12. Last updated 19/10/12.

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