Within the animist belief system of Indigenous Australians, a songline, also called dreaming track, is one of the paths across the land (or sometimes the sky) which mark the route followed by localised "creator-beings" during the Dreaming. The paths of the songlines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting.
A knowledgeable person is able to navigate across the land by repeating the words of the song, which describe the location of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena. In some cases, the paths of the creator-beings are said to be evident from their marks, or petrosomatoglyphs, on the land, such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints.
By singing the songs in the appropriate sequence, indigenous people could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia's interior. The continent of Australia contains an extensive system of songlines, some of which are of a few kilometres, whilst others traverse hundreds of kilometres through lands of many different indigenous peoples — peoples who may speak markedly different languages and have different cultural traditions.
Since a songline can span the lands of several different language groups, different parts of the song are said to be in those different languages. Languages are not a barrier because the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. The rhythm is what is crucial to understanding the song. Listening to the song of the land is the same as walking on this songline and observing the land.
In some cases, a songline has a particular direction, and walking the wrong way along a songline may be a sacrilegious act (e.g. climbing up Uluru where the correct direction is down). Traditional Aboriginal people regard all land as sacred, and the songs must be continually sung to keep the land "alive".
Molyneaux and Vitebsky note that the Dreaming Spirits "also deposited the spirits of unborn children and determined the forms of human society," thereby establishing tribal law and totemic paradigms.
- The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory tell the story of Barnumbirr, a creator-being associated with the planet Venus, who came from the island of Baralku in the East, guiding the first humans to Australia, and then flew across the land from East to West, naming and creating the animals, plants, and natural features of the land.
- The Yarralin people of the Victoria River Valley venerate the spirit Walujapi as the Dreaming Spirit of the black-headed python. Walujapi is said to have carved a snakelike track along a cliff-face and deposited an impression of her buttocks when she sat establishing camp. Both signs are currently discernible.
- The Native Cat Dreaming Spirits who are said to have commenced their journey at the sea and to have moved north into the Simpson Desert, traversing as they did so the lands of the Aranda, Kaititja, Ngalia, Kukatja and Unmatjera. Each people sing the part of the Native Cat Dreaming relating to the songlines for which they are bound in a territorial relationship of reciprocity.
- In the Sydney region, because of the soft Sydney sandstone, valleys often end in a canyon or cliff, and so travelling along the ridge lines was much easier than travelling in the valleys. Thus, the songlines tend to follow the ridge lines, and this is also where much of the sacred art, such as the Sydney Rock Engravings, is located. In contrast, in many other parts of Australia, the songlines tend to follow valleys, where water may be found more easily.
- Songlines have been linked to Aboriginal art sites in the Wollemi National Park in New South Wales.
Anthropologist Robert Tonkinson wrote about Songlines among Mardu indigenous people in his 1978 monograph The Mardudjara Aborigines - Living The Dream In Australia's Desert.
Songlines Singing is an essential element in most Mardudjara ritual performances because the songline follows in most cases the direction of travel of the beings concerned and highlights cryptically their notable as well as mundane activities. Most songs, then, have a geographical as well as mythical referent, so by learning the songline men become familiar with literally thousands of sites even though they have never visited them; all become part of their cognitive map of the desert world.
... the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as "Dreaming-tracks" or "Songlines"; to the Aboriginals as the "Footprints of the Ancestors" or the "Way of the Lore".
Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path - birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence.
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- Tonkinson 1978:104
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