Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Division of Labour in Ritual                                                                                                                       

The sex of the participants in a particular ritual is an important consideration, but does not constitute the sole determinant of where the ritual lies on the sacred-mundane, or sacred-profane, continuum. The extent of participation varied among groups throughout Aboriginal Australia. It also depended, in part, on the degree of mixing of the sexes in everyday life, outside the immediate family and kin relationships. Men and women sat separately during large-scale gatherings in the Western Desert, for example, though there were casual comings and goings. The patterns of ritual participation tended to reflect the degree of mixing seen in daily life. Among the people of areas such as Melville Island, and possibly the Lower River Murray, the level of sex-based restrictions was much lower compared to groups in other parts of Australia.

Ritual performances can generally be grouped under a number of headings, each representing a particular point on a continuum. There are rituals restricted to men, rituals in which men play the major part at a particular place with the women playing parts, usually subsidiary, usually at a different place and sometimes at a different time. There were rituals in which both men and women participate in the same ritual at the same place at the same time. There were also rituals in which the women took part but from which the men were excluded. This coincides with the 'control' dimension only at the extremes, determining who is in a position to order or urge others to participate, using sanctions when necessary. The women have full control only in the last category.

The Berndts suggest 'participation' should be interpreted as referring to a wide range of possibilities on a passive-active continuum, that includes facets of seeing, hearing, uttering or performing various actions. Women are allowed to witness some rituals or parts of rituals, though were not permitted, or expected, to do more than watch. They may be allowed or expected to contribute to the ritual by being painted with appropriate designs or to observe particular food taboos if a close relative, such as a son or brother, is undergoing some stage of initiation. In some other rituals they may be permitted to take part in the singing in part or all of the ritual, but are prohibited from taking part in the dancing. For some rituals they were permitted to hear the singing, sometimes from close by, at other times from a greater distance. Even when they became very familiar with the songs they were not permitted to sing them. There was also a separate men's vocabulary, the words of which the women were not permitted to use, even if they knew them, except in a crisis.

Catherine Berndt reports hearing an unfamiliar word during a loud exchange between some men that were nearby, while present with a group of Western Desert women at an evening camp ceremony. On asking the meaning of the word she was told that it was a daragu word, a men's word, that women weren't allowed to use. Catherine Berndt reported that when there were no men present the women sometimes used the men's words as swearing on occasions, as when they burnt themselves.

There were special dancing grounds for men among  many groups, that have a variety of names, that the informants translated to English, such as ring place, centre place, men's shade or shelter, Big Sunday ground, etc. Women are not normally allowed to enter these grounds, where the sacred rituals are performed by adult men. The 'work' associated with these places is mostly done by men. In some Areas, men and women both use a word that loosely translates as 'work' to describe what men do on these ceremonial places. In northeast Arnhem Land the word is 'djama'. The rituals performed on these sacred grounds are intended to promote the welfare of the whole community. The co-operation of the women is essential in almost every case. In some rituals the only role of women was as an audience, probably at least partly as someone the men can show off in front of, or possible keep secrets from, according to the Berndts. But in most cases their active participation is required in particular roles. If the women don't perform their part of the ceremony correctly the men's 'work' will be wasted. In Arnhem Land the women had a very important role, collecting enough food for the large gathering so the men can concentrate on perfecting their performance.

Many of the rites that women are excluded from include symbolic imitations of physiological functions of women. These functions are natural to women but need to be imitated in ritual form by the men. The practice of subincision is regarded as analogous to menstruation in women. In some areas circumcision is seen as a ritual representation of the severing of the umbilical cord, that is, separating the boy from the influence of his mother to make him an independent man. There were many other examples of feminine functions being ritualistically imitated by men during various religious ceremonies.

Mythology tells that many of the sacred objects restricted to men were originally owned by women, or in some cases destined to be owned by women. In one way or another the men got control of them and never returned them to the control of women.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 26/06/2010

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