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RELIGION IN ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIA

Charlesworth, M. 1992, "Introduction" in Religion in Aboriginal Australia - An Anthology, 2nd Edition. eds. M. Charlesworth, D. Bell, H. Morphy & K. Maddock, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, pp. 1 - 20


The serious and systematic study of Australian Aboriginal religion is a relatively recent development of the last thirty years. As with the many other aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture, the attitude of the early anthropologists and other observers to the religion of the original Australians was a melancholy mixture of neglect, condescension and misunderstanding. That attitude was influenced by nineteenth-century neopositivism, which saw religion in general as an illusion and as a relic of a pre-scientific and pre-logical stage of human development. It was also powerfully influenced by the dominant evolutionary model which led anthropologists to see Australian Aboriginal religion as the simplest, least developed, most infantile, form of human consciousness. As the celebrated Baldwin Spencer. (1927: vii) was to write in the preface of his study of the Aranda people: "Australia is the present home and refuge of creatures, often crude and quaint, that have elsewhere passed away and given place to higher forms. This applies equally to the Aboriginal as to the platypus and the kangaroo. Just as the platypus laying its eggs and feebly suckling its young, reveals a mammal in the making, so does the Aboriginal show us, at least in broad outline, what early man must have been like before he learned to read and write, domesticate animals, cultivate crops and use a metal tool." Again, according to Sir James Frazer and the evolutionists, magical modes of thought gave way to religious modes, which in turn gave way to scientific thought, and for them Aboriginal myths and rites were firmly placed in the category of magic. There was also the cultural myopia of European observers who viewed the Aborigines and their religion through white, Western glasses, and the well-meaning but religiously chauvinistic view of most of the early Christian missionaries who could see no point of connection at all between the Christian gospel and the bewildering beliefs, myths and rites of the Aborigines. As the otherwise sympathetic missionary L E. Threlkeld wrote in 1855: "The Aborigines of New Holland, in this part of the Colony, have no priesthood, no altar, no sacrifice, nor any religious service, strictly so-called; their superstitious observances can scarcely be designated as divine rites being only mysterious works of darkness, revellings and such like" (see Gunson 1974).

All of these factors contributed to the atmosphere of general neglect, distortion, misunderstanding and trivialization that largely characterized the study of Australian Aboriginal religion until the 1950s. As Stanner (1965: 209) has put it, the Aborigines were viewed "as either too archaic in the social sense or too debased in the moral sense to have veritable religion".

No doubt early-twentieth-century observers such as Spencer and Gillen and Howitt described accurately enough various aspects of Aboriginal religious life, though they were still under the influence of Frazer’s view, that what they were observing were magical rites and not religious ceremonies in the true sense. "Among the aborigines of Australia", the author of The Golden Bough (Frazer 1960: 72) had written, "the rudest savages as to whom we possess accurate information, magic is universally practised, whereas religion, in the sense of a propitiation or reconciliation of the higher powers, seems to be unknown." Later on, A. P. Elkin. one of the great figures in Australian anthropology, was to say that in the l920s he had been convinced, "looking at the material written by Strehlow’s father and by Spencer and Gillen, that they were dealing with religious ceremonies: but Sir James Frazer’s view that they were only magical rites was difficult to counteract" (see Shiels 1963: 252).

It was Emile Durkheim’s celebrated work, Les Formes elementaires de la vie religieuse: le systeme totemique en Australie, which appeared in 1912, that was the first major attempt to take Aboriginal religion seriously. The basic thesis of the work was that primitive religions were not irrational and incomprehensible superstition but could be understood and explained in scientific and sociological terms as mechanisms maintaining and reinforcing social cohesion. This general hypothesis was, according to Durkheim, verified by the concrete evidence of Australian Aboriginal "totemism" which had just become available.

Durkheim had closely studied the contemporary ethnographic material from Australia. He reviewed Spencer and Gillen’s work The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) in his journal L ‘Annee sociologique, as well as A.W. Howitt’s book The Native Tribes of South Eastern Australia (1904) and Pastor C. Strehlow’s study of the Aranda, Die Aranda und Loritja: Stamme in Zentral Australien (1907). Marcel Mauss, one of Durkheim’s closest followers, described Spencer and Gillen’s work as "one of the most important books of ethnography and descriptive sociology of which we know.., the picture they give us of social and religious organization is one of the most complete with which anthropology has provided us" (see Lukes 1975: 452).

What principally attracted Durkheim to the Australian Aborigines was the belief, widely held at the time, that Aboriginal society, based upon the clan, exemplified the most elementary form of social organization. If we could explain how society functions in its simplest, most undeveloped, form, then we could also understand how complex and developed societies, such as our own, functioned. Aboriginal totemism - the religious identification of a group with a species of fauna or flora or with parts of the land - was seen by Durkheim as the mechanism by which this elementary form of social organization was maintained, and it was accordingly taken to be the simplest form of religion. By a sociological understanding of Aboriginal religion, then, we gain the key to the study of society in general since, according to the evolutionary faith, the mature and developed can be explained in terms of the differentiation and complexification of the simple and elementary.

Although in many respects the ethnographic material upon which Durkheim relied was inadequate, and although he seriously misunderstood Aboriginal beliefs and practices and was the victim of his own philosophical (positivistic and evolutionary) prejudices, it remains true that Les Formes elementaires was the first attempt to treat Aboriginal religion with scientific seriousness and to see it as having a significant and wholly rational function and purpose. If Aboriginal religious life provided the key to the understanding of society in general, it could no longer be seen as childish superstition or magical fantasy. Nevertheless, Durkheim’s assumption that simplicity of social structure entails simplicity of religious life, so that Aboriginal religion is a quintessentially simple form of religious life, has had an unfortunate effect in that it led people to think that Aboriginal religion was naive and rudimentary. In fact, the religious beliefs and practices of the Australian Aborigines are of very great depth and sophistication, but so powerful was the influence of Durkheim’s thought that it took some thirty or forty years after the publication of Les Formes elementaires for this to be fully recognized.

In many ways, Aboriginal religion is a living disproof of the central tenets of Durkheim’s work. First, it is impossible in Australian religious life to make the distinction between the "sacred" and "profane" spheres that is crucial to Durkheim’s theory. And, second, in a very real sense Aboriginal religion is not a function of Aboriginal society: rather, Aboriginal society is a function of Aboriginal religion. In other words, one might almost say that society exists for the sake of religion rather than religion for the sake of society. 1.

Durkheim’s ideas were introduced to English and Australian anthropology by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, who agreed with the great French sociologist that "religious ritual is an expression of the unity of society and that its function is to be ‘re-create’ the society or the social order by reaffirming and strengthening the sentiments on which social solidarity and therefore the social order itself depends" (1945: 1-15). 2 Radcliffe-Brown was also the pupil of W.H.R. Rivers (1864-1922), one of the founding fathers of British social anthropology, who, in his quest to give anthropology the status of a rigorous science, fixed upon the study of kinship and social organization as the primary object of the new discipline. Whereas the main interest of the older generation of British anthropologists - Tylor, Frazer, the early Marett - had been in magico-religious beliefs and practices, the focus of the new Cambridge school was on social structure, since this was the aspect of "primitive" cultures which seemed to lend itself to properly scientific investigation and analysis. Radcliffe-Brown developed, and refined, Rivers’ seminal idea and, during his term as founding professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney between 1926 and 1931. bequeathed it to subsequent Australian anthropology. Characteristically, his first major study of Aboriginal life, published in 1930-31, was entitled The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. 3 For Radcliffe-Brown then, as for Rivers and Durkheim, it was Aboriginal social organization that was primary, and Aboriginal religion was seen as a secondary and subordinate phenomenon, so that only those features of Aboriginal religion which had an obvious social function were considered. Australian Aboriginal religion was never discussed by Radcliffe-Brown as worthy of study in its own right, nor did he ever envisage the possibility that it was religion that was central in Aboriginal civilization - so that Aboriginal society was a function of Aboriginal religion, rather than vice-versa. As A.P. Elkin (1956) was to remark, Radcliffe-Brown had little feeling for the mythical and mystical dimension of Aboriginal life. 4

Radcliffe-Brown’s approach heavily influenced other Australian anthropologists in the 1930s and l940s, and in most of their work the discussion of religion was relegated to a subordinate place.

There were, however, some observers who gave serious attention to Aboriginal religion. Thus, for example, Pastor C. Strehlow, a Lutheran missionary, had between 1907 and 1920 investigated the religious life of the Aranda people in the light of the theories of the German historian of religions, W. Schmidt. Further, sympathetic observers in the l930s and 1940s, such as T.G.H. Strehlow, A.P. Elkin, Fr E.A. Worms, Phyllis Kaberry, Ursula McConnel, the American W. L. Warner and the Hungarian Geza Roheim, had written perceptively about aspects of Aboriginal religion. Warner’s book, A Black Civilization: A Study of an Australian Tribe (1937), and Kaberry’s remarkable study, Aboriginal Woman, Sacred and Profane (1939), deserve special mention in this respect. But it was not until the late 1950s that it began to be clearly recognized that religion was at the very heart of Australian Aboriginal culture, and that, contrary to Durkheim’s assumptions, the religious beliefs, myths, rites and ceremonies of the Australian Aboriginals were of very great sophistication and richness. Thus, at last it came to be seen that, while technologically and materially Aboriginal culture is of extreme simplicity, religiously and spiritually that culture is of extreme complexity and subtlety. Indeed, it has even been argued that the Aborigines deliberately chose a simple technology and style of economic life so that they could devote themselves to the elaboration of a rich and intricate social and religious life. As R.M.W. Dixon (1980: 6-7) has put it, perhaps a little extravagantly: "While societies in other parts of the world found themselves caught in a spiral of growth and increase in technological complexity, Aboriginal Australians chose to reduce work and technology to a minimum. Their hunting and gathering techniques were such that they spent a smaller proportion of their time on the mechanics of subsistence than do most peasant agriculturalists or industrial workers in other cultures. The time thus made available was utilized to devise complex social systems, rituals, narrative and song traditions and for other aesthetic and intellectual pursuits."

In the 1950s and 1960s a remarkable stream of works concerned with Australian Aboriginal religion began to be published. R.M. Berndt and Catherine Berndt, T.G.H. Strehlow, W.E.H. Stanner, A.P. Elkin, M.J. Meggitt, and others, all contributed to this new movement of research. It also gained impetus through a research conference in Canberra on Australian Aboriginal studies in 1961 and the setting up of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1962. At the Canberra research conference, E.A. Worms (1963: 321) gave a magisterial paper on religion which laid down a programme for future research. Worms himself was, like C. Strehlow, influenced by the German comparativist W. Schmidt, who argued that belief in "high gods" was essential to a religious world view. Worms therefore claimed that "belief in a personal sky-being" was primary in Aboriginal religion and that belief in "ancestor spirits" and hero spirits was a later and secondary accretion. Worms also argued that Aboriginal religion "represents in its essentials an organic whole, consisting of the same fundamental concepts of faith which pulsate like an electric current throughout Australia".

In his commentary on Worms’ paper, T.G.H. Strehlow (1963: 250) argued against both of these positions. Thus, according to him, the worship of sky-beings was not typical of Australian Aboriginal religions:

"Normally in central Australia the supernatural beings are believed to have originated from the earth, to have instituted dramatic acts celebrating their wanderings on the earth, to have composed their sacred verses there, and to have gone back into the earth at the end of their wanderings." Again, Strehlow emphasized that, "while there are some basic similarities in the beliefs and concepts underlying Australian religion, there are also very wide local differences" (ibid.: 251).

For his part, R. M. Berndt made the point that "the sacred beings of the Aborigines were treated as equal rather than as supreme beings far removed from the everyday world, while human beings were not seen as merely ordinary: there was a feeling that every person incorporates part of the sacred essence" (ibid: 253). In general, Aboriginal religion was recognized by the participants of the Canberra conference as being central to Aboriginal culture, so that, as Elkin put it: "Understanding of the religion was bound up with an understanding of the whole Aboriginal system of thought." Aboriginal concepts of space, time, distance, measurement, and so on, could only be understood, Elkin suggested, "through the study of religion and mythology" (ibid).

It was, however, the writings of W.E.H. Stanner that more than anything else made scholars aware of the uniqueness and richness of Australian Aboriginal religious life. Stanner’s highly original series of articles "On Aboriginal Religion" appeared in the journal Oceania between 1959 and 1961. and they were followed by his equally remarkable essay "Religion. Totemism and Symbolism" in 1965, and his "Reflections on Durkheim and Aboriginal Religion" in 1967. Stanner was a student of Radcliffe-Brown; he was au fait with the Durkheimian tradition as well as with the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, and he brought a powerful theoretic intelligence to bear upon the anthropological data about Aboriginal religion. In his various articles, Stanner showed conclusively how systematic, and also how unique and distinctive, Aboriginal religion is. Australian Aboriginal religion is a non-theistic religion based on the sacred and sacramental character of the land, and it requires a considerable effort of mind and imagination for a European to come to grips with it. Above all, Stanner showed by his own method and approach how seriously Aboriginal religion deserved to be taken (see Stanner 1959, 1960, 1961; 1965:207; 1967:217-40).

So far we have been speaking of Australian Aboriginal religion as though it were a unitary whole. However, while there was a strong family resemblance between the sets of beliefs and myths and rites of the 500 distinct Aboriginal peoples, there were also significant differences between them. As R.M. Berndt (1979:18) has said: "it is well to remember that, traditionally, Aboriginal culture was not the same throughout the continent. Nor was there any central or federal authority. The picture was one of relatively independent sociocultural constellations that interacted only within a certain regional range - it was not strictly possible to speak of one Aboriginal religion. There were, rather, many Aboriginal religions. We can identify basic similarities - notably, in the organization of activities associated with ritual expressions; but differences between belief systems, in meaning and in symbolic interpretation, were quite crucial."

This sameness and difference in Aboriginal religions is analogous to the situation that prevails in the 200 Aboriginal languages. Although these languages belong to the same linguistic family, they are as distinct as Hindi and English in the indo-European family. Similarly, although Australian religions are, as a group, easily distinguishable from other religious systems, both "primal" and "universal", they nevertheless differ quite radically among themselves.

In his comprehensive work Australian Aboriginal Religion (1974), R. M. Berndt has suggested that there were four main groups of Aboriginal religions. The first group, centred upon northern Australian tribes from Arnhem Land to the Kimberleys, was characterized by "adaptive and mobile fertility cults"; the second, comprising tribes in the desert areas which run east-west in Central Australia, was defined by the fact that their religion was, so to speak, "held in a series of parcels which are distributed among many local groups". The third group, covering tribes in south-eastern Australia in New South Wales and Victoria, exhibited magical elements in their religion as well as beliefs in supernatural beings in a "Sky World". The fourth group, centred upon tribes in the north-east of Australia including Cape York, was typified by belief in spirits of the dead, who became ancestors and were then identified with mythic beings. The various characteristics Berndt refers to here, however, are not definitive or essential, so that, even if it is possible to distinguish the four groups of religions in the way he suggests, this does not tell us anything much about them.

A. P. Elkin has argued that there were "three main waves" of religious influence in Aboriginal Australia: "the north-western, spreading fanwise toward the centre of the continent, with circumcision as the central rite; the north-eastern, with emphasis on sky-gods, coming down from the Cape York region to the Murray Valley; and the great complex of cults of Arnhem Land, possibly of northern origin, centring on fertility and related ideas" (see Shiels 1963:252).

On the other hand, Peterson distinguishes two great religious groups corresponding to what he sees as the two main Aboriginal economic structures - the inland desert economies on the one hand and the woodland/coastal economies on the other. In the former, Peterson (1975:5-6) claims, there was a preoccupation with fertility and life, and ceremonies were concerned with ensuring "the continued reproduction of man and nature". In the woodland/coastal economy, on the other hand, the main religious preoccupation was with death and the primary aim of ceremonies was to ensure "that the spirits of the deceased travelled safely and permanently to the subterranean nether world from which they had come". 5

Other writers have noted that the coastal regions were characterized by an absence of male initiation rites such as circumcision and subincision: these rites, however, are present among the Aranda of Central Australia and desert peoples such as the Pitjantjatjara and Walbiri. 6

It has been speculated, again, that the major ceremonial complexes that now exist are local developments or expressions of a central and general configuration of Aboriginal ceremonies and rituals. Worms and Petri, for example, have suggested that we can link the various religious regions with their distinctive beliefs, myths, rituals and ceremonies in a historical and diffusionist way. In other words, the various regional expressions represent stages in the progressive diffusion of a central body of religious belief and practice (see Nevermann, Worms and Petri 1972). However, apart from some tenuous linguistic evidence, Worms and Petri do not really succeed in offering any substantial demonstration of their theory. Indeed, in general, one must acknowledge that no satisfactory account has yet been given of the various distinct religious regions of Aboriginal Australia and of their similarities and connections. They remain as mysterious as the differences and similarities of Aboriginal languages.

One great and fundamental feature of all Aboriginal religion is the concept of "the Dreaming", expressed by the various Aboriginal terms, altjiranga. wongar, bugari, etc. Although the terms "Dreaming", "the Dreaming", "Dreamtime", have now been appropriated by Aborigines themselves, there is no specific concept in the various Aboriginal cultures which is translated by these English terms. Spencer and Gillen appear to have been the first to use the term "the dream time" to translate the Aranda-speaking people’s alcheringa or altjiranga, used to describe the period when the ancestor spirits shaped the physical world and at the same time laid down the "Law" or way of life to be followed by Aboriginal groups. Thus, the Aranda phrase altjiranga ngambakala has the connotation of "having originated out of one’s own eternity", "immortal", "uncreated", and it is this which is essential to the concept of "the Dreaming". At the same time, altjira rama means "to see or dream eternal things", or "to see with eternal vision" (see Strehlow 1971:613-14).

Similarly, among the Karadjiri people of the Kimberleys in northwestern Australia the term bugari refers to the period when the ancestor spirits formed the world’s physical features and instituted the Law. It also signifies "dreaming". The same is true of the Western Desert people’s djugurba and the Murngin people’s wongar.

"The Dreaming" is then a pluri-vocal term with a number of distinct though connected meanings. First, it is a narrative mythical account of the foundation and shaping of the entire world by the ancestor heroes who are uncreated and eternal. Second, "the Dreaming" refers to the embodiment of the spiritual power of the ancestor heroes in the land, in certain sites, and in species of fauna and flora, so that this power is available to people today. Indeed, one might say that for the Aboriginal his land is a kind of religious icon, since it both represents the power of the Dreamtime beings and also effects and transmits that power. Third, "the Dreaming" denotes the general way of life or "Law" - moral and social precepts, ritual and ceremonial practices, etc. - based upon these mythical foundations. Fourth, "the Dreaming" may refer to the personal "way" or vocation that an individual Aboriginal might have by virtue of his membership of a clan, or by virtue of his spirit-conception relating him to particular sites.

Although part of the meaning of "the Dreaming" refers to a past time when the ancestor heroes moved about on the face of the earth, it is also very much a present reality. As Elkin (1969:88) has put it, the Dreaming is not just "a long-past period in a time series when the landscape took on its present form and when life filled the void. It is rather the ever-present, unseen, ground of being - of existence". And the same writer (ibid: 93) goes on to say: "The concept is not of a ‘horizontal’ line extending back chronologically through a series of pasts, but rather of a ‘vertical’ line in which the past underlies and is within the present. As the top of an iceberg is seen and is powerful because of its great unseen mass moving beneath the surface, so man and nature are sustained by the ever-present, latent power of the Dreaming. And Aboriginal man expresses this belief in his ritual, mythology and symbolism, through which the Dreaming becomes sacramentally visible and potent."

As has been said, it is through ritual that individuals can enter the spirit world and not only contact the Dreamtime presences but, more, become identified with them. During a ceremony an Aboriginal participant not only re-enacts the doings of an ancestor hero; he becomes that hero. As it has been stated (Deakin 1982:102): "Through acting out a rite, and especially representing totemic beings in the enactment, participants become absorbed into the Dreaming presence. They become the totemic beings, in a way. In making a remark about his ritual or social status, a man might say, ‘I am a rock kangaroo’, and mean that he belongs to the group that has a rock kangaroo as its totem. But in a ritual in which the rock kangaroo is involved, he means much more when he says the same thing. He believes that he assumes or is absorbed into the very essence of the rock kangaroo as it exists in the Dreaming"

The connection of land and sites and objects and activities with the Dreaming, so that they are seen as the incarnation or embodiment of the spiritual power of the Dreaming, bestows a "sacred" character on them; that is to say they are viewed as "set apart" and also as potentially dangerous to those who have no rights of access to them. Many of these sacred phenomena are also "secret"; that is, knowledge of them is restricted to certain groups. Knowledge of, or contact with, secret-sacred objects or activities may, for instance, be restricted to initiated men, or again they may be restricted to adult women so that males and children are excluded. Some places may be permanently sacred, but secret, and so forbidden to certain people, only while ceremonies are being performed in their vicinity. Some places may be permanently both secret and sacred because they contain sacred objects or drawings that may not be seen by those who are not initiated. In other cases it is the interpretation of certain symbolic drawings or objects that is both secret and sacred, in that it may be made known only to those of the appropriate sex, or age group, or totemic group, who have the right to knowledge of it. There is no obvious way, for the outsider, to know whether sites or objects or drawings are secret-sacred. Rather, they derive their secret-sacred character from the context of religious myths and ceremonials in which they play a part (Berndt 1970; see also Biernoff 1978). Transgressors of the secret-sacred realm violate the mysteries and can be visited with severe punishments. As already noted, it is ritually dangerous for those excluded from secret-sacred matters to have knowledge of them or contact with them - a fact which sets severe limitations on the public reporting (by white observers) on Aboriginal rites and ceremonies.

The Dreaming is then the most real and concrete and fundamental aspect of Aboriginal life and it has nothing to do with the Western concept of dreaming as an imaginary, fantastic and illusory state of consciousness. Once again, it needs to be emphasized how necessary it is for us to purge our minds of Western European preconceptions if we are to understand the Aboriginal religious world. Just as dreams have a different function in Aboriginal life from what which they have in modern European culture, so also religious beliefs and myths and rites often have a different use and meaning for the Australian Aboriginal than they have for us.

For example, speaking of ceremonial knowledge among the Yolgnu people of north-east Arnhem Land, a recent writer (Harris 1980:2) says that, although the Yolgnu do not question its content as a manifestation of the ancestral Law, its main value "is not in its objective content, but in the rights to use it and be in attendance when other people are using it". And with regard to initiation rites the same observer says:

"These rites for boys and men actually make them into different people: a boy is made into a young man at his circumcision Dhapi, and a young man is made into a more senior adult at a Ngarra ceremony. The importance of the rites is in terms of status rather than in terms of knowledge. A boy is made into a young man, not taught to be a young man." Again, another observer has nicely described how Aboriginal women explain their religious convictions by enacting or displaying them: "The way in which they chose to explain about the Law at Wlllowra was to explain to us about their interest in the country at Willowra ... . - They began by singing of the travels of the ancestral heroes in the area; they took us into the country to display its bounty; while in the country they continued singing; they displayed to us their sacred boards and other ritual items which validate their ownership of the land and encode the myths of the Dreamtime.... What is evident ... is that questions concerning the strength, extent and operation of the Law are often best answered by display of the very vitality and importance of the Law" (Bell and Ditton 1980:52). One might say, from this point of view, that Aboriginal religion is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy.

From the 1960s onwards there has been intensive research into all aspects of Aboriginal religion by scholars such as Elkin, Stanner, Hiatt, Tonkinson, Maddock, Munn, Burridge, the Berndts, Petri, Morphy, Peterson, Kolig, Bell and others. For the most part, however, these writers are ethnographers and anthropologists and, while an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to them, it is a pity that very few scholars with interests in the philosophy of religion or comparative religion have attempted to work in the area of Aboriginal religion with a view to discussing it in a wider context. Apart from L.A. Worm’s contribution to the 1961 Australian Aboriginal Studies conference, A.P. Elkin's essay "Elements of Australian Aboriginal Philosophy" (1969) and W.E.H. Stanner’s paper "Some Aspects of Aboriginal Religion" (1976), the study, Australian Religions: An Introduction (1973), by the Rumanian-American historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, is one of the few worthwhile works which have attempted to take a synthetic and comparative view of Australian religion. 7 Eliade’s work is, however, based on ethnographic material available before 1964 and is more a sketch of what might be done in this field than a substantial and fully elaborated study. There remains a real need for a work of what Eliade calls "creative hermeneutics" which would situate Aboriginal religion within a wider religious and philosophical context.

Just as one cannot understand the structure of a language (for example, English) if one knows only that language - one must be able to compare it with another language (for example, Chinese) from another linguistic family - so also one cannot really understand a particular religious system unless it can be compared with other religious systems. No doubt, there is still a great deal of importance that is not known about Australian religion, so that comparisons with the much better studied major religions must necessarily be partial and tentative. Again, it may seem rather outre at first sight to seek to compare Australian Aboriginal religion with Hinduism or Buddhism or Judaism; nevertheless, some such comparative assessment is necessary if we are to understand its distinctive structures. Needless to say, comparing religious systems is a delicate business and it cannot be done in the facile and superficial way of the nineteenth-century philosophers of religion or of later popular writers such as Aldous Huxley.

For a beginning, it would be enlightening to situate Australian Aboriginal religion in the context of what one scholar calls "primal" religions. Primal religious are typical of tribal societies, that is societies which depend upon reciprocity and exchange, and which have generalized functions so that there is no specific religious organization, or institutions, no specific and separate economic or political organization, etc. "There are not separate institutions, as in our society, but various functions of the same institutions. That means that a man might be a ritual elder, economic partner, or leader in war as the time and occasion demand" (Deakin 1982:95-96). It has been claimed that the religions that are typical of such societies have a number of general characteristics in common. 8 First, they are not "universal" either in intention or potentially, so that it is inconceivable that they should become "widespread religions over many races and areas" (ibid: 28). They are, rather, ethnocentric and non-missionary in nature. Second. primal religions are characterized by a deep sense "that man is akin to nature, a child of Mother Earth and brother to the plants and animals which have their own spiritual existence and place in the universe" (ibid: 30). Third, primal religions stress that "man is finite, weak and impure and stands in need of a power not his own" (ibid: 31). Fourth, they are based on the conviction that "man is not alone in the universe for there is a spiritual world of powers and beings more powerful and ultimate than himself’ (ibid). Fifth, these religions emphasize that "men can .enter into relationship with this benevolent spirit world and so share in its powers and blessings and receive protection from evil forces by these more-than-human helpers" (ibid). Sixth, in primal religious "the ancestors, the ‘living dead’, remain united in affection and in mutual obligations with the ‘living living"’ (ibid:32). Finally, in primal religions "the ‘physical’ acts as a vehicle for ‘spiritual’ power, in other words... men live in a sacramental universe where there is no sharp dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual" (ibid).

It is obvious that Australian Aboriginal religions fit into this picture of primal religion and. as already noted, it would be Illuminating to make structural comparisons between the Aboriginal religious world and other modes of primal religion. So far, however, this kind of comparison has not been done in any systematic way. We need also to compare Aboriginal religion with the so-called "world-religions", for primal religions despite their non-universal character are not inferior or simple-minded or childish. (As it has been said apropos tribal or primal peoples: "No longer can we regard these as childish peoples with baby religions. They are mature human beings with their own insights into life, their own profound thinkers, seers, mystics, saints and reformers and their own contribution to make to the spiritual experience of mankind" (ibid:367). This kind of comparison is, however, difficult and needs to be made with discernment and sensitivity, looking to broad and holistic structural similarities and differences rather than to isolated point-by-point resemblances (seeing the Aboriginal sky-spirit Baiame, for example, as similar to the Judaeo-Christian notion of God, or Aboriginal initiation rites as analogous to the Christian sacramental rite of baptism, or the Rainbow Serpent as an Aboriginal equivalent of SivaVishnu, the Hindu creator-destroyer). Above all, the work of comparison also needs to be done without any kind of the misguided romanticism which tends to see "primitive" societies and their religions as having all the desirable qualities which our white Western society and its religions lack. As it has been put ironically by a French anthropologist, Marc Auge (1982:4): "One can. . . descry in anthropological texts the noble but blurred outline of a savage who, being nearer to nature than we are, must have refused in advance all that oppresses us (the Oedipal triangle, the State, abstraction), and whose trace, meaning or testimony one may still find in the Amazonian forests or the Australian deserts.

These savages do better than we do, live better than we do; they know better than we do the secrets of both life and death and the mysterious texture of the real, and how to see and turn away from the sterile schemata of analytic thought." As against such romanticism we need to remember the cultural law that Levi-Strauss has dwelt upon so much; namely, that every cultural complex has its cost-benefit structure so that benefits and advantages are always bought at a price and that what a culture makes up on the roundabouts it loses on the swings. We can thus be sure a priori that the plusses and benefits of Aboriginal culture and religion (and they are many and considerable) will be balanced by certain minusses and bought at a certain cost. An honest and objective comparative approach to Aboriginal religion will therefore recognize this.

The scientific and philosophical investigation of religious phenomena inevitably raises questions about the religious predispositions of the investigators. Clearly, one does not need to be a religious practitioner in order to observe and study religion. On the other hand, if one believes that religion is an infantile illusion, or a form of "collective neurosis", or a kind of "opium", or at best a mechanism of social cohesion, it will be difficult to enter sympathetically into the religious "life world" and to understand it from the inside. In the case of Australian Aboriginal religion, while anthropologists have been forced to recognize the centrality and importance of religion in Aboriginal life, they have often tended to concentrate on the rational and pragmatic aspects of Aboriginal religion in a neo-Durkheimian way. It is perhaps because of this that we have not had empathetic "inside" accounts of Aboriginal religions that would compare with certain of the accounts of North American Indian religions. As Burridge (1973:199) has said:

"The reality of religious life as the religious themselves have expressed it, has been almost totally lacking in studies of Aboriginal religion. 9 One must also note, however, that part of the difficulty of providing this kind of account of Aboriginal religious life stems from the fact that it often involves the white observer being admitted by Aboriginal confidants to knowledge of secret-sacred matters. Some observers who have been admitted to such knowledge and participated in certain "deep law" ceremonies, believe that to publish reports on such things would be to break trust with their Aboriginal confidants and to expose them to ritual danger.

The structure of this collection will, it is hoped, be self-explanatory. The first part deals with the doctrinal and credal foundations of Aboriginal religious life - myths, beliefs about the totemic ancestors and powers and the spirit world, symbolism and totemism, the Law. Part two is concerned with the practical aspects of that religious life in rites and ceremonies. (We must remember, however, that Australian Aboriginal religion does not make the sharp distinction between theory and practice that we take for granted.) Part three focuses on the important area of Aboriginal women’s experience of, participation in, and understanding of religion. Although Australian anthropology has been fortunate to have had a number of eminent women practitioners - Ursula McConnel, Catherine Berndt, Phyllis Kaberry, Marie Reay, Nancy Munn, Jane Goodale - Aboriginal women’s experience of religion has often been misunderstood and its importance underestimated.

Part four, on variety and change in Aboriginal religion, is concerned to rebut the charge made by the early observers, and often assumed uncritically since, that Aboriginal religions were wholly static and conservative with no place for initiative and creativity at either the doctrinal or practical level. The framework of Aboriginal belief systems, in fact, allows for almost as much creative innovation and development as occurs in any other religion. It might be noted that this collection does not consider the changes brought about in Aboriginal religions through their contact with Christianity, nor the emergence of syncretistic cults like that, for example, centred upon Jinimin (Jesus Christ) in the northern regions of the Western Desert. 10

It goes without saying that a very different structure for this collection could have been devised and a totally different set of articles and essays selected. However, this anthology is directed mainly at the general reader who is interested in being introduced, at a scholarly level, to the main features of Aboriginal religion, and it is that intention which has guided the selection made here. We hope that the collection will provide access to a unique and extraordinarily rich religious world that is as worthy of study as any other of the religious worlds of humankind. We can, in fact, say of Australian Aboriginal religious life what Eliade (1973: xvii) says of primitive religions in general: "Primitive man’s creativity is religious par excellence. His ethical, institutional, and artistic creations are dependent on, or inspired by, religious experience and thought. Only if we take seriously these oeuvres - in the same way that we take seriously the Old Testament, the Greek tragedies, or the works of Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe - will the primitive find their proper place in the unfolding of the universal history, in continuity with other creative peoples of past or present." 

Notes