Sunday essay: the cultural meanings of wild horses

 Wild horses -
 known as brumbies, in Australia.

I am walking quietly through the forest. As I reach the edge of the trees there is a snort and a staccato of hoofbeats, and four horses materialise only metres in front of me: a foal, two mares and a dark stallion. The stallion, ears pricked, tosses his head and prances forward. As I crouch to pick up a branch, the stallion wheels and gallops off with the group. They hurdle an old stock fence, and almost as soon as their hoofs touch down, another big grey stallion comes towards them over the hill.

The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, 50 metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream; snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick. Eventually, bleeding and bruised, the dark stallion breaks and runs. The grey makes a show of chasing, then canters back to the mares, arching his neck, prancing with lifted tail.

This is one of many times I have seen horses, called brumbies in Australia, in the mountains. While cross-country skiing in the south I have watched them in the snow – ragged manes flying, galloping through a mist of ice crystals – and many times while driving and bushwalking in both the north and south of Kosciuszko National Park. I have also watched them cantering in clouds of dust in central Australia, and grazing in the swamps of Kakadu. Each of these wild horse encounters has been deeply visceral and emotional, elemental expressions of life in dramatic and beautiful landscapes.

Horses are large, powerful and charismatic animals, and humans have ancient connections to them. Wild horses are dominant among the 13 species painted on the caves of Chauvet in France 30,000 years ago, and while there continues to be debate, archaeologists suggest evidence for horse domestication is at least 5,500 years old. And like the oldest human-animal relationship outside hunting – with dogs – the horse relationship is unique because we now mostly do not eat this animal.

Like dogs, horses now occur on every continent except Antarctica, and humans have been the primary agent for their dispersal. In North America, where the first true horses evolved and then died out, they were reintroduced by Columbus in 1493. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.

Image of Horses and other animals on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, from 30,000 years ago.
Horses and other animals on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, from 30,000 years ago. Claude Valette/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, maybe 400,000 or more horses, spread across nearly every bioregion from the tropical north to the arid centre to the alpine areas. That sounds like a dramatically large number, but Australia also has around one million domestic horses, about 100 million cattle and sheep, maybe 20 million feral pigs and 25 million kangaroos. But the presence of wild horses here is deeply controversial.

Six thousand of these horses are in Kosciuszko National Park. Ongoing controversy around these wild horses encompasses debate about their impact and their cultural meaning. There is very little systematic research and a large amount of emotive and anecdotal argument, from both sides. There is circularity and self-referencing in government wild horse management plans, very little reference to studies from Australia and almost no peer-reviewed research on horse impacts in the Snowy Mountains, despite decades of argument that they cause environmental degradation.

And Kosciuszko is right next to Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory, which has the highest per capita horse-ownership of anywhere in Australia. Several enterprises run horse-trekking trips into the Snowy Mountains, often interacting with brumbies. The Dalgety and Corryong annual shows on the boundaries of the park highlight horse skills, including catching and gentling brumbies. In many places mountain cattle properties are increasingly using horses instead of motorbikes to handle stock.

The Kosciuszko wild horses are also tangled within the embedded idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the largest national park in New South Wales. Here there are protected populations of two species of invasive fish (brown and rainbow trout) that are demonstrably responsible for local extinctions of native fish and frog species; a gigantic hydro-electric scheme with dominant infrastructure across large areas of the park; and expanding ski resorts where it is possible to buy lodges. Much of the landscape that is now part of the park has a long history of summer grazing by sheep and cattle, with stockworkers’ huts scattered across the high country. This “wilderness” has been home to Aboriginal people for millennia, as well as well-known grazing grounds for more than a century.

These complexities and contradictions reflect our often unconscious modern propensity for hubris: we insist we are in charge of what happens on the planet, including in its “wild” places and “wild” species. Terms like “land management”, “natural resource management”, and “conservation management”, all reflect this assumption of superiority and control.

Image of Roping wild horses, Gippsland, Arthur John Waugh
Roping wild horses, Gippsland, Arthur John Waugh, circa 1910-1920. State Library of Victoria 

Indigenous interactions

The United States has similar controversies over the management of mustangs across large areas of the west. New Zealand has the Kaimanawa horses, a special and isolated herd on army land. In both of those countries, as in Australia, there is a unique history of horse interactions with Indigenous communities. The great Native American horse cultures are well known and extraordinary, as Indians had no introduction to equestrian skills from the Spanish invaders, they learnt extremely quickly from scratch.

The first horses in New Zealand were a gift to Maori communities from missionary Samuel Marsden in 1814, and a Waitangi Tribunal Claim has been brought to protect the Kaimanawa horses as Maori taonga (treasures). Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen were the mainstay of the pastoral industry all over Australia until the equal wage ruling of 1968 resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Aboriginal stockworkers in north and central Australia.

Peter Mitchell’s recent book Horse Nations uses that term to describe the people-animal relationship in certain Indigenous communities. Both Native American and Aboriginal cosmologies often place animals including horses, as their own “nations”, with whom they have a responsibility to respectfully interact.

Front cover of The Silver Brumby

The wild horses of the Australian Alps are arguably the strongest cultural icons. The enduring legacy of The Man from Snowy River, both the iconic Banjo Paterson poem and the 1980s film, but also the Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell, still in print after nearly 70 years, idealise the strength, beauty and spirit of wild mountain horses. At least one source suggests that “the man” from Paterson’s poem was in fact a young Aboriginal rider.

This is not at all implausible – there is much documentation, as well as strong oral histories, of Aboriginal men and women working stock on horseback across the Snowy Mountains. The Aboriginal mountain missions at Brungle and Delegate both have many stories of earlier generations working as stock riders and also mustering wild mountain horses. David Dixon, Ngarigo elder, says

Our old people were animal lovers. They would have had great respect for these powerful horse spirits. Our people have always been accepting of visitors to our lands and quite capable of adapting to change so that our visitors can also belong, and have their place.

While the iconic figure of the cowboy and stockman is masculine, amongst Aboriginal stockworkers women and girls were likely as common as men and boys. In contemporary times, women far outnumber men in equestrian participation, and brumby defenders are equally represented by men and women. Four Australian horsewomen generously shared their knowledge and skills in the research that backgrounds this essay.

Animal intelligence

In the mid 1970s, I worked as a ranger in Kosciuszko National Park. In those days rangering was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise: we used to buy at least part of our uniforms out of our own money because the issued items were so inadequate, we taught ourselves to cross-country ski, we drank socially with the brumby-runners and other people from the surrounding rural communities.

Picture of Shooting wild horses, Samuel Calver
Shooting wild horses, Samuel Calvert, 1889.State Library of Victoria


In many places rangers were and are intimately part of the community, not seen as “public servants”. There is a complex and interesting relationship between university-educated national parks staff and local rural workers with deeply embodied knowledge and skills, with rangers acknowledging that they need the skills of these locals to carry out much animal-related work in the parks, including trapping and mustering wild horses. Recent proposals to helicopter shoot large numbers of wild horses in Kosciuszko would potentially sever this link. Helicopter shooting requires specific marksmanship skills not common in rural communities.

While we debate how to reduce our wild horse numbers, other countries are working to re-establish wild horse herdsin Europe and Asia. It is often argued that domestication saved horses (and many other species) from extinction, aiding their establishment all over the planet while their wild ancestors diminished or disappeared. Creating populations of newly wild species is termed both “rewilding’ and ”de-domestication“, and there are numerous and increasing examples around the world. Some of these proposals include the reestablishment of species long extinct, or their ecological equivalents.

In the period increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene, species are both declining and flourishing. Domesticated species have been moved all over the world; other introduced species flourish in new landscapes, and many of these are escaped or released domesticates. In the oceans, as large predators have declined all the cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) are increasing. Highly specialised species that evolved on isolated islands have declined precipitously, while generalist species are flourishing.

Global conservation management attempts to work against both of these trends: we attempt to suppress populations of flourishing species, while supporting or increasing populations of declining ones, including through translocations and captive breeding programs. These activities call into question the nature of nature in the 21st century: what is the “wild” in all this management and manipulation?

Picture of wild horses grazing
While Australia debates removing wild horses, other countries are seeking to increase their wild herds.

In these questions, the lives and cosmologies of Indigenous peoples, and the lives of other species, offer us serious teachings. The agency and intelligence of animals, the increasing discoveries of distinct cultures amongst animal populations, the agency of planetary systems in continually reorganising around changing inputs, all stand against the modern human insistence on control, stability and stasis.

While hiking mountain grasslands looking for wild horse bands, I have several times come across horse skeletons whitening in the sunlight, their energy and power transmuted back into the source from which new lives will spring. In a world where human societies are increasingly narcissistic, where our dominant concern is ourselves, recognising the agency and intelligence of other species can be deeply humbling.

Perhaps our task is to harmonise ourselves with these old and new environments, not continually attempt to “manage” them into some other state that we in our hubris think is more desirable, whether ecologically, economically or culturally.

Thanks to Adrienne Corradini, Jen Owens, Blaire Carlon and Tonia Gray for improving my understanding of horse and brumby issues.

This article was written by:
Image of Michael AdamsMichael Adams – [Associate Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong]





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Sunday essay: the recovery of cuneiform, the world’s oldest known writing

 A relief at the ancient Persian city of  
Persepolis (now in modern Iran), including inscriptions in cuneiform, 
the world’s  oldest form of writing. Diego Delso/Wikimedia

It is a little-known piece of history that Saddam Hussein was a great fan of ancient Mesopotamian literature. His enthusiasm for epics written in cuneiform – the world’s oldest known form of writing – can be seen in his own efforts at writing political romance novels and poetry. Hussein’s first novel, Zabibah and the King, blended the Epic of Gilgamesh with the 1001 Nights, and was adapted into a television series and a musical.

Zabibah and the King, 2000, by Saddam Hussein
Zabibah and the King, 2000, by Saddam Hussein. Wikimedia, CC BY-SAA

Indeed, the Iraqi dictator was said to be so immersed in his novel-writing that he left much of the military strategising to his sons leading up to the 2003 war. He continued writing in prison, using a card table as a writing desk. This example from the modern genre of “dictator literature” provides an unusual insight into the diverse reception of cuneiform literature in the modern day.

The decipherment of cuneiform in the late 18th century, a tale of academic virtuosity and daring, revealed a “forgotten age” and challenged the traditional, biblical view of history. One scholar was even put on trial for heresy for the wonders he uncovered in the translated script.

For over 3,000 years, cuneiform was the primary language of communication throughout the Ancient Near East (roughly corresponding to the Middle East today) and into parts of the Mediterranean. The dominance of the cuneiform writing style in antiquity has led scholars to refer to it as “the script of the first half of the known history of the world”. Yet it disappeared from use and understanding by 400 CE, and the processes and causes of the script’s vanishing act remain somewhat enigmatic.

Cuneiform is composed of wedge-shaped characters and was written on clay tablets (often likened to marks made by a chicken scratching in the mud). Unlike other ancient writing media, such as the papyri or leather scrolls used in Ancient Greece and Rome, cuneiform tablets survive in great abundance. Hundreds of thousands of tablets have been recovered from ruined Mesopotamian cities.

The discoveries yielded from the recovery of cuneiform writing continue to unfold in unexpected and exciting ways. In August this year, mathematicians at an Australian university made international headlines with their discovery involving a 3,700-year-old clay tablet containing a trigonometric table. The researchers said the cuneiform table reveals a sophisticated understanding of trigonometry — in some ways more advanced than in modern-day mathematics!

Lost in translation

It is difficult to overstate the influence of cuneiform literature in the ancient world. Many languages throughout a vast geographical span over thousands of years were written in cuneiform, including Sumerian, Hittite, Hurrian and Akkadian. Among these, Akkadian (an early cognate of Hebrew and Arabic) became the lingua franca of the Near East, including Egypt, during the Late Bronze Age.

Cuneiform was used to preserve the official royal correspondences between leaders of empires, but also simple transactions and record-keeping that were part of daily life. Over time, the skill of writing moved outside the main institutions of cities, such as temples and scribal schools, into the hands of citizens, as well as into private homes.

Despite its dominance in antiquity, the use of cuneiform ceased entirely at some point between the first and third centuries CE. The great empires of the Ancient Near East experienced a long decline over many centuries, which ultimately resulted in the loss of Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform as written languages.

Cuneiform’s sphere of influence shrank after the sixth century BCE, before vanishing entirely. The disappearance of cuneiform accompanied, and likely facilitated, the loss of Mesopotamian cultural traditions from the ancient and modern worlds.

There are several schools of thought surrounding the disappearance of cuneiform, including competition with alphabetic languages (where letters correspond to sounds) such as Aramaic and Greek, and the decline of writing traditions. However, the process of the transition from cuneiform to alphabet is yet to be clearly understood.

Deciphering the code

The resurrection of cuneiform writing systems was described by legendary Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer as an “eloquent and magnificent achievement of 19th century scholarship and humanism”.

In the 15th century, cuneiform inscriptions were observed in Persepolis (in modern-day Iran). The script’s patterned dashes were not immediately recognised as writing. The name “cuneiform” (a Latin-based word meaning “wedge-shaped”) was given to the undeciphered writings by Oxford professor Thomas Hyde in 1700.

Hyde viewed the cuneiform markings as decorative rather than conveying language — a widely held view in academic circles of the 18th century. Despite some efforts to popularise the name “arrow writing”, “cuneiform” gained general acceptance. Yet cuneiform remained cryptic, and its ancient masterpieces buried and inscrutable.

The modern-day decipherment of cuneiform owes a great debt to the rulers of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, who reigned in what is modern-day Iran in the first millennium BCE. These rulers made cuneiform inscriptions recording their achievements.

The most important of these inscriptions for the decipherment of cuneiform was the Behistun inscription, which recorded the same message in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. This trilingual inscription was carved into the face of a cliff in Behistun in what is now western Iran.

Picture of people at The Behistun inscription
The Behistun inscription, high above the ground in Iran. KendallKDown/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Detailing the successes of King Darius I of Persia, the Behistun inscription was inscribed on rock some 100 metres off the ground around 520 BCE. In 1835, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was training troops of the Shah of Iran when he encountered the inscription. In order to reach the writings and transcribe them, Rawlinson needed to dangle from the cliffs, or to stand on the very top rung of a long ladder. From these precarious positions, he copied as much of the inscription as possible.

A “Kurdish boy”, whose name seems to be lost to history, assisted the daring endeavour. The boy was said to have used pegs dug into the rock wall as anchors to swing across the cliffs and reach the most inaccessible parts of the writing. Returning home, Rawlinson began working to unlock the secret of the lost script, perhaps with his pet lion cub by his side.

Of the three languages, the Old Persian was the first to be decoded by Rawlinson. Scholars working on deciphering the script gained a sense of the chronological placement of the inscription and recognised some repeated signs, thereby gleaning something of the content and structure of the writings.

The presence of king lists in the Behistun inscription, which could be compared with lists in Herodotus’ Histories, provided a point of reference for deciphering the signs. Other Greek historians, and the Bible, were also consulted in the process. Through the contributions of a number of scholars in the first half of the 19th century, cuneiform slowly began to reveal its secrets.

Images of The Behistun inscription in western Iran
The Behistun inscription in western Iran was key to unlocking cuneiform – and the intellectual riches inside it. dynamosquito/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The significance of the Behistun inscription in the translation of cuneiform is often likened to the importance of the Rosetta Stone for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. In recent years, the inscription has been the focus of restorative efforts, after sustaining various types of damage — notably when Allied troops used the inscription for target practice during World War II. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Cuneiform controversy

As the deciphering went on, divisions developed in the academic community over whether efforts to unravel cuneiform had proven successful. Part of the controversy stemmed from the extreme intricacy of the writing system. Cuneiform languages are made up of a collection of signs, and the meaning of these signs shows a great deal of variety.

In the Akkadian language, for example, a cuneiform sign may have a phonetic value — but not always the same phonetic value — or it may be a logogram, symbolising a word (such as “temple”), or a determinative sign, such as for a place or an occupation. This gives the translation of cuneiform a puzzle-like quality. The translator must select the value of the sign that appears best suited to the context.

Some scholars probably had sensible reasons for questioning the deciphering of cuneiform. Others held the inaccurate view that ancient Assyrians would have lacked the capacity to comprehend such a difficult writing system. To resolve the controversy, the British scientist W.H. Fox Talbot suggested a kind of cuneiform competition.

The British Royal Asiatic Society held the contest in 1857. Four scholars – Fox Talbot, Rawlinson and a Dr Hincks and a Dr Oppert – made unique translations of a single, previously unseen, cuneiform inscription. Each scholar then sent their translation in strict confidence to the society for comparison. After opening the sealed letters and examining the four translations, the society decided that the similarities between them were sufficiently compelling to declare cuneiform deciphered.

The rediscovery of cuneiform literature was not without further controversy. Fierce debates were conducted in eloquent handwritten letters over who had contributed to the discovery and decipherment of texts, and who deserved credit for the achievement.

Picture of A recently discovered clay tablet telling part of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform.
A recently discovered clay tablet telling part of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

As well as this, the content of the literature caused friction in the academic communities of the 19th century. Prior to the rediscovery of cuneiform, the most prominent source for the Ancient Near East was the Hebrew Bible. The ability of cuneiform literature to provide a new perspective on the rich history of Egypt and Mesopotamia was embraced by many, but viewed with suspicion by others. For some, the translation of the long-forgotten writings raised the possibility of conflict between cuneiform sources and biblical literature.

Perhaps one of the most overt examples of these tensions in scholarly circles can be seen in the career of Nathaniel Schmidt from Colgate University. Schmidt was tried for heresy in 1895, due to the view that many of his translations of cuneiform appeared contrary to biblical traditions. He was dismissed from his position at Colgate in 1896. Following his dismissal, the eminent scholar was recruited by Cornell University (his controversial departure from Cornell made his appointment something of a “bargain”), where he taught Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac and many other ancient languages.

From cuneiform to the stars

The recovery of cuneiform has provided access to an embarrassment of textual riches, including hundreds of thousands of legal and economic records, magico-medical texts, omens and prophecies, wisdom literature and lullabies.

Masterpieces of ancient literature, such as the Gilgamesh Epic, Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld and Enuma Elish, have found new audiences in the present day. One can now even find cuneiform cookies.

Cuneiform has also aided scientific mysteries. Babylonian records of a solar eclipse, written in cuneiform, have helped astronomers figure out how much Earth’s rotation has slowed.

The decipherment of the cuneiform script has reopened a timeless dialogue beyond ancient and modern civilisations, providing continued opportunities to better understand the world around us, and beyond.

Note: This essay contains details from the article “Comparative Translations”, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18, 1861. My grateful thanks to the Royal Asiatic Society for generously allowing access to their collection.

Image of Louise PrykeLouise Pryke – [Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University]





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Underground in Brisvegas: can an electronic dance music artist thrive outside the city?

 Heidi Mellington, performing here with 
Anthony Smith  in Dizzygothica in 2007, has spoken about the importance of a  
supportive local music scene for emerging artists.

Electronic dance music (EDM) is an increasingly popular music genre. Electronic music can be defined as a sound dominated by electronic instruments and digitally generated sounds and also by digital samples of vocals and conventional instruments.

Despite the emergence of new communication technologies for music production and dissemination, it is still essential for EDM artists to be part of a local music scene.

Emerging artists typically depend heavily on the contacts and resources that they can find in their local city. The nature and scale of the truly global music industry appear not to have changed this relationship between EDM artists and their local music scene.

And the global electronic music industry is big. According to the latest IMS business report, the industry’s annual value has reached US$7.4 billion. NME reports that the three wealthiest DJs are Tiesto (Netherlands), Daft Punk (France) and Paul Okenfoald (England).

DJ Tiesto is asking for US$250,000 per DJ set. Daft Punk, the duo who pioneered French house in the 1990s, are worth US$120 million in licensing deals, royalties, music sales and merchandise. Their value increased after the success of their fourth album, Random Memories, which has sold more than 3.2 million copies worldwide.

EDM artists, unlike the most famous DJs, belong to local alternative scenes as is the case in Brisbane. Those scenes can be labelled as underground. According to the semi-structured interviews performed for my research, the electronic scene in Brisbane started as a DIY alternative scene.

In Brisbane, the rock and punk scenes have been documented in books like Pig City. In contrast, the electronic scene in Brisbane is rather unknown, yet it gathered more than 200 artists between 1979 and 2014. This has been documented in BNE: The Definitive Archive, released by Dennis Bremmer, founder of independent music label Trans:Com.

If music is global, why does local still matter?

Emerging artists need to engage with the technology and to have access to mentoring and technical advice. It’s a point made by Heidi Mellington, who joined the scene in the early 2000s:

Being in a city gives you access to mentors that have been trained and know how to use the latest sofwares.

She was part of Lady Electronica, a collective of female artists, and of darkwave electronica duo Dizzygotheca with Anthony Smith (2005-2010).

Most musicians interviewed for my research were interested in creating experimental edgy music. The aim was not necessarily to become successful, but to remain underground.

Brisbane’s electronic sound can be labelled as “electronic fusion”. It’s a blend of hip-hop, funk, drum and bass and sometimes goth music, according to Porl Deville, who was part of successful acts such as My Ninja Lover, who opened for Ben HarperJamiroquai and Mobyin the mid-1990s.

Local radio stations such 4ZZZ or Triple J helped artists to have their electronic dance music tracks played. In Brisbane, venues like The ZooRic’s Cafe Bar and The Lofly Hangar – a meeting place for the independent music community; it no longer exists – welcomed EDM artists.

These artists still need to be engaged in the economic and social networks that are found in metropolitan areas. This helps them to access technical advice, mentoring and grants (to fund music videos).

Even if Facebook and Soundcloud are fantastic tools for self-promotion, location is important. It remains an asset for a young EDM artist to be located in a city. It’s there that they have access to the best equipment and can learn about software tricks and production, mixing and mastering tips from experienced mentors.

This article was written by:
Image of Sebastien DarchenSebastien Darchen [Lecturer in Planning, The University of Queensland]






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Listen To Older Voices : Life & Times of Lynn Thorpe – Part 1

Welcome to Listen To Older Voices [A Baby Boomers Edition], which is a 
program produced by Rob Greaves for Wesley Connect and podcast through
the Toorak Times and Tagg.

Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principal of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

Lynn’s story is another story from the Baby Boomer generation, those born in the decade post WWII and who are now entering their senior years. As we listen to Lynn and her story we might reflect on other Baby Boomers stories and realise, that while their age is now generally between 65 and 70+ years of age they are still very much active and leaving quite a legacy.

Born in the Melbourne bayside town of Portsea Lynn’s early years consisted of sun, sand and a one-room classroom and she experienced a freedom that previous generations didn’t have, and today’s generation is unable to have.

Click image for larger version.  Name: Lynn on her bike.jpg  Views: 1  Size: 102.7 KB  ID: 35049
Lynn loved music from an early stage of life but was utterly taken by the music of the Beatles and similar groups during that period when Australia was caught in a wave of music coming out of Britain, and as a result enjoyed life in the 60’s to its fullest. By the end of the 1960’s she was working in the music industry, where she met one of Australia’s true Rock & Roll stars – Billy Thorpe. Now as we listen, we understand that at first it was more of a case of Billy being smitten by Lynn than vice versa.

Click to hear Lynn Thorpe – Part 1

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 

[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

Sunday essay: Dr Joe Gumbula, the ancestral chorus, and how we value Indigenous knowledges

[WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that 
the following story contains images of a deceased person.]

 A sacred paperbark tree at 
Djiliwirri, the most sacred homeland  of the Indigenous elder and public 
intellectual, Dr Joe Gumbula, in 2004. Aaron Corn

In September 2001, the preeminent Indigenous elder and public intellectual, Dr Joe Gumbula, spoke to a class of students at the University of Melbourne. In death, he told us, he would no longer be Joe Gumbula. He would no longer need that name, he said, because the ancestors of his most sacred homeland, Djiliwirri, had already named his corporeal body for features of the living environment as recorded in song.

His knees, he said, are the fruit of the native apple tree.

His feet and legs belong to the emu, as does his heart and his stomach.

His front belongs to the ancestral ghost, Murayana, while his back is Murayana’s iconic hollow log coffin.

His spine is the pathway worn through the scrub by the koel cuckoo.

His eyes are nuts of the cycad palm.

His white hair is made of the fine wispy roots of the paperbark tree and the foam they produce in the swamp during the Wet Season at Djiliwirri.

His head and all his knowledge are honeycomb from the hive of the Honeybee ancestor, Birrkuda. His nose is beeswax, and his mouth is the entrance to the beehive.

Picture of Gumbula with his family receiving his honorary Doctor of Music degree
Gumbula with his family receiving his honorary Doctor of Music degree at the University of Sydney in 2007. Author provided

Gumbula, who passed away in 2015, was one of Australia’s greatest thinkers. Now, his name is Birrkuda, the Honeybee. His voice has joined the ancestral chorus at Djiliwirri, where he dwells for all of time, and there, within the living environment, his songs can still be heard by those who attend to listen.

Honey from the paperbark tree

Born in Miliŋinbi (Milingimbi) in 1954, Gumbula was descended from a prominent line of Yolŋu leaders of the Gupapuyŋu clan from northeast Arnhem Land, whose contributions to understanding between Indigenous and other Australians have been influential since the 1920s. Researching the representation of his parents and grandparents in ethnographic and art collections worldwide became the passion of his life’s work.

Gumbula apprenticed as carpenter in his teens, and moved to Galiwin’ku in 1971, where he became a lifetime member of the seminal Yolŋu country and gospel band, Soft Sands. From 1989 to 1996, he served as a sworn officer of the Northern Territory Police Service, retiring with the rank of Constable First Class and a commendation for bravery.

He simultaneously became a recognised master-singer of Manikay, the exquisite Yolŋu tradition of public ceremonial songs. The academy struggles to recognise intellectual expressions outside the medium of text, yet the Manikay tradition perpetuates a body of knowledge that has enabled the Yolŋu to live in Australia for untold millennia.

Manikay as performed in a public ceremony in Ramanginiŋ in 2008.

I first met Gumbula at his home in Galiwin’ku in November 1997 while undertaking my PhD research on contemporary popular music in Arnhem Land. He adopted me as his child – a common enough occurrence for which Yolŋu law provides.

Gumbula had been composing his own rock songs since 1985, and had recently found new work as a vocational trainer in contemporary music skills for Northern Territory University. He proudly showed me the new music-video that he had just completed for his most-loved original song, Djiliwirri, which celebrates the continuity of Gupapuyŋu clan law from his parents’ generation to the present. Named after the most sacred homeland of the Daygurrgurr Gupapuyŋu clan, it remains a visionary work that incorporated clips from the 1964 documentary film, Djalumbu, which featured Gumbula’s father, Djäwa, leading a public hollow-log burial ceremony at Miliŋinbi.

“Djiliwirri” composed by Joe Gumbula and Fred Dhamarrandji, 
and performed by Joe Gumbula with Soft Sands in 1997.

In September 1997, just before we met, Gumbula had completed a long and arduous process of learning to become a leader of public ceremonies. He had attained mastery in performing his hereditary Manikay, and had learnt to conduct large complements of singers, dancers and artists in ceremony across a complex array of contexts. By building his expertise in Yolŋu law, he had accrued sufficient märr (essence) to earn the right to lead public ceremonies, and had been recognised by his elders as one who is liya-ŋärra’mirri: learned and wise.

As a function of my adoption as his child, Gumbula first taught me how to accompany on yidaki or didjeridu so that he could sing Manikay whenever we travelled together. He coached me in closely studying the musical and lyrical content of the Manikay series that he regularly performed and the knowledge codified within it. Over the years of this process, I came to understand fine details about Gupapuyŋu clan homelands and ceremonies that I could not have learnt by any other means.

How sulphur-crested cockatoos perch in lofty paperbark trees to cry for the dead.

How emus stomp the earth and soak their feathers as they drink from freshwater streams.

How the poisonous spines of eel-tailed catfish protect the souls of the newly deceased like warriors’ spears.

How tortoises comb through white weeds on the floor of the lake at Gapuwiyak, just as elders comb white clay through the hair of youths being readied for initiation.

These are among the myriad natural phenomena of the Yolŋu homelands that the Manikay tradition records and ascribes ceremonial significance. They are repeatedly observable both in nature and in the ways that Yolŋu engage with them.

Singing ancestral records

In Yolŋu epistemology, whenever people sing Manikay, their voices are not their own, but rather mingle with those of the ancestors themselves – all those who have gone before and all those who are yet to be. The Manikay tradition codifies all the observations and strategies for living given to the Yolŋu by the original ancestors who originally named, shaped and populated their myriad homelands in northeast Arnhem Land.

Image of Gumbula
Gumbula sings his hereditary Manikay for the archival record at Djiliwirri in 2004. Author provided.

Songs are typically organised into lengthy series of subjects that enumerate intimate details of each homeland and its living ecologies. The natural species and cycles found on each homeland – as observed by the original ancestors – are the substance of these songs.

Together with interrelated repertoires of sacred names, dances and designs, the Manikay tradition informs the logic of ceremonial practices through which the Yolŋu observe and express their law. To be a Manikay singer is to be trained in Yolŋu law, to know how to lead public ceremonies, and to know how the myriad features of the Yolŋu homelands are recorded in song.

For the Yolŋu, the Manikay tradition expresses fundamental truths about the nature of human existence within the greater fabric of the natural order. They understand Manikay repertoires to stand as an evidential record of the Yolŋu homelands that has been passed from the original ancestors to their living kin over successive generations.

Memories of the living fade, yet the agency of ancestors is realised anew each time Manikay is performed. The Manikay tradition is therefore regarded to be a formal medium through which the Yolŋu convey their intimate knowledges of country and its ancestral histories, and consolidate philosophical interpretations of the nature of existence from one generation to the next.

Yet each new performance of any given song item within the Manikay tradition is also deliberately unique to capture the aesthetics of the endless variability found in natural forms. Manikay repertoires are built around stock words and phrases, including strings of sacred names for all things observed by the original ancestors, and stock melodies and rhythms that are constantly varied in subtle ways. Cryptic in tone and replete with archaisms stemming from ancestral times, their lyrics defy narrative linearity, and can be ordered and reordered – interpreted and reinterpreted – quite differently with each new performance.

In these respects, the Manikay tradition is both a creative and an intellectual medium, as well as a sacred one. Singers become seasoned thinkers who curate and extend the contents and contexts of their performances to mediate ancestrally-informed understandings of the nature of existence and theorise their relevance for today. It expresses a balanced interplay between tradition and innovation in thought and practice that Yolŋu typically liken to an ancestral campfire site, where each new generation of the living adds its own layer of ash.

Thinking through songs

I have spent my entire career collaborating with thinkers, such as Gumbula, who come from outside European intellectual traditions. Their relationships with the academy are sardonically illustrated by the Iranian philosopher, Hamid Dabashi, who asks, “Can non-Europeans think?” He questions why the work of European philosophers is just plain philosophy, while they deem their African counterparts to be ethno-philosophers. Why is it, asks Dabashi, that Mozart is a composer of music, while equally-sophisticated Indian musical expressions are the subject of ethno-musicology?

Image of The source of a sacred freshwater stream at Djiliwirri
The source of a sacred freshwater stream at Djiliwirri in 2004. Author provided

It is through this systemic lens of alterity that the academy has typically engaged with the Manikay tradition, and indeed all Australian Indigenous expressive forms. It typifies them as conduits for cultural ideas and values, and perhaps even spiritual and political ones, but rarely intellectual ones.

Clearly, learned exponents of the Manikay tradition, and others like it, should be considered thinkers in their own right. But what of the myriad media through which such thinkers choose to express their ideas?

For most intellectuals within Euro-diasporic traditions, the arrangement of typographical characters on a white page is a tried and familiar medium for communicating theoretical ideas built upon observable evidence with reference to existing scholarly findings. Scholars within these traditions, myself included, are trained from an early age to know that books and other texts can convey facts and, therefore, knowledge.

We know that not all books and texts are factual. Yet this never brings into question the prevailing academic assumption that text is the ideal medium for conveying evidential knowledge that is observable and repeatable.

But what if there were other media that, like text, were so intimately associated with language, that they too could convey knowledge in such ways? Academics routinely entrust text and, to a lesser extent, film with conveying their original contributions to human knowledge. We usually do this unquestioningly on the basis of established precedents. Does not the Manikay tradition, with its own intimate relationship with audible language stretching back to established precedents in ancestral times, exhibit comparable mechanisms for conveying meaning?

The Manikay tradition has been carefully curated over successive generations to maintain an observable and repeatable record of this expansive body of knowledge, while simultaneously being able to accommodate both reinterpretations of old observations and additions of new ones.

Picture of Gumbula working with his brother, Milaypuma Gaykamaŋu
Gumbula working with his brother, Milaypuma Gaykamaŋu, in the University of Sydney Archives in 2007. Author provided

Learned singers of Manikay constantly reset and reinterpret the themes and meanings of their repertoires in response to arising circumstances of celebration, loss, negotiation and commemoration. Newer influences upon Yolŋu society, such as its lengthy history of engagements with Makassan seafarers from Sulawesi, have long been recorded as central themes of Manikay series. Each generation of singers leaves its own new layer of ash upon the same ancestral campfire site.

In this respect, Manikay is an archetypal medium of creative practice-as-research. It synthesises thought and practice to cultivate understandings of the nature of existence that equip people with applicable skills for knowing how to live on country and find its inner meanings.

It locates human existence and agency firmly within the continuum of the natural order, and celebrates the undeniable truth that, as humans, we are all products of countless ancestral unions and deeds over countless generations.

But in Australia, research outputs disseminated via media other than text are officially relegated to othering categories such as “non-traditional”, “applied”, “creative” and “practitioner-based”, and are generally considered secondary to “traditional” textual outputs.

If learned exponents of traditions such as Manikay are truly deserving of our recognition as thinkers, then we should also recognise and value the media they have long cultivated to perpetuate their discourses as being equivalent to the written word.

This is particularly relevant to lexically-rich song forms that convey concepts as sophisticated as any standard scholarly writing. Indeed, with the contemporary academy’s tenuous recognition for formal song forms through which philosophical ideas can be conveyed, Yolŋu intellectuals are frequently left wondering whether scholars in Euro-diasporic traditions can think.

This is not only important for exponents of Australian Indigenous traditions such as Manikay that have become highly endangered in the wake of British colonisation. It also crucial for thinkers across the humanities, creative arts and social sciences all over the world, who work beyond the medium of text in ways that are more germane to their disciplines and approaches.

This entrenched bias serves little purpose other than to privilege Euro-diasporic traditions of knowledge production and dissemination that continue to threaten and displace equally justifiable ways of being and knowing cultivated by other societies.

Knowledge across cultures

Gumbula was my most prolific teacher, Yolŋu or otherwise. Driven by his personal quest to trace the extensive legacy of his family’s recorded history, he was adamant from the outset of our relationship that intelligence should flow between us equally in both directions.

He would teach me about Yolŋu music and its centrality to Yolŋu law and knowledge, and I would help him to build networks that would lead him to collections of interest in museums and archives around the world. This grounded our relationship in the ethos of Matjabala, a Gupapuyŋu clan process for forging bonds with other groups to share knowledge and resources through equitable ceremonial exchange.

Gumbula constantly drew on his knowledge of Manikay and its centrality within Yolŋu law to challenge my learnt academic perceptions about what knowledge is, and how it can be manifested. I came to realise that all ethnographic scholarship about the Yolŋu, since its beginnings in the late 1920s, could not have existed without the cooperation of learned Yolŋu leaders who had been willing to engage with visiting academics.

As Gumbula and I taught, wrote and performed together, our aim was not to bring Yolŋu knowledge into the academy, but rather to bring the academy into a more equitable dialogue with equally valid traditions of Yolŋu knowledge production and dissemination. We called our approach not only bi-cultural, but also bi-intellectual.

Gumbula began teaching in Australian Indigenous Studies courses at the University of Melbourne in 2001 and, through his 2003–05 visiting senior fellowship there, embarked on extensive travels to investigate his family’s recorded history in collections around the world.

In association with the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia, he and I worked with his family to make archival recordings of their Manikay repertoires through field trips to their remote homelands. Later, at the University of Sydney, he taught in the Australian Indigenous Studies program in 2005–06, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music in 2007.

Picture of Gumbula with his wife, Pamela Ganambarr
Gumbula with his wife, Pamela Ganambarr, at the launch of his Makarr-garma exhibition at the University of Sydney in 2009. Author provided.

Gumbula led three projects funded by the Australian Research Council on Yolŋu collections. In 2009, he curated an innovative exhibition on Yolŋu knowledge at the University of Sydney’s Macleay Museum called Makarr-garma, and his 2011 book on early ethnographic photographs from Arnhem Land, Matjabala Mali’ Buku-ruŋanmaram, received a prestigious Mander Jones Award from the Australian Society of Archivists

Inspired by photographs found in the Melbourne Museum and in the University of Sydney Archives, his final project was to start the process of producing a rare Makarrata reparations ceremony at Miliŋinbi after a hiatus of some 80 years. He sadly passed away before it came to fruition in August 2016.

Though charming and charismatic, Gumbula was fearless and unyielding. He took pride in challenging colleagues to think and work in new proactive ways. His research leaves an enduring impact upon the ways that scholars and collecting institutions represent and engage with Indigenous peoples, heritage, and knowledges.

This an edited version of the Dr Joe Gumbula Memorial Lecture presented at the 16th Symposium on Indigenous Music and Dance at the University of Melbourne in partnership with the 2017 Information Technologies and Indigenous Communities Symposium convened by Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker, and the 2017 Australian Society of Archivists Conference convened by Katheryn Dan and Dr Katherine Howard. The author and convenors acknowledge the kind support of Pamela Ganambarr, Farrah Gumbula, Michael Gaykamaŋu and others in Dr Gumbula’s family, and of the Australian Society of Archivists’ President, Julia Mant. A fuller version will be published by MUP in Associations: Creative Practice and Research edited by Dr James Oliver.

This essay was written by:
Picture of Aaron Corn Aaron Corn – [Professor of Music and Director, Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) and National Centre for Aboriginal Language and Music Studies (NCALMS), University of Adelaide]






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‘Bones’ McGhie, a cigarette and nostalgia for a greater game

‘Bones’ McGhie, a cigarette and nostalgia for a greater game Robbie ‘Bones’ McGhie after playing in the  
1973 Grand Final, in which his team, Richmond, won. 
Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

My first love was Australian Rules football. Or more precisely, my first love was an Aussie Rules footballer. Ross Glendinning, Number 4 for the North Melbourne Kangaroos.

I tasted the first crazy elation of love when Roscoe won the 1983 Brownlow Medal. Soon after, I suffered the first heartache of rejection when my beloved failed to reply to my syrupy letter of congratulations.

I was 14 when posting love letters, but I was only five when I chose my team. The 1974 Grand Final between North Melbourne and Richmond was played in front of 113,000 people. Two weeks earlier, I had stepped off a plane from North America, a first-generation immigrant in search of a new home. My survival instinct immediately clicked in: if I was going to live in Melbourne, I would need to pick a football team.

I chose the Kangaroos, those same strange creatures that appeared stuffed in the airport gift shop. The losers of the 1974 Grand Final as it turned out.

Recently I stumbled across an extraordinary photograph taken in that era of black-and-white childhood memories. In the photo of the 1973 Grand Final between Richmond and Carlton, celebrity photographer Rennie Ellis — better known for his hedonistic party snaps and flesh-filled beach pics — freezes a moment in time that is at once utterly foreign and totally familiar to me.

Photograph of Robbie McGhie
The full McGhie photo. Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

Here, in the foreground, a tall, gangly footballer sits on the hallowed turf of the MCG, his long legs stretched out in front of him, fiddling with his boots. He’s not looking at the camera. He might not even be aware that it’s there.

He sports a lace-up Richmond jumper, a spiffing mullet and old-school tatts from shoulder to elbow. Mutton chop sideburns and a handlebar moustache proclaim 1970s Struggletown bad boy – or an inner-city hipster way before his time.

And perfectly centred in the frame, dangling from the player’s mouth, is the most astonishing detail of all: a cigarette.

This player, who is either tightening up his boots, about to take to the field, or taking off his boots after playing four quarters of footy, is smoking a fag.

In today’s sanitised, six-figure salaried, sporting landscape, that ciggie comes, absurdly, as a breath of fresh air.

Like a souped up De Lorean, a single photograph can take us back to the future. By capturing ephemeral moments of seemingly little historic significance, photographs allow us to interrogate not only the minutiae of a subject’s particular era, but also subsequent transformations at which the photo’s protagonist (and photographer) could but marvel.

Was the Richmond player an inveterate rule-breaker, caught in an illicit act by Ellis’s watchful lens? Or a man of his times? And what would the footballers of the 1970s make of today’s elaborately stage-managed sporting spectacles?

In the case of the lanky man with the lung-dart, I’m fortunate. He’s alive and well and willing to give me a personal tour of Grand Final day, 1973.

Down at the ‘G

In footy-mad Melbourne, it was remarkably easy to track down a fella who hasn’t played a game for almost 40 years.

“My name is Robbie McGhie and they call me ‘Bones’”, this giant of a man tells me, giving me a handshake that threatens to dislocate my shoulder.

More difficult than finding Bones was getting access to record an interview with him at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. After jumping an Olympic-strength course of administrative hurdles, including passing an online OH&S certificate, we are allowed to stand in the outer on a non-game day. We are strictly NOT allowed on the ground.

Photograph of Clare Wright with ‘Bones’ at the MCG
Clare Wright with ‘Bones’ at the MCG. Author provided

“Typical”, says Bones when I fill him in on the palaver.

McGhie literally towers over me; even in my high-heel boots, I barely come up to the second floor of his still muscular, if no longer lean, torso. His voice is deep and commanding. He’s rough around the edges, but not scary rough. His has warm, gentle eyes. And as it happens, he remembers his early playing days like they were yesterday.

He started playing in the Seniors in Grade 3 at Maidstone Primary School in Melbourne’s inner west. (“I had a bit of height about me then, Clare”.) McGhie was picked up by the then Footscray Bulldogs in the then-Victorian Football League when he was 13. In 1972, after 47 games for the Bulldogs, he was let go. McGhie was 21 years old.

“I played up on a footy trip in Adelaide,” McGhie tells me with a laugh. “It wasn’t my fault, but I did.” He “had a bit of a wrestle” with some opposition supporters and “gave ‘em a bit of a how-dee-do”. Police were waiting for him at the airport.

Richmond picked up McGhie at the beginning of the 1973 season. Tommy Hafey was the coach and the team was on the up. The Tigers had lost the Grand Final to Carlton the previous year, and now the two teams met again on that one day in September. This time Richmond defeated Carlton, with Bones at centre-half-back alongside teammates Rex Hunt, Royce Hart and the Kevins, Sheedy and Bartlett.

McGhie doesn’t remember the photographer taking the shot that has more recently turned him into a bona fide larrikin icon. Rennie Ellis was in the crowd, not part of a media pack. Bones was enjoying a quiet moment — taking off his boots after the game, as he tells me plainly. The cigarette was handed to him by his “boots-studder”, Kevin McAvoy. There were “smokers all round” and McAvoy kept a little stash to give to the players during the breaks.

“WD & HO Wills sponsored Richmond,” McGhie recalls, “so we got our butts for next to nothing”. (The following year, the club was sponsored by Carlton United Breweries, “so we had to taste their wares”.) Bones tells me that the players got $25 a game. He fronted up to games because, “I just enjoyed playing … there were some great characters in it … not like now.”

The football industry

The altered reality of corporate sponsorship arrangements and the increased professionalisation (for some, read homogenisation) of the game are not the only changes evoked by Rennie Ellis’s portrait.

Dr Chris McConville, an urban historian at Victoria University, argues that there was something perceptibly different about the days of a pre-national league: you could hear it on the breeze.

“The dominant sound of a Saturday afternoon was the roar and oohs and aahs of the crowd drifting through suburban streets,” remembers McConville. “It was 12 Victorian teams and it was teams essentially playing on suburban grounds.”

Ellis’s photograph can’t capture the aural landscape of 1970s football, but for McConville, the image is redolent of the end of an era.

“It was something about Melbourne,” he reflects. “The shops shut at 12 and people went to the football in the afternoon. Then on Sunday everything shut. But the seeds of the social changes are there in the liberation of a lot of social activities through the Whitlam government, which is at a national level not a state level.”

By the early 1980s, Sunday trading was introduced in Victoria and in 1982 the South Melbourne Football Club relocated to Sydney, paving the way for the VFL’s paradigm-shifting conversion to the AFL.

“Now we’re at the point when games are on any day at any time largely to fit in with the television schedule,” notes McConville. “Nobody in the 1970s would have said ‘I’m part of the football industry’”.

Women up on the big stage

Bones and McConville are both wistful about what has been lost in the commodification and commercialisation of Australian Rules. Yet there are some footballers who are nothing but thrilled to find themselves part of the industry: women.

“What’s happened this year has just been glorious”, beams veteran sports journalist Angela Pippos.

The inauguration of an AFL Women’s competition in 2017 can be seen as the pinnacle of market-driven football. Eight new teams and a legion of new supporters equals more bums on bleachers and eyes on screens. Yet paradoxically, fans at AFLW games have raved about the grass-roots, community nature of the game, the way it reminds them of the pre-AFL days of local clubs and local heroes, when you could jump the fence and play kick-to-kick on the ground at half time.

Photograph of two women playing in the AFL
The AFL started its first women’s league in 2017. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Looking at Ellis’s photo of Bones, Pippos tells me it “screams 1970s”, noting that “the shorts look smaller than the shorts of today”. But fashion aside, she also sees “meaningful change” since those days of moustachioed masculinity. Women’s inclusion at the highest level of the sporting code is a triumph of home-grown progressivism. “Australian football is our indigenous game”, she tells me, “it’s great for girls to see their sporting role models up on the big stage”.

The equity and diversity aspects of women’s football are a key part of the draw card, but for Pippos (and many fans) the real appeal is “to do with the physicality”.

“These women are saying it’s ok to be physical, it’s ok to crash into each other. They are saying that there’s more to femininity than that one particular version that we keep getting told about. It’s ok to love this game. It’s ok to play it.”

Pippos likens the AFLW players to modern-day suffragettes, arguing that, “They have stared convention in the face.”

It’s hard to imagine that in 2017 someone might look at a photo of working-class lad puffing away on a “coffin stick” in the 1973 Australian Rules Football Grand Final and be reminded of the first-wave feminists’ militant campaign for political rights.

American critical theorist Sarah Sentilles has an explanation for how this cognitive slippage might occur. In her book Draw Your Weapons, Sentilles argues that, “Photographs are unstable. Volatile.” Meaning “leaks out” of photographs, she writes. “They are open and available to uses the photographer may not have ever intended”.

Rennie Ellis might not have reckoned that his portrait of a sinewy footballer quietly smoking a cigarette would one day be such a powerful trigger for nostalgia, but I bet he knew instinctively that the photograph was a classic.

Bones, an episode of ABC’s Shooting the Past presented by Clare Wright, will air on Friday September 29 at 1:30pm, and repeated Sunday at 1:30pm.

This article was written by:
Image of Clare WrightClare Wright – [Associate Professor in History, La Trobe University]






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When a ‘good death’ was often painful: euthanasia through the ages

When a good death was often painful Detail from a statue of the  
Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus (15th-century Slovenia). For many  
centuries, the pain that could accompany dying was seen as punishment for  
sin and ultimately redemptive.

Today, a primary goal of both movements aimed at care of the dying – palliative care and euthanasia – is to eliminate suffering. These are underpinned by the idea that a good death is a painless death. But it wasn’t always so.

The term “euthanasia” is derived from the Greek for good death, but it only began to be used in a modern and familiar way in the late 19th century. For centuries in Western societies, “euthanasia” referred to a pious death blessed by God.

The means of achieving a good death was set out in the enormously popular ars moriendi(art of dying) guides that offered prayers, attitudes and actions intended to guide the dying towards salvation. This wasn’t necessarily a painless process. Far and away the most reproduced image of good dying was Christ’s crucifixion.

The pain that could accompany dying was seen as punishment for sin and ultimately redemptive: a chance to transcend the world and flesh through imitation of Christ’s suffering. It was also a test of the compassion and charity of friends, relatives and even strangers.

The Christian injunction to minister to suffering meant visiting and caring for the dying were seen as communal duties. Children as well as adults were expected to offer physical and moral support to those who were gravely ill.

Oicture of - James Gillray, Bleeding a Vein, circa 1804
James Gillray, Bleeding a Vein, circa 1804.Author provided

Doctors did not typically attend the deathbed. They did not have an obvious role in the central spiritual business of dying, but nor were they particularly associated with the mitigation of suffering.

Indeed, in the pre-anaesthetic era, doctors were more likely to be associated with the infliction of pain. Surgery, of course, was excruciating, but other now infamous “heroic” remedies (such as blistering, excessive bleeding and the application of caustic chemicals to the skin) were based on the belief that pain had healing properties and involved doctors deliberately inducing it.

In the 19th century, pain began to be seen as a discrete and aberrant physiological phenomenon. Both dying and suffering were increasingly medicalised. Doctors gradually took over from the clergy and family as carers of the dying.

At the same time, the word “euthanasia” took on a new meaning. It began to refer to this new medical duty to assist the terminally ill – but not to hasten death.

In the wake of the mid-century revolution in anaesthetics and aided by innovations such as the hypodermic syringe, doctors began to “treat” the dying with painkillers as well as prayers.

In 1870, Samuel Williams, a Birmingham businessman and amateur philosopher, proposed a more definitive form of this new medical treatment for the terminally ill. In an essay called Euthanasia, published by the local Speculative Club, he wrote:

That in all cases of hopeless and painful illness, it should be the recognised duty of the medical attendant, whenever so desired by the patient, to administer chloroform or such other anaesthetic as may by-and-by supersede chloroform – so as to destroy the consciousness at once, and put the sufferer to a quick and painless death.

Williams sparked a debate that has waxed and waned but never gone away. But how had this come to look like a good way to die?

Changing meanings of pain

In 1901 psychologist and philosopher William James wrote of the “strange moral transformation” that had taken place regarding attitudes to pain:

It is not expected of a man that he should either endure it or inflict much of it, and to listen to the recital of cases of it makes our flesh creep morally as well as physically. The way in which our ancestors looked upon pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order, and both caused and suffered it as a matter-of-course proportion of their day’s work, fills us with amazement.

Historian Stephanie Snow observes that as anaesthetics and other methods of pain relief became available in the 19th century, people began to see pain – the experience but also the sight of it – as more damaging and demoralising.

A new generation of comfortably off Victorians who considered anaesthesia commonplace could no longer stomach physical suffering. Now pain was something that could not just be eliminated but struck as cruel, unusual and degrading: “an alien force which undermined man’s very humanity”.

Dying and suffering became things from which people, particularly children, should be shielded.

A modern paradox

Medical methods aimed at eliminating the pain of the dying process developed as the fear of death – a fear that for centuries dwelt on the post-mortem horrors of hell – began to centre on the horror that could precede it.

Paradoxically, this fear arose and gained momentum as most people in Western cultures became increasingly insulated from such suffering. As mortality declined, more people died in hospital under the care of specialists, and doctors’ ability to control pain advanced in ways previously unimaginable.

This very modern anxiety can be historically tracked from Williams’s 1870 proposal to the assisted dying bill soon to be debated in the Victorian parliament.

Our ancestors would be amazed.

This article was written by:
Image of Caitlin MaharCaitlin Mahar – [Adjunct Research Fellow (History), Swinburne University of Technology]





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Listen To Older Voices : Ellice Hatfull – Part 3

Ellice Hatfull - Part 3
Ellice Hatfull Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, a program  
produced by Rob Greaves for Wesley Connect and podcast through the Toorak Times

Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principal of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

In the final program on the Life & Times of Ellice Hatfull, Ellice reflects over her 98 years and shares the story of the gradual loss of her sight and openly discusses the whole ageing process. She continues to share stories that will make you smile as well as leave you in amazement.

Ellice is a woman totally at peace with herself and as a parting gesture shares with us some of her life’s philosophies, which will sit very comfortably with many listeners.

Click to hear Ellice Hatfull – Part 3

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 

[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

Sunday essay: journeys to the underworld – Greek myth, film and American anxiety


Sunday Essay - Journey To The Underworld Gil Birmingham (Cory)  
and Jeremy Renner (Martin) in Wind River: grieving fathers who come together 
in the realm of the dead.  Production Co: Acacia Filmed Entertainment

The success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, depicting warring Olympians and Amazons, continues to stoke moviegoer interest in Greek mythology. Wonder Woman is the first foray of D.C. movies into classical mythology, a path well trodden by the Marvel cinematic universe. But is Greek myth simply a favoured and enduring wellspring for heroic sagas full of supermen and monsters or are there deeper forces at play?

To the Greeks, the underworld journey was an ideal vehicle for the hero to display his exceptional qualities, often involving the rescue of a soul trapped there. A central convention of Greek mythological narratives is katabasis, the hero’s journey to the underworld or land of the dead. At Circe’s urging, Odysseus consults the seer Tiresias in the land of the dead, where many departed souls (including Achilles) appear to him. Similar journeys are made by Heracles who rescues Theseus during his twelfth labor; Hermes, who rescues Persephone from Hades; and Aeneas who is reunited briefly with his dead father.

Picture of Alessandro Allori (1580) Odysseus questions the seer Tiresias.
Alessandro Allori (1580) Odysseus questions the seer Tiresias. Wikimedia Commons

Descents into and ascents from the underworld are themes incorporated repeatedly into modern cinema. Film developed from theatre, which in its earliest form was a way of animating mythical sagas. The katabasis has endured in cinema because it can be applied to most characters, times and settings. Often eschewing a literal journey to the underworld, a cinematic katabasis may follow a quest into a type of hell, whether a physical or psychological space.

Picture of Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein Orpheus and Eurydice
Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein Orpheus and Eurydice, 1806. Wikimedia Commons

One particularly celebrated underworld myth recounts Orpheus’s retrieval of his wife Eurydice. Against the warnings of Hades and Persephone, Orpheus looked back at her – only for his wife to disappear, this time permanently. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), drew directly on this myth by sending its hero, like Orpheus, into the realm of the dead to retrieve an imperilled soul trapped there.

Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne created a bleak vision of 1938 Los Angeles, parched by drought and corrupted by a shadowy cabal of oligarchs. Private investigator Jake Gittes, investigating the death of city water commissioner Hollis Mulwray, uncovers a web of corruption and murder. His attempts to rescue Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn, from the violence enveloping her results in her brutal death. In its shocking conclusion, Polanski rooted Chinatown more firmly in its mythological ancestry, pivoting the plot towards an incest revelation. Like Oedipus, redress comes through putting out eyes. Having failed to save his former love years before, Jake grieves over her death a second time with Evelyn.

Chinatown is broadly accepted as a response to Watergate. Like many films of its time, it responded to Nixon’s subversion of US political institutions by depicting a world where shadowy underworld denizens win and the hero fails to rescue his Eurydice from Hades.

In this response, Chinatown demonstrates how the influence of Greek mythological conventions on American filmmakers appears strongest during times of heightened political stress. When many perceived America as attacked from within by communism during the 1950s, for instance, Hollywood responded by reimagining Homer’s perfect warrior Achillesthrough the towering figure of John Wayne (through no coincidence, the most virulently anti-communist actor of all). In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Wayne’s embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards mutilates the body of Comanche war chief Scar to avenge Ethan’s defiled nieces. Like Achilles mutilating Hector in Homer’s Iliad, Ethan hates his enemies beyond death.

In the 1970s, a younger cadre of filmmakers and audiences saw the enemy sitting in seats of power. Underworld quests found more subversive avenues for expression, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which conveyed the horrors of the Vietnam war through a nightmarish journey up the river Styx.

Underworld narratives also formed part of Hollywood’s response to widespread moral panic around ritual abuse and child murder that spread throughout America in the 1980s and 1990s. The horrific sprees of society’s new apex predators like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, linked to hysterical rumours of organised child sacrifice, inspired a film cycle fuelled by pervasive anxiety that children could be snatched up and borne away to horrible fates in hidden lairs. When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the 1992 Oscars it was our neighbours or the corner grocer – not the government – preying on our fears.

Demme’s film deftly refashioned the myth of Theseus and the minotaur into a race-against-time manhunt. Cadet FBI agent Clarice Starling pursues a serial murderer who has abducted a Senator’s daughter. To track the beast, Clarice must descend into the den of captured cannibal monster Hannibal Lecter for clues to slay the monster at large, Buffalo Bill. For this underworld quest, Lecter is the pedagogue, not the monster. His role isn’t to eat Clarice (he passes up that opportunity when she ventures within striking distance) but to prepare her for her journey. Lecter provides the ball of string enabling Clarice to venture into the minotaur’s labyrinth and return.

Screenshot of Jody Foster as Clarice Stirling in The Silence of the Lambs.
Jody Foster as Clarice Stirling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Why does American cinema reflect Ancient Greek narrative conventions most strongly at times of profound social anxiety? The answer may lie in part in political similarities between Americans and ancient Athenians and the perceived vulnerability of their constitutional foundations.

Traditionalists interpret Greek art as an expression of soaring confidence in the triumph of humans over the old gods. But the Athenians were obsessed by the ephemerality of their achievement and how it rested on foundations that could collapse at any time. The late critic Robert Hughes once asserted that “ancient Greek sculpture is used to advance a specious political argument” of man being the measure of all things. Yet Greek art, he argued, was just as focussed on warding off monsters (representing political threats).

Ancient mythological themes are employed most unmistakably in American movies during times of “witch hunts” to expose hidden enemies: communist saboteurs in the 1950s, corrupt political burghers of the 1970s and the “satanic panic” of the 1980s. In response to 9/11, Hollywood was oddly reticent, as if the seismic scale of the event meant translating 9/11 to the screen was unimaginable. But television responded forcefully, particularly through the great HBO crime dramas – The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood – all of which at various times employed underworld sagas in confronting the scarring and resounding effects of violence.

Ancient myth and cinema in a time of Trump

What can we expect to see next as the rise of “Trumpism” promotes internal American division possibly unmatched since the civil war? Certainly, taking at face value Trump’s identified public enemy the “liberal media” (which includes filmmakers), US political institutions are under attack in a manner not seen since 1974. Like Nixon, Trump accuses his critics of witch hunts aimed at sabotaging the will of the people and uprooting American values.

We are yet to see reactions to the President reflected in cinema. Trump was elected ten months ago and has held office for only eight, so films responding to his Presidency are still in production. But the social trauma that saw the ascendancy of Trump’s base – the impoverishment of the “rust belt”, paranoia over Mexican gang culture, the erosion of the natural environment in the face of rapine corporations – are already part of the cinematic landscape.

And we are already seeing key political battlegrounds – the migration of drug crime across the southern border and the violation of the natural world at other frontiers – framed as underworld quests in film.

Director/screenwriter Taylor Sheridan recently explored issues of American decline in his unofficial “frontier trilogy”, using Greek mythological conventions to do so. The middle film, Hell or High Water (2016) is a relatively straightforward backwoods heist saga pitting bank-robbing brothers against a Texas ranger nearing retirement. The script reflects the financial angst of Trump voters, largely sympathising with their perceived disenfranchisement. But the first film, Sicario (2015) and the most recent, Wind River (2017) are dramatic bookends, using mythology to explore the social anxieties that saw Trump elected.

Directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, Sicario depicts an idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer, recruited by a government taskforce to combat drug cartels at the Mexican border. Overseen by a shadowy operative, Alejandro, Kate descends into a moral and literal abyss to track her quarry, eventually rejecting her handlers’ demands that she become a monster to fight monsters. In Wind River, the discovery of a young Arapaho woman’s body on a snowbound Wyoming reservation teams hunter Cory Lambert with another rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner, to track down her killer.

Wind River and Sicario are violent, electrifying films, which embrace Greek mythic conventions by sending their heroes to the realm of the dead both in pursuit of monsters and in embrace of loved ones.

In Sicario, Kate and Alejandro pursue the drug lord, Alarcon, across a Mexican landscape made hellish through darkness and night vision technology. Whereas Kate emerges from the underworld with her moral compass intact, Alejandro maddened by the murders of his wife and daughter now resides there permanently. As he tells Kate, “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf and this is a land of wolves now.”

In Wind River the murdered girl, Natalie, was a friend of Cory’s daughter – who had died in similar circumstances three years earlier. Like Orpheus, Cory experiences the loss of his beloved twice, heightening his corrosive need to have her back. But the land of the dead is not always hostile. In the film’s final scene, Cory and Natalie’s father Martin sit together in silence, mentally visiting their lost daughters in the spirit realm.

Both films are sprinkled with references to mythological deathscapes: frozen Wyoming mountains and darkened Mexican foothills become landscapes of dread. Cory, like the hero Heracles, is a hunter of lions; and wolves, traditional guardians of dead souls, embody links between living and dead.

Greek mythological conventions will likely again be used to critique what many see as a uniquely lawless US administration. It will pay to watch the output of Joss Whedon, for one, whose The Avengers (2012) depicted an Homeric world where spectacular battle scenes framed an exploration of the transformative effect of violence, the weight of heroic expectations and the toll both take on men and women who deal in warfare.

Few directors working today are as familiar with Greek heroic archetypes as Whedon. In his signature television production, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon reimagined the doomed Achilles as a teenage girl who at one point returned from a literal journey to the realm of the dead. Given Trump’s treatment of and standing with women, it will be interesting to see the nature of the heroine’s quest, and the monsters she encounters along the way, in Whedon’s upcoming project Batgirl.

We may not yet know what kinds of underworlds will need to be negotiated in years ahead. But American filmmakers are uniquely experienced in passing through landscapes of dread, emerging stronger and more enlightened.

This essay was written by:
Image of Paul SalmondPaul Salmond – [Honorary Associate, Classics and Ancient History, La Trobe University]





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Giving peace a chance? Music can drive us apart as much as it unites

Giving Peace A Chance - Music John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote  
Give Peace a Chance in a ‘bed-in’ in Montreal. National Archive/Wikimedia,

September 21 was International Day of Peace, the UN’s annual call for a global ceasefire. This year, in the lead-up, celebrities have curated a Peace Day Playlist available through streaming services. James Morrison, Yoko Ono, Michael Caine, UB40 and others have nominated songs such as Michael Jackson’s Heal the World, Joan Baez’s We Shall Overcome and John Lennon’s Imagine, alongside One, a Peace Day anthem featuring artists from across the African continent. The premise for the playlist is that music “is a unique vehicle to amplify the message of the day, bringing people together in the name of peace.”

For many people, such songs have become associated with anti-war protests and notions of freedom, equality and social justice. But just as music can unite us behind a cause, it can also drive us apart. Music must be deployed carefully if we are to really give peace a chance.

Music is often called humankind’s “universal language”: an all-embracing and inherently benevolent form of communication. Music can indeed deepen feelings of affinity and social cohesion. But these same qualities can also strengthen divisions.

During the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars, for example, Slobodan Milošević’s far-right Serbian regime appropriated turbofolk, a mix of regional folk and electronic European pop music, to promote cultural nationalism for political purposes.

Music played in the flute bands of Northern Ireland has similarly strong and contentious associations. Some tunes were so potent that in some parts of the country, whistling a short phrase has resulted in violence.

Other research shows some American soldiers used metal and rap music in Iraq to heighten aggressiveness and inspire warlike behaviour. Despite the stereotype of violence and rap and metal music, this is not a result of these music genres per se, but the bonding qualities of music. As we’ve seen, conflict can be just as easily fanned by dance and folk music.

Serbian singer Ceca Veličković Ražnatović’s music is an example 
of 1990s turbofolk.

What makes music work?

We can explain how music brings people together through the lens of empathy. Empathy involves being able to identify other people’s emotional states and respond appropriately. It can also involve the capacity to reflect other people’s emotions back at them. Empathy, therefore, is both knowing and feeling.

We can see these same qualities when groups come together around music. Research has shown how making music together can enhance children’s emotional skills such as empathy. The study looked at musical components that promote empathy such as emotionality (music’s ability to both induce and express emotions); imitation (the repeated patterns of the music itself as well as in the act mimicking other performer’s movements); and synchronisation (exemplified through the sense of a mutually felt pulse).

Some researchers have even suggested making music goes beyond empathy, as performers share emotions, intentions and experiences to such a degree that the boundary between them becomes blurred. When singing or humming in unison with a large group of people, for example, it can be difficult to distinguish one’s own voice in the total sound being produced.

Healing old wounds

Importantly, though, feeling belonging with other people does not automatically mean peace. The key to this is whether music is being used to bond people who already consider themselves to be alike, or whether it connects those who for whatever reason consider each other “different”.

Recent findings demonstrate that even brief exposure to music from a particular culture can increase listeners’ positive attitudes towards people from that culture. However, this approach has been criticised for emphasising the differences between groups, reinforcing the boundaries the projects aim to dismantle.

To avoid hardening the borderlines, some projects have harnessed musical styles that are perceived to be politically or culturally neutral. For example, in modern-day Kosovo Musicians without Borders steer away from popular but divisive turbofolk, connecting youth in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica through rock music.

Ethnically mixed band Proximity Mine, formed by students 
of Mitrovica Rock School

Rock music provided a similar respite during The Troubles in 1980s Northern Ireland, offering Protestant and Catholic youths somewhere to socialise and enjoy each other’s company, despite political disparities. Research also shows how sharing lullabies across language groups helps people recognise the universal aspects of human nature.

In other places, music can help people confront difference. Scholars have suggested that music from South Africa’s history could provide insight into the experiences of both black and white South Africans before 1994, when the country became an inclusive democracy, ending the final vestiges of apartheid.

In South Sudan Muonjieng (Dinka) songs have long served as avenues for public truth-telling and disclosure of past violent abuses. With civil war ongoing, these mechanisms for peacebuilding could be significant in the establishment of formalised justice systems.

Through his music, John Lennon asks us to “imagine all the people living life in peace.” It is not always as simple as that, but when carefully deployed, music can give us spaces to work towards enacting this peace.

The Peace, Empathy and Conciliation through Music collaboratory will be held at The University of Melbourne on September 21–22.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Samantha Dieckmann Samantha Dieckmann – [Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne]
Image of Jane DavidsonJane Davidson – [Deputy Director ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne]





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