By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Hikers vanishing without cause in Australia have led to wild speculation. Locals have blamed the disappearances on everything from eloping lovers to violent escapees from prisons. Australian myths feature fascinating characters.
The mountains of South Australia are beautiful and serene—and a perfect place to disappear. Over the last several years, far more hikers and campers have gone into the mountains than have come back. Of course, the most likely explanations involve run-ins with wild animals or criminals. Even simpler, missing campers could’ve gotten lost or accidentally stepped off a rock face.
However, as the causes of their disappearances remain unknown, unfounded rumors and speculation have sprung up. Everyone from a local recluse called “The Button Man” to a band of cattle thieves has been accused of foul play.
Australia features a number of fantastic aboriginal and colonial myths. In the video series Great Mythologies of the World, Dr. Robert Andre LaFleur, Professor of History and Anthropology at Beloit College in Wisconsin, said the distinctive flora and fauna of Australia help make everything on the landmass feel just a bit different.
Unfortunately, the actual mythological stories of the Australian region, including Tasmania, have been lost. However, historians and archaeologists have uncovered some of the terminology and characters of local mythology from what’s arguably the oldest society on Earth.
“Take, for example, the term ‘Twilight Man,'” Dr. LaFleur said. “This intriguing concept actually refers to the beginning of time, and seems to play on concepts of light and dark that are common throughout Oceania—as in the Micronesian tale of how a cosmic spider lit the dark world after a snail and a snake raised the sky, or Melanesia’s story of how the character Qat traded a pig for the night.”
Another term, “the Revered Spirit,” gives a sense of the ghostly and spectral qualities of the spirits of the dead, which Dr. LaFleur said is a theme that can be found throughout Australia.
Perhaps the most central myth to aboriginal Australia is its creation myth.
“This origin myth of the Aranda, sometimes seen in books as Arunta, begins in a time when the Earth was a flat, desolate plain,” Dr. LaFleur said. “There were no rolling undulations of countryside, no rivers or lakes, and the land lay in continual semi-darkness.
“There were no plants, no animals, and only little half-alive beings—ill-defined, but significant in the telling—that were scattered across the territory, and the ways of the Earth knew neither life nor death.”
In Australian mythology, life springs up from the ground. Below the surface, a life-force exists, along with fully formed but sleeping super-beings. Over time, the super-beings awoke and rose from beneath the surface, charging their emerging spots with immense sacred power. Then the Sun rose into the sky.
These super-beings looked like emus, kangaroos, lizards, and humans. However, the human super-beings could take on animal or even plant characteristics and the animal super-beings could act and think like humans.
“These beings were the Totemic Ancestors, and they began to wander the Earth, giving it, in their peregrinations, its distinctive landscape,” Dr. LaFleur said. “The once flat land soon became marked with features that both varied the scenery, and—far more significantly—charged it with supernatural meaning. A few of these super-beings began to craft human beings, as well.”
Some of the Totemic Ancestors became teachers for early humans, and eventually all of the Totemic Ancestors left civilization. Some returned beneath Earth’s surface, others roamed until completely exhausted and became trees or rocks.
The legends of the Totemic Ancestors persist, far grander than the rumored causes of the missing hikers. While many disappearances remain unsolved, they certainly didn’t return to a great life-force far below the Earth.