You are here

Lecture 4 The Belief in Immortality Among the Aborigines of Central Australia

Lecture 4
The Belief in Immortality Among the Aborigines of Central Australia
Proposed survey of the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead as these are found among the various races of men beginning with the lowest savages.
IN previous lectures we have considered the ideas which savages in general entertain of death and its origin. To-day we begin our survey of the beliefs and practices of particular races in regard to the dead. I propose to deal separately with some of the principal races of men and to shew in detail how the belief in human immortality and the worship of the dead to which that belief naturally gives rise have formed a more or less important element of their religion. And in order to trace as far as possible the evolution of that worship in history I shall begin with the lowest savages about whom we possess accurate information and shall pass from them to higher races until if time permitted we might come to the civilised nations of antiquity and of modern times. In this way by comparing the ideas and practices of peoples on different planes of culture we may be able approximately to reconstruct or represent to our-selves with a fair degree of probability the various stages through which this particular phase of religion may be supposed to have passed in the great civilised races before the dawn of history. Of course all such re-constructions must be more or less conjectural. In the absence of historical documents that is inevitable; but our reconstruction will be more or less probable according to the degree in which the corresponding stages of evolution are found to resemble or differ from each other in the various races of men. If we find that tribes at approximately the same level of culture in different parts of the world have approximately the same religion we may fairly infer that religion is in a sense a function of culture and therefore that all races which have traversed the same stages of culture in the past have traversed also the same stages of religion; in short that allowing for many minor variations which flow inevitably from varying circumstances such as climate soil racial temperament and so forth the course of religious development has on the whole been uniform among mankind. This enquiry may be called the embryology of religion in as much as it seeks to do for the development of religion what embryology in the strict sense of the word attempts to do for the development of life. And just as biology or the science of life naturally begins with the study of the lowest sorts of living beings the humble protozoa so we shall begin our enquiry with a study of the lowest savages of whom we possess a comparatively full and accurate record namely the aborigines of Australia.
Savagery a case not of degeneracy but of arrested or rather retarded development.

At the outset I would ask you to bear in mind that so far as the evidence allows us to judge savagery in all its phases appears to be nothing but a case of arrested or rather retarded development. The old view that savages have degenerated from a higher level of culture on which their forefathers once stood is destitute alike of evidence and of probability. On the contrary the information which we possess as to the lower races meagre and fragmentary as it unfortunately is all seems to point to the conclusion that on the whole even the most savage tribes have reached their low level of culture from one still lower and that the upward movement though so slow as to be almost imperceptible has yet been real and steady up to the point where savagery has come into contact with civilisation. The moment of such contact is a critical one for the savages. If the intellectual moral and social interval which divides them from the civilised intruders exceeds a certain degree then it appears that sooner or later the savages must inevitably perish; the shock of collision with a stronger race is too violent to be withstood the weaker goes to the wall and is shattered. But if on the other hand the breach between the two conflicting races is not so wide as to be impassable there is a hope that the weaker may assimilate enough of the higher culture of the other to survive. It was so for example with our barbarous forefathers in contact with the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome; and it may be so in future with some for example of the black races of the present day in contact with European civilisation. Time will shew. But among the savages who cannot permanently survive the shock of collision with Europe may certainly be numbered the aborigines of Australia. They are rapidly dwindling and wasting away and before very many years have passed it is probable that they will be extinct like the Tasmanians who so far as we can judge from the miserably imperfect records of them which we possess appear to have been savages of an even lower type than the Australians and therefore to have been still less able to survive in the struggle for existence with their vigorous European rivals.

Physical causes which have retarded progress in Australia.
The causes which have retarded progress in Australia Physical and kept the aboriginal population at the lowest level of causes which have savagery appear to be mainly two; namely first the geographical isolation and comparatively small area of the continent and second the barren and indeed desert nature of a great part of its surface; for the combined effect of these causes has been by excluding foreign competitors and seriously restricting the number of competitors at home to abate the rigour of competition and thereby to restrain the action of one of the most powerful influences which make for progress. In other words elements of weakness have been allowed to linger on which under the sterner conditions of life entailed by fierce competition would long ago have been eliminated and have made way for elements better adapted to the environment. What is true of the human inhabitants of Australia in this respect is true also of its fauna and flora. It has long been recognised that the animals and plants of Australia represent on the whole more archaic types of life than the animals and plants of the larger continents; and the reason why these antiquated creatures have survived there rather than elsewhere is mainly that the area of competition being so much restricted through the causes I have mentioned these comparatively weak forms of animal and vegetable life have not been killed off by stronger competitors. That this is the real cause appears to be proved by the rapidity with which many animals and plants introduced into Australia from Europe tend to over-run the country and to oust the old native fauna and flora.1
In the centre of Australia the natural conditions of life are most un-favourable; hence the central aborigines have remained in a more primitive state than those of the coasts where food and water are more plentiful.
I have said that among the causes which have kept the aborigines of Australia at a very low level of savagery must be reckoned the desert nature of a great part of the country. Now it is the interior of the continent which is the most arid waste and barren. The coasts are comparatively fertile for they are watered by showers condensed from an atmosphere which is charged with moisture by the neighbouring sea; and this condensation is greatly facilitated in the south-eastern and eastern parts of the continent by a high range of mountains which here skirts the coast for a long distance attracting the moisture from the ocean and precipitating it in the form of snow and rain. Thus the vegetation and hence the supply of food both animal and vegetable in these well-watered portions of the continent are varied and plentiful. In striking contrast with the fertility and abundance of these favoured regions are the stony plains and bare rocky ranges of the interior where water is scarce vegetation scanty and animal life at certain seasons of the year can only with difficulty be maintained. It would be no wonder if the natives of these arid sun-scorched wildernesses should have lagged behind even their savage brethren of the coasts in respect of material and social progress; and in fact there are many indications that they have done so in other words that the aborigines of the more fertile districts near the sea have made a greater advance towards civilisation than the tribes of the desert interior. This is the view of men who have studied the Australian savages most deeply at first hand and so far as I can judge of the matter without any such first-hand acquaintance I entirely agree with their opinion. I have given my reasons elsewhere and shall not repeat them here. All that I wish to impress on you now is that in aboriginal Australia a movement of social and intellectual progress slow but perceptible appears to have been setting from the coast inwards and that so far as such things can be referred to physical causes this particular movement in Australia would seem to have been initiated by the sea acting through an abundant rainfall and a consequent abundant supply of food.2
Backward state of the Central Australian aborigines.
They have no idea of a moral supreme being.
Accordingly in attempting to give you some account of the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead among the various races of mankind I propose to begin with the natives of Central Australia first because the Australian aborigines are the most primitive savages about whom we have full and accurate information and second because among these primitive savages the inhabitants of the central deserts are on the whole the most primitive. Like their brethren in the rest of the continent they were in their native condition absolutely ignorant of metals and of agriculture; they had no domestic animals except the dog and they subsisted wholly by the products of the chase and the natural fruits roots and seeds which the ground yielded without cultivation of any sort. In regard to their intellectual outlook upon the world they were deeply imbued as I shewed in a former lecture with a belief in magic but it can hardly be said that they possessed any religion in the strict sense of the word by which I mean a propitiation of real or imaginary powers regarded as personal beings superior to man: certainly the They have Australian aborigines appear to have believed in no beings who deserve to be called gods. On this subject Messrs. Spencer and Gillen our best authorities on these tribes being observe as follows: “The Central Australian natives—and this is true of the tribes extending from Lake Eyre in the south to the far north and eastwards across to the Gulf of Carpentaria—have no idea whatever of the existence of any supreme being who is pleased if they follow a certain line of what we call moral conduct and displeased if they do not do so. They have not the vaguest idea of a personal individual other than an actual living member of the tribe who approves or disapproves of their conduct so far as anything like what we call morality is concerned. Any such idea as that of a future life of happiness or the reverse as a reward for meritorious or as a punishment for blameworthy conduct is quite foreign to them…We know of no tribe in which there is a belief of any kind in a supreme being who rewards or punishes the individual according to his moral behaviour using the word moral in the native sense.” 3
Central Australian theory that the souls of the dead survive and are afterwards reborn as infants.
But if the aborigines of Central Australia have no religion properly so called they entertain beliefs and they observe practices out of which under favourable circumstances a religion might have been developed if its evolution had not been arrested by the advent of Europeans. Among these elements of natural religion one of the most important is the theory which these savages hold as to the existence and nature of the dead. That theory is a very remarkable one. With a single exception which I shall mention presently they unanimously believe that death is not the end of all things for the individual but that the human personality survives apparently with little change in the form of a spirit which may afterwards be reborn as a child into the world. In fact they think that every living person without exception is the reincarnation of a dead person who lived on earth a longer or shorter time ago. This belief is held universally by the tribes which occupy an immense area of Australia from the centre northwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria.4 The single exception to which I have referred is furnished by the Gnanji a fierce and wild-looking tribe who eat their dead enemies and perhaps also their dead friends.5 These savages deny that women have spirits which live after death; when a woman dies that they say is the end of her. On the other hand the spirit of a dead man in their opinion survives and goes to and fro on the earth visiting the places where his forefathers camped in days of old and destined to be born again of a woman at some future time when the rains have fallen and bleached his bones.6 But why these primitive philosophers should deny the privilege of immortality to women and reserve it exclusively for men is not manifest. All other Central Australian tribes appear to admit the rights of women equally with the rights of men in a life beyond the grave.
Central Australian theory as to the state of the dead.
Certain conspicuous features of the landscape supposed to be tenanted by the souls of the dead waiting to be born again.
With regard to the state of the souls of the dead in the intervals between their successive reincarnations the opinions of the Central Australian savages are clear and definite. Most civilised races who believe in the immortality of the soul have found themselves compelled to confess that however immortal the spirits of the departed may be they do not present themselves commonly to our eyes or ears nor meddle much with the affairs of the living; hence the survivors have for the most part inferred that the dead do not hover invisible in our midst but that they dwell somewhere far away in the height of heaven or in the depth of earth or in Islands of the Blest beyond the sea where the sun goes down. Not so with the simple aborigines of Australia. They imagine that the spirits of the dead continue to haunt their native land and especially certain striking natural features of the landscape it may be a pool of water in a deep gorge of the barren hills or a solitary tree in the sun-baked plains or a great rock affords a welcome shade in the sultry noon. Such spots are thought to be tenanted by the souls of the departed waiting to be born again. There they lurk constantly on the look-out for passing women into whom they may enter and from whom in due time they may be born as infants. It matters not whether the woman be married or unmarried a matron or a maid a blooming girl or a withered hag any woman may conceive directly by the entrance into her of one of these disembodied spirits; but the natives have shrewdly observed that the spirits shew a decided preference for plump young women. Hence when such a damsel is passing near a plot of haunted ground if she does not wish to become a mother she will disguise herself as an aged crone and hobble past saying in a thin cracked voice “Don't come to me. I am an old woman.” Such spots are often stones which the natives call child-stones because the souls of the dead are there lying in wait for women in order to be born as children. One such stone for example may be seen in the land of the Arunta tribe near Alice Springs. It projects to a height of three feet from the ground among the mulga scrub and there is a round hole in it through which the souls of dead plum-tree people are constantly peeping ready to pounce out on a likely damsel. Again in the territory of the Warramunga tribe the ghosts of black-snake people are supposed to gather in the rocks round certain pools or in the gum-trees which border the generally dry bed of a water-course. No Warramunga woman would dare to strike one of these trees with an axe because she is firmly convinced that in doing so she would set free one of the lurking black-snake spirits who would immediately dart into her body. They think that the spirits are no larger than grains of sand and that they make their way into women through the navel. Nor is it merely by direct contact with one of these repositories of souls nor yet by passing near it that women may be gotten with child against their wish. The Arunta believe that any malicious man may by magic cause a woman or even a child to become a mother: he has only to go to one of the child-stones and rub it with his hands muttering the words “Plenty of young women. You look and go quickly.”7
As a rule only the souls of persons of one particular totemic clan are thought to congregate in one place.
A remarkable feature in these gathering-places of the dead remains to be noticed. The society at each of them is very select. The ghosts are very clannish; as a rule none but people of one particular totemic clan are supposed to for-gather at any one place. For example we have just seen that in the Arunta tribe the souls of dead people of the plum-tree totem congregate at a certain stone in the mulga scrub and that in the Warramunga tribe the spirits of deceased persons who had black snakes for their totem haunt certain gum-trees. The same thing applies to most of the other haunts of the dead in Central Australia. Whether the totem was a kangaroo or an emu a rat or a bat a hawk or a cockatoo a bee or a fly a yam or a grass seed the sun or the moon fire or water lightning or the wind it matters not what the totem was only the ghosts of people of one totemic clan meet for the most part in one place; thus one rock will be tenanted by the spirits of kangaroo folk only and another by spirits of emu folk only; one water-pool will be the home of dead rat people alone and another the haunt of none but dead bat people; and so on with most of the other abodes of the souls. However in the Urabunna tribe the ghosts are not so exclusive; some of them consent to share their abode with people of other totems. For example a certain pool of water is haunted by the spirits of folk who in their lifetime had for their totems respectively the emu rain and a certain grub. On the other hand a group of granite boulders is inhabited only by the souls of persons of the pigeon totem.8
Totemism defined.
Perhaps for the sake of some of my hearers I should say a word as to the meaning of totems and totemism. The subject is a large one and is still under discussion. For our present purpose it is not necessary that I should enter into details; I will therefore only say that a totem is commonly a class of natural objects usually a species of animals or plants with which a savage identifies himself in a curious way imagining that he himself and his kinsfolk are for all practical purposes kangaroos or emus rats or bats hawks or cockatoos yams or grass-seed and so on according to the particular class of natural objects which he claims as his totem. The origin of this remarkable identification of men with animals plants or other things is still much debated; my own view is that the key to the mystery is furnished by the Australian beliefs as to birth and rebirth which I have just described to you; but on that subject I will not now dwell.9; All that I ask you to remember is that in Central Australia there is no general gathering-place for the spirits of the departed; the souls are sorted out more or less strictly according to their totems and dwell apart each in their own little pre-serve or preserves on which ghosts of other totems are supposed seldom or never to trespass. Thus the whole country-side is dotted at intervals with these spiritual parks or reservations which are respected by the natives as the abodes of their departed kinsfolk. In size they vary from a few square yards to many square miles.10
Traditionary origin of the local totem centers (oknanikilla) where the souls of the dead are supposed to assemble.
The sacred sticks or stones (churinga) which the totemic ancestors carried about with them.
The way in which these spiritual preserves originated is supposed to be as follows. In the earliest days of which the aborigines retain a tradition and to which they give the name of the alcheringa or dream times their remote ancestors roamed about the country in bands each band composed of people of the same totem. Thus one band would consist of frog people only another of witchetty grub people only another of Hakea flower people only and so on. Now in regard to the nature of these remote totemic ancestors of the alcheringa or dream times the ideas of the natives are very hazy; they do not in fact clearly distinguish their human from their totemic nature; in speaking for example of a man of the kangaroo totem they seem unable to discriminate sharply between the man and the animal: perhaps we may say that what is before their mind is a blurred image a sort of composite photograph of a man and a kangaroo in one the man is semi-bestial the kangaroo is semi-human. And similarly with their ancestors of all other totems: if the particular ancestors for example had the bean-tree for their totem then their descendants in thinking of them might like the blind man in the Gospel see in their mind's eye men walking like trees and trees perambulating like men. Now each of these semi-human ancestors is thought to have carried about with him on his peregrinations one or more sacred sticks or stones of a peculiar pattern to which the Arunta give the name of churinga: they are for the most part oval or elongated and flattened stones or slabs of wood varying in length from a few inches to over five feet and inscribed with a variety of patterns which represent or have reference to the totems. But the patterns are purely conventional consisting of circles curved lines spirals and dots with no attempt to represent natural objects pictorially. Each of these sacred stones or sticks was intimately associated with the spirit part of the man or woman who carried it; for women as well as men had their churinga. When these semi-human ancestors died they went into the ground leaving their sacred stones or sticks behind them on the spot and in every case some natural feature arose to mark the place it might be a tree a rock a pool of water or what not. The memory of all such spots has been care-fully preserved handed down from generation to generation by the old men and it is to these spots that down to the present day the souls of all the dead regularly repair in order to await reincarnation. The Arunta call the places oknanikilla and we may call them local totem centres because they are the centres where the spirits of the departed assemble according to their totems.11
Every living person has also his or her sacred stick or stone (churinga) with which his or her spirit is closely bound up.
But it is not merely the remote forefathers of the Central Australian savages who are said to have been possessed of these sacred sticks or stones: every man and woman who is born into the world has one of them with which his or her spirit is believed to be closely bound up. This is intelligible when we remember that every living person is believed to be simply the reincarnation of an ancestor; for that being so he naturally comes to life with all the attributes which belonged to him in his previous state of existence on earth. The notion of the natives is that when a spirit child enters into a woman to be born he immediately drops his sacred stick or stone on the spot which is necessarily one of what we have called the local totem centres since in the opinion of the natives it is only at or near them that a woman can conceive a child. Hence when her child is born the woman tells her husband the place where she fancies that the infant entered into her and he goes with some old men to find the precious object the stick or stone dropped by the spirit of the infant when it entered into the mother. If it cannot be found the men cut a wooden one from the nearest hard-wood tree and this becomes the sacred stick or churinga of the newborn child. The exact spot whether a tree or a stone or what not in which the child's spirit is supposed to have tarried in the interval between its incarnations is called its nanja tree or stone or what not. A definite relation is supposed to exist between each individual and his nanja tree or stone. The tree or stone and any animal or bird that lights upon it is sacred to him and may not be molested. A native has been known earnestly to intercede with a white man to spare a tree because it was his nanja or birth-tree and he feared that evil would befall him if it were cut down.12
Sanctity of the churinga.
Thus in these Central Australian tribes every man woman and child has his or her sacred birth-stone or stick. But though every woman like every man has her sacred birth-stone or stick she is never allowed to see it under pain of death or of being blinded with a fire-stick. Indeed none but old women are aware even of the existence of such things. Uninitiated men are likewise forbidden under the same severe penalties ever to look upon these most sacred objects.13 The sanctity ascribed to the sticks and stones is intelligible when we remember that the spirits of all the people both living and dead are believed to be intimately associated with them. Each of them we are told is supposed to be so closely bound up with a person's spirit that it may be regarded as his or her representative and those of dead people are believed to be endowed with the attributes of their former owners and actually to impart them to any one who happens to carry them about with him. Hence these apparently insignificant sticks and stones are in the opinion of the natives most potent instruments for conveying to the living the virtues and powers of the dead. For example in a fight the possession of one of these holy sticks or stones is thought to endow the possessor with courage and accuracy of aim and also to deprive his adversary of these qualities. So firmly is this belief held that if two men were fighting and one of them knew that the other carried a sacred birth-stone or stick while he him-self did not he would certainly lose heart and be beaten. Again when a man is sick he will sometimes have one of these sacred stones brought to him and will scrape a little dust off it mix the dust with water and drink it. This is supposed to strengthen him. Clearly he imagines that with the scrapings of the stone he absorbs the strength and other qualities of the person to whom the stone belonged.14
Sacred store-houses (ertnatulunga) of the churinga.
All the birth-stones or sticks (churinga) belonging to any particular totemic group are kept together hidden away from the eyes of women and uninitiated men in a sacred store-house or ertnatulunga as the Arunta and Unmatjera call it. This store-house is always situated in one of the local totem centres or oknanikilla which as we have seen vary in size from a few yards to many square miles. In itself the sacred treasure-house is usually a small cave or crevice in some lonely spot among the rugged hills. The entrance is carefully blocked up with stones arranged so artfully as to simulate nature and to awake no suspicion in the mind of passing strangers that behind these tumbled blocks lie concealed the most prized possessions of the tribe. The immediate neighbourhood of any one of these sacred store-houses is a kind of haven of refuge for wild animals for once they have run thither they are safe; no hunter would spear a kangaroo or opossum which cowered on the ground at one of these hallowed spots. The very plants which grow there are sacred and may not be plucked or broken or interfered with in any way. Similarly an enemy who succeeds in taking refuge there is safe from his pursuer so long as he keeps within the sacred boundaries: even the avenger of blood pursuing the murderer hot-foot would not dare to lift up his hand against him on the holy ground. Thus these places are sanctuaries in the strict sense of the word; they are probably the most primitive examples of their class and contain the germ out of which cities of refuge for manslayers and others might be developed. It is instructive therefore to observe that these rudimentary sanctuaries in the heart of the Australian wilderness derive their sacredness mainly it would seem from their association with the spirits of the dead whose repose must not be disturbed by tumult violence and bloodshed. Even when the sacred birth-stones and sticks have been removed from the store-house in the secret recesses of the hills and have been brought into the camp for the performance of certain solemn ceremonies no fighting may take place no weapons may be brandished in their neighbourhood: if men will quarrel and fight they must take their weapons and go elsewhere to do it.15 And when the men go to one of the sacred store-houses to inspect the treasures which it contains they must each of them put his open hand solemnly over the mouth of the rocky crevice and then retire in order to give the spirits due notice of the approach of strangers; for if they were disturbed suddenly they would be angry.16
Exhibition of the churinga to young men.
It is only after a young man has passed through the severe ceremonies of initiation which include most painful bodily mutilations that he is deemed worthy to be introduced to the tribal arcana the sacred sticks and stones which repose in their hallowed cave among the mountain solitudes. Even when he has passed through all the ordeals many years may elapse before he is admitted to a knowledge of these mysteries if he shews himself to be of a light and frivolous disposition. When at last by the gravity of his demeanour he is judged to have proved himself indeed a man a day is fixed for revealing to him the great secret. Then the headman of his local group together with other grave and reverend seniors conducts him to the mouth of the cave: the stones are rolled away from the entrance the spirits within are duly warned of the approach of visitors; and then the sacred sticks and stones tied up in bundles are brought forth. The bundles are undone the sticks and stones are taken out one by one reverently scrutinised and exhibited to the novice while the old men explain to him the meaning of the patterns incised on each and reveal to him the persons alive or dead to whom they belong. All the time the other men keep chanting in a low voice the traditions of their remote ancestors in the far-off dream times. At the close the novice is told the secret and sacred name which he is thenceforth to bear and is warned never to allow it to pass his lips in the hearing of anybody except members of his own totemic group.17 Sometimes this secret name is that of an ancestor of whom the man or woman is supposed to be a reincarnation: for women as well as men have their secret and sacred names.18
Number of churinga in a store-house.
Significance of the churinga.
Use of the churinga in a magic.
The number of sacred birth-stones and sticks kept in any one store-house naturally varies from group to group; but whatever their number whether more or less in any one store-house they all normally belong to the same totem though a few belonging to other totems may be borrowed and deposited for a time with them. For example a sacred store-house of the honey-ant totem was found to contain sixty-eight birth-sticks of that totem with a few of the lizard totem and two of the wild-cat totems19 Any store-house will usually contain both sticks and stones but as a rule perhaps the sticks predominate in number.20 Time after time these tribal repositories are visited by the men and their contents taken out and examined. On each examination the sacred sticks and stones are carefully rubbed over with dry and powdered red ochre or charcoal the sticks being rubbed with red ochre only but the stones either with red ochre or charcoal21 Further it is customary on these occasions to press the sacred objects against the stomachs and thighs of all the men present; this is supposed to untie their bowels which are thought to be tightened and knotted by the emotion which the men feel at the sight of these venerated sticks and stones. Indeed the emotion is sometimes very real: men have been seen to weep on beholding these mystic objects for the first time after a considerable interval.22 Whenever the sacred store-house is visited and its contents examined the old men explain to the younger men the marks incised on the sticks and stones and recite the traditions associated with the dead men to whom they belonged;23 so that these rude objects of wood and stone with the lines and dots scratched on them serve the savages as memorials of the past; they are in fact rudimentary archives as well as we may almost say rudimentary idols; for a stone or stick which represents a revered ancestor and is supposed to be endowed with some portion of his spirit is not far from being an idol. No wonder therefore that they are guarded and treasured by a tribe as its most precious possession. When a group of natives have been robbed of them by thoughtless white men and have found the sacred store-house empty they have tried to kill the traitor who betrayed the hallowed spot to the strangers and have remained in camp for a fortnight weeping and wailing for the loss and plastering themselves with pipeclay which is their token of mourning for the dead.24 Yet as a great mark of friendship they will sometimes lend these sacred sticks and stones to a neighbouring group; for believing that the sticks and stones are associated with the spiritual parts of their former and present owners they naturally wish to have as many of them as possible and regard their possession as a treasure of great price a sort of reservoir of spiritual force25 which can be turned to account not only in battle by worsting the enemy but in various other ways such as by magically increasing the food supply. For instance when a man of the grass-seed totem wishes to increase the supply of grass-seed in order that it may be eaten by people of other totems he goes to the sacred store-house clears the ground all around it takes out a few of the holy sticks and stones smears them with red ochre and decorates them with birds’ down chanting a spell all the time. Then he rubs them together so that the down flies off in all directions; this is supposed to carry with it the magical virtue of the sticks or stones and so to fertilise the grass-seed.26
Elements of a worship of the dead.
Marvellous powers attributed by the Central Australians to their remote ancestors of the alcheringa or dream time.
On the whole when we survey these practices and beliefs of the Central Australian aborigines we may perhaps conclude that if they do not amount to a worship of the dead they at least contain the elements out of which such a worship might easily be developed. At first sight no doubt their faith in the transmigration of souls seems and perhaps really is a serious impediment to a worship of the dead in the strict sense of the word. For if they themselves are the dead come to life again it is difficult to see how they can worship the spirits of the dead without also worshipping each other since they are all by hypothesis simply these worshipful spirits reincarnated. But though in theory every living man and woman is merely an ancestor or ancestress born again and therefore should be his or her equal in practice they appear to admit that their forefathers of the remote alcheringa or dream time were endowed with many marvellous powers which their modern reincarnations cannot lay claim to and that accordingly these ancestral spirits were more to be reverenced were in fact more worshipful than ton their living representatives. On this subject Messrs. Spencer and Gillen observe: “The Central Australian native is firmly convinced as will be seen from the accounts relating to their alcheringa ancestors that the latter were endowed with powers such as no living man now possesses. They could travel underground or mount into the sky and could make creeks and water-courses mountain-ranges sand-hills and plains. In very many cases the actual names of these natives are preserved in their traditions but so far as we have been able to discover there is no instance of any one of them being regarded in the light of a ‘deity.’ Amongst the Central Australian natives there is never any idea of appealing for assistance to any one of these Alcheringa ancestors in any way nor is there any attempt made in the direction of propitiation with one single exception in the case of the mythic creature called Wollunqua amongst the Warramunga tribe who it may be remarked is most distinctly regarded as a snake and not as a human being.”27 Thus far Messrs. Spencer and Gillen. From their testimony it appears that with a single possible exception to which I will return immediately the Central Australian aborigines are ‘lot known to worship any of their dead ancestors; they indeed believe their remote forefathers of the alclaeringa age to have been endowed with marvellous powers which they themselves do not possess; but they do not regard these ancestral spirits as deities nor do they pray and sacrifice to them for help and protection. The single possible exception to this general rule known to Messrs. Spencer and Gillen is the case of the mythical water-snake called Wollunqua who is in a sense revered and propitiated by the Warramunga tribe. The case is interesting and instructive as indicative of an advance from magic towards religion in the strict sense of the word. Accordingly I propose to consider it somewhat fully.
The Wollunqua a mythical water-snake one of the Warramunga totems.
The Wollunqua is one of the many totems of the Warramunga tribe. It is to be borne in mind that though every Australian tribe has many totems which are most commonly animals or plants and more rarely other natural objects all the totems are not respected by all the members of the tribe; each totem is respected only by a particular group of men and women in the tribe who believe themselves to be descended from the same totemic ancestor. Thus the whole tribe is broken up into many groups or bodies of men and women each group knit together by a belief in a common descent from the totem by a common respect for the totemic species whether it be a species of animals or plants or what not and finally by the possession of a common name derived from the totem. Thus for example we have a group of men and women who believe themselves descended from an ancestor who had the bandicoot for his totem; they all respect bandicoots; and they are all called bandicoot people. Similarly with all the other totemic groups within the tribe. It is convenient to have a name for these totemic groups or tribal subdivisions and accordingly we may call them clans provided we remember that a totemic clan in this sense is not an independent political community such as the Scottish Highland clans used to be; it is merely a subdivision of the tribe and the members of it do not usually keep to themselves but live more or less interfused with members of all the other totemic clans which together compose the tribe. Now amongst the Warramunga the Wollunqua or mythical water-snake is the totem of such a clan or tribal subdivision the members of which believe themselves to be descended from the creature and call them-selves by its name. So far therefore the Wollunqua is merely a totem of the ordinary sort an object of respect for a particular section of the tribe. Like other totemic ancestors the Wollunqua is supposed to have wandered about the country leaving supplies of spirit individuals at various points individuals who are constantly undergoing reincarnation. But on the other hand the Wollunqua differs from almost all other Australian totems in this that whereas they arc real objects such as animals plants water wind the sun and moon and so on the Wollunqua is a purely mythical creature which exists only in the imagination of the natives; for they believe it to be a water-snake so huge that if it were to stand up on its tail its head would reach far up into the sky. It now lives in a large pool called Thapauerlu hidden away in a lonely valley of the Murchison Range; but the Warramunga fear that it may at any moment sally out and do some damage. They say that it actually killed a number of them on one of its excursions though happily they at last succeeded in beating it off. So afraid are they of the creature that in speaking of it amongst themselves they will not use its proper name of Wollunqua but call it instead urkulu nappaurinnia because as they told Messrs. Spencer and Gillen if they were to name it too often by its real name they would lose control over the beast and it would rush forth and devour them.28 Thus the natives do not distinguish the Wollunqua from the rest of their actually existing totems as we do: they have never beheld him with their bodily eyes yet to them he is just as real as the kangaroos which they see hopping along the sands as the flies which buzz about their heads in the sunshine or as the cockatoos which flap screaming past in the thickets. How real this belief in the mythical snake is with these savages was brought vividly home to Messrs. Spencer and Gillen when they visited in company with somenatives the deep and lonely pool among the rocky hills in which the awful being is supposed to reside. Before they approached the spot the natives had been talking and laughing freely but when they drew near the water their voices were hushed and their demeanour became solemn. When all stood silent on the brink of the deep still pool enclosed by a sandy margin on one side and by a line of red rocks on the other two old men the leaders of the totemic group of the Wollunqua went down to the edge of the water and with bowed heads addressed the Wollunqua in whispers asking him to remain quiet and do them no harm for they were mates of his and had brought two great white men to see where he lived and to tell them all about him. “We could plainly see” add Messrs. Spencer and Gillen “that it was all very real to them and that they implicitly believed that the Wollunqua was indeed alive beneath the water watching them though they could not see him.” 29
Religious character of the belief in the Wollunqua.
I need hardly point out what a near approach all this is to religion in the proper sense of the word. Here we have a firm belief in a purely imaginary being who is necessarily visible to the eye of faith alone since I think we may safely assume that a water-snake supposed to be many miles long and capable of reaching up to the sky has no real existence either on the earth or in the waters under the earth. Yet to these savages this invisible being is just as real as the actually existing animals and men whom they perceive with their bodily senses; they not only pray to him but they propitiate him with a solemn ritual; and no doubt they would spurn with scorn the feeble attempts of shallow sceptics to question the reality of his existence or the literal truth of the myths they tell about him. Certainly these savages are far on the road to religion if they have not already passed the Rubicon which divides it from the common workaday world. If an unhesitating faith in the unseen is part of religion the Warramunga people of the Wollunqua totem are unquestionably religious.