Levels of meaning




Exoteric                                 -                      Esoteric




Those of us living in a Western culture can today best understand a Nhunggabarra story in terms of four levels of meaning […]

A Nhunggabarra person, undergoing the traditional education, would gradually learn more and more meanings. Not everybody would learn them all; how many meanings one learned depended on one’s role.

The four-level model […] meant that all stories could be told freely to the whole community; the four levels and the education process ensured that each person understood the story on the level that fitted their individual level of development.

Children would understand the first level and have their curiosity satisfied, while the older people could reflect on the higher levels of meaning. And everybody, young and old, would enjoy the drama and the excitement of the performance.



First level

The first level is the text itself […] This level answers some of the fundamental questions that little children living in a natural environment probably pestered their parents with: why does the crow have black feathers and white eyes?

Typically, the first level is also exciting and entertaining.




Second level

The second level of meaning concerns the relationships between the people within the community. The second level meaning does not come straight from the story and it was never told explicitly. You had to extract the meaning as part of your education and you had to have some pre-knowledge about the law to be able to do this.

This level therefore remained hidden for non-initiated people.




Third level

The third level concerns the relationship between your own community and the larger environment - that is, the earth and other Aboriginal communities. Again, the third level does not come straight from the story and it is never told explicitly. You have to pull out the meaning yourself and you have to hold some pre-knowledge about the law.




Fourth level

Many, but not all, stories had a fourth level. The fourth level taught spiritual action and psychic skills; it was more doing than talking and listening. The fourth level included practice, ceremonies and experiences, which gave access to the special esoteric knowledge hidden in the story.

The wiringins were the only ones who learned the fourth level of the stories. 

They passed through very striking ceremonies and had experiences which gave them access to a special body of spiritual and esoteric knowledge. They had insight into the minds of their fellows, and by observation they built up a wealth of information about the members of their community, which they could draw upon when needed […] The wiringins were […] ‘men of high degree’.

[Karl-Erik Sveiby & Tex Skuthorpe]
Treading Lightly, p. 42, 45, 48-51, 148




Benjamin Boyce: Do you think that that's a fault in certain modes of discourse, that they try to constrain thought or sense-making to one level?

Jonathan Pageau: Yeah, definitely. I think that the levelling of thought has been one of the problems of the modern age. We see everything at the same level.

BB: What is it about modernity that has led us to this levelling of thought?

JP: I think it is, in a certain manner, the fact that scientific thinking has taken over the horizon of thought, and people want to approach everything as if it were equivalent to a scientific problem.

If you want to think at different levels you can't level everything like that, you have to be able to see hierarchies of purpose [...] hierarchies of beings even.

There's so much going on right now which is good - the fact that everybody is trying to talk about emergence, complex systems - all of this stuff is showing that the simplistic levelling of thought has run its course, and now we have to understand that the world has levels and manifests itself in hierarchies of beings, and we can't avoid that.

[Benjamin Boyce & Jonathan Pageau]
'Masculine Actualities, Feminine Possibilities'




Are they new friends of 'truth', these coming philosophers? In all probability: for all philosophers have hitherto loved their truths. But certainly they will not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, and also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be a truth for everyman, which has hitherto been the secret desire and hidden sense of all dogmatic endeavours. 

'My judgement is my judgement: another cannot easily acquire a right to it' - such a philosopher of the future may perhaps say. One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with many. 

‘Good' is no longer good when your neighbour takes it into his mouth. And how could there exist a 'common good'! The expression is a self-contradiction: what can be common has ever but little value. In the end it must be as it is and has always been: great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare. 

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 43



One does not only wish to be understood when one writes; one wishes just as surely not to be understood. It is not by any means necessarily an objection to a book when anyone finds it impossible to understand: perhaps that was part of the author's intention - he did not want to be understood by just "anybody." 

All the nobler spirits and tastes select their audience when they wish to communicate; and choosing that, one at the same time erects barriers against "the others." 

All the more subtle laws of any style have their origin at this point: they at the same time keep away, create a distance, forbid "entrance," understanding, as said above-while they open the ears of those whose ears are related to ours.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 381