Australian Aboriginal Magic
by David Morgan-Mar
Australian history is not a commonly used setting for roleplaying games. Most gamers are unfamiliar with the details of both Australian prehistory and recorded history, so the potential for original and intriguing adventure in a stone age setting or the European colonial era has mostly been overlooked. Australia's history is, of course, just as rich and interesting as that of other continents, and a little research can go a long way when presenting games to players just as unfamiliar with the setting.
An integral part of a game set in historical Australia is Aboriginal religion, mysticism, and magic. This article describes Aboriginal magic, as it is the aspect of Aboriginal beliefs most likely to be utilized in a game. A full description of Aboriginal religion would be prohibitively long, so only a brief introduction to necessary concepts is given.
The most important decision in an Australian campaign is whether Aboriginal magical effects are real or not. Either way, the Aboriginal tribespeople will believe in them. In a realistic campaign, some abilities, although mundane in origin, may appear magical, certainly to Aborigines and possibly to Europeans unfamiliar with the art. In a fantastic campaign, the magic is well and truly real.
Introduction to Aboriginal Religion
Aboriginal religions are intimately tied to the concepts of spirits, rituals, and magic. The basic principle is that spirits are eternal, existing in the past, the present, and the future equally. Humans -- and animals, plants, landscape features, and phenomena such as wind and fire -- are temporary incarnations of spirits which have always existed and will continue to exist after the material form is gone. These beliefs form the foundation of all Aboriginal religions.
Spirits have an original, primordial form, possessed during the Dreamtime creation. A spirit not currently incarnated exists only as a formless entity in the eternal Dreamtime. (The Dreamtime is more akin to a spirit world or "astral plane" than a literal "time.") Such a spirit is incarnated as a new human at the moment of conception. All humans therefore have an associated primordial form, or totem. A person's totem is more than just a symbol; it is an essential aspect of their being. Someone with a goanna (a type of monitor lizard) totem is as much a goanna as an actual lizard sunning itself on a rock. The totem thus represents the person and can be used to refer to that person. A totem symbol can also be used in artistic representations and magical rituals to refer to a person with that totem.
Historically, this state of affairs was natural and self-evident to the Aborigines. Belief was unquestioning -- it was known to be true with the same certainty that night follows day. Indeed, in most documented tribes there was no linguistic differentiation between the concepts of belief and knowledge. Skepticism was unknown until Europeans introduced the concept along with their ideas on religion.
A Magical People
Australian Aborigines traditionally believe that all of their people possess some magical powers. In general, these are minor powers, not consciously controlled, and with little effect on daily life. A typical example is seeing the totemic symbol of a person in a dream. This indicates that something is to happen to the indicated person, or that person will do something significant to the dreamer. A more specific interpretation may be supplied by one trained in magic -- a karadji (see below). All Aborigines who have undergone the tribal initiation rituals granting adulthood can also perform thought transference, love magic, and sometimes sorcery (all described below), but most powers are restricted to the use of karadji. Non-Aborigines -- i.e. people who have not undergone a tribal initiation -- do not possess any magical abilities.
The distributions of magical powers across the Australian continent, and the manners in which the rituals are performed, are immensely varied. Not all tribes practice all of the powers listed, so GMs who wish to restrict access to some of the powers may use this as justification.
Everyday Aboriginal Magic
Many tribes define a mapping of various body parts to classes of people, such as an arm corresponds to fathers, while a foot represents sisters. Anyone who feels an involuntary twitch or muscle spasm can concentrate briefly, then be certain in the knowledge that a specific person from the indicated class will arrive soon. This, and the dream revelations mentioned in the main text, are seen as normal events, evidence of the connection between living people and the spirits of the Dreamtime.
GMs running Aboriginal campaigns may wish to incorporate such minor magics into their games. While precognitive knowledge is problematic in most campaigns, there are enough limits on these effects to avoid most difficulties. First, they cannot be consciously controlled. Any precognition is entirely at the whim of the GM, so can occur only when the GM wishes to use it for dramatic effect. Second, the interpretations are vague. A wallaby seen in a dream might represent a person's totem, or it might simply be a wallaby. An arm twitch might indicate one's own father, or grandfather, or might simply be caused by a mischievous spirit. Such symbolism can also be used by the GM as the method of implementing some exotic abilities such as danger sense.
If a tribesman might seek guidance from a karadji on the meaning of a dream or other premonitory event, the GM can prepare a suitable statement in advance, couched as cryptically or as plainly as desired. If the GM knows the neighboring tribe will attack tomorrow, he can give an accurate and helpful warning, whereas if the events depend on player actions he can be more vague.
Karadji is a term taken from the Dharuk tribal language and refers to Aboriginal "medicine men." These people combine the roles of doctors, wise men, religious leaders, and sorcerers in Aboriginal communities. To people of the tribe, and to themselves, they are imbued with special knowledge of the Dreamtime which allows them to perform magical rituals for the benefit of the tribe, or the ill of their enemies.
Karadji (the plural is spelled the same) are always males who have undergone a special initiation into the deepest secrets of the Dreamtime. They hold a place of status and power in the tribe and are respected and admired despite their somewhat aloof nature. Apart from this, they are not treated different from other male tribe members. The karadji participates fully in the daily life of the tribe, hunting, taking part in group ceremonies, marrying, and having children. In effect, the karadji is simply a normal man with a more highly developed awareness of the powers present in all Aborigines.
The sheer normalcy of the karadji is worth noting. In other tribal cultures it is common for people with conditions such as epilepsy to be selected as shamans, or for shamans to seek mystic knowledge via drugs or violent dance. None of these apply to the karadji, who is a paragon of his tribe and practices his art through quiet contemplation, application of knowledge, and deliberate decision.
Each tribe will have at least one (possibly more) karadji, since he is essential to the well-being of the tribe. His main role is to maintain good relations with the spirits of the land and the dead, the Rainbow Serpent and the sky-being, and karadji of other places. This ensures good weather, food supplies, and peaceful relations with neighboring tribes.
The Importance of Rituals
Rituals are an essential part of the karadji's art, but they are easily misunderstood by non-Aboriginals. For example, a healing ritual might involve removing a "poisoned bone" from the patient's abdomen. The karadji palms a bone beforehand and uses sleight of hand to "extract" it from the patient, displaying it with a flourish to observers. European observers might interpret this bit of deception as charlatanry aimed at making the audience believe something magical has occurred. The karadji himself, however, earnestly believes that the deception is a necessary part of a truly magical ritual. The sympathetic nature of the magic is such that making people believe in it is a crucial component of getting it to work.
The karadji believes in his own magic, of course. When a karadji falls ill, he has no hesitation in calling on another of his profession to heal him. He knows that the ritual involves sleight of hand, but he also knows that this is part of what makes the magic work and so expects his comrade to heal him by performing it. If a cure fails, it means the karadji was summoned too late, or the patient had broken a dire taboo, or the spirits of the dead did not wish to be deprived of the company of the patient's spirit. These reasons are generally accepted by the tribe, providing the karadji explains them convincingly.
In a non-magical world, all this can be explained in psychosomatic terms. If Aboriginal magic is real, however, then this is simply the way it works. Bypassing a sleight of hand meant to be part of a ritual weakens the magic, probably causing it to fail. And outside forces can sometimes be too strong for a karadji's magic to overcome.
Becoming a Karadji
Tribal elders and the existing karadji select young men to be trained as karadji. The selection is made on the basis of the youth being thoughtful, enjoying the company of the elders, and showing an interest in the tribal lore. Being the son of a karadji is an advantage, but not a determining one. In some cases, the youth will have experienced a spirit vision or noticed other powers manifesting in his presence. Some aspirants deliberately seek such visions by sleeping in isolated or magical places. The visions must be interpreted by a karadji as significant to count in favor of the boy's selection. In general, an existing karadji does not choose his apprentice unilaterally -- it is a decision of great import made by all the elders.
Once chosen, the postulant is trained in the lore necessary for him to perform in his future profession. At some point in this training, he undergoes a special psychic experience, which validates his skills and admits him to the position of karadji. This experience is overseen by existing karadji, who perform a ritual around and upon the postulant. This ritual is an enactment of the Dreamtime experience of the karadji initiation, an experience which seems real to the postulant, caused by the spirits around him.
The exact form of the initiation experience varies from tribe to tribe, but most share remarkable similarities. Generally, spiritual beings perform alterations to the postulant's body. Most often, this involves an abdominal incision, through which magical substances known as maban are inserted. Maban is usually quartz crystals, but tektites and mother-of-pearl are also used in regions where they are found. The wound is magically healed without scarring. Either during or after this procedure, the postulant is taken to the sky-world to interact with the spirits of the Dreamtime and of the dead, in an introduction to the powers the ritual will grant him. Often he will be assigned a small number of spirit familiars, taking the form of his totem, who will assist him in his work.
Variations on this experience include: Maban being rubbed and "sung" into the body without requiring an incision (south- western and north-eastern New South Wales); the intestines being removed and replaced with maban (Sydney region); organs and bones being removed and cleansed before being re-inserted (northern Western Australia); little rainbow snakes being inserted along with maban (Kimberley region); maban also being inserted into the wrists, ankles, and other joints (western South Australia). In coastal regions the subject enters a trance while these ordeals take place, while in most of the interior of the continent this spiritual journey is considered a literal death followed by the rebirth of the postulant as the new karadji. In a few regions, such as the Kimberley, the Rainbow Serpent descends from the sky and swallows the postulant, while in western Queensland he is killed by being pointed at with a magical bone. The ritual performed by the supervising karadji in such cases includes that of mourning the dead.
In a realistic campaign, these experiences are visions seen in the trance state brought on by fasting and the rigors of the ritual. The postulant has been conditioned by being told what to expect. In a more fantastic campaign, the procedure may take place literally. GMs running such a karadji initiation ritual may wish to use the event as a prelude to planned events in the campaign, perhaps running the ritual as an entire gaming session involving communication and interaction with the Dreamtime spirits.
Following the initiation ritual, a new karadji novice learns more details of his craft from the tribal elders and current karadji. He is not yet fully qualified and must usually wait a full year before first exercising his new powers. If this taboo is not kept, the power of the maban will desert him and he will be unable to perform as a karadji.
The following rituals are described in a generic fashion for use in any game, but are ordered and given statistics for use with the spirit magic system from GURPS Spirits. In all cases, the GM should customize any necessary details, such as the time required for the ritual, based on the description, if required. Notes are also given for how these abilities may be played in a realistic campaign, where magic does not work.
In GURPS, initiation into Aboriginal adulthood confers an advantage that may be called Aboriginal Initiation. It is worth 2 points, and is equivalent to Ritual Aptitude 5 (Path of the Aboriginal People only) (see p. SPI75). Such initiation is a prerequisite to learn the Path of the Aboriginal People, and to perform all of its rituals.
Initiation as a karadji confers the advantage Karadji Initiation, worth 5 points and equivalent to Ritual Aptitude 5. It is a prerequisite to learn the Path of the Karadji. Karadji also learn skills in Theology (Aboriginal), Sleight of Hand, Diagnosis, Weather Sense, Psychology, Fire Walking, and possibly Hypnosis as part of their training. A typical karadji will also likely possess some of: Charisma, Empathy, Reputation, Status, and Strong Will.
Non-Aboriginals may be able to learn Aboriginal magic, but will require the appropriate initiations. Aboriginal Initiation may be granted in rare cases, and will require an Unusual Background (Accepted as a member of a tribe), while Karadji Initiation is unlikely ever to be granted to a non-Aborigine.
The Path of the Aboriginal People
This path is available to any Aborigine who has undergone tribal initiation into adulthood.
Defaults to Path of the Aboriginal People
Love magic is commonly practiced by all adult Aborigines. The ritual is designed for two distinct purposes: To attract a marriage partner; or to attract a partner for a sexual liaison, possibly extra- marital. In any one geographic area, the same basic ritual is used for both purposes, but is performed publicly or privately as befits the intent. A few common forms of the love ritual are: singing over a piece of hair from the desired mate; dropping a string tied with feathers into the mate's basket; unwinding a string from the mate's campsite to one's own, then reeling it in; or performing a ceremony with a small bullroarer carved with two snakes and the totemic mark of the desired individual. Such rituals are said to induce irresistible desire in the target. Public rituals may attract a marriage partner through flattery and the expectations of the audience if there is no real magic, while failures of the private ritual are not discussed.
Defaults to Path of the Aboriginal People-4
Sorcery is the use of black magic to make a person sicken and die. Any Aborigine wishing to kill another person can use sorcery. Sorcery rituals vary but are often long and complex. A common example with minor variations is given here.
First the sorcerer must prepare in advance by observing certain taboos. While doing so, he prepares a pointing bone, carved from a ritually cleaned and scraped human, kangaroo, or emu femur, or sometimes simply a stylized stick. In some cases a string is attached, connecting to a small receptacle. During the ritual, the bone is ceremonially pointed at the victim, who is usually not physically present. Depending on the local tradition, this ritual either causes a poisoned bone or other object to enter the victim's body, or draws out blood, kidney fat, or the person's spirit into the receptacle. Either way, the victim now becomes sick. The bone may be buried, wrapped in emu feathers, for several months, resulting in a long illness. If the bone is heated by fire, the victim's condition becomes worse and when it is finally burnt the victim dies.
There are many variations on this across the continent. Other notable methods of sorcery include enchanting a spear to inflict a lethal wound at the slightest scratch; creating a magical powder from the ground bones of a woman or a dried placenta, which is then either introduced to food or placed on the ground where the victim sleeps; making an effigy of the victim, either sculpted out of clay or beeswax, or made of tied grass or paperbark, which is stabbed or burnt. In some cases an object associated with the victim is required -- hair, nails, urine, food scraps, or anything belonging to the victim.
The victim of a sorcery attempt becomes aware of his problem when he becomes sick. Often the victim falls ill upon learning that he is the subject of sorcery -- sorcerers will actively try to make the victim aware that he has been targeted. An Aborigine who believes himself the target of sorcery can sicken and eventually die from no causes discernible to modern medicine apart from psychosomatic ones. Modern medicine thus has no cure and the victim's only hope is to obtain the aid of a karadji.
Defaults to Path of the Aboriginal People
Aborigines can communicate by mystical means over long distances. In a typical example, a tribesman standing on a hill wishes to summon a friend, out hunting on the plain below, perhaps a mile or more away. He concentrates and, when his friend turns to look at him, says softly, "Come here, quickly." His friend does so.
In a realistic setting, this sort of communication is accomplished by subtle shifts in body posture, which Europeans overlook in their search for obvious gestures. In a fantastic game the power is real and might be used to send more complex messages, even to someone looking away or hidden behind a landscape feature (assess penalties for such extended uses).
- The Path of the Karadji
This path represents a deeper understanding of and connection with the spirit world, and is only available to people who have undergone the initiation ceremony to become a karadji.
Defaults to Path of the Karadji-2
Karadji can run at tremendous speeds for long distances without tiring. They can also appear almost instantly in another place after disappearing suddenly. Being tribal wanderers, most Aborigines naturally display good walking and running endurance, as well as camouflage and stealth skills which could contribute to European bewilderment. The powers of karadji in this field may stem from suggestive self-promotion and European exaggeration.
Healing and Easing of Death
Defaults to Path of the Karadji
A karadji will usually only be called on for healing purposes when it is clear that an illness is magical or spiritual in nature -- caused by the actions of a malevolent person or spirit. Injuries and mundane illnesses are tended to by the elder women of the tribe, who will administer standard herbal remedies.
Once a karadji has been summoned, he examines the patient. An experienced karadji knows the signs of various types of illness and the likelihood of recovery, given proper treatment. If he is confident the patient can be made to recover, he performs the healing ritual in front of witnesses. This usually involves ceremonial sleight of hand or mime to "extract" a poisoned bone, stick, stone, or "bad blood" from the patient, or to call for the wandering or stolen spirit to return. The patient gains confidence from this display of power and a renewed will to recover.
If, however, the karadji's prognosis is that the patient will likely die, the ritual is different. It is a ritual to contact the spirits of the patient's departed relatives and learn why they wish to be rejoined with the patient. The karadji relays the spirits' messages to the patient, explaining that they are preventing him from performing the healing. He cries and bids the patient farewell, then summons the patient's relatives and friends to do the same. They comfort him in his final hours and so the karadji's job of easing transition into the spirit world is done.
Defaults to Path of the Karadji
A karadji's power of sight is not limited like most people's. He can see things at great distances, or which are hidden from view. He can look inside and through people's bodies and minds, and can see a person's thoughts -- not only current thoughts but those of the past as well. The reading of minds is considered an aspect of this visual power by the Aborigines. Such sights are usually produced by deliberate meditation, or perhaps a dream ritual in sleep, but may also come involuntarily. In a realistic game this is a manifestation of the karadji's wisdom and empathic perception of human relationships and the environment. With real magic, the karadji's spirit or totem familiar travels and allows the karadji to see distant places. In either case, it is a power beyond the ability of the average tribesman.
The Magic Rope
Defaults to Path of the Karadji-3
At initiation, a karadji is imbued with a magical rope which resides in his body. It is invisible, but able to be extracted and used at any time like a real rope. The rope is typically used to support the karadji in the air, or from a tree in an impossible position. It can also be used to reach upwards and ascend to the sky-world to commune with the spirits that live there. In a realistic setting this is merely a conceit promoted by the karadji and believed by the tribe (and probably by himself, though in a less literal sense).
Defaults to Path of the Karadji-4
In a land where drought is common, the power of rain-making is an important one. A karadji usually consents to making rain only when the tribe agrees it is necessary. A typical ritual involves singing over mother-of-pearl or small white stones to attract the attention of the Rainbow Serpent. The karadji performs sympathetic actions such as spitting or drawing blood and letting it drip on the ground. Some karadji use their magical rope to climb to the sky and obtain rain directly. In a world without magic, the karadji's insistence on waiting for the right time to perform this ritual is based on good weather sense.
Ritual of Inquest
Defaults to Path of the Karadji
Death is the passage of the incarnated spirit which is a human back to the spirit world of the Dreamtime. Such a spirit may later be incarnated again, but the immediate loss is mourned with an outpouring of grief by the tribe.
Death is seldom regarded as entirely natural, except for the aged. The usual assumption is that death is caused by an active agent, either a spirit or by sorcery. Even when the immediate cause of death is, say, a crocodile attack or a fight, it is assumed that a hostile being has magically arranged for the victim to be in the "wrong place at the wrong time." Accordingly, deaths are normally followed by a ritual inquest to determine the guilty party. This involves examining the ground around the grave site or parts of the victim's body for mystical signs, and interpreting them. Often a totem is indicated, which might refer to a group of people. In many cases the identification of a group or individual responsible is enough -- emotions have cooled during the lengthy rituals and knowledge may be all the closure required. Revenge takes place rarely, and may lead to ongoing feuds or inter-tribal warfare.
The Strong Eye
Defaults to Path of the Karadji
The strong eye is the ability to see spirits, of the living and the dead. In some traditions this power is used to diagnose the sick, since spirits sometimes wander freely or are drawn from the body by sorcery, thus causing illness. More commonly it is used after a death by sorcery, to divine the murderer. The karadji uses his strong eye to look for the spirit of the dead person around the murderer, or the spirit of the murderer around the victim. Without magic, the karadji's knowledge of the tribal group dynamics may suggest a suspect. It is likely that someone who wished ill of the dead person, but did not take conscious action against him, will come to believe he unconsciously caused the victim's death and, if accused by the karadji, will not profess innocence. In a magical campaign, the strong eye is naturally even more reliable.
Strong Thought Transference
Defaults to Path of the Karadji-2
This is a stronger version of Thought Transference. The karadji typically fixes the gaze of a subject with his and bends the person's will to his own. The subject can be made to behave responsibly rather than carry out mischief. This can be played as assertion of authority or simple hypnotism, or it can be a fully-fledged magical form of suggestion, with the possibility of using it for evil.
Walking on Fire
Defaults to Path of the Karadji-4
The skill of fire walking, known to exist in our mundane world, is practiced by karadji as a demonstration of magical power. Related to this is the more mystical ability of projecting flame from the body, setting fire to objects at a distance. It is difficult to justify this in a non-magical campaign without resorting to some deliberate trickery, but it could be a real ability in a fantastic setting.
Using Aboriginal Magic in a Game
Aboriginal magic can be used in two styles of game: pre-contact stone age, and European colonial. Resources for a stone age game can be found in GURPS Dinosaurs and GURPS Low-Tech. Possible campaign themes include the struggle against nature and the harsh climate, conflict with neighboring tribes, exploration of new territory, or trading with other communities.
A colonial campaign will most likely pit Aborigines against Europeans as the major source of conflict. The Europeans have access to higher technology, so the Aborigines might need the benefit of their magic. GURPS Age of Napoleon and GURPS Old West are set in the appropriate time period, so can be used as guidelines for technology and colonial attitudes, though they provide no information on Australia. The excellent adventure "The Son of Cheeroonear" ( Part 1 and Part 2) is set in colonial Australia and could provide a starting point for a campaign.
An interesting campaign could be built around the first contact of stone age Aborigines with colonizing Europeans. Communications difficulties, misunderstandings of intent, and potential hostilities will occur initially. As the Europeans settle in to the strange new world, they will face crop failures in the unfamiliar climate and will need to negotiate for help from the natives. Amid this tapestry, many stories can be told: the missionaries aiming to learn from the tribes and teach them Christianity; the explorers breaking new ground and coming across new tribes; the natives simply trying to understand it all and using their magic as a means of preserving their world.
- Berndt, Ronald M. and Berndt, Catherine H. The World of the First Australians (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988). A comprehensive overview of Aboriginal traditional life by two of the preeminent authors in the field.
- Cowan, James. Mysteries of the Dreaming (Prism Press, 1992).
- Elkin, A. P. Aboriginal Men of High Degree (University of Queensland Press, 1977). Extensive information on karadji and Aboriginal magical beliefs and practices.
- Mudrooroo. Aboriginal Mythology (Aquarian, 1994).
- The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977). In this enthralling film, Richard Chamberlain plays a modern-day Sydney lawyer dealing with a case of modern law clashing with Aboriginal tribal law. The incessant rainfall creates a dark and disturbing atmosphere when he discovers active tribal magic at work and a prophecy of Armageddon by water.
Article publication date: November 7, 2003
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