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Lecture 5 The Belief in Immortality Among the Aborigines of Central Australia (continued)

Lecture 5
The Belief in Immortality Among the Aborigines of Central Australia (continued)
Beliefs of the Central Australian aborigines concerning the reincarnation of the dead.
The mythical water-snake Wollunqua
IN the last lecture we began our survey of the belief in immortality and the practices to which it has given rise among the aboriginal tribes of Central Australia. I shewed that these primitive savages hold a very remarkable theory of birth and death. They believe that the souls of the dead do not perish but are reborn in human form after a longer or shorter interval. During that interval the spirits of the departed are supposed to congregate in certain parts of the country generally distinguished by some conspicuous natural feature which accordingly the natives account sacred believing them to be haunted by the souls of the dead. From time to time one of these disembodied spirits enters into a passing woman and is born as an infant into the world. Thus according to the Central Australian theory every living person without exception is the reincarnation of a dead man woman or child. At first sight the theory seems to exclude the possibility of any worship of the dead since it appears to put the living on a footing of perfect equality with the dead by identifying the one with the other. But I pointed out that as a matter of fact these savages do admit whether logically or not the superiority of their remote ancestors to themselves: they acknowledge that these old forefathers of theirs did possess many marvellous powers to which they themselves can lay no claim. In this acknowledgment accordingly we may detect an opening or possibility for the development of a real worship of ancestors. Indeed as I said at the close of last lecture something closely approaching to ancestor worship has actually grown up in regard to the mythical ancestor of the Wollunqua clan in the Warramunga tribe. The Wollunqua is a purely fabulous water-snake of gigantic dimensions which is supposed to haunt the waters of a certain lonely pool called Thapauerlu in the Murchison Range of mountains. Unlike the ancestors of the other totemic clans this mythical serpent is never reborn in human form; he always lives in his solitary pool among the barren hills; but the natives think that he has it in his power to come forth and do them an injury and accordingly they pray to him to remain quiet and not to harm them. Indeed so afraid of him are they that speaking of the creature among themselves they avoid using his proper name of Wollunqua and call him by a different name lest hearing himself called by his true name he should rush forth and devour them. More than that they even endeavour to propitiate him by the performance of certain rites which however childish and absurd they may seem to us are very solemn affairs for these simple folk. The rites were witnessed by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen whose description I will summarise. It offers an interesting and instructive example of a ritual observed by primitive savages who are clearly standing on if they have not already crossed the threshold of religion.
Wanderings of the Wollunqua.
Dramatic ceremonies in honour of the Wollunqua.

Like all other totemic ancestors the Wollunqua is said to have arisen at a particular spot to have wandered about the country and finally to have gone down into the ground. Starting from the deep rocky pool in the Murchison Range he travelled at first underground coming up however at various points where he performed ceremonies and left many spirit children who issued from his body and remained behind forming local totemic centres when he had passed on. It is these spirit children who have formed the Wollunqua clan ever since undergoing an endless series of reincarnations. Now the ceremonies which the clan perform in honour of their mythical ancestor the Wollunqua all refer to his wanderings about the country. Thus there is a particular water-hole called Pitingari where the great old water-snake is said to have emerged from the ground and looked about him. Here accordingly two men performed a ceremony. Each of them was decorated with a broad band of red down which curved round both the front and the back of the performer and stood sharply out from the mass of white down with which all the rest of the upper part of his body was covered. These broad red bands represented the Wollunqua. Each man also wore a tall conical helmet adorned with a curved band of red down which no doubt likewise symbolised the mythical serpent. When the two actors in the little drama had been attired in this quaint costume of red and white down they retired behind a bush which served for the side scenes of a theatre. Then when the orchestra composed of adult men struck up the music on the ceremonial ground by chanting and beating boomerangs and sticks together the performers ran in stopping every now and then to shake themselves in imitation of the snake. Finally they sat down close together with their heads bowed down on a few green branches of gum-trees. A man then stepped up to them knocked off their head-dresses and the simple ceremony came to an end.1

Ceremony in honour of the Wollunqua.
The next ceremony was performed on the following day at another place called Antipataringa where the mythical snake is said to have halted in his wanderings. The same two men acted as before but this time one of them carried on his head a curious curved bundle shaped like an enormous boomerang. It was made of grass-stalks bound together with human hair-string and decorated with white down. This sacred object represented the Wollunqua himself.2 From this spot the snake was believed to have travelled on to another place called Tjunguniari where he popped up his head among the sand-hills the greater part of his body remaining underground. Indeed of such an enormous length was the serpent that though his head had now travelled very many miles his tail still remained at the starting-point and had not yet begun to take part in the procession. Here accordingly the third ceremony perhaps we may say the third act in the drama was performed on the third day. In it one of the actors personated the snake himself while the other stood for a sand-hill.3
Further ceremony in honour of the Wollunqua: the white mound with the red wavy band to represent the mythical snake.
After an interval of three days a fourth ceremony was performed of an entirely different kind. A keel-shaped mound was made of wet sand about fifteen feet long by two feet high. The smooth surface of the mound was covered with a mass of little dots of white down except for a long wavy band of red down which ran all along both sides of the mound. This wavy red band represented the Wollunqua his head being indicated by a small round swelling at one end and his tail by a short prolongation at the other. The mound itself represented a sand-hill beside which the snake is said to have stood up and looked about. The preparation of this elaborate emblem of the Wollunqua occupied the greater part of the day and it was late in the afternoon before it was completed. When darkness fell fires were lighted on the ceremonial ground and as the night grew late more fires were kindled and all of the men sat round the mound singing songs which referred to the mythical water-snake. This went on for hours. At last about three o'clock in the morning a ring of fires was lit all round the ceremonial ground in the light of which the white trunks of the gum-trees and the surrounding scrub stood out weird and ghastly against the blackness of darkness beyond. Amid the wildest excitement the men of the Wollunqua totem now ranged themselves in single file on their knees beside the mound which bore the red image of their great mythical forefather and with their hands on their thighs surged round and round it every man bending in unison first to one side and then to the other each successive movement being accompanied by a loud and simultaneous shout or rather yell while the other men who were not of the Wollunqua totem stood by clanging their boomerangs excitedly and one old man who acted as a sort of choregus walked backwards at the end of the kneeling procession of Wollunqua men swaying his body about and lifting high his knees at every step. In this way with shouts and clangour the men of the totem surged twice round the mound on their knees. After that as the fires died down the men rose from their knees and for another hour every one sat round the mound singing incessantly. The last act in the drama was played at four o'clock in the morning at the moment when the first faint streaks of dawn glimmered in the east. At sight of them every man jumped to his feet the smouldering fires were rekindled and in their blaze the long white mound stood out in strong relief. The men of the totem armed with spears boomerangs and clubs ranged themselves round it and encouraged by the men of the other totems attacked it fiercely with their weapons until in a few minutes they had hacked it to pieces and nothing was left of it but a rough heap of sandy earth. The fires again died down and for a short time silence reigned. Then just as the sun rose above the eastern horizon the painful ceremony of subincision was performed on three youths who had recently passed through the earlier stages of initiation.4
The rite aims both at pleasing and at coercing the mythical snake.
This remarkable rite is supposed we are informed “in some way to be associated with the idea of persuading or almost forcing the Wollunqua to remain quietly in his home under the water-hole at Thapauerlu and to do no harm to any of the natives. They say that when he sees the mound with his representation drawn upon it he is gratified and wriggles about underneath with pleasure. The savage attack upon the mound is associated with the idea of driving him down and taken altogether the ceremony indicates their belief that at one and the same time they can both please and coerce the mythic beast. It is necessary to do things to please him or else he might grow sulky and come out and do them harm but at the same time they occasionally use force to make him do what they want.”5 In fact the ritual of the mound with its red image of the snake combines the principles of religion and magic. So far as the rite is intended to please and propitiate the mythical beast it is religious; so far as it is intended to constrain him it is magical. The two principles are contradictory and the attempt to combine them is illogical; but the savage is heedless or rather totally unaware of the contradiction and illogicality: all that concerns him is to accomplish his ends: he has neither the wish nor the ability to analyse his motives. In this respect he is in substantial agreement with the vast majority of mankind. How many of us scrutinise the reasons of our conduct with the view of detecting and eliminating any latent inconsistencies in them? And how many or rather how few of us on such a scrutiny would be so fortunate as to discover that there were no such inconsistencies to detect? The logical pedant who imagines that men cannot possibly act on inconsistent and even contradictory motives only betrays his ignorance of life. It is not therefore for us to cast stones at the Warramunga men of the Wollunqua totem for attempting to propitiate and constrain their mythical serpent at the same time. Such contradictions meet us again and again in the history of religion: it is interesting but by no means surprising to find them in one of its rudimentary stages.
Thunder the voice of the Wollunqua.
On the evening of the day which succeeded the construction of the emblematic mound the old men who had made the emblem said they had heard the Wollunqua talking and that he was pleased with what had been done and was sending them rain. What they took for the voice of the Wollunqua was thunder rumbling in the distance. No rain fell but a few days later thunder was again heard rolling afar off and a heavy bank of clouds lay low on the western horizon. The old men now said that the Wollunqua was growling because the remains of the mound had been left uncovered; so they hastily cut down branches and covered up the ruins. After that the Wollunqua ceased to growl: there was no more thunder.6
Ground drawings of the Wollunqua
On the four following days ceremonies of an entirely different kind from all the preceding were performed in honour of the Wollunqua. A space of sandy ground was smoothed down sprinkled with water and rubbed so as to form a compact surface. The smooth surface was then overlaid with a coat of red or yellow ochre and on this coloured background a number of designs were traced one after the other by a series of white dots which together made up a pattern of curved lines and concentric circles. These patterns represented the Wollunqua and some of his traditionary adventures. The snake himself was portrayed by a broad wavy band but all the other designs were purely conventional; for example trees ant-hills and wells were alike indicated by circles. Altogether there were eight such drawings on the earth some of them very elaborate and entailing each of them not less than six or seven hours’ labour: one of them was ten feet long. Each drawing was rubbed out before the next one was drawn. Moreover the drawings were accompanied by little dramas acted by decorated men. In one of these dramas no fewer than eight actors took part some of whom wore head-dresses adorned with a long wavy band to represent the Wollunqua. The last drawing of all was supposed to portray the mythical snake as he plunged into the earth and returned to his home in the rocky pool called Thapauerlu among the Murchison Ranges.7
Religious importance of the Wollunqua.
I have dwelt at some length on these ceremonies of the Wollunqua totem because they furnish a remarkable and perhaps unique instance in Australia of a totemic ancestor in the act of developing into something like a god. In the Warramunga tribe there are other snake totems besides the Wollunqua; for example there is the black snake totem and the deaf adder totem. But this purely mythical water-snake the Wollunqua is the most important of them all and is regarded as the great father of all the snakes. “It is not easy” say Messrs. Spencer and Gillen “to express in words what is in reality rather a vague feeling amongst the natives but after carefully watching the different series of ceremonies we were impressed with the feeling that the Wollunqua represented to the native mind the idea of a dominant totem.”8 Thus he is at once a fabulous animal and the mythical ancestor of a human clan but his animal nature apparently predominates over his semi-human nature as shewn by the drawings and effigies of him all of which are in serpent form. The prayers offered to him at the pool which he is supposed to haunt and the attempt to please him by drawing his likeness can only be regarded as propitiatory rites and therefore as rudimentary forms of worship. And the idea that thunder is his voice and that the rain is a gift sent by him in return for the homage paid to him by the people appears to prove that in course of time if left to himself he might easily have been elevated to the sky and have ranked as a celestial deity who dwells aloft and sends down or withholds the refreshing showers at his good pleasure. Thus the Wollunqua a rude creation of the savage Australian imagination possesses a high interest for the historian of religion since he combines elements of ancestor worship and totem worship with a germ of heaven worship; while on the purely material side his representation both in plastic form by a curved bundle of grass-stalks and in graphic form by broad wavy bands of red down may be said in a sense to stand at the starting-point of that long development of religious art which in so many countries and so many ages has attempted to represent to the bodily eye the mysteries of the unseen and invisible and which whatever we may think of the success or failure of that attempt has given to the world some of the noblest works of sculpture and painting.
Possible religious evolution of totemism
I have already pointed out the difficulty of seeing how a belief in the reincarnation of the dead such as prevails universally among the aborigines of Central Australia could ever be reconciled with or develop into a worship of the dead; for by identifying the living with the dead the theory of reincarnation seems to abolish that distinction between the worshipper and the worshipped which is essential to the existence of worship. But as I also indicated what seems a loophole or mode of escape from the dilemma may be furnished by the belief of these savages that though they themselves are nothing but their ancestors come to life again nevertheless in their earliest incarnations of the alcheringa or dream times their ancestors possessed miraculous powers which they have admittedly lost in their later reincarnations; for this suggests an incipient discrimination or line of cleavage between the living and the dead; it hints that perhaps after all the first ancestors with their marvellous endowments may have been entirely different persons from their feebler descendants and if this vague hint could only grow into a firm conviction of the essential difference between the two then the course would be clear for the development of ancestor worship: the dead forefathers viewed as beings perfectly distinct from and far superior to the living might easily come to receive from the latter the homage of prayer and sacrifice might be besought by their descendants to protect them in danger and to succour them in all the manifold ills of life or at least to abstain from injuring them. Now this important step in religious evolution appears to have been actually taken by the Wollunqua the mythical water-snake who is the totem of one of the Warramunga clans. Unlike all the other totems he is supposed to exist only in his invisible and animal form and never to be reincarnated in a man.9 Hence withdrawn as he is from the real world of sense the imagination is free to play about him and to invest him more and more with those supernatural attributes which men ascribe to their deities. And what has actually happened to this particular totemic ancestor might under favourable circumstances happen to many others. Each of them might be gradually detached from the line of his descendants might cease to be reincarnated in them and might gradually attain to the lonely pre-eminence of godhead. Thus a system of pure totemism such as prevails among the aborigines of Central Australia might develop through a phase of ancestor worship into a pantheon of the ordinary type.
Conspicuous features of the landscape associated with ancestral spirits.
Although none of the other totemic ancestors of the Central Australian aborigines appears to have advanced so far on the road to religion as the Wollunqua yet they all contain in germ the elements out of which a religion might have been developed. It is difficult for us civilised men to conceive the extent to which the thoughts and lives of these savages are dominated by the memories and traditions of the dead. Every conspicuous feature in the landscape is not only associated with the legendary doings of some ancestors but is commonly said to have arisen as a direct result of their actions. The mountains the plains the rivers the seas the islands of ancient Greece itself were not more thickly haunted by the phantoms of a fairy mythology than are the barren sun-scorched steppes and stony hills of the Australian wilderness; but great indeed is the gulf which divides the beautiful creations of Greek fancy from the crude imaginings of the Australian savage whose legendary tales are for the most part a mere tissue of trivial absurdities unrelieved by a single touch of beauty or poetry.
A journey through the Warramunga country.
To illustrate at once the nature and the abundance of these legends I will quote a passage in which Messrs. Spencer and Gillen describe a journey they took in company with some Warramunga natives over part of their country:—“For the first two days our way lay across miserable plain country covered with poor scrub with here and there low ranges rising. Every prominent feature of any kind was associated with some tradition of their past. A range some five miles away from Tennant Creek arose to mark the path traversed by the great ancestor of the Pittongu (bat) totem. Several miles further on a solitary upstanding column of rock represented an opossum man who rested here looked about the country and left spirit children behind him; a low range of remarkably white quartzite hills indicated a large number of white ant eggs thrown here in the wingara10 by the Mungamunga women as they passed across the country. A solitary flat-topped hill arose to mark the spot where the Wongana (crow) ancestor paused for some time to pierce his nose; and on the second night we camped by the side of a water-hole where the same crow lived for some time in the wingara and where now there are plenty of crow spirit children. All the time as we travelled along the old men were talking amongst themselves about the natural features associated in tradition with these and other totemic ancestors of the tribe and pointing them out to us. On the third day we travelled at first for some hours by the side of a river-bed—perfectly dry of course—and passed the spot where two hawks first made fire by rubbing sticks together two fine gum-trees on the banks now representing the place where they stood up. A few miles further on we came to a water-hole by the side of which the moon-man met a bandicoot woman and while the two were talking together the fire made by the hawks crept upon them and burnt the woman who was however restored to life again by the moon-man with whom she then went up into the sky. Late in the afternoon we skirted the eastern base of the Murchison Range the rugged quartzite hills in this part being associated partly with the crow ancestor and partly with the bat. Following up a valley leading into the hills we camped just after sunset by the side of a rather picturesque water-pool amongst the ranges. A short distance before reaching this the natives pointed out a curious red cliff standing out amongst the low hills which were elsewhere covered with thin scrub. This which is called Tjiti represents the spot where an old woman spent a long time digging for yams the latter being indicated by great heaps of stones lying all around. On the opposite side of the valley a column of stone marks the spot where the woman went into the earth. The water-hole by which we were camped was called Wiarminni. It was in reality a deep pool in the bed of a creek coming down from the hills. Behind it the rocks rose abruptly and amongst them there was or rather would have been if a stream had been flowing a succession of cascades and rocky water-holes. Two of the latter just above Wiarminni are connected with a fish totem and represent the spot where two fish men arose in the alcheringa fought one another left spirit children behind and finally went down into the ground. We were now so to speak in the very midst of mungai [i.e. of places associated with the totems] for the old totemic ancestors of the tribe who showed a most commendable fondness for arising and walking about in the few picturesque spots which their country contained had apparently selected these rocky gorges as their central home. All around us the water-holes gorges and rocky crags were peopled with spirit individuals left behind by one or other of the following totemic ancestors:—Wollunqua Pittongu (bat) Wongana (crow) wild dog emu bandicoot and fish whose lines of travel in the alcheringa formed a regular network over the whole countryside.”11
Dramatic ceremonies to commemorate the doings of ancestors.
Similar evidence could be multiplied but this may suffice to teach us how to the minds of these Central Australian savages the whole country is haunted in the literal sense not merely by the memories of their dead but by the spirits which they left behind them and which are constantly undergoing reincarnation. And not only are the minds of the aborigines preoccupied by the thought of their ancestors who are recalled to them by all the familiar features of the landscape but they spend a considerable part of their time in dramatically representing the legendary doings of their rude forefathers of the remote past. It is astonishing we are told how large a part of a native's life is occupied with the performance of these dramatic ceremonies. The older he grows the greater is the share he takes in them until at last they actually absorb the greater part of his thoughts. The rites which seem so trivial to us are most serious matters to him. They are all connected with the great ancestors of the tribe and he is firmly convinced that when he dies his spirit will rejoin theirs and live in communion with them until the time comes for him to be born again into the world. With such solemnity does he look on the celebration of these commemorative services as we may call them that none but initiated men are allowed to witness them; women and children are strictly excluded from the spectacle. These sacred dramas are often though by no means always associated with the rites of initiation which young men have to pass through before they are admitted to full membership of the tribe and to participation in its deepest mysteries. The rites of initiation are not all undergone by a youth at the same time; they succeed each other at longer or shorter intervals of time and at each of them he is privileged to witness some of the solemn ceremonies in which the traditions of the tribal ancestors are dramatically set forth before him until when he has passed through the last of the rites and ordeals he is free to behold and to take part in the whole series of mystery plays or professedly historical dramas. Sometimes the performance of these dramas extends over two or three months during which one or more of them are acted daily.12 For the most part they are very short and simple each of them generally lasting only a few minutes though the costumes of the actors are often elaborate and may have taken hours to prepare. I will describe a few of them as samples.
Ceremony of the Hakea flower totem.
We will begin with a ceremony of the Hakea flower totem in the Arunta tribe as to which it may be premised that a decoction of the Hakea flower is a favourite drink of the natives. The little drama was acted by two men each of whom was decorated on his bare body by broad bands of pearly grey edged with white down which passed round his waist and over his shoulders contrasting well with the chocolate colour of his skin. On his head each of them wore a kind of helmet made of twigs and from their ears hung tips of the tails of rabbit-bandicoots. The two sat on the ground facing each other with a shield between them. One of them held in his hand some twigs representing the Hakea flower in bloom; these he pretended to steep in water so as to brew the favourite beverage of the natives and the man sitting opposite him made believe to suck it up with a little mop. Meantime the other men ran round and round them shouting wha! wha! This was the substance of the play which ended as usual by several men placing their hands on the shoulders of the performers as a signal to them to stop.13
Ceremony of a fish totem.
Again to take another Arunta ceremony of a fish totem called interpitna. The fish is the bony bream (Chatoessus horni) which abounds in the water-holes of the country. The play was performed by a single actor an old man whose face was covered with a mass of white down contrasting strongly with a large bunch of black eagle-hawk feathers which he wore on his head. His body was decorated with bands of charcoal edged with white down. Squatting on the ground he moved his body and extended his arms from his sides opening and closing them as he leaned forwards so as to imitate a fish swelling itself out and opening and closing its gills. Then holding twigs in his hands he moved along mimicking the action of a man who drives fish before him with a branch in a pool just as the natives do to catch the fish. Meantime an orchestra of four men squatted beside him singing and beating time with a stick on the ground.14
Ceremony of a plum-tree totem.
Again another Arunta ceremony of the plum-tree totem was performed by four actors who simply pretended to knock down and eat imaginary plums from an imaginary plum-tree.15 An interesting point in this very simple drama is that in it the men of the plum-tree totem are represented eating freely of their totem which is quite contrary to the practice of the present day but taken along with many similar ceremonies it goes far to prove that in the ancient days to which all these dramatic ceremonies refer it was the regular practice for men and women of a totem to eat their totemic animals or plants. As another example of a drama in which the performers are represented eating their totem we may take a ceremony of the ant totem in the Warramunga tribe. The legendary personages who figure in it are two women of the ant totem ancestresses of the ant clan who are said to have devoted all their time to catching and eating ants except when they were engaged in the performance of ceremonies. The two men who personated these women in the drama (for no woman is allowed to witness much less to act in these sacred dramas) had the whole of the upper parts of their bodies including their faces and the cylindrical helmets which they wore on their heads covered with a dense mass of little specks of red down. These specks stood for the ants alive or dead and also for the stones and trees on the spots where the two women encamped. In the drama the two actors thus arrayed walked about the ground as if they were searching for ants to eat. Each of them carried a wooden trough and stooping down from time to time he turned over the ground and picked up small stones which he placed in the trough till it was full. The stones represented the masses of ants which the women gathered for food. After carrying on this pantomime for a time the two actors pretended to discover each other with surprise and to embrace with joy much to the amusement of the spectators.16
In these ceremonies the action is appropriate to the totem.
Ceremony of the witchetty grub totem.
In all these ceremonies you will observe that the action of the drama is strictly appropriate to the totem. In the drama of the Hakea flower totem the actors pretend to make and drink the beverage brewed from Hakea flowers; in the ceremony of the fish totem the actor feigns to be a fish and also to catch fish; in the ceremony of the plum-tree totem the actors pretend to knock down and eat plums; and in the ceremony of the ant totem the actors make believe to gather ants for food. Similarly to take a few more examples in a ceremony of the witchetty grub totem of the Arunta tribe the body of the actor was decorated with lines of white and red down and he had a shield adorned with a number of concentric circles of down. The smaller circles represented the bush on which the grub lives first of all and the larger circles represented the bush on which the adult insect lays its eggs. When all was ready the performer seated himself on the ground and imitated the grub alternately doubling himself up and rising on his knees while he extended his arms and made them quiver in imitation of the insect's wings; and every now and then he would bend over the shield and sway to and fro and up and down in imitation of the insect hovering over the bushes on which it lays its eggs.17; In another ceremony of the witchetty grub totem which followed immediately the one I have just described the actor had two shields beside him. The smaller of the shields was ornamented with zigzag lines of white pipe-clay which were supposed to indicate the tracks of the grub; the larger shield was covered with larger and smaller series of concentric circles the larger representing the seeds of a bush on which the insect feeds while the smaller stood for the eggs of the adult insect. As before the actor wriggled and flapped his arms in imitation of the fluttering of the insect when it first leaves its chrysalis case in the ground and attempts to fly. In acting thus he was supposed to represent a celebrated ancestor of the witchetty grub totem.18
Ceremony of the emu totem.
The last example of such ceremonies which I shall cite is one of the emu totem in the Arunta tribe. The body of the actor was decorated with perpendicular lines of white down reaching from his shoulders to his knees; and on his head he supported a towering head-piece tipped with a bunch of emu feathers in imitation of the neck and head of an emu. Thus arrayed he stalked backwards and forwards in the aimless fashion of the bird.19
These dramatic ceremonies were probably at first magical rites intended to supply the people with food and other necessaries.
What are we to think of the intention of these little dramas which the Central Australian aborigines regard as sacred and to the performance of which they devote so much time and labour? At first sight they are simply commemorative services designed to represent the ancestors as they lived and moved in the far-past times to recall their adventures of which legend has preserved the memory and to set them dramatically before the eyes of their living descendants. So far therefore the dramas might be described as purely historical in intention if not in reality. But there are reasons for thinking that in all cases a deeper meaning underlies or formerly underlay the performance of all these apparently simple historical plays; in fact we may suspect that originally they were all magical ceremonies observed for the practical purpose of supplying the people with food water sunshine and everything else of which they stand in need. This conclusion is suggested first of all by the practice of the Arunta and other Central Australian tribes who observe very similar ceremonies with the avowed intention of thereby multiplying the totemic animals and plants in order that they may be eaten by the tribe though not by the particular clan which has these animals or plants for its totem. It is true that the Arunta distinguish these magical ceremonies for the multiplication of the totems from what we may call the more purely commemorative or historical performances and they have a special name for the former namely intichiuma which they do not bestow on the latter. Yet these intichiuma or magical ceremonies resemble the commemorative ceremonies so closely that it is difficult to suppose they can always have been wholly distinct. For example in the magical ceremonies for the multiplication of witchetty grubs the performers pretend to be the insects emerging from their chrysalis cases20 just as the actors do in the similar commemorative ceremony which I have described; and again in a magical ceremony for the multiplication of emus the performers wear head-dresses to represent the long neck and small head of the bird and they mimic its gait21 exactly as the actors do in the commemorative ceremony. It seems reasonable therefore to conjecture that the ceremonies which now are or seem to be purely commemorative or historical were originally magical in intention being observed for the practical purpose of multiplying edible animals and plants or supplying other wants of the tribe.
Among the Warramunga these dramatic ceremonies are avowedly performed as magical rites
Now this conjecture is strongly confirmed by the actual usage of the Warramunga tribe amongst whom the commemorative or historical dramas are avowedly performed as magical rites: in other words the Warramunga attribute a magical virtue to the simple performance of such dramas: they think that by merely acting the parts of their totemic ancestors they thereby magically multiply the edible animals or plants which these ancestors had for their totems. Hence in this tribe the magical ceremonies and the dramatic performances practically coincide: with them as Messrs. Spencer and Gillen say the intichiuma or magical ceremonies (called by the Warramunga thalamminta) “for the most part simply consist in the performance of a complete series representing the alcheringa history of the totemic ancestor. In this tribe each totemic group has usually one great ancestor who arose in some special spot and walked across the country making various natural features as he did so—creeks plains ranges and water-holes—and leaving behind him spirit individuals who have since been reincarnated. The intichiuma [or magical] ceremony of the totem really consists in tracking these ancestors’ paths and repeating one after the other ceremonies commemorative of what are called the mungai spots the equivalent of the oknanikilla amongst the Arunta—that is the places where he left the spirit children behind.”22 Apparently the Warramunga imagine that by imitating a totemic ancestor at the very place where he left spirit children of the same totem behind him they thereby enable these spirit children to be born again and so increase the food supply whenever their totem is an edible animal or plant; for we must always remember that in the mind of these savages the idea of a man or woman is inextricably confused with the idea of his or her totem; they seem unable to distinguish between the two and therefore they believe that in multiplying human beings at their local totemic centres (mungai or oknanikilla) they simultaneously multiply their totems; and as the totems are commonly edible animals and plants it follows that in the opinion of the Warramunga the general effect of performing these ancestral plays is to increase the supply of food of the tribe. No wonder therefore that the dramas are sacred and that the natives attribute the most serious significance to their performance: the neglect to perform them might in their judgment bring famine and ruin on the whole tribe. As Messrs. Spencer and Gillen speaking of these ceremonies justly observe: “Their proper performance is a matter of very great importance in the eyes of the natives because not only do they serve to keep alive and hand down from generation to generation the traditions of the tribe but they are at least amongst the Warramunga intimately associated with the most important object of maintaining the food supply as every totemic group is held responsible for the maintenance of the material object the name of which it bears.”23
General view of the attitude of the Central Australian natives towards their dead.
To sum up the attitude of the Central Australian natives towards their dead. They believe that their dead are constantly undergoing reincarnation by being born again of women into the world in fact that every living man woman and child is nothing but a dead person come to life again that so it has been from the beginning and that so it will be to the end. Of a special world of the departed remote and different from the material world in which they live and from the familiar scenes to which they have been accustomed from infancy they have no conception; still less if that is possible have they any idea of a division of the world of the dead into a realm of bliss and a realm of woe where the spirits of the good live ineffably happy and the spirits of the bad live unspeakably miserable. To their simple minds the spirits of the dead dwell all about them in the rocky gorges the barren plains the wooded dells the rustling trees the still waters of their native land haunting in death the very spots where they last entered into their mothers’ wombs to be born and where in future they will again enter into the wombs of other women to be born again as other children into the world. And so they think it will go on for ever and ever. Such a creed seems at first sight as I have pointed out irreconcilable with a worship of the dead in the proper sense of the word; and so perhaps it would be if these savages were strictly consistent and logical in their theories. But they are not. They admit that their remote ancestors in other words that they themselves in former incarnations possessed certain marvellous powers to which in the present degenerate days they can lay no claim; and in this significant admission we may detect a rift a real distinction of kind between the living and the dead which in time might widen out into an impassable gulf. In other words we may suppose that the Central Australians if left to themselves might come to hold that the dead return no more to the land of the living and that acknowledging as they do the vast superiority of their remote ancestors to themselves they might end by worshipping them at first simply as powerful ancestral spirits and afterwards as supernatural deities whose original connexion with humanity had been totally forgotten. In point of fact we saw that among the Warramunga the mythical water-snake Wollunqua who is regarded as an ancestor of a totemic clan has made some progress towards deification; for while he is still regarded as the forefather of the clan which bears his name it is no longer supposed that he is born again of women into the world but that he lives eternal and invisible under the water of a haunted pool and that he has it in his power both to help and to harm his people who pray to him and perform ceremonies in his honour. This awful being whose voice is heard in the peal of thunder and whose dreadful name may not be pronounced in common life is not far from godhead; at least he is apparently the nearest approach to it which the imagination of these rude savages has been able to conceive. Lastly as I have pointed out the reverence which the Central Australians entertain for their dead ancestors is closely bound up with their totemism; they fail to distinguish clearly or at all between men and their totems and accordingly the ceremonies which they perform to commemorate the dead are at the same time magical rites designed to ensure an abundant supply of food and of all the other necessaries and conveniences which savage life requires or admits of; indeed we may with some probability conjecture that the magical intention of these ceremonies is the primary and original one and that the commemorative intention is secondary and derivative. If that could be proved to be so (which is hardly to be expected) we should be obliged to conclude that in this as in so many enquiries into the remote human past we detect evidence of an Age of Magic preceding anything that deserves to be dignified with the name of religion.
That ends what I have to say at present as to the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead among the Central Australian aborigines. In my next lecture I propose to pursue the enquiry among the other tribes of Australia.