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Lecture 6 The Belief in Immortality Among the Other Aborigines of Australia

Lecture 6
The Belief in Immortality Among the Other Aborigines of Australia
Customs and beliefs concerning the dead in the other tribes on Australia.
IN the last lecture I concluded my account of the beliefs customs and beliefs and practices of the Central Australian aborigines in regard to the dead. To-day I propose to consider the customs and beliefs concerning the dead which prevail among the native tribes of tribes in other parts of Australia. But at the outset I Must warn you that our information as to these other tribes is far less full and precise than that which we possess as to the tribes of the centre which have had the great advantage of being observed and described by two highly qualified scientific observers Messrs. Spencer and Gillen. Our knowledge of all other Australian tribes is comparatively fragmentary and accordingly it is impossible to give even an approximately complete view of their notions concerning the state of the human spirit after death and of the rites which they observe for the purpose of disarming or propitiating the souls of the departed. We must therefore content ourselves with more or less partial glimpses of this side of native religion.
Belief in the reincarnation of the dead among the natives of Queensland.

The first question we naturally ask is whether the belief in the reincarnation of the dead which prevails universally among the Central tribes reappears among tribes in other parts of the continent. It certainly does so and although the evidence on this subject is very imperfect it suffices to raise a presumption that a similar belief in the rebirth or reincarnation of the dead was formerly universal among the Australian aborigines. Unquestionably the belief is entertained by some of the natives of Queensland who have been described for us by Mr. W. E. Roth. Thus for example the aborigines on the Pennefather River think that every person's spirit undergoes a series of reincarnations and that in the interval between two reincarnations the spirit resides in one or other of the haunts of Anjea a mythical being who causes conception in women by putting mud babies into their bodies. Such spots haunted by the fabulous being Anjea and by the souls of the dead awaiting rebirth may be a tree a rock or a pool of water; they clearly correspond to the local totem centres (oknanikilla among the Arunta mungai among the Warramunga) of the Central Australian tribes which I described in former lectures. The natives of the Pennefather River observe a ceremony at the birth of a child in order to ascertain the exact spot where its spirit tarried in the interval since its last incarnation; and when they have discovered it they speak of the child as obtained from a tree a rock or a pool of water according to the place from which its spirit is supposed to have passed into its mother.1 Readers of the classics can hardly fail to be reminded of the Homeric phrase to be “born of an oak or a rock”2 which seems to point to a similar belief in the possibility of human souls awaiting reincarnation in the boughs of an oak-tree or in the cleft of a rock. In the opinion of the Pennefather natives all disembodied human spirits or choi as they call them are mischief-makers and evildoers for they make people sick or crazy; but the medicinemen can sometimes control them for good or evil. They wander about in the bush but there are certain hollow trees or clumps of trees with wide-spreading branches which they most love to haunt and they can be heard in the rustling of the leaves or the crackling of the boughs at night. Anjea himself who puts babies into women is never seen but you may hear him laughing in the depths of the forest among the rocks in the lagoons and along the mangrove swamps; and when you hear his laugh you may be sure that he has got a baby.3 If a native happens to hurt himself near a tree he imagines that the spirit of some dead person is lurking among the branches and he will never cut that tree down lest a worse thing should befall him at the hands of the vengeful ghost4 A curious feature in the beliefs of these Pennefather natives is that apart from the spirits called choi which lives in a disembodied state between two incarnations every person is supposed to have a spirit of a different sort called ngai which has its seat in the heart; they feel it beating within their breast; it talks to them in sleep and so is the cause of dreams. At death a man's ngai spirit does not go away into the bush to await reincarnation like his choi spirit; on the contrary it passes at once into his children boys and girls alike; for before their father's death children are supposed not to possess a ngai spirit; if a child dies before its father they think that it never had a ngai spirit at all. And the ngai spirit may leave a man in his lifetime as well as at death; for example when a person faints the natives think that he does so because his ngai spirit has departed from him and they will stamp on the ground to make it return. On the other hand the choi spirit is supposed never to quit a man during life; it is thought to be in some undefined way related to the shadow whereas the ngai spirit as we saw manifests itself in the beating of the heart. When a woman dies her ngai spirit goes not into her children but into her sisters one after the other; and when all the sisters are dead the woman's ngai spirit goes away among the mangroves and perishes altogether5

The ngai spirits.
Thus these savages explain the phenomena of birth and death of conscious and unconscious life by a theory of a double human spirit one associated with the heart and the other with the shadow. The psychology is rudimentary still it is interesting as an attempt to solve problems which still puzzle civilised man.
Beliefs of natives of Cape Bedford in Queensland.
Other Queensland aborigines associate the vital principle not with the heart but with the breath. For example at Cape Bedford the natives call it wau-wu and think that it never leaves the body sleeping or waking till death when it haunts its place of burial for a time and may communicate with the living. Thus like the ghost of Hamlet's father it will often appear to a near kinsman or intimate friend tell him the pitiful tale how he was done to death by an enemy and urge him to revenge. Again the soul of a man's dead father or friend may bear him company on a journey and like the beryl-stone in Rossetti's poem Rose Mary warn him of an ambuscade lurking for him in a spot where the man himself sees nothing. But the spirits of the dead do not always come with such friendly intent; they may drive the living distracted; a peculiar form of mental excitement and bewilderment is attributed to their action. Further these aborigines at Cape Bedford in Queensland believe that all spirits of nature are in fact souls of the dead. Such spirits usually leave their haunts in the forests and caves at night. Stouthearted old men can see and converse with them and receive from them warnings of danger; but women and children fear these spirits and never see them. But some spirits of the dead when they have ceased to haunt their places of burial go away eastward and are reincarnated in white people; hence these savages often look for a resemblance to some deceased tribesman among Europeans and frequently wonder why it is that the white man on whom their fancy has pitched remembers nothing about his former life as a black man among blacks6
Beliefs of the natives of the Trully River in Queensland.
The natives of the Tully River in Queensland associate the principle of life both with the breath and with the shadow. It departs from the body temporarily in sleep and fainting-fits and permanently in death after which it may be heard at night tapping on the top of huts or creaking in the branches of trees. It is everlasting so far as these savages have any idea of eternity and further it is intangible; hence in its disembodied state it needs no food and none is set out for it. The disposition of these disembodied spirits of the dead is good or bad according to their disposition in life. Yet when a man is alone by himself the spirit even of one of his own dead kinsfolk will sometimes come and do him a mischief. On the other hand it can do nothing to several people together; there is safety in numbers. They may all see and hear the ghost but he will not attack them. Hence these savages have been taught from childhood to beware of going alone: solitary people are liable at any moment to be assailed by the spirits of the dead. The only means they know of warding off these ghostly assailants is by lighting good fires7
Belief of the Australian aborigines that their dead are reborn in white people.
I have mentioned the belief of the Cape Bedford natives that the spirits of their dead are sometimes reincarnated in white people. A similar notion is reported from other and widely separated parts of Australia and wherever it exists may be taken as evidence of a general belief as to the rebirth or reincarnation of the dead even where such a belief is not expressly recorded. This superstition has sometimes proved of service to white people who have been cast among the blacks for it has ensured them a hospitable and even affectionate welcome where otherwise they might have encountered suspicion and hostility if not open violence. Thus for example the convict Buckley who escaped from the penal settlement on Port Phillip Bay in 1803 was found by some of the Wudthaurung tribe carrying a piece of a broken spear which he had abstracted from the grave of one of their people. So they took him to be the dead man risen from the grave; he received the name of the deceased was adopted by his relations and lived with the tribe for thirty-two years without ever conversing with a white man; when at last he met one he had forgotten the English language8. Again a Mr. Naseby who lived in the Kamilaroi country for fifty years happened to have the marks of cupping on his back and the natives could not be persuaded that he was not one of themselves come to life again with the family scars on his body9 for the Australian aborigines commonly raise scars on the bodies of young men at initiation. The late Sir George Grey was identified by an old Australian woman as her dead son come to life again. It may be worth while to quote his account of this unlooked-for meeting with his long-lost mother; for it will impress on you better than any words of mine could do the firmness of the faith which these savages repose in the resurrection of the body or at all events in the reincarnation of the soul. Grey writes as follows:—
Experience of Sir George Grey.
“After we had tethered the horses and made ourselves tolerably comfortable we heard loud voices from the hills above us: the effect was fine—for they really almost appeared to float in the air; and as the wild cries of the women who knew not our exact position came by upon the wind I thought it was well worth a little trouble to hear these savage sounds under such circumstances. Our guides shouted in return and gradually the approaching cries came nearer and nearer. I was however wholly unprepared for the scene that was about to take place. A sort of procession came up headed by two women down whose cheeks tears were streaming. The eldest of these came up to me and looking for a moment at me said—‘Gwa gwa bundo bal’—‘Yes yes in truth it is him’; and then throwing her arms round me cried bitterly her head resting on my breast; and although I was totally ignorant of what their meaning was from mere motives of compassion I offered no resistance to her caresses however disagreeable they might be for she was old ugly and filthily dirty; the other younger one knelt at my feet also crying. At last the old lady emboldened by my submission deliberately kissed me on each cheek just in the manner a Frenchwoman would have done; she then cried a little more and at length relieving me assured me that I was the ghost of her son who had some time before been killed by a spear-wound in his breast. The younger female was my sister; but she whether from motives of delicacy or from any imagined backwardness on my part did not think proper to kiss me. My new mother expressed almost as much delight at my return to my family as my real mother would have done had I been unexpectedly restored to her. As soon as she left me my brothers and father (the old man who had previously been so frightened) came up and embraced me after their manner—that is they threw their arms round my waist placed their right knee against my right knee and their breast against my breast holding me in this way for several minutes. During the time that the ceremony lasted I according to the native custom preserved a grave and mournful expression of countenance. This belief that white people are the souls of departed blacks is by no means an uncommon superstition amongst them; they themselves never having an idea of quitting their own land cannot imagine others doing it;—and thus when they see white people suddenly appear in their country and settling themselves down in particular spots they imagine that they must have formed an attachment for this land in some other state of existence; and hence conclude the settlers were at one period black men and their own relations. Likenesses whether real or imagined complete the delusion; and from the manner of the old woman I have just alluded to from her many tears and from her warm caresses I feel firmly convinced that she really believed I was her son whose first thought upon his return to earth had been to re-visit his old mother and bring her a present.”10
In South-eastern Australia the natives believed that the souls of the dead were not reborn but went up to the sky.
On the whole then we may conclude that a belief in the reincarnation of the dead has not been confined to the tribes of Central Australia but has been held by the tribes in many perhaps at one time in all other parts of the continent. Yet if we may judge from the imperfect records which we possess this faith in the return of the dead to life in human form would seem to have given way and been replaced to some extent by a different creed among many tribes of South-eastern Australia. In this part of the continent it appears to have been often held by the natives that after death the soul is not born again among men but goes away for ever to some distant country either in the sky or beyond the sea where all the spirits of the dead congregate. Thus Lieutenant-Colonel Collins who was Governor of New South Wales in the early days of the colony at the end of the eighteenth century reports that when the natives were often questioned “as to what became of them after their decease some answered that they went either on or beyond the great water; but by far the greater number signified that they went to the clouds.”11 Again the Narrinyeri tribe of South Australia believed that all the dead went up to the sky and that some of them at least became stars. We possess an excellent description of the beliefs and customs of this tribe from the pen of a missionary the Rev. George Taplin who lived among them for many years. His account of their theory of the state of the dead is instructive. It runs thus:—
Beliefs of the Narrinyeri concerning the dead.
“The Narrinyeri point out several stars and say that they are deceased warriors who have gone to heaven (Wyirrewarre). There are Wyungare and Nepalle and the Manchingga and several others. Every native expects to go to Wyirrewarre after death. They also believe that the dead descend from thence and walk the earth; and that they are able to injure those whom they dislike. Consequently men who have been notorious in life for a domineering and revengeful disposition are very much dreaded after death. For instance there is Karungpe who comes in the dead of night when the camp fire has burned low and like a rushing wind scatters the dying embers and then takes advantage of the darkness to rob some sleeper of life; and it is considered dangerous to whistle in the dark for Karungpe is especially attracted by a whistle. There is another restless spirit—the deceased father of a boy whom I well know—who is said to rove about armed with a rope with which he catches people. All the Narrinyeri old and young are dreadfully afraid of seeing ghosts and none of them will venture into the scrub after dark lest he should encounter the spirits which are supposed to roam there. I have heard some admirable specimens of ghost stories from them. In one case I remember the ghost was represented to have set fire to a wurley [hut] and ascended to heaven in the flame. The Narrinyeri regard the disapprobation of the spirits of the dead as a thing to be dreaded; and if a serious quarrel takes place between near relatives some of the friends are sure to interpose with entreaties to the contentious parties to be reconciled lest the spirits of the dead should be offended at unseemly disputes between those who ought to be at peace. The name of the dead must not be mentioned until his body has decayed lest a want of sorrow should seem to be indicated by the common and flippant use of his name. A native would have the deceased believe that he cannot hear or speak his name without weeping.”12
Narrinyeri fear of the dead.
Mourning customs.
From this account it would appear that the Narrinyeri have no belief in the reincarnation of the dead; they suppose that the souls of the departed live up aloft in the sky from which they descend at night in the form of ghosts to haunt and trouble the living. On the whole the attitude of the Narrinyeri towards their dead kinsfolk seems to be dominated by fear; of affection there is apparently little or no trace. It is true that like most Australian tribes they indulge in extravagant demonstrations of grief at the death of their kinsfolk. A great lamentation and wailing is made by all the relations and friends of the deceased. They cut off their hair close to the head and besmudge themselves with oil and pounded charcoal. The women besmear themselves with the most disgusting filth. All beat and cut themselves and make a violent show of sorrow; and all the time that the corpse rubbed over with grease and red ochre is being dried over a slow fire in the hut the women take it by turns to weep and wail before it so that the lamentation never ceases for days. Yet Mr. Taplin was persuaded “that fear has more to do with most of these exhibitions than grief”; and he tells us that “for one minute a woman will appear in the deepest agony of grief and tears; a few minutes after the conventional amount of weeping having been accomplished they will laugh and talk with the merriest.”13 The principal motive in fact for all this excessive display of sorrow would seem to be a fear lest the jealous ghost should think himself slighted and should avenge the slight on the cold-hearted relatives who do not mourn sufficiently for the irreparable loss they have sustained by his death. We may conjecture that the same train of thought explains the ancient and widespread custom of hiring professional mourners to wail over the dead; the tears and lamentations of his kinsfolk are not enough to soothe the wounded feelings of the departed they must be reinforced by noisier expressions of regret.
Deaths attributed by the Narrinyeri to sorcery.
But there is another powerful motive for all these violent demonstrations of grief into the secret of which we are let by Mr. Taplin. He says that “all the relatives are careful to be present and not to be wanting in the proper signs of sorrow lest they should be suspected of complicity in causing the death.”14 In fact the Narrinyeri like many other savages attribute all or most natural deaths to sorcery. When a person dies they think that he or she has been killed by the evil magic of some ill-wisher and one of the first things to be done is to discover the culprit in order that his life may be taken in revenge. For this purpose the Narrinyeri resort to a form of divination. On the first night after the death the nearest relation of the deceased sleeps with his head on the corpse hoping thus to dream of the sorcerer who has done the mischief. Next day the corpse is placed on a sort of bier supported on men's shoulders. The friends of the deceased gather round and call out the names of suspected persons to see whether the corpse will give any sign. At last the next of kin calls out the name of the person of whom he has dreamed and if at the sound the corpse makes a movement towards him which the bearers say they cannot resist it is regarded as a clear token that the man so named is the malefactor. It only remains for the kinsfolk of the dead to hunt down the culprit and kill him.15 Thus not only the relations but everybody in the neighbourhood has the strongest motive for assuming at least an appearance of sorrow at a death lest the suspicion of having caused it by sorcery should fall upon him.
Pretence made by the Narrinyeri of avenging the death of their friends on the quilty sorcerer.
It deserves to be noted that while the Narrinyeri nominally acknowledged the duty of killing the sorcerer who in their opinion had caused the death of their friend they by no means always discharged the duty but sometimes contented themselves with little more than a pretence of revenge. Mr. Taplin's account of the proceedings observed on such an occasion is instructive. It runs thus: “The spirit of the dead is not considered to have been appeased until his relatives have avenged his death. They will kill the sorcerer who has caused it if they can catch him; but generally they cannot catch him and often do not wish it. Most probably he belongs to some other tribe of the Narrinyeri. Messengers pass between the tribes relative to the affair and the friends of the accused person at last formally curse the dead man and all his dead relatives. This constitutes a casus belli. Arrangements are forthwith made for a pitched battle and the two tribes meet in company with their respective allies. The tribe to which the dead man belongs weep and make a great lamentation for him and the opposing tribe sets some fellows to dance about and play antics in derision of their enemies. Then the whole tribe will set up a great laugh by way of further provocation. If there is any other cause of animosity between the tribes besides the matter of avenging the dead there will now be a pretty severe fight with spears. If however the tribes have nothing but the dead man to fight about they will probably throw a few spears indulge in considerable abuse of each other perhaps one or two will get slightly wounded and then some of the old men will declare that enough has been done. The dead man is considered to have been appeased by the efforts of his friends to avenge his death by fighting and the two tribes are friendly again. In such a case the fight is a mere ceremony.”16 Thus among the Narrinyeri the duty of blood revenge was often supposed to be sufficiently discharged by a sham fight performed apparently for the satisfaction of the ghost who was supposed to be looking on and to be gratified by the sight of his friends hurling spears at the author of his death. Merciful pretences of the same sort have been practised by other savages in order to satisfy the vengeful ghost without the effusion of blood. Examples of them will come before us later on.17
Magical virtue ascribed to the hair of the dead.
However the attitude of the Narrinyeri towards dead was not purely one of fear and aversion. They imagined that they could derive certain benefits from their departed kinsfolk and the channel through which these benefits flowed was furnished by their hair. They cut off the hair of the dead and spun it into a cord and this cord was commonly worn by the men as a head-band. They said that thereby they “smelled the dead” and that the smell made their eyes large and their sight keen so that in a fight they could see the spears coming and could parry or avoid them.18 Similar magical virtues are ascribed to the hair of the dead by the Arunta. Among them the hair of a dead man is cut off and made into a magic girdle which is a valued possession and is only worn when a man is going out to engage in a tribal fight or to stalk a foe for the purpose of destroying him by witchcraft. The girdle is supposed to be endowed with magic power and to impart to its possessor all the warlike qualities of the dead man from whose hair it was made; in particular it is thought to ensure accuracy of aim in the wearer while at the same time it destroys that of his adversary.19 Hence the girdle is worn by the man who takes the lead in avenging the death of the deceased on his supposed murderer; the mere sight of it they think so terrifies the victim that his legs tremble under him he becomes incapable of fighting and is easily speared20
Belief that the souls of the dead go up to the sky.
Among the tribes of South-eastern Australia the Narrinyeri were not alone in holding the curious belief that the souls of the dead go up into the sky to live there for ever but that their ghosts come down again from time to time roam about their old haunts on earth and communicate with the living. This for example was the belief of the Dieri the Buandik the Kurnai and the Kulin tribes.21 The Buandik thought that everything in skyland was better than on earth; a fat kangaroo for example was compared to a kangaroo of heaven where of course the animals might be expected to abounds22 The Kulin imagined that the spirits of the dead ascended to heaven by the bright rays of the setting sun.23 The Wailwun natives in New South Wales used to bury their dead in hollow trees and when they dropped the body into its place the bearers and the bystanders joined in a loud whirring sound like the rush of the wind. They said that this represented the upward flight of the soul to the sky.24
Appearance of the dead to the living especially in dreams.
With regard to the ghosts on earth some tribes of South-eastern Australia believe that they can be seen by the living can partake of food and can warm themselves at a fire. It is especially the graves where their mouldering bodies are deposited that these restless spirits are supposed to haunt; it is there that they shew themselves either to people generally or to such as have the second sight.25 But it is most commonly in dreams that they appear to the living and hold communication with them. Often these communications are believed to be helpful. Thus the tribes of the Wotjobaluk nation thought that the ghosts of their dead relations could visit them in sleep to protect them. A Mukjarawaint man told Dr. Howitt that his father came to him in a dream and warned him to beware or he would be killed. This the man believed was the saving of his life; for he afterwards came to the place which he had seen in his dream; whereupon instead of going on he turned back so that his enemies who might have been waiting for him there did not catch him.26 Another man informed Dr. Howitt that his dead uncle appeared to him in sleep and taught him charms against sickness and other evils; and the Chepara tribe similarly believed that male ancestors visited sleepers and imparted to them charms to avert evil magic.27
Savage faith in the truth of dreams.
Association of the stars with the souls of the dead.
Such notions follow naturally from the savage theory of dreams. Almost all savages appear to believe firmly in the truth of dreams; they fail to draw the distinction which to us seems obvious between the imaginary creations of the mind in sleep and the waking realities of the physical world. Whatever they dream of must they think be actually existing; for have they not seen it with their own eyes? To argue that the visions of sleep have no real existence is therefore in their opinion to argue against the plain evidence of their senses; and they naturally treat such exaggerated scepticism with incredulity and contempt. Hence when they dream of their dead friends and relations they necessarily conclude that these persons are still alive somewhere and somehow though they do not commonly appear by daylight to people in their waking hours. Unquestionably this savage faith in the reality of dreams has been one of the principal sources of the widespread almost universal belief in the survival of the human soul after death. It explains why ghosts are supposed to appear rather by night than by day since it is chiefly by night that men sleep and dream dreams. Perhaps it may also partly account for the association of the stars with the souls of the dead. For if the dead appear to the living mainly in the hours of darkness it seems not unnatural to imagine that the bright points of light which then bespangle the canopy of heaven are either the souls of the departed or fires kindled by them in their home aloft. For example the Central Australian aborigines commonly suppose the stars to be the camp-fires of natives who live on the banks of the great river which we civilised men by a survival of primitive mythology call the Milky Way. However these rude savages we are told as a general rule “appear to pay very little attention to the stars in detail probably because they enter very little into anything which is connected with their daily life and more especially with their food supply.”28 The same observation which Messrs. Spencer and Gillen here make as to the natives of Central Australia might be applied to most savages who have remained in the purely hunting stage of social development. Such men are not much addicted to star-gazing since the stars have little or nothing to tell them that they wish to know. It is not till people have betaken themselves to sowing and reaping crops that they begin to scan the heavens more carefully in order to determine the season of sowing by observation of the great celestial time-keepers the rising and setting of certain constellations above all apparently of the Pleiades.29 In short the rise of agriculture favours the rise of astronomy.
Creed of the South-eastern Australians touching the dead.
But to return to the ideas of the Australian aborigines concerning the dead we may say of the natives of the south-eastern part of the continent in the words of Dr. Howitt that “there is a universal belief in the existence of the human spirit after death as a ghost which is able to communicate with the living when they sleep. It finds its way to the sky-country where it lives in a land like the earth only more fertile better watered and plentifully supplied with game.”30 This belief is very different from that of the Central Australian natives who think that the souls of the dead tarry on earth in their old familiar haunts until the time comes for them to be born again into the world. Of the two different creeds that of the south-eastern tribes may be regarded as the more advanced since it admits that the dead do not return to life and that their disembodied spirits do not haunt perpetually a multitude of spiritual parks or reservations dotted over the face of the country.
The creed seems to from part of a general advance of culture in this part of the continent.
But how are we to account for this marked difference of belief between the natives of the Centre and the natives of the South-east? Perhaps the most probable explanation is that the creed of the south-eastern tribes in this respect is part of a general advance of culture brought about by the more favourable natural conditions under which they live as compared with the forlorn state of the rude inhabitants of the Central deserts. That advance of culture manifests itself in a variety of ways. On the material side it is seen in more substantial and permanent dwellings and in warmer and better clothing. On the social side it is seen in an incipient tendency to the rise of a regular chieftainship a thing which is quite unknown among the democratic or rather oligarchic savages of the Centre who are mainly governed by the old men in council.31 But the rise of chieftainship is a great step in political progress; since a monarchical government of some sort appears to be essential to the emergence of mankind from savagery. On the whole then the beliefs of the South-eastern Australian aborigines seem to mark a step on the upward road towards civilisation.
Possible influence of European teaching on native beliefs.
At the same time we must not forget that these beliefs may have been influenced by the lessons which they have learned from white settlers with whom in this part of Australia they have been so long in contact. The possibility of such a transfusion of the new wine of Europe into the old bottles of Australia did not escape the experienced Mr. James Dawson an early settler in Victoria who has given us a valuable account of the natives of that region in the old days when they were still comparatively little contaminated by intercourse with the whites. He describes as follows the views which prevailed as to the dead among the tribes of Western Victoria:—“After the disposal of the body of a good person its shade walks about for three days; and although it appears to people it holds no communication with them. Should it be seen and named by anyone during these three days it instantly disappears. At the expiry of three days it goes off to a beautiful country above the clouds abounding with kangaroo and other game where life will be enjoyed for ever. Friends will meet and recognize each other there; but there will be no marrying as the bodies have been left on earth. Children under four or five years have no souls and no future life. The shades of the wicked wander miserably about the earth for one year after death frightening people and then descend to Ummekulleen never to return.” After giving us this account of the native creed Mr. Dawson adds very justly: “Some of the ideas described above may possibly have originated with the white man and been transmitted from Sydney by one tribe to another.”32 The probability of white influence on this particular doctrine of religion is increased by the frank confession which these same natives made of the religious deterioration (as they regarded it) which they had suffered in another direction through the teaching of the missionaries. On this subject to quote again from Mr. Dawson the savages are of opinion that “the good spirit Pirnmeheeal is a gigantic man living above the clouds; and as he is of a kindly disposition and harms no one he is seldom mentioned but always with respect. His voice the thunder is listened to with pleasure as it does good to man and beast by bringing rain and making grass and roots grow for their benefit. But the aborigines say that the missionaries and government protectors have given them a dread of Pirnmeheeal; and they are sorry that the young people and many of the old are now afraid of a being who never did any harm to their forefathers.”33
Vagueness and inconsistency of native beliefs to the state of the dead.
Custom or ritual as the interpreter of belief.
However it is very difficult to ascertain the exact beliefs of savages as to the dead. The thought of the savage is to be vague and inconsistent; he neither represents his ideas clearly to his own mind nor can he express them lucidly to others even if he wishes to do so. And his thought is not only vague and inconsistent; it is fluid and unstable liable to shift and change under alien influence. For these and other reasons such as the distrust of strangers and the difficulty of language which often interposes a formidable barrier between savage man and the civilised enquirer the domain of primitive beliefs is beset by so many snares and pitfalls that we might almost despair of arriving at the truth were it not that we possess a clue to guide us on the dark and slippery way. That clue is action. While it is generally very difficult to ascertain what any man thinks it is comparatively easy to ascertain what he does; and what a man does not what he says is the surest touchstone to his real belief. Hence belief when we attempt to study the religion of backward races the ritual which they practise is generally a safer indication of their actual creed than the loudest profession of faith. In regard to the state of the human soul after death the beliefs of the Australian aborigines are clearly reflected in many of the customs which they observe at the death and burial of their friends and enemies and it is accordingly with an account of some of these customs that I propose to conclude this part of my subject.
Burial customs of the Australian aborigines as evidence of their beliefs concerning the state of the soul after death.
Food placed on the grave for the use of the ghost and fires kindled to warm him.
Now some of the burial customs observed by the Australian savages reveal in the clearest manner their belief that the human soul survives the death of the body that in its disembodied state it retains consciousness and feeling and can do a mischief to the living; in short they shew that in the opinion of these people the departed live in the form of dangerous ghosts. Thus for example when the deceased is a person of importance the Dieri place food for many days on the grave and in winter they kindle a fire in order that the ghost may warm himself at it. If the food remains untouched on the grave they think that the dead is not hungry.34 The Blanch-water section of that tribe fear the spirits of the dead and accordingly take steps to prevent their resurrection. For that purpose they tie the toes of the corpse together and the thumbs behind the back which must obviously make it difficult for the dead man to arise in his might and pursue them. Moreover for a month after the death they sweep a clear space round the grave at dusk every evening and inspect it every morning. If they find any tracks on it they assume that they have been made by the restless ghost in his nocturnal peregrinations and accordingly they dig up his mouldering remains and bury them in some other place where they hope he will sleep sounder.35 The Kukata tribe think that the ghost may be thirsty so they obligingly leave a drinking vessel on the grave that he may slake his thirst. Also they deposit spears and other weapons on the spot together with a digging-stick which is specially intended to ward off evil spirits who may be on the prowl.36 The ghosts of the natives on the Maranoa river were also thirsty souls so vessels full of water were sometimes suspended for their use over the grave.37 A custom of lighting a fire on the grave to warm the poor shivering ghost seems to have been not uncommon among the aboriginal Australians. The Western Victorians for example kept up large fires all night for this purpose.38 In the Wiimbaio tribe two fires were kept burning for a whole month on the grave one to the right and the other to the left in order that the ghost might come out and warm himself at them in the chill night air. If they found tracks near the grave they inferred like the Dieri that the perturbed spirit had quitted his narrow bed to pace to and fro in the long hours of darkness; but if no footprints were visible they thought that he slept in peace.39 In some parts of Western Australia the natives maintained fires on the grave for more than a month for the convenience of the ghost; and they clearly expected him to come to life again for they detached the nails from the thumb and forefinger of the corpse and deposited them in a small hole beside the grave in order that they might know their friend at his resurrection.40 The length of time during which fires were maintained or kindled daily on the grave is said to have varied according to the estimation in which the man was held from a few days to three or four years.41 We have seen that the Dieri laid food on the grave for the hungry ghost to partake of and the same custom was observed by the Gournditch-mara tribe.42 However some intelligent old aborigines of Western Victoria derided the custom as “white fellow's gammon.”43
Property of the dead buried with them.
Further in some tribes of South-eastern Australia it was customary to deposit the scanty of the deceased usually consisting of a few rude weapons or implements on the grave or to bury it with him. Thus the natives of Western Victoria buried all a dead man's ornaments weapons and property with him in the grave only reserving his stone axes which were too valuable to be thus sacrificed: these were inherited by the next of kin44 The Wurunjerri also interred the personal property of the dead with him; if the deceased was a man his spear-thrower was stuck in the ground at the head of the grave; if the deceased was a woman the same thing was done with her digging-stick. That these implements were intended for the use of the ghost and not merely as headstones to mark the situation of the tomb and the sex of the departed is clear from a significant exception to the custom. When the departed brother was a man of violent temper who had been quarrelsome and a brawler in his life no weapons were buried with him obviously lest in a fit of ill-temper he should sally from the grave and assault people with them.45 Similarly the Turrbal tribe who deposited their dead in the forks of trees used to leave a spear and club near the corpse “that the spirit of the dead might have weapons wherewith to kill game for his sustenance in the future state. A yam-stick was placed in the ground at a woman's grave so that she might go away at night and seek for roots.”46 The Wolgal tribe were very particular about burying everything that belonged to a dead man with him; spears and nets though valuable articles of property were thus sacrificed; even a canoe has been known to be cut up in order that the pieces of it might be deposited in the grave. In fact “everything belonging to a dead man was put out of sight.”47 Similarly in the Geawe-gal tribe all the implements and inanimate property of a warrior were interred with him.48 In the Gringai country not only was all a man's property buried with him but every native present at the burial contributed something and these contributions were piled together at the head of the corpse before the grave was filled in49. Among the tribes of Southern Victoria when the grave has been dug and lined with fresh leaves and twigs so as to make a soft bed the dead man's property is brought in two bags and the sorcerer shakes out the contents. They consist of such small articles as pieces of hard stone suitable for cutting or paring skins bones for boring holes twine made of opossum wool and so forth. These are placed in the grave and the bags and rugs of the deceased are torn up and thrown in likewise. Then the sorcerer asks whether the dead man had any other property and if he had it is brought forward and laid beside the torn fragments of the bags and rugs. Everything that a man owned in life must be laid beside him in death.50 Again among the tribes of the Lower Murray Lachlan and Darling rivers in New South Wales all a dead man's property including his weapons and nets was buried with his body in the grave.51 Further we are told that among the natives of Western Australia the weapons and personal property of the deceased are placed on the grave “so that when he rises from the dead they may be ready to his hand.”52 In the Boulia district of Queensland the things which belonged to a dead man such as his boomerangs and spears are either buried with him destroyed by fire or sometimes though rarely distributed among his tribal brothers but never among his children.53
Intention of destroying the property of the dead.
The property of the dead not destroyed in Central Australia.
Thus among certain tribes of Australia especially in the south-eastern part of the continent it appears that the custom of burying or destroying a dead man's property has been very common. That the intention of the custom in some cases is to supply the supposed needs of the ghost seems to be fairly certain; but we may doubt whether this explanation would apply to the practice of burning or otherwise destroying the things which had belonged to the deceased. More probably such destruction springs from an overpowering dread of the ghost and a wish to sever all connexion with him so that he may have no excuse for returning and haunting the survivors as he might do if his property were either kept by them or deposited in the grave. Whatever the motive for the burial or destruction of a dead man's property may be the custom appears not to prevail among the tribes of Central Australia. In the eastern Arunta tribe indeed it is said that sometimes a little wooden vessel used in camp for holding small objects may be buried with the man but this is the only instance which Messrs. Spencer and Gillen could hear of in which any article of ordinary use is buried in the grave. Far from wasting property in that way these economical savages preserve even a man's personal ornaments such as his necklaces armlets and the fur string which he wore round his head; indeed as we have seen they go so far as to cut off the hair from the head of the deceased and to keep it for magical uses.54 In the Warramunga tribe all the belongings of a dead man go to the tribal brothers of his mother.55
Property of the dead hung up on trees then washed and distributed.
Economic loss entailed by sacrifices to the dead.
The difference in this respect between the practice of the Central tribes and that of the tribes nearer the sea especially in Victoria and New South Wales is very notable. A custom intermediate between the two is observed by some tribes of the Darling River who hang up the weapons nets and other property of the deceased on trees for about two months then wash them and distribute them among the relations56. The reason for hanging the things up and washing them is no doubt to rid them of the infection of death in order that they may be used with safety by the survivors. Such a custom points clearly to a growing fear of the dead; and that fear or reverence comes out still more clearly in the practice of either burying the property of the dead with them or destroying it altogether which is observed by the aborigines of Victoria and other parts of Australia who live under more favourable conditions of life than the inhabitants of the Central deserts. This confirms the conclusion which we have reached on other grounds that among the aboriginal population of Australia favourable natural conditions in respect of climate food and water have exercised a most important influence in stimulating social progress in many directions and not least in the direction of religion. At the same time while we recognise that the incipient tendency to a worship of the dead which may be detected in these regions marks a step forward in religious development we must acknowledge that the practice of burying or destroying the property of the dead which is one of the ways in which the tendency manifests itself is regarded from the side of economic progress a decided step backward. It marks in fact the beginning of a melancholy aberration of the human mind which has led mankind to sacrifice the real interests of the living to the imaginary interests of the dead. With the general advance of society and the accompanying accumulation of property these sacrifices have at certain stages of evolution become heavier and heavier as the demands of the ghosts became more and more exacting. The economic waste which the belief in the immortality of the soul has entailed on the world is incalculable. When we contemplate that waste in its small beginnings among the rude savages of Australia it appears insignificant enough; the world is not much the poorer for the loss of a parcel of boomerangs spears fur string and skin rugs. But when we pass from the custom in this its feeble source and follow it as it swells in volume through the nations of the world till it attains the dimensions of a mighty river of wasted labour squandered treasure and spilt blood we cannot but wonder at the strange mixture of good and evil in the affairs of mankind seeing in what we justly call progress so much hardly earned gain side by side with so much gratuitous loss such immense additions to the substantial value of life to be set off against such enormous sacrifices to the shadow of a shade.