Over 52 weeks I will be learning all about how to live and work creatively. My teachers are Aussie birds and animals. It is week four and the creative force has produced the Possum to build on the lessons that Australian birds, animals and habitat are initiating.
The tradition of using possum skins for the making of cloaks, waistbands, belts, armbands and headbands was practised by Aboriginal people across eastern Australia.
One of the earliest documented accounts of a possum skin cloak is from Governor Macquarie. In his journal on 10 May 1815 (Bathurst), he recounts that three Wiradjuri warriors, led by Windradyne, visited him and gifts were exchanged. Macquarie gave Windradyne a tomahawk and a piece of yellow cloth; in return, he received a possum skin cloak.
One example of cloak-making from this region is held in the Smithsonian Institute (Washington, DC, USA). Known as the Hunter River Cloak, it was collected during an expedition in the mid 1800s by American explorer Charles Wilkes. It features four rows of six rectangular pelts sewn on the back, edge to edge, with very fine overhand stitching of corded sinew. The fur has been left on and the skin side is completely covered with large diamond-shaped designs made by scraping up a thin layer of the skin so that it stands up in a little curl.3
Traditionally, cloaks were used for ceremonial purposes: in dance, drumming, initiation rites and also in daily life. They were primarily worn as a means of protection from winter conditions, but also used as a shelter from heat and wet weather and to carry babies and small children.
A local example of how valuable the cloaks were in trade is suggested by stories of the Darkinjung nation trading them with inland tribes in exchange for spears and woomeras. In the Dandenong region of Victoria, the trade value of a cloak was said to be worth a greenstone axe. They were also given as peace and marriage offerings.
Possum skin cloaks were created for individuals when they were born and were added to throughout their lives. The intricate designs and ochre decorations were either made by the individual or by others, depending on the design and the purpose for which they were being added.
This practice reminded of a gift that I was given when I visited the Isle of Ancestors. The Isle of Ancestors is a part of the Lemurian Archipelego, a fantasy world that I created during the hey days of the Soul Food Cafe. It is well worth a visit! Travellers have left rich stories of their meeting with their ancestors at this revered island.
At a point when I was feeling quite low I hitched a ride with the Ferrywoman and visited the sanctuary on the Isle of Ancestors. It was a moving experience as I met all my grandmothers. Before insisting that I return to the world I had come from, they gave me was a cloak filled with raven feathers to wear and provide comfort whenever I felt low.
This cloak held the life stories of the ancestors who walked before me and upon whose shoulders I now stand.
In her iconic book ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’ Clarissa Pinkola Estes talks extensively about the importance of Soulskins. In her chapter, Homing: Returning to Oneself she talks about how women who have lost their pelt, lose their protections, their warmth, their early warning system and most devastatingly, their instinctual sight.
Possum urges us to see our life as being built upon the foundation of our ancestors; to wrap ourselves within a cloak and find anchorage with our ancestors.
Possum urges the creative to take the time to use some of the ways suggested in the linked articles or to make a metaphorical coat to record the journey. Actively taking tangible steps to honour our ancestors provides a foundation upon which great things can be initiated.
Personally, I found that I viewed my potential differently when I pulled the cloak I had been given out of the cupboard and celebrated wearing it on a daily basis.