Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Totemism
Individual Totemism
Sex Totemism
Moiety Totemism
Section and Subsection Totemism
Clan Totemism
Local Totemism
Conception totemism
Birth totemism
Dream Totemism
Multiple totemism
2 Major Categoriess
Aboriginal Australia

Totemism in Australia is linked to the Dreamtime - the time before time - the time outside time  - the time of creation, when the ancestral beings, the totemic ancestors, roamed the land, giving birth to the people of the various totemic groups and naming the animals, plants, landscape features, etc.

It has been described by Elkin as '...a view of nature and life, of the universe and man, which colours the Aborigines' social groupings and mythologies, inspires their rituals and links them to the past. It unites them with nature's activities and species in a bond of mutual life-giving. ...' and that it is 'relationship between a person or a group of persons and (for example) a natural object or species, as part of nature'. It is worldview in which a human is an integral part of nature, not distinct from other natural species, sharing with them the same life essence.

In the Dreamtime, the formative period, the various species had not fully assumed the shapes they have today. Their physical manifestations were more fluid. They could manifest themselves in the human form or of a particular species of animal. A goanna ancestor could look like a man, but potentially change to look like a goanna. This is the basis of the connection between the living people and the ancestral being, the person having a connection with the type of goanna represented by the ancestor.

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Individual Totemism

Only 1 person is involved in a special relationship with some natural species, or a particular member of that species. The relationship is a personal one, not usually shared r inherited. There are actually cases of inheritance, as among the Wuradjeri, a youth may be given a totem during his initiation. There is also a form of 'assistant totemism', in which a totem animal may serve as a familiar, or 'second self' for a native doctor. There is another form among the Wuradjeri, a native doctor may take a 10-12 year-old-child from the main camp and 'sing' the assistant into him (bala or jarawajewa - 'meat' or totem within him, or the 'spirit animal'. In that case the bala is of patrilineal descent. It is widely distributed throughout New South Wales. Native doctors have spirit snakes in central, north and north-western Australia, associated with the Rainbow Serpent. The patrilneally inherited totem serves as an assistant in its physical and well as its spiritual form, among the Jaraldri on the Lower Murray. There are some songmen in western Arnhem Land who specialise in gossip songs, dealing with contemporary people. These songmen usually attribute new songs with a non-inherited familiar, a spirit or creature, that reveals itself in a dream.

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Sex Totemism

Each sex can have an emblem, such as a bird or animal, which usually signifies solidarity of that sex as distinct from the other. Injuring or killing the sex totem animal is like challenging or attacking that sex associated with it. An example was observed among the Kurnai of Gippsland. Among these people the emblems of the sexes are 2 different birds, one for each sex, who regard them as elder brother for men and elder sister for women. In this society marriages take place by elopement, and the girls can refuse a suitor. Conflict among the male-female totems helps overcome shyness of young people of marriageable age. Older women can kill a male totem and display it in the camp. This enrages the men and fighting takes place between young men and women. Later a young man can meet a young girl and call her by the female totem name, asking what that creature eats. Her reply can be something like, 'she eats kangaroo', or 'she eats possum.' This is a formal offer and acceptance of marriage, and the young couple elope. This system is usually associated with the south-east of Australia, with matrilineal moieties and matrilineal social totemic clans.  It did exist in other places.

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Moiety Totemism

This is widespread across the continent, but is most marked in the southeast and the southwest. In many cases it is expressed through other forms of totemism. For example, in northeastern Arnhem Land the social and natural environment, and the mythological constellations are distributed between the two moieties. There are hundreds of objects which could be termed totemic, these could be divided into major and minor totems. In western Arnhem Land, the matrilineal moieties are divided into phratries, each of which is associated with one or more totems.

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Section and Subsection Totemism

In aboriginal Australia, some tribal groups are divided into 4 or 8 categories, based on the lines of indirect matrilineal descent. One or more natural phenomena, representing its members, distinguishing them from others, can be identified or linked to a particular category. In the eastern Kimberleys there is a totemic bond of kinship, and they adopt a ritual attitude towards the totem. In northeastern Arnhem Land, several totems are associated with each subsection. Some examples are, wamud is associated with the wedge-tailed eagle, buralang with rock kangaroo, heron, albatross and wallaby. The subsection system is relatively new to to this region, so is not tightly integrated with the cult totemism of the clan-linguistic unit. In the eastern Kimberleys, north of Balgo, narangu - the subsection totems were treated more like namesakes, having no taboos associated with them. They weren't treated with respect.

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Clan Totemism

A clan is a group claiming common descent in the male or female line. They share a common relationship with 1 or more natural phenomena. For the members of this unit, the clan, the totem is a symbol of membership of the unit. It is recognised for the members of this clan and those of other clans. This totem has strong territorial and mythological ties associated with it, and it is believed that it can warn them of approaching danger.

Some distinguish between matrilineal social clan totemism and patrilineal clan totemism. Matrilineal clan totemism is widespread throughout eastern Australia - Queensland, New South Wales, western Victoria and eastern South Australia. There is also a small area in the southwest of Western Australia. The genera translation of the word for this totem is 'flesh' or 'meat' - the person is 'of one flesh' with his totem. The totems connected with matrilineal phratries of western Arnhem Land are not the centre of cult life, and the members of the phratry don't have a special attitude towards it. The totems of the matrilineal social clans are the centre of cult life. An example among the Dieri is the mardu. It is really an avunculineal (of the mother's brother's line) cult totem. Patrilineal clan cult totemism, bindara, is also found in this tribe. Patrilineal clan totemism was present in parts of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Cape York, coastal areas of New South Wales and Queensland, central Victoria, along the lower Murray and the Coorong district and among the Lake Eyre groups. The best example was among the Jaraldi, Dangani, etc. and northeastern Arnhem Land. In eastern Arnhem Land a combination of aspects, including non-totemic, were associated with the clan. A clan has several totemic cults, and these can be associated with more then one linguistic group. In central Australia totemic combinations were apparent but less strongly so.

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Local Totemism

With this people of a particular site or locality share a common totem, which is not connected with kin relationships or descent. The totem/totems were connected with the site. Totemism that is determined by the locality in which a child was born, such as the Great Victoria Desert, among others. In such a case this is also birth totemism. Births nearly always occur in the local territory of the father, so it is patrilineal local (cult) totemism. The main difference between local and patrilineal cult clan totemism is that descent is not a major factor - though there was a tendency for it to become patrilineal. A good example existed among the Aranda, where it is the conception, not the birth, that determines local totemic cult membership. A person associated with a particular site that has mythological associations has therefore a direct link with the totemic being connected with that site. People connected with a particular site share a bond.

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Conception Totemism

Conception totemism can be identified with local totemism. The place a mother first realises she is pregnant determines the child's ritual (cult) totem, according to the totemic or other connections with that site, as among the Aranda. It can be near a track followed by a being from the Dreamtime, a waterhole of other landscape feature formed in the Dreamtime by the various beings inhabiting the area at the time of creation. It is preferably associated with the ritual or cult totem of father, though this is not essential.

In some areas a man can find a spirit child in a dream or vision before the mother knows she is pregnant, he may 'know' a spirit child is to incarnated in his wife. The child may appear in conjunction with a natural phenomenon, often one connected with the father, with his country, or the his social unit. This is the child's conception totem. If a mother becomes sick after eating a particular food and later dreams of a spirit child. The food will be considered the conception totem, the child having entered her body with it, or taken the shape of the food. In some cases the spirit may not be connected to the totem. In northeastern Arnhem Land the totemic affiliations are oblique, even though it takes the form of some natural species, and is not directly significant to the resulting child. The spirit centres at which unborn children live in the Great Victoria Desert are not totemic, though spirit beings from the Dreamtime put them there, so they have indirect associations with the dreamtime. Spirit children were made by the Rainbow Serpent in the eastern Kimberleys, in the anthropomorphic form. At Balgo they are directly totemic, being associated with mythological sites.

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Birth totemism

In this form of totemism the place where a child is born determines its ritual or cult totem, rather than its place of conception. Men in the Great Victoria Desert tried to make sure their wives gave birth in their own country, preferably at a site near a track of the Dreamtime being most closely associated with him.

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Dream Totemism

This overlaps other types of totemism - individual and/or assistant totemism, conception, birth. In dreams a person can be consistently represented by a natural phenomenon which he is known to have a close link with. He can identify himself with a totemic being, either human or other form, in his dreams and dreams of others, the actions of the being and his. A  dream totem, not identified as being his other self, may perform certain services in a dream. Spirit familiars of western Arnhem Land songmen and the spirit assistants of native doctors are examples of this. In the first example a person may appear in his dream-shape even after death. A person's ritual or cult totem is the one most often appearing in this way in many parts of Australia. This is the case in north-eastern Arnhem Land, but not in the Great Victoria Desert, though here the same word is used for totem and dream.

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Multiple totemism

Multiple or classificatory totemism, may be associated with other types of totemism, moeity, clan, section, subsection, phratry or local totemism. The known universe, or major aspects of it is categorised on this basis. The main totem is regarded with a special attitude, and to all secondary totems classified with it. This form is common. An example from north-eastern Arnhem Land is:

'The Djanggawul sisters and brother walked along the east coast until they came to Ngadibalji, where they saw a mangrove bird. Here the brother left his hair belt: It is now a sandhill. On the sandhill were the tracks of wild duck, which were eating wild peanut roots. On the opposite side was a large barren sandhill; and on the surface of this were goanna tracks and the tracks of many birds. A tree with inedible 'apple'-like nuts was growing there too; this is a sacred bullroarer tree. Here the Djanggawul paused and heard the cry of the black cockatoo. Here too is the sacred waterhole which they made, and beside which they camped.'

Although the Djanggawul are not really totemic they might be the major totem. Men or women belonging to this site would also have a secondary totem, not actually graded as such, mangrove bird, hair belt, wild duck, nut tree, black cockatoo. He might claim any one of them as his totem, which implies association with all of them.

'The Wadi Gudjarra (Two Men), in the course of their wanderings across the country, reached gabi (waterhole) Bindibindina. Here they made camp, ate berries, and picked flowers to put in their hair. They also made bindi, sharply pointed sticks with bunched shavings at one end, which they used for decoration. They prepared feather down for putting on their bodies: some of it fell from their hands and became stones. They drew blood from their arms and some fell on the ground and became red ochre...'

The major totem here would be the Wadi Gudjara; and a man or woman belonging to that site would have all the other totemic affiliations as well.

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Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964
  2. Durkheim, E., The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Swain trans.), Allen & Unwin, London, 1915/54
  3. Elkin, A. P., 1933, Studies in Australian Totemism, Oceania Monographs, No.2, Sydney (Oceania, Vol.III, Nos. 3 and 4; Vol.4, Nos.1 & 2)
  4. Elkin, A.P., 1954, (1st ed. 1938), The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them, Angus & Robertson, Sydney
  5. Berndt, R. M, 1951a, Kunapipi, Cheshire, Melbourne
  6. Berndt, R. M, 1952a, Djanggawul, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  7. Haekel, J., 1950, Zum Individual und Geschlechtstomenismus in Australien, Acta Ethnoligica et Linguistica, No. 1, Herold, Vienna
  8. Radcliff-Brown, A.R., 1945, Religion and Society, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. LXXV, Parts I and II.
  9. Radcliff-Brown, A.R., 1952, Structure and Function in Primitive Society, Cohen and West. London
  10. Roheim, G. 1925, Australian Totemism, A Psycho-Analytic Study in Anthropology, allen and Unwin, London
  11. Schmidt, W., 1909, Die sozioligische und religios-ethschische Gruppierung der australischen Stamme, Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, Bd. XLI.
  12. Spencer, B. and F.J. Gillen, 1938, The native Tribes of Central Australia, Macmillan, London
  13. Strehlow, T. G. H., 1947, Aranda Traditions, Melbourne University Press
  14. Stanner, E.H., 1958, The Dreaming, in reader in Comparative Religion: an Anthropological Approach, (W.A.Lessa & E.Z.vogt eds.) row, Patterson, Evanston, Illinois.
  15. Stanner, W.E.H.,1959-61, On aboriginal Religion, Oceania, Vol. XXX, Nos. 2 & 4; vol. XXXI, Nos. 2 & 4; Vol. XXXII, No. 2
  16. Warner, W. L., (1937/58), A Black Civilisation, Harper, New York

 

 

Author: M. H. Monroe
Email: admin@austhrutime.com
Last updated: 30/09/2011
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