First People Then And Now: Totems In Aboriginal Religion

First People Then And Now


Totems In Aboriginal Religion


Totems are central to Australian Aboriginal religion. They are the link between humans and all the things in the universe and the Dreamtime.


During the Dreamtime which involves not only the past but a timeless eternity subsuming present and future, ancestral beings emerged from the subterranean world and moved over the featureless earth. The places where they first appeared, where they journeyed and where they departed became the rivers, billabongs, rocks, hills and mountains and all the features of the environment.

At the same time the ancestral beings placed in the world  all of life, humans, animals, insects, trees, plants and reptiles.

Having created the features of the landscape and all of life in it, the ancestral beings formulated a set of rules for all living things to abide by. This done they retired into the sea or underground or into the universe. Yet they never really left the land they created.

Their hidden presence remained a vital force with the power to intervene into the lives of the people they brought into being.


First people then and now



An Aboriginal person gets their totemic link before or around the time that they are born. It is a spiritual link and it is sometimes called their Dreaming.

If a person has a spiritual link to a kangaroo, for instance, the kangaroo becomes that person’s link or Dreaming. The kangaroo was created by the Kangaroo ancestral being so the person is linked to that important Dreamtime being.

An echidna could be someone’s totem or even a mosquito.

Australia’s first people then and now get their totem usually at birth or just before they are born. It is when the mother becomes aware of the baby. The woman or her husband may receive a sign that a spirit child has entered the womb. This sign could come in a trance-like vision or some other kind of special experience.


The kangaroo may have jumped in front of the mother while she was out walking. This may be the sign that she is pregnant.

That child is now spiritually linked to the Kangaroo Ancestral Being. The child belongs to the Kangaroo Totem or Dreaming.

From thereon the child will have a special relationship both with the place where the kangaroo appeared and with the kangaroo itself.

So an Aboriginal person might say they are a kangaroo, or a barramundi, a grasshopper, an emu or any kind of living thing that they could be linked to.

Religious knowledge


Aboriginal people learn the stories that relate to their totem and to the land where that ancestral being had its adventures and great sagas in the Dreamtime. The stories tell how things happened in the Dreamtime and of the special places where these ancestral beings now live.

Religious knowledge is revealed to men and women over time. The full details and meanings of the totemic stories are given to younger people only when the elders feel that they are ready to receive the it.

Not every place has a powerful Dreamtime being but the places that do have to be treated with special respect. Some of these places are dangerous or sacred.




Totems link a person to the Dreamtime, to living things, and to the land itself.

The first people then and now have special rights and duties because of their totemic links. Performing a ritual related to the totem might be one. Making sure your totem does not die out may be another.


c. Marji Hill 2017