The Role of Opal in Aboriginal Cultural Heritage

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  • Category :  McKenna Mulvany
  • Date Posted :  Nov 13, 2020
Cinque Terre

Although it is known as “Australia’s National Gemstone”, opal has had a relatively short cultural impact on the nation’s identity. It has only been 120 years since the opal mining industry truly boomed and the gemstone became one of Australia’s most sought after exports. Considering that opals formed millions of years ago, it would make sense to assume that they had to have been discovered long before the nineteenth century. 


Proof of opal being an intrinsic part of Australian cultural heritage for thousands of years can be found in many Aboriginal
Dreamtime stories. To Indigineous peoples, Dreamtime was an era of creation, when spirits roamed the earthly plane and manifested all living things into existence. For generations, these stories have been passed down orally, and they now constitute what is considered the oldest organised belief system in modern history. Cave paintings and rock art depicting scenes from Dreamtime stories have been dated back to more than 6,000 years ago.


Although not explicitly mentioned by name, opals are thought to have been referenced to in several different
Dreamtime stories. There are two stories in particular that allude to the “birth” of opal during the creation era. The first involves one of the most well known deities in Dreamtime, the Rainbow Serpent.


The Rainbow Serpent is an incredibly powerful spirit that is said to have created the geography of the Earth with the movements of their body. After the Serpent had finished shaping the Earth, they coiled up into a water hole to hibernate. It is considered disrespectful to disturb any source of water, as it could be where the Rainbow Serpent is trying to rest. If roused from slumber, the Serpent may bring cyclones or flooding to express their discomfort.


After a storm, when the sunlight first begins to peek through the clouds, the Serpent is able to travel from one watering hole to another. Their great body arching in the sky forms magnificent rainbows as they undertake their journey to a new home. While the Serpent flies, multicoloured scales fall from their body and land on the earth as opals.


The second story also involves a rainbow. In this
Dreamtime tale, one of the Creators decided to travel to visit humans on the earthly plane, in order to spread their message of peace. The Creator is said to have travelled around on a brilliantly vivid rainbow. Whenever the Creator would disembark from the rainbow, and their feet touched the ground, the stones below began to sparkle with all of the colours in the world. This was the first sighting of opal by mankind.


Opals’ association with creation spirits gave them a meaningful association to
Dreamtime and the Aboriginal faith. It is for this reason that many believe Indigineous peoples never attempted to mine, trade, or associate any monetary value with the gemstone. Opals were as much an integral part of the landscape as any other rock, tree, or creature. 


But when European settlers arrived in Australia and opal was re-discovered as a precious gemstone, Indigineous peoples were not adverse to the subsequent birth of the mining industry. Opal shifted into a different type of importance as a catalyst for a potentially fulfilling career. Opal miners were a diverse community of both locals and immigrants, and the job offered a sense of safety and independence that most others couldn’t provide. Many Aboriginals became leading figures of success during the mining boom, and these legacies are continued in the twenty-first century by their second and third generation ancestors.


There has been very little academic research linking opals with Aboriginal cultural heritage. The majority of what is out there is oral history adapted from Dreamtime stories. Unfortunately, there is also a saturation of inaccurate claims that are not grounded in any sort of fact. It can be extremely difficult to differentiate between what is actually truthful and what is nothing but an internet myth.


Going forward, one of our main goals at the Brisbane Opal Museum is putting in the necessary time and effort into filling in these gaps and truly attempting to understand the role of opal in Aboriginal cultural heritage. We would very much like for the community to assist us in this endeavour. If you have any information or knowledge to share regarding the questions below please email contactus@brisbaneopalmuseum.com.au.



          • Is there any proof that opal was considered sacred? If so, how does the sacredness of opal relate to the Rainbow Serpent?


          • Why is there (historically) so little knowledge about this topic? Does it have to do with the lack of interest in Aboriginal culture among Western settlers? Or could it be an issue of language barriers?



          • Is there any pre-modern Indigineous art that displays opal?

References:


Australian Opal Centre. Opal: Queen of Gems. [online] Available at: australianopalcentre.com/opal/. [Accessed 09 Nov. 2020].


Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, (2020). Opal - Australia’s National Gemstone. [online] Available at: pmc.gov.au/news-centre/government/opal-australias-national-gemstone. [Accessed 09 Nov. 2020].


Eragem Blog, (2014). Opal Legends of Australian Aborigines. [online] Available at: blog.eragem.com/2014/10/opal-legends-of-australian-aborigines.html. [Accessed 09 Nov. 2020].


Kate Owen Gallery, (2020). The Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story. [online] Available at: kateowengallery.com/page/rainbow-serpent. [Accessed 09 Nov. 2020].


Michael J. Connolly. The Rainbow Serpent. [online] Available at: https://www.kullillaart.com.au/dreamtime-stories/The-Rainbow-Serpent. [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].


The Australian Opal, (2020). Some Facts About Opals. [online] Available at: theaustralianopal.com/some-fun-facts-about-opals. [Accessed 09 Nov. 2020].