Cleverman: The Paranormal Powers of the First Australians

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From New Dawn 159 (Nov-Dec 2016)

The Aboriginal people of Australia are the longest surviving culture on earth with over 60,000 years of stories known as The Dreaming. The Dreaming is the spiritual realm that binds the past, present and future together. It is inhabited by incredible creatures and spirits. At the head of this realm is the Cleverman, a powerful man who is the conduit between The Dreaming and the real world. 
Introduction to the TV series Cleverman

In June and July 2016 the Australian Broadcasting Service (ABC) premiered an original new drama series titled Cleverman. The title refers to the shamanic medicine man of Aboriginal culture who is the conduit between the material world in which we live and The Dreaming – or spirit world – which is the domain of supernatural creatures. 

The television series is set in a dystopian future Australia where mythical beings from The Dreaming – known as Hairies* – reside alongside the human populace. They are a race of sub-humans who exhibit super-human strength and psychic abilities, however these skills are not enough to rescue them from a life of apartheid and an ever-dimming future in the internment camp known as The Zone. As events play out, we are introduced to Uncle Jimmy, a Cleverman, as he prepares to pass the mantle to a new, unwitting initiate named Koen. But will the new Cleverman be able to restore balance between the worlds and make things right again?

* The Hairy – also known as Yowie (Yuri) – is generally accepted to be non-human but may share a common ancestral heritage to Aboriginal Australians as well as deep respect of, and connection to, the land. Some researchers link the Yowie and the Yeti, Sasquatch, etc., but tradition strongly suggests it normally resides in the spiritual realm of The Dreaming. Data from British researcher Mark Evans defends a new position: Yeti stories, passed down orally through generations, may in fact be based on narratives of factual, pre-historic, sub-human races (such as the Denisovans). Proof is the EPAS-1 gene – a high-altitude mutation attributed to the Denisovan race – passed down to some Himalayan human races by way of interbreeding thousands of years ago. This theory might also apply to the Yowies of Aboriginal mythology.

The parallel between treatment of the Hairies and real life Aboriginal Australians is painfully obvious. TV series creator Ryan Griffen says this portrayal “is a way to teach people about… how we treat other people.”1 Their future depends on a special person – a super hero – to fight against the odds and bring both worlds into balance. Although he may be an unlikely hero, the Cleverman is a leader, a lawgiver, a healer and a magician who exists beyond the barriers of time and space and is, in many ways, immortal. However, to understand the people’s hero, first we need to look into the history of the First Australians and why the Cleverman is so important.

Promotional graphic for the TV program Cleverman

Sources of Ancient Occult Knowledge

Early twentieth century anthropologists perpetuated the colonial view that the Aborigines were a dying race and Australia was “a museum of left-overs from the evolutionary past”2 which “comes from the whole notion of terra nullius… where the lore as much as the law did not matter.”3 According to Nevill Drury and Gregory Tillett in their influential 1980 book Other Temples, Other Gods: The Occult in Australia, researchers attempted to decipher the mysteries of Aboriginal spirituality, the “sources of ancient occult knowledge, preserved in their secret rituals and teachings.”4 

These theorists, including the eminent Australian anthropologist Prof. A. P. Elkin, realised that two important principles underlie Aboriginal Dreaming mythology: (1) the shapes of things today are primarily due to their formulation during events in the Dream-Time, and (2) living man must “follow-up the Dreaming”5 by remembering “his communion with those original events by (demonstrating) acts which signify and symbolise what happened then and what continues to happens.”6 The importance of this definition cannot be over-emphasised: The Dreaming is eternal, ‘everywhen’, and represents a conjunction of past, present and future; it is separate from the physical realm and in the sense we understand and experience time. Aboriginal men are obliged to retain a link to the realm of The Dreaming – and the possibility of encountering its protean, shape-shifting supernatural beings. Out of this obligation grew the role of the Cleverman, or shaman, to bridge the gap between the spiritual and material worlds.

It is vitally important we also consider the Wandjina* of Aboriginal creation myths. Often used as supporting evidence for the ‘Ancient Astronaut Theory’, the Wandjina are regarded as beings of a celestial nature, creators of the landscape and its inhabitants, also acknowledged as lawgivers and educators. They are white in appearance, often depicted with staring black eyes with no mouths. Tradition indicates they are connected to fertility rites and are characterised as contradictory or even spiteful in their actions. This description brings to mind images of grey alien beings or the old Celtic legends of the Faery Folk of Britain and Europe. As we will see, these beings fit into the intriguing story of the Cleverman.

* Descriptions of Wandjina are strikingly similar to those of the mythical Kachina, a race of spirit-people who taught the Hopi and Zuni tribes of North America, and whose appearance is akin to classic images of Wandjina, particularly those with slit eyes, small triangular mouths and feathers radiating from their heads. These characteristics are reflected in the manufacture of Kachina Dolls – a Hopi tradition employed to ensure future generations would not be scared of the Kachinas when they return, as prophesied. 

Who is the Cleverman?

Before going any further behind the scenes to explore the role of the Cleverman, first we need to acknowledge that the protection of secrets is of paramount concern to the caretakers of this land. As with the social and cultural importance of the medicine man, there are other specially selected candidates with equally significant roles in Aboriginal communities, such as those who ‘protect’ the myriad stories, acting for the traditional ‘copyright’ owners.

For Ryan Griffen to convey the storyline of his Cleverman series, he first needed permission to relate stories from The Dreaming because these stories belong to various storytellers. The stories were not Ryan’s to tell, even though he may have grown up with them. Without the required permissions there is every indication he could have been exiled from his ‘mob’ to become persona non grata to his elders, or worse. 

Mistruth and misinformation is rife when researching the intricacies and power of the Australian shaman. By his very nature, the Cleverman is secretive – he preserves wisdom and powerful techniques that could be harmful in the wrong hands and minds. Strategies are in place to protect against Western superficialities, negative attitudes, cultural exploitation, pillage and plagiarism – which plagued great Aboriginal Australians like David Unaipon and Albert Namatjira. Therefore, it must be pointed out that this introduction to the Cleverman is not intended to take power away from the true owners of the Cleverman’s stories. Nobody questions the fact that the secrets of Freemasonry may be eluded to, but not fully disclosed, and it is not for us to question. While Griffen’s re-imagining of the Cleverman as a paranormal super hero allowed him to bypass some of the more secretive elements of the Cleverman – and there are many such secrets that cannot be discussed in public – there is much we can discuss outside the circle of initiates, and “men of high degree.” So, with great respect, we begin our look at the man and the magic of the Cleverman.7

The Cleverman is the Original Australian medicine man (or shaman) and is a chosen maleinitiate. “He is a man to be respected,”8 who is “called” to his position. The calling can take one of a few forms, all of which are recognised as legitimate from the spiritual perspective. Firstly, he may exhibit the potential skills of the role from an early age – this might include demonstrating certain abilities, a stronger than normal connection to his elders, aptitude towards the shamanic arts or – particularly – acknowledgement as part of the continually reincarnating line of great Clevermen. Secondly, there may be inheritance of the position: normally the role is not fulfilled via nepotism but through spiritual destiny demonstrated by certain behaviour patterns. Finally, the aspirant may have an overwhelming inner desire, experience psychic or paranormal occurrences, or “hear the calling” in a way that can be confirmed by a medicine man in as much as the candidate may be deemed genuine and worthy of teaching.

The mechanics behind the calling do not appear to be a function of our mundane world, and it also appears that the initiation process depends on having one proverbial foot planted firmly in The Dreaming.

The Making of the Cleverman (Initiation)

A veil of secrecy hangs over the initiation rituals for a potential Cleverman. There are also regional differences in the performance of these rituals, dependent on the individual characteristics exhibited by the candidate. However, of significance to Aboriginal spirituality, according to anthropologist A.P. Elkin, was “pre-existence of the soul and of reincarnation.”9 It was believed spirits were created in the Dream-Time by the action of some Being, and waited in sacred places “until a suitable mother was found for them.”10 Many observers would draw comparisons with Indian and Tibetan occult teachings, citing a possible link in the remote past between Australia and Asia. One might expect that a spirit Being incarnating as a Cleverman would have no conscious knowledge of his real abilities until he started experiencing minor miracles or paranormal phenomena during his ‘amnesiac’ period.

The process of ‘making’ a Cleverman resembles a spiritual-alchemical transmutation: an intriguing ritual in the initiation of the medicine man sees the ‘removal’ of his ‘insides’ and subsequent replacement with madan11 – quartz crystals, bones and spirit-snakes. This replacement of anatomical organs for magical talismans is said to be performed by the ghost of an outstanding (deceased) person, the spirit of a culture hero or agent of ‘The Great Spirit’. During the preliminary stages, the Cleverman-in-making might be required to sleep on the grave of a special individual whose ghost performs the surgical duties.

The candidate must symbolically die and be reborn – echoing the rituals of esoteric and spiritual orders worldwide, including Masonry and Christianity – but in this case, upon rebirth, he awakens with psychic and supernatural powers. This process of reincarnation12 might be symbolic but, with his newly replaced innards, it’s a concept reminiscent of enlightened Buddhist monks who are purported to be able to produce rare gemstones from their bodies (and retrievable from the body after death). 

The Abilities of the Cleverman

The supernatural abilities attributed to an Aboriginal medicine man include clairvoyance, future divination, telepathy, the skill to send messages over long distances and to ascertain facts without prior knowledge at a distance (this process is termed telesthesia), and reading a person’s mind. He can appear at more than one place at any one time or disappear and re-appear in different locations. This skill of ‘omnipresence’ has been demonstrated on a number of occasions to non-Aboriginal researchers, producing dismayed reactions in the witnesses and provoking further, serious scientific enquiry.

By use of these powers, the Cleverman creates illusions to trick enemy raiders and combatants into seeing things that are not really there, or cloaking people (or things) in a veil of invisibility – these are truly superhuman traits, in the comic book sense, and would be one source of inspiration for Ryan Griffen. This skill has been performed for thousands of years and, as mind-bending as it might seem, has been recorded on numerous occasions. 

It must be remembered the Cleverman is a force of good for his community – not in the sense of which we are accustomed in the modern age with images of police enforcement for our own good or military personnel protecting civilians. He has the power to heal at will but the flipside is that he can also kill at will; his mastership in balancing the forces of light and darkness proves that absolute power does not need to corrupt absolutely.

The act of harming another person – called ‘pointing the bone’ – is only used in extreme circumstances as punishment for unforgiveable acts. This kind of magic is not exclusive to the Australian shaman: it was once common in Europe, the Mediterranean, India, throughout Asia, and in territories that practice voodoo and black magic. In fact, this type of ‘malevolence’ exists universally wherever there is a tradition of magic. As with voodoo, it is often explained as a psychosomatic process whereby the magic power comes into effect once the recipient gains awareness of the hex or malediction placed upon them. In the case of the Aboriginal shaman, it needs to be clarified that ‘pointing the bone’ is not used for petty, personal gains because this invokes stronger paranormal forces against the user and is not the behaviour of a genuine Cleverman.

Researchers have reported that ‘familiars’ – spiritual entities – seem to be involved in the act of placing curses. Familiars are also employed when a Cleverman needs to obtain information, however, to do this he must first be in the correct state of awareness to receive such information. This would be in the form of a trance-like state or a dream-sleep which enables him access to other worlds – a technique reminding us of modern day practices to journey out-of-body. 

According to the Wiradjeri people, “he would have to ‘hum’ or ‘think’ his spirit out” of his body and onto the ethereal plane.13 As to whether this process refers to his spirit in the sense of an external entity symbiotically connected to his essence, or whether his own internal spirit is somehow manifested into an externalised existence by internal vibrational forces, is not defined. The ability of the shaman to “fly through space and see what is occurring elsewhere”14 demonstrates the spiritual power and skills of the Cleverman for out-of-body journeying. To differentiate between the different aspects of the shaman’s out-of-body experiences, Elkin points out that in some cases, “The spirit-familiar was an externalisation of the man’s spirit.”15

As reported in The Sun newspaper in 1969,16 blood transfusions were part of the medicinal responsibilities of the Kimberley shaman, the barnmunji. The extraction process was allegedly made possible by use of a thin, hollow reed inserted into a vein of the middle or inner arm. Transfusions were performed only in extreme circumstances or to transfer the blood of the young to an elder who required revitalisation or sustenance. The knowledge to do this precludes an understanding of blood types and donor selection, direction and flow of blood, and an awareness of the functions of the various bodily organs, as well as hygiene. Research has shown that transference of blood could also occur orally. The general knowledge of transfusions in Aboriginal society pre-dated the 17th century Western discovery of transfusion by thousands of years!17

As previously mentioned, the Wandjina appear to be involved in the Cleverman’s pursuits but it is unclear if they are merely available through metaphysical correspondence as sources of information or do they play a role in supernatural activities. As to whether the Wandjina – the spiritual agents of a greater power – take part in the actual mechanics of paranormal events or conform to roles as overseers or regulators, is a fact we may never know. However, it has been surmised the Cleverman does not work alone, that his partners reside in The Dreaming, and assist only those humans who are initiated and have attained the highest levels of spiritual awareness.

The Future

We have explored the role and abilities of the Cleverman but what of his future? 

Australia today is a nation of unbalance with political chaos, divided loyalties, vocal extremism and cultural malaise. While steps are being made to officially recognise its Original peoples in the Constitution, it is high time Australia pauses to assess who we are as a nation of many different peoples. Recognising the rich cultural heritage of this land and its Original inhabitants is unifying for all Australians – and there is much for us to learn and experience that can bring us closer together. 

The importance of the Cleverman remains undiminished in his community, and his enigma continues to spread by way of culture, spirituality and of course storytelling. He has survived the white man’s tyranny, and massive social and cultural upheaval. His survival is made possible because he performs his duties in plain sight, donning the costume of the everyman in the everywhen. He is non-descript, normal, with no banner, cape, brand or entourage to herald his arrival. 

First and foremost, “he is a man to be respected,”18 and we should be proud of him and the fact that we are part of his people’s culture and traditions, if only we cared to open our eyes.

The side articles that accompanying this article on the Cleverman’s tools and the inhabitants of the Dreaming can be read when you purchase the digital version of this magazine.

This article was published in New Dawn 159.
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Footnotes

1. Ryan Griffen, Cleverman TV series creator, interviewed on Moral Compass, ABC-TV, 19 June 2016
2. Nevill Drury and Gregory Tillett, Other Temples, Other Gods: The Occult in Australia, Methuen Australia, 1980, 11-12
3. Stan Grant, broadcaster and journalist, interviewed on Moral Compass, ABC-TV, 19June 2016
4. Other Temples, Other Gods, 11-12
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. The First Australians should not be categorised as one specific people. They are a number of different peoples (250 nations) sharing a common genetic background, with a similar system of beliefs. Names given to the Cleverman are region-specific and include: Kuldukke (south of the Murray River, Encounter Bay region), Karadji (coastal New South Wales), Walmera (west of New South Wales), Barnmunji (Kimberley region), to name but a few.
8. Ryan Griffen, ABC-TV, 19 June 2016
9. Other Temples, Other Gods, 11-12
10. Ibid.
11. The magical substance, madan, is also known under different regional names including maban, mabain, etc
12. Reincarnation is a belief of many ancient cultures including (but not limited) to those of India, Tibet and (ancient) Egypt, and in the spiritual traditions of Buddhism, the Lebanese Druze, Sufis and Native North Americans.
13. A.P. Elkin, Aboriginal Men of High Degree [1945], 1977, University of Queensland Press; published by Inner Traditions, 1993, 49
14. Ibid., 48
15. Ibid., 49
16. Cited in Andrew Tomas, We Are Not The First, Souvenir Press, 1971, 70; original source: The Sun (Sydney), 9 Aug 1969
17. Another intriguing concept is that of oral contraceptives used for hundreds – if not thousands – of years during periods of “impending drought or other calamity with the menace of food shortages,” and formulated by rolling plant resin into pills. (Cited by Andrew Tomas, We Are Not The First.)
18. Ryan Griffen, ABC-TV, 19 June 2016
19. A.P. Elkin, Aboriginal Men of High Degree, 94
20. W. E. “Bill” Harney, Grief, Gaiety and Aborigines, Seal Books/Rigby Limited, 1961, 69
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid., 70
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid. 
25. Ibid., 72

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About the Author

Bruce Stringer is a musician and composer from Adelaide, South Australia and acknowledges the Kaurna people as the rightful custodians of the land on which he lives. A one-time resident of Nottingham, England, he has travelled extensively in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South China and is a collector of rare Yamaha musical instruments of the 1970s. His main interests are Chinese culture, Taoism and all things Fortean.

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