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Serpents reveal links between myths in Australia, China
2006 03 17

From: China Daily | Picked up from: RadiOrbit News Desk

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The rainbow serpent, a mythical creature widespread throughout the continent of Australia, is said to live in water.

A closer look at it reveals that these great serpent-like creatures, usually associated with the rainbow, seem to bear the closest resemblance to the Chinese mythical dragon.

The rainbow serpent is commonly depicted in its terrifying animal form, with a serpent-like body, kangaroo or horse-like head, crocodile teeth, ears or crown of feathers, long, spiked body and fish tail.

Similarly, the form of the Chinese dragon is also a compound of species: the body of a serpent with the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, and the horns of a deer.

There are also much deeper connotations of the two figures which suggest the links between myths in Australia and China.

The Aborigines have inhabited the continent of Australia for at least 40,000 years. Human evolution could not have taken place separately in Australia because there is no evidence of the existence of the ape-like predecessors of Homo sapiens. Therefore, the first Aborigines must have come from elsewhere.

No authority disputes that the Australians came from Southeast Asia, arriving somewhere on the northwest of the continent. It is even argued that the ancestors of the Australian Aborigines could have arrived in Australia from mainland Asia, especially China, as the Australian Encyclopaedia described in its fifth edition.

By Joshua Yasserie. Image from:
This hypothesis that there must be close historical connections between these two peoples is strengthened by some parallels between the myths from the Australian Aborigines and those of the ancient Chinese people.

The rainbow serpent, for example, is strongly associated with water, life, and of course the arching rainbow in the sky. The connection of rainbow and serpents in China is also recorded in the character of "rainbow" on bones and tortoise shells, taking the shape of two serpents. (The inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells are ancestor of modern Chinese script, dating back to 15th-12th century BC.) The current Chinese character of "rainbow" (hong) takes the radical of "worm" (chong), which etymologically means "serpents."

In addition, the Aboriginal people believe that the rainbow serpent is the creator of human beings. The counterpart in Chinese myth could be the goddess Nuwa, who, with serpent-like body, created human beings out of yellow earth and mud. Moreover, in Chinese myth, serpents and dragons are often identical.

Ample examples

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Another example is the close and vital bond with their land documented in the myths of both the Australian Aboriginal and Chinese people, with similar mythic motifs or themes.

In Australian myths, totem ancestors often rose up from below the earth and went down into the ground again after their travels.

In Australia, particularly in the central and northern part of the continent, the great bulk of the mythology is concerned with the origin of the totemic ancestors and their wandering and activities in the time of what Aborigines call the Dreaming or the Eternal Dreamtime.

In China, a high development of ancestral myths can also be found. Similarly, the Chinese goddess Nuwa was said to have risen out of the earth.

In Aboriginal myth, when the ancestral spirits travelled across the country, they metamorphosed into the physical features of the landscape. This motif of metamorphosis recalls the Pangu myth in China.

Pangu was the first-born semi-divine human, and it was from his dying body that the universe was formed. His eyes became the sun and moon, and his blood turned into rivers. His hair grew into trees and plants, his sweat turned into streaming rains, and it was his body that became soil, showing the paramount importance of soil or lands in the Chinese tradition.

In Aboriginal myths, sacred boards, such as churinga, are often considered to be the dwelling places of Dreaming ancestors and are the tie that links living human beings with the land.

A similar belief is also recorded in the Chinese character of "ancestor" (zu) on bones or tortoise shells. The radical in the character etymologically symbolizes erecting a stone on the earth, then on top of that placing one or two stones or boards, which are regarded as the dwelling places of the ancestors, and sprinkling human blood (usually by opening arm veins) over the stones or boards in the appropriate ritual context.

Finally, through ritual, the Aborigines believe that they can intercede with the earth to maintain or increase sources of certain foods, materials or species and to sustain the community's relationship with the land.

Likewise, in China, according to "Historical Records" (Shi Ji) by Sima Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), the history of the performance of rites and ceremonies to worship the earth could be traced back to the time of Wuhuai who even predated Fuxi (24th century BC).

The motif of ancestors' rising out of the earth and returning to their place of emergence shows the close links between the Aborigines and their homeland.

Myths from the Arunta and related tribes of central Australia recount how there were said to be several suns, who went up into the sky one by one.

The sun, like many of the original totem ancestors, arose out of the ground, and later, carrying a firebrand, ascended to the sky. However, every night she descends to the earth before emerging again in the morning.

The resemblance it bears to its Chinese parallel is striking. It was from Tanggu, which was a large sea far beyond the East China Sea and where the 10 suns lived (before Yi the Archer shot nine of them), that the suns took turns running along the fixed celestial orbit from east to west in the morning before returning to Tanggu in the evening.

It must be pointed out that this kind of link between people to their homeland is not usually found in nomadic societies. However, this is emphatically not the case with the Australian Aborigines.

A third example is the institution of marriage by totemic ancestors in Aboriginal myth.

Lewis H. Morgan, in his monumental "Ancient Society," describes the conjugal system on the basis of the eight classes, which prevail among Australian Aborigines. The organization upon sex has not been found, as yet, in any tribes out of Australia.

However, a typically Chinese system analogous to the eight classes is the 64 symbolic hexagrams, which are formed by joining in pairs, one above the other, eight basic trigrams (bagua). The legendary Emperor Fuxi was said to have discovered these trigrams on the back of a tortoise. In Chinese myth, Fuxi and Nuwa are patrons of the institutions of marriage.

Some Aboriginal myths explained how the ancestors came to Australia. In Northern Australian myths, ancestral beings rose out of the sea, or came to the continent from above the sea, bringing with them the ritual law and the sacred ritual objects.

A typical myth said that it was a flock of migratory birds who discovered the vast uninhabited continent. When they returned to their homeland far to the east, they told the animals, which at that time was in the form of men and women, of the land of promise. The animals then came in canoes, reached the continent and made their homes there.

The accounts of canoe journeys across the sea are historically suggestive. These accounts coincide with the records of kangaroos in "The Classic of Mountains and Seas" (Shanhai Jing) and "Huainan Zi" (a classic written in the 2nd century BC), two valuable sources of classical Chinese mythology.

Myth is said to be a kind of autobiographical ethnography by which the culture of a primitive tribe could be deduced from an analysis of its myths. Myth reflects, expresses, and explores a people's self-image and bears witness to archaic modes of thought and, sometimes, even historical events that were otherwise difficult to reconstruct or record.

An often-cited example is the Aboriginal Dieri myth of the Kadimakara monsters, which was the direct cause of the geological expedition to Lake Eyre.

As the myth described, the fossil bones of these prehistoric monsters were discovered. The parallels between the Australian Aboriginal and Chinese myths seem to suggest that the characteristic Aboriginal myths were spread by a wave or series of people moving from southern China.

It shows that, at least from the mythological perspective, there is solid ground for the anthropological hypothesis. Of course, this hypothesis could only be justified when we can harmonize this view with the evidence derived from other archaeological, geographical, linguistic, and physical sources.

Source: China Daily

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