As western society, in a few places, begins to admit (and hopefully address) some aspects of our own male violence and abuse, will we learn to recover old, and create new, stories and images of what matters? Among other aspects of the Songlines exhibition in Canberra, this came home to me again strongly as I was once more struck by the power of the female in ancient storytelling. The powerful moral and cosmological (Seven) Sisters stories for example are told in many ways in different places, including with strong resonances outside Australia (from where the number seven among the sisters may partly have arisen). In the west of Australia the sisters are thus called Minyipuru. As they travel east however, out of Marlu country into the lands of the Ngaanyatjarra and the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjarra, they become known as Kungkarrangkalpa and Kungkarangkalpa. The details profoundly matter of course, yet they also share so many common themes, not least those of women's survival, resilience and ingenuity in the face of male threat. For the sisters' journeys include pursuit by a male, also known in different places by different names. This man, to try to realise his lust and love, is a shape-shifter. So the story is partly a colourful battle of wits between the male and females, involving all kinds of subterfuges, adventures, and stratagems. Told as they have been for tens of thousands of years, these richly layered stories thus enable both men, and especially young women, to come to terms with our human needs and struggles: sharing a realistic portrayal of the interplay of desire and exploitation, power relationships and flexibility of action. Women are not idealised but their capabilities, and their weaknesses, are no longer buried. They, together with men, become active participants in their moral choices and aware nurturers of one another. As the Aboriginal women of the Songlines exhibition put it, in relation to the painting of Yaritji Young of Tjala Arts (above):
We are all kangaru pulka: big sisters to the young women. Like in the Seven Sisters story we must teach and protect our young sisters
This is so much more powerful when the story and its morality is enacted in so many different ways. For, as Tjunkara Ken, Yaritiji Young's sister, has said:
I hold my father's story. I hold my mothers' story... (it) doesn't come out of paper or out of a book. It's coming out of the ground here. (My way) is different. It comes from the inside out.
How will each of us make female dignity a grounded matter of 'inside out'? Such stories also of course have resonance in western traditions, not least in the Bible, where similar comparisons might be drawn to tricksters like Jacob and powerful women such as Deborah and Judith. Indeed, like any living and enduring spiritual stream, despite its deeply patriarchal traditional limitations, Christianity also has its own share of female stories of wisdom, resilience and empowerment. How often however do we hear, sing, dance and embody them, and create new ones? As, so painfully slowly, we come to terms with the damaged feminine in our culture - and above all with the brutal realities and 'hidden' denied abuse of so many women's lives - it is surely time, further prompted by the sisters and the ancient wisdom of the Songlines, to tell and live them.
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.