Folk-Lore/Volume 16/The Religious Ideas of the Arunta

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(See ante, p. 242.)

Readers of the works of Spencer and Gillen cannot fail to be struck with the fact that, Alcheringa and similar legends apart, mythology is conspicuous by its absence. This is the more remarkable because some ten years ago, in the Report of the Horn Expedition, iv. 183, one of the authors had given an account of a sky-being named Ulthaana, with emu feet, who has a wife and a child who never grows older; after death too the soul, so far from undergoing reincarnation, lives with two ulthaana on the shore of a body of water. This account is in substantial agreement with the narratives of the missionary, Kempe, in Trans. Roy. Soc, S. Aust., xiv. 244, and of the narratives of the German missionaries reproduced by Krichauff in Trans. S. Aust. Br., R.G.S. Aust., ii. 33 sq., 77 sq. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find little more than a mention of mythology in the two works produced by Spencer and Gillen. Among the Arunta they find a bug-bear, Twanyirika, whom they believe to have been invented to keep the women and children in order; among the Kaitish there is a sky-person, Atnatu; but beyond this superhuman beings are conspicuous by their absence.

The peculiar philosophy, however, of that part of the Arunta tribe with which Spencer and Gillen are acquainted, makes it, on reflection, less surprising that we hear little or nothing of gods or a future life. For the latter the Arunta theory of reincarnation leaves no room; the elimination of superhuman beings is less easy to explain, however, and it would have been more satisfactory to learn under what circumstances it was resolved to omit all mention of the sky-being known to Gillen in 1896, whose name clearly means no more than spirit.

With the intention of clearing up some of the difficulties, I put myself in communication with Mr. Strehlow, missionary at Hermannsburg, and successor of the gentlemen whose reports were reproduced by Krichauff. He is, I understand, intending to publish in the near future a work upon the Arunta, of whose language he is a master. I publish the following communications, for which I take this opportunity of thanking him most heartily, not as in any way a complete statement of the beliefs of the southern Arunta, but as a contribution to the vexed question of the primitiveness or otherwise of the Arunta beliefs described by Spencer and Gillen. Mr. Strehlow writes to me in German; his letters, dated February 11th and August 3rd, 1905, run in a somewhat condensed form as follows:

"Altjira, the god of the Aranda, lives in the sky (or heaven). He is like a strong man in outward appearance, save that he has emu-feet, whence he receives the name of Altjira iliinka, the emu-footed god. He is of reddish skin (red is the favourite colour of the blacks), and has long hair, which falls over his shoulders. His dress is a netlike garment. He eats latjia (a sort of carrot?) which is always fit for food in the sky, and eatable berries, such as agi and lalitja, which are always in season there.

"Altjira is surrounded by handsome youths and immortal virgins. He is the creator of the heavenly bodies—sun, moon, and stars. The Milky Way is a river, hence called by the blacks lara, river, or ulbaia, creek, with fresh water-holes and fruit; birds and beasts, too, wander through the realm of Altjira. When rain clouds come up, it is Altjira walking through the sky—a good omen for mankind of a season of plenty. Altjira shows himself to man in the lightning; the thunder is his voice. If the lightning strikes anything, it is Altjira lighting a fire. When Altjira does not show himself (in the storm cloud) men have to suffer in a season of drought. Altjira is a good god; he never punishes man; therefore the blacks do not fear him, and render him neither prayer nor sacrifice."

"An evil being is also known to the blacks—erinja kuna ( = evil spirit)—whom they conceive as a skeleton, but endued with extraordinary strength. This being sets himself to rob men of their tjurunga (churinga). If anyone is ill, he comes from his abode beneath the earth, Tatara, or Alpara, and puts his foot on the man's throat, to kill him. This being the blacks fear. From him have proceeded many "devils," little black beings with a long thin body, but no arms or legs. Their bodies are covered with hair and their faces distorted. They come on the earth at night, and cause pain and disease by entering the bodies of men."

"In olden days there were giants on the earth; but the giant Urbura struck the earth, which was covered with water, so that the latter was scattered in all directions. Mangarkunjurkunja, also a strong man, created mankind; Twanjirika taught them circumcision."

In reply to a further letter Mr. Strehlow writes as follows:

"The word altjira has in itself no meaning; but a verb derived from it, altjirerama, means primarily to become god; it is used in the sense of to dream; for the blacks think that in dreams are revealed the will of Altjira, or future events, and pay great attention to them."

"Spencer and Gillen assert (Nor. Tr., p. 745) that alcheri means dream, and Alcheringa, the dream times; this is a mistake. Dream is altjirerinja, a dreamer, altjirerinja; a 'dream time' is unknown to the blacks. It is also erroneous to say that the Aranda believe in reincarnation of ancestors; what they believe is, that each birth is an incarnation of invisible individuals (not merely spirits), who live in trees, crevices, water-holes, etc., in human or animal form, and enter the bodies of women, being named after the species of animals from which they originated. The soul does not go back to the knanakala place at death, preparatory to reincarnation; it goes northwards, to the island of the dead, called laia, where it wanders for many years and is finally annihilated. The tjurunga is not the abode of the soul, but the body of the dead person, and is therefore painted with red ochre, and at times decorated like the body of a living person. The bodily existence of the deceased ceases with the destruction of the tjurunga. It is further erroneous to maintain, as do Spencer and Gillen, that there is no meaning now obtainable for the tjurunga songs. I have a collection of thirty with a translation, which are still understood by the chief men."

It is clear from internal evidence that Gillen's Ulthaana is not a proper name; the same appears to be the case with altjira, which, according to Kempe, is applied not only to five gods, whose names he gives, but also to the sun, moon, and remarkable things generally. This so entirely coincides with what we know of theological terminology in the lower planes of culture that we need have little doubt of the accuracy of the information. It is hardly possible to suggest seriously that the beliefs detailed by Kempe and others are derived from missionaries, whose arrival among the Arunta only dated back ten years before the publication of the information. Certain details apart, the information now published seems equally unassailable on this ground. "Immortal virgins," it is true, are hardly a savage conception; but it seems hardly likely that such an idea would be derived from a Lutheran missionary; if anything they rather recall the houris of Mohammedanism than any Christian idea. Probably, however, it is rather a question of translation than of the invasion of foreign ideas. If we had the original text before us it would perhaps turn out that "virgin" is a translation of a word which means only unmarried female.

If, therefore, these ideas are substantially native in origin, the question arises. Do they represent the primitive Arunta creed, or are we rather to turn to the pages of Spencer and Gillen for an idea of what was originally the philosophy of the whole Arunta nation?

Those who are not convinced that the philosophy of the Arunta is anything more than an interesting "sport" will see in the opposing camps of Arunta theology fresh evidence that the ideas of part of the tribe have undergone evolution away from the main current of Australian belief It is for those who still maintain that the Arunta of Spencer and Gillen are the old-established firm to show how another portion of the nation comes to hold entirely different views. There are, I conceive, three and only three possible theories—(1) it may be asserted that the ideas here published are the product of Christian influence; or (2) it may be maintained that they are derived from neighbouring tribes; or (3) that they are being evolved by a portion of the tribe to replace an original non-theistic, non-eschatological (virtually, at any rate) belief.

To the first theory the character of the beliefs seems an insuperable objection. No trace of Christian teaching is discernible in them. Not only so, but they are recorded by missionaries within ten years of the opening of the mission, and again twenty years later, with no important variation. If the natives had so eagerly thrown aside native belief for Christian ideas, it is inconceivable that the latter should in the short space of ten years have become crystallised. We should find them, on this hypothesis, at a different stage in 1905. But this is not the case.

In the case of the second theory the onus probandi is equally on those who advance it. Correspondences of name and incident with the mythology of the Urabunna, or other neighbouring tribes, must be shown in detail before even a prima facie case can be made out for this hypothesis. If it be possible to show that the ideas in question are advancing from their assumed centre of origin, then indeed the view is tenable that they are encroaching on the primæval theology of the Arunta nation. From this point of view, it is regrettable that Spencer and Gillen do not mention them in their works, still less attempt to show where the boundary between the two sets of ideas falls at the present time.

If the third theory could be substantiated, we should be confronted with the interesting spectacle of a mythology in the making, not to speak of the evolution of the idea of deity. One cannot indeed see why or how the ideas set forth in this paper should or could take the place of the Arunta philosophy of Spencer and Gillen's natives. On the other hand, it is not difficult to trace the possible course of evolution in the reverse direction; but it seems unnecessary to do so until the explanation of the facts here set forth has been attempted by some believer in the primitive atheism of the Arunta.