Song Lines and Sacred Sites

by Roger Brown

Aboriginal landscapes around the world are, when maintained with proper ritual, living landscapes to be approached with due reverence for the culture thus expressed.  In a deep sense, the land is a meaningful part of the people just as the people give symbolic meaning to the land.  But times have changed and much of the mythology has been lost. Over large parts of a continent as vast as Australia, dreamings have been closed down and the psychic energies withdrawn because there are no initiated elders left to inherit and pass on the local knowledge. In other areas full knowledge has been retained and the rituals kept alive. Many other areas, however, have partial knowledge retained by whoever is left.

There is another sense, too, in which Australian Aboriginal landscapes are alive.  Because these people have had such strong attachment to the land, unnumbered generations of them have become earthbound upon death, peopling the psychic landscape and sometimes firmly attaching to rocks or other features of the landscape.  With often dramatic landscape and population changes taking place over the years such earthbound spirits can build up a great sense of frustration, though they can be released through appropriately sensitive action, which may need to involve the intercession of understanding spirit elders.

Thus the ambience of Aboriginal sites varies across a wide continuum, from feel-good sites where the natural energies are a joy to experience, through landscapes where you sense a brooding depression and the feeling that you are being observed, to definite no-go areas where you trespass at your peril and that helpful little voice in your head tells you to turn back.  Some such areas that I have encountered have had a powerful curse placed upon them while others have powerful spirit guardians to keep intruders at bay.

In terms of the underlying energetics of sacred sites, the essential component is the magnetic flowpath, a term preferable to the more ambiguous earth energy line.  As with the lines dowsed in Europe by Hamish Miller et al there are intertwining lines of complementary polarity which cross at node points.  A significant difference is the greater width of many of the lines here in Australia: some purportedly reach a width of 2-3km while the greatest width I have yet observed here in South Australia is around 880 metres.  Widths of 50-100 metres are commonplace.  In each case the lines are divisible into a variable number of ‘active’ telluric zones a few metres wide separated by narrow inactive zones. The telluric zones join in or fork off as smaller lines or spirals link up or diverge. One major line that I have monitored for nearly 20 years has fluctuated significantly in both width and the number of telluric zones.

The city of Adelaide was essentially laid out in the 1830s by Colonel William Light, a young man with substantial esoteric background who also consulted widely with local Aboriginal people, and as a result centred his plan of Adelaide on the main sacred site (the present Victoria Square).  This is entirely appropriate as in terms of the Bruce Cathie global grid, Victoria Square is on harmonic 288 – twice the harmonic of light.  We will focus now on one of the magnetic flowpaths that pass through Victoria Square.  According to some Aboriginal elders this line passes through Callanish and Tibet before crossing the NW coast of Australia and then curving down to Adelaide and on to the southern coast.

The two intertwining paths of this line come together at a serene location in North Adelaide overlooking Adelaide Oval and the city.  The Masons responsible for moving Light’s statue from the city to the precise centre of this node clearly knew a thing or two. Around this statue is an open 12-pointed star, and subset within that is a fully-formed Star of David, as confirmed by Hamish and Ba on their visit here in 1999, showing the universality of such geometries at node points.  From Light’s Vision, the male line straddles the Bradman Stand of the Adelaide Oval while the female line curves through peaceful rose gardens near the cathedral.

The lines come together again in Victoria Square before heading south to the coast at Middleton Beach. Between Light’s Vision and Middleton there are 9 node points in a distance of just over 80km (50 miles), and as far as I know none of them are now marked in any way.  Only the energetics of the sites betray their presence.  Elsewhere, in less populated areas, you can find marker stones and various stone arrangements including occasional circles.  Back in 1998 some Aboriginal elders, keepers of the local Whale Dreaming, met at Middleton with a Tibetan Rinpoche, a Maori and a representative of the Celtic Druids.  The presence close to shore of a large number of whales nursing their young prompted the idea of bringing together people from different traditions which have developed along the same songline.

Generally, to see the living relationship between Aboriginal people and their sacred sites, one has to go to designated Aboriginal lands (which requires an application for a not-easily-given permit) and be escorted by knowledgeable and sympathetic elders. Master film maker (and a class act as a dowser) Garry Benson has for the last 8 years been working on a digital data base for the Pitjantjatjara people of central Australia and is also currently working on an interactive DVD project for the South Australian Museum, both being superb steps forward in the preservation of knowledge with the full co-operation of the Aboriginal people concerned.

After a visit to the area in 2001, Garry wrote:

We were shown around many sacred places by Aboriginal elders and allowed to film certain areas.  This included water soaks, waterholes, massacre sites and dreaming (tjurkurpa) locations.  Many of these have been hidden from European eyes for many years.  We trekked across spinifex, through forests of desert oaks, and climbed up steep ochre cliff faces to find artefacts either made or adapted by Anangu (Pitjantjatjara) people.  At a site of standing stones which rival Stonehenge in area, if not size, I was accepted into the Wiilu (bush stone curlew) tjurkurpa by the elders, and I was also initiated at a Ngintaka tjurkurpa (perentie, Australia’s largest lizard).  Some of these sites are open to all Anangu (men, women and children) but certain areas are forbidden).

The term Dreamtime was coined by Spencer & Gillen in the late C19, for the Aboriginal altjira, tjurkurpa and other regional equivalent terms.  For the Aborigines, altjira in not fiction but spiritual reality, a participation in historical traditions and ceremonies.  Aboriginal creation legends involve ancestral beings in the form of giant animals and people creating the various features of the landscape.  Places held to be especially significant became revered as sacred sites.  Water domes and their radiating subsurface streams (and occasional surface springs) are associated with the crossing points of the energy lines.  The paths taken by the totemic ancestors became known (in the English language) as dreaming tracks or songlines, and they connected the sacred places of power.  For the Adelaide people water courses were formed by the spirit ancestor Nganno so that he could live on fresh-water fish.  When his son Gurltatakko was killed he travelled widely looking for the killers and in the process gave names to many of the places around Adelaide.  The spine of the Mount Lofty Ranges was regarded by Adelaide people as the body of a giant ancestral man, who attacked the Adelaide people from the east and was killed there and some Adelaide placenames refer to body parts of this being.  In this sort of way were born a sacred geography and the idea of pilgrimage to special sites.  These sites along specific lines represent an indigenous sensitivity to underlying energy flows. Chinese, Indian, Egyptian and many other cultures recognise the same linkage of sacred places.

Bruce Chatwin’s greatest contribution in ‘The Songlines’ was his “vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo)“.

He suggested that “the whole of Classical mythology might represent the relics of a gigantic ‘song-map: that all the to-ing and fro-ing of gods and goddesses, the caves and sacred springs, the sphinxes and chimaeras, and all the men and women who became nightingales or ravens, echoes or narcissi, stones or stars – could all be interpreted in terms of totemic geography.  I felt the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal : that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organised his social life.”

Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes says that “The idea that the heavens imprinted their image and influence on the landscape is a most ancient concept, and runs through many cultures from the ancient Chinese to the Etruscans to the Amerindians. ..  The mythologised land had a mythologised sky overhead – hence our constellations.  And different peoples had different constellations“.  Philip Clarke in ‘Adelaide Aboriginal Cosmology’ wrote that “Throughout Aboriginal Australia, the sky was generally considered to be an extension of the lower terrestrial landscape.  There were widespread beliefs that ‘clever men’ or sorcerers/healers could visit this upper landscape and there acquire knowledge.  In some regions novices would be ritually taken to this celestial region as part of their initiation“.

In Mysteries of the Dreaming (1989, p.60) James Cowan wrote that “All acts embodied in the Dream Journey … are designed to create conditions acceptable to the emergence of Sky Heroes from the Dreaming.  It is therefore important that the initiates concerned acknowledge the presence of these spirit entities through the use of complex symbolism and ritual activity designed to bring on an ecstatic or epiphanic state.” 

Cowan also wrote of Men of High Degree or karadjis, who have undergone such initiatory experiences that they were accepted as all-knowing seers by the community.  “Because of his direct contact with the Dreaming and its pantheon of spirit-figures, he was one of the few people about to create new dances, songs and stories…  He was different; he had subjected himself to an encounter with Sky Heroes; he had died and been reborn again as a man of ‘high degree’ .. Such experience inevitably set him apart from other men, although he ostensibly lived a normal life.

Robert Lawlor continues: “Indigenous people believe that the blood of the gods, the subtle magnetic, celestial flow, circulates in the veins of the earth.  The Aborigines possess an acute sensitivity to magnetic and vital force flows emanating from the earth.  Perhaps the oldest geomancy tradition, songlines are fundamental to Aboriginal initiatory knowledge and religion.  Songlines are so named because they are maps written in songs, depicting mythic events at successive sites along a walking trail that winds through a region.  Each Aboriginal tribe inherited a network of songlines, and all travel in the lands of neighboring tribes was done along these lines.  In previous epochs, according to John Michell, this appears to have been a sacred tradition throughout the world.”

Many sacred sites have been measured as having a high magnetic intensity, strong enough to lead to a massive change in vitality of a person, giving her or him a heightened revelatory perception of the universe.  The magnetic songlines guided the physical, ceremonial journeys of the peoples.  Initiated men and women learned to travel these subtle and invisible energy veins.  Robert Lawlor stated that: “An Aboriginal friend told me that in one of his most profound initiations, in a state of deep trance, a tribal elder transmitted to him the experience of his body extending into space so that it encompassed the entirety of his tribal land.  The songlines that crisscross the landscape flowed as his own veins and arteries, the swamplands were his glands, the grass his hair.  During the trance, the elder painted his body with the symbols and locations of the water holes, the sacred sites, the centres of spiritual increase, and all the distinctive features of the Dreamtime landscape.  This experience .. was not symbolism but part of a deep sense of identity.

In Aboriginal Australian societies most topographical representations – in the form of bark painting, rock art, or sand sculpture, among others, indicate a home landscape made intelligible by ancestral pathways.  Using natural pigments applied to prepared bark, Aboriginal artists depict Dreaming sites schematically, rather than as actual positioning of places and landforms.  Often they are simply drawn, belying, according to Peter Sutton, their “embodiment of complex social, ceremonial, and mythic meanings.

Richard Moyle, in Songs, Ceremonies and Sites, writing of the country 200km NE of Alice Springs:  “When Alyawarra men recount the travels of any particular Dreamtime being, they invariably make a depression in the earth .. to denote a named site, then indicate travel from that site to the next named site in the myth by tracing an unbroken line in the earth away from that depression and terminating in another, this process continuing until the route of the myth is traced in its entirety. ..  The series of linking lines are called ingka, the footprints or tracks of the ancestors …

In 1960 Ngalia and Walbiri elders led Charles Mountford along 200 miles of the Jarapiri Dreaming Track, so that the sacred sites along it could be recorded because the young men were no longer interested.  The route was a specific way through the landscape, with natural features woven into the sequential story of the Jarapiri myth. The birthplace of Jarapiri was Winbaraku, a double peak in the western MacDonnell Ranges about 65 miles west of Haasts Bluff.  At each site songs were sung, ceremonies enacted and bodies decorated with appropriate imagery.

According to Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes: “The purpose of the ceremonies is to increase the life essence or kurunba (or djang) of the creature associated with the site (thus the sites are increase centres); to reinforce the “sanctified inner mindscape” linking the people to the land.”

The life essence is a numinous quality, a metaphysical significance associated with the landforms. “Secreted at the… sites are sacred objects, Churingas, made of stone or wood, .. They have various motifs marked on them that tell of that aspect of myth associated with a particular place.  They act as mnemonics, and are consulted by the elders when a site is reached on the Dream Journey. .. They are (also) charged with kurunba in their own right.  Mythically, when a Dreamtime being re-entered the Earth, it left a physical mark in the topography recognised as a sacred .. place by the .. elders, and it left its spirit behind in the Churingas.”  Churingas (more commonly tjuringas), like bark paintings of dreaming tracks, are schematic rather than spatially accurate, but they do offer a relatively more permanent form of memory refresher.  Sadly most tjuringas have been lost as their sites have been neglected; but some are still in use; and a few are tucked away in museums.

Mountford’s Ngalia guides were uncertain about the position of the Waraninga site because their responsibility for the line of songs finished at the previous site of Walutjara.  After there it was Walbiri country. Thus are marked the boundaries of the tribal groups. Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines picked up the idea that, “Each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and … these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes. …A song was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.  In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score.  There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. (Features in the landscape are associated with different ancestors who walked that way, and the line between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song.)

He continues: “The trade routes were along the songlines.  These ‘roads’ would follow the line of unfailing waterholes.  The waterholes, in turn, were ceremonial centres where men of different tribes would gather.  No one was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed.  Wherever there was a Big Place, the chances were that the other Dreamings would converge on it. (So at a corroboree) you might have 4 different totemic clans.  Every song-cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier.  A Dreaming-track might start in the north-west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.  Still the same song. (The song is always recognised by its tune)  The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.  Words may change but not the melody.

The late Burnam Burnam said that, “around Uluru there are sites which figure in at least a dozen different traditions of songs.  The travelling stories link these sites to places and people across the continent. Around the base of Uluru there are 28 important sites of sacred significance.  In a real sense, these monoliths are cathedrals where the members of the congregation are the people who camp at Ininti near its base, together with other members of the Pitjantjatjara group of people.”  Given the complex energetic and cultural history of Uluru, and the necessity for initiates to understand and access variable amounts of that history, the ignorance of the many people who continue to trek out from the US or UK to plant crystals “to heal Uluru” is quite astounding.

Bruce Chatwin continues: “The mystery was how a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word a Q’s language, would know exactly what land was being sung. There were people who argued for telepathy. Aboriginals themselves told stories of their songmen whizzing up and down the line in trance. (But), regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes.  So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’.  If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’. Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, (describe things like saltpan, creek bed, spinifex, sandhill, rock face etc, so that) an expert songman, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times (the Ancestor) crossed a river, or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where and how far along a Songline he was. Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.

A lovely concept, but how much is surmise as opposed to known truth, I’ve no idea. So many ideas put forward by non-Aboriginal people about the working of songlines have been rejected by clan leaders around Australia.  Perhaps no book has stirred Aboriginal passions like Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Down Under, seemingly based far more on North American Indian ritual than Australian Aboriginal.  Personally, I am absolutely not an authority on Aboriginal sites and only write about them occasionally when requested, as here.

Juergen Schmidt (unpublished) has suggested a simple way of tracing songlines across country through their musical key notes and the preservation of these in Aboriginal placenames.  Different sound combinations were used with different lines, eg. MA and RA. Crossing points of lines showed the characteristics involved eg. the placename Maralinga (sadly an atomic testing site in the South Australian desert). The MARA line can be traced to the south of the State to Amarama (now Naracoorte).

So, in terms of dowsing and archaeology, what is the scope in this vast and largely inaccessible continent? Tracing energy flowpaths that meet at known sacred sites is an interesting activity, but these clearly definable flowpaths still seem beyond the range of current instrumentation, as opposed to the measurably high magnetic intensities of some of the sites that they lead to. 

Most accessible sites have little or no evidence of occupance.  Of course, one can dowse the dates of occupance and the former or current presence of artefacts, but there are usually no means of corroboration because of the total lack of written or available oral records.  And one doesn’t dig up sacred sites.  One is left with the retrieval of psychic impressions, a method fraught with difficulty because of personal mental filters that colour the material received.  Official archaeological digs at Aboriginal sites are relatively limited, and focus on camp sites with a relatively long sequent occupance. Hence the recent dating of homo sapiens back to 65,000 years at the Lake Mungo site in New South Wales.

Roger Brown 1941—2001


  • Benson, Garry. 2000  Personal communication.  Adelaide, Australia.
  • Burnam, Burnam.  1988. Southern Crossings.  8 (6). p.17
  • Chatwin, Bruce.  1987  The Songlines. Picador, UK.
  • Clarke, Philip.  1990.  Adelaide Aboriginal Cosmology.
  • J.Anth.Soc.S.Aust., 28(1), 1990.
  • Cowan, James.  1989.  Mysteries of the Dreaming. p.60
  • Devereux, Paul.  1992 Symbolic Landscapes. Gothic Image Publications, UK.
  • Lawlor, Robert.  1991 Voices of the First Day.
  • Inner Traditions International, Ltd, USA
  • Moyle, Richard.  Songs, Ceremonies and Sites. p.71

© 2002 Roger Brown’s Estate, Dowsers Society of NSW and BSD EEG