I finished reading a book today called The Songlines. Written by Bruce Chatwin, it describes his trip to Australia to learn about the Aboriginal cultures of the continent. The work, a mixture of travel memoir, fiction and philosophy, is based on an actual trip he took a couple years before his death in 1989. It details Chatwin's travels on the continent as he tries to understand the “songlines.”
The songlines are the fundamental element of the Aboriginal creation stories. At the beginning of time, the “Dreamtime”, the Ancestors created themselves out of clay and began to wander across the earth, singing out the names of everything they saw—animals, plants, rocks and streams—thus defining their existence.
The paths that the Ancestors traveled on as they sang are known as songlines (or dream-tracks), and the songs are passed down from generation to generation. When an aboriginal goes ‘walkabout’, he follows the original songline that his ancestors did. The songs are always sung in exactly the same way, as a way of maintaining the creation. If a wanderer remembers his song and does not deviate from its path, he can never get lost. The melodies along each line are constant from one end of the continent to the other. They are transferred across boundaries where one clan’s territory ends and another’s begins. The melody stays the same, even as the words would change. In addition to maintaining the creation, the songlines also act as trading routes among the clans.