The Terra Nullius Myth
Covid-19 and the American political nightmare aside, as a foreign MFA candidate in Sydney and an artist whose practice focuses on mythic art, it has been fascinating to immerse myself in Australia’s national myths and analyse the way in which they manifest in day-to-day society. As that January 26 national holiday fast approaches, my research has directly collided with Australia’s grand creation myth, that of the terra nullius. Historically this was the legal status as “no man’s land” that British colonists put upon the Australian continent when they arrived in 1788. Mythically, however, it represents the genesis of a new culture. January 26 celebrates the arrival of the “first fleet,” but also historically dates the beginning of the continued mistreatment, disenfranchisement, and cultural and corporeal slaughter of indigenous people in Australia. The myth that Australia Day celebrates and the historical reality acknowledged by Invasion/Survival Day are at odds with each other. As an outsider mythologist it has been morbidly fascinating to see this divide play out.
Many people are familiar with comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Fewer are familiar with former Time Magazine art critic and mythologist Alexander Eliot. Both writers purported in their lifetime that mythmaking has been a form of expression from time immemorial, a way for human beings to reconcile with life’s grand challenges and one’s own existence. In simpler terms, myths are universal human experiences translated into stories that help to unite and guide us. To many in my field, we see the dissemination of myths and their contents as historically crucial to the fabric of social cohesion and societal progress. Myths are key building blocks of social order, for they instill a mutual understanding of the world and a shared ethos. While ideologies are often manipulations of mythic explanations, myths themselves are open source — universally valuable and constantly evolving, just like we do as people, so as to continue to guide us through life and place us in a bigger picture, be it a community, city, nation, people, or the entire universe.
In modern society, however, myth is seen as an ancient practice, intersecting with contemporary culture in reference to the past, but not the living present. This speaks to a much larger problem: the mythic ecosystem is no longer active in a world that has outlived its past myths. When our lived realities are no longer mirrored in the stories that brought us together in the first place, we forget that myths are entirely symbolic. A portion of society begins to treat metaphors as facts. Obviously factually inaccurate, another portion of society responds by rejecting the myths altogether. The society becomes fragmented. Campbell calls these processes mythic dislocation and dissociation, and warns of the unrest and social collapse that it causes. When myth is a living element of society, mythic dislocation calls for creativity and reevaluation. Eliot speaks of the relationship of soothsayers and seers, the former channeling the collective human experience and the latter translating it into a form that can be digested by the people. With a dislocated myth, the duo would come together again to reinvigorate a mythic theme or value even if it seemed contrary to its previous forms. However, where are our soothsayers and seers today and are they really plunging back into the mythopoeic pool of the imagination or are they simply rebooting a dissociated myth to reaffirm their point of view?
Mythic dislocation occurs frequently — that is not the issue. Myth functions in the same cycles of Darwinian adaptation as the humans who live with them. What my work seeks to draw attention to is the situation the mythically dissociated find themselves in today: a situation in which mythology is so vastly undervalued and misunderstood, that the dislocated myths on which many people base their lives are too far gone from saving and new myths are so quickly corrupted by power or capital, that they dissociate immediately and societies continue to fissure. The situation brings to mind a modern folktale from American writer and illustrator Shel Silverstein, who I consider a mythopoeic artist. In his book The Giving Tree, Silverstein tells the story of a young boy who grows up thanks to an anthropomorphic tree, from which he takes its gifts until he becomes greedy and eventually cuts down the entire tree leaving nothing left for the next generation and in the process — it is implied — dooming himself now that he has exhausted his life-giving resource. Similarly major myths employed by societies today, namely Christianity, Islam, Capitalism, and Postcolonial Nationalism, have been drained of symbolic value and social cohesion, leaving people mythically malnourished.
The irony is not lost on me that in the same epoch of massive environmental obliteration, the mythic ecosystem has been significantly destroyed. Like a biome, a mythos survives when we take from it what we need and replenish it so as to pass it on to future generations to guide them forward and continue the pattern. This does not mean stagnation — quite the contrary. Just as a farmer must factor in the changes in soil, nearby wildlife, and weather patterns so too must a society, and particularly the socially-designated mythic conservationists (i.e. priests in Christian society, judges in secular legalistic society, etc.) reassess its mythos and adapt it to changing times.
The form a myth takes is always temporary. It is the meaning and deeply human narratives that give a myth its infinite value. My own mythic inheritance, the Jewish mythos, has survived over 5700 years because my ancestors tended to their mythic garden, passing down the stories and traditions and laws inspired by them, but also amending them when environmental, technological, social, and political evolution was necessary. The Jewish ethos — arguably one of law and order, but also compassion and justice — remains at the heart of the Jewish mythos today despite the fact that most Jews were forced from the Levant and our sacred Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Nonetheless, the refusal to adapt Halachic law to modern times by Haredi sects, as well as the dismissal of key mythic elements and ritual by secularists and progressive Jewish practitioners, shows that even one of the world’s oldest and most resilient faiths is at a dissociative crossroads.
Around the world, and in particular in the liberal democracies that have been born out of settler colonisation (though also in postcolonial nations) we’ve seen how the myths that helped form the national identities of these countries have fallen apart. This brings me back to Australia, a nation seemingly built on the myth of terra nullius.
The myth goes as such: In 1788 the British discovered an unspoiled terra nullius on which they could build a penal colony. The descendants of those first settlers and prisoners, however, were tenacious and strong and from nothing have built a young, thriving paradise at the bottom of the world. Australia today shines as a land of “no worries” thanks to the hard work and civilising of the land by the European settlers. To enter into this welfare state of sun and sport, one must now enter as a homo nullius, purified of your past culture, in order to take on the identity of those who turned the terra nullius from untamed wilderness to God’s Country.
It is stories like this that make me sympathize with those who (falsely) equate myths with lies. Not only was the Australian continent inhabited at the time of British arrival, but archaeologists and indigenous experts have proof that Indigenous Australians lived, continuously, across the vast continent for over 50,000 years, with a diverse array of languages, customs, laws, resource production methods, and mythologies. The status of terra nullius was legally overturned in 1992 with the Mabo v Queensland decision, but the myth of terra nullius, while exploded, lives on in a dislocated state amongst a dissociated population.
The myth of terra nullius, like most myths, is apolitical on its own. In mythic interpretation alone, terra nullius echoes the wild unknown, the dark forest in Little Red Riding Hood where one sheds helpless innocence for headstrong adulthood, the desert where Jesus is tempted by Satan, or the Journey to the West that helps one understand the eightfold path of Buddhism. The myth is one of rebirth and aspiration — that even the lowliest person can be thrust from their misfortune (for example, an Irish orphan boy sent to Australia) and after trials and tribulations in the dangerous unknown, reemerge independent, wiser, stronger and with a the treasures of their adventure. That is a valuable ideal that can fit into a revised Australian mythology that fits the diverse, more socially conscious Australian society today, but the absence of living mythic culture cuts this symbolic opportunity short. It is understandable how the “dark forest” theme is common in settler-colonial nations, for in many cases it mirrors history — many people sought a better life and achieved it. However, it is also so close to history that its mythic status is rarely recognized as symbolic. Instead it is often corrupted and used to justify social hierarchy, tribalism, and eugenics.
And so, as January 26 approaches, I see a split Australia. A large portion of the population refuses to acknowledge or downplays the lives and land taken in order to make Australia what it is, and they justify that warped reality by taking the metaphors of the terra nullius myth as fact (i.e. there was no one in Australia and our descendants made this country with their own grit and drive, therefore giving us true ownership). On the, unfortunately smaller, other side of the discussion, the symbolism of the myth is discarded along with the historical inaccuracy. In turn, although morally in the right, Australia’s socially conscious left wing is led only by trying to be right, but not much more. I speak as an outsider, of course, but sometimes that feedback is what it takes. A society is not built on moral righteousness alone. There must be a common, tangible goal and a common way of seeing the world.
Where is the new generation of soothsayers and seers? I call upon all who dare venture into the mythical realm of the human experience today to do so, and everyone else to listen to the tales they excavate. Australia has the chance to set a new standard for settler-colonial nations by coming together to form a new myth for Australia, one that connects the aspirational symbolism of the old myth with the historical realities that deserve to be reckoned with. Imagine a new myth that sees the terra nullius as the evil that it was, a land scourged by pain and disenfranchisement. Like Siddharta Gautama realized all those centuries ago, imagine the Australia of terra nullius as suffering that one can be enlightened out of. Like the Kabbalist ideal of tikkun olam, imagine Australian-ness as a call to heal the wounds and repair the land. Like the Christian myth so many in Australia claim to live by, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who blatantly disrespects his indigenous citizens, imagine a myth for Australia where strength means community, and no one gets left behind or degraded. Imagine a myth for Australia that bridges the widening gap and actually pushes the culture forward, not simply keep it in one place with a new coat of paint. Imagine it and live it and life itself will change for the better. That is the power of myth.
Gregory Uzelac is an artist and writer from New York City currently based on Gadigal land of the Eora Nation, also known as Sydney, Australia. www.guzelac.com and @greguzelac on instagram.