BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Spencer and Gillen’s (1904) The Northern Tribes of Central Australia

16 March 2013

Summary (in One Sentence)

One may question the ethnocentric assumptions of the authors’ observations of tribes in Northern Central Australia without necessarily rendering useless their observations of events, objects, &c.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, you’re part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[1] The Northern Tribes of Central Australia

Given the more than 800 pages of this book, this reaction simply collects various notes and such that caught my attention while I was reading it. Some portions of this book I had previously read in response to my Crowds and Power posts, so there are far more detailed reactions in those, which I’ve pointed to in the notes below.

The authors lived amongst the Australia native people for over twenty years and were considered fully initiated members of the tribe. One may be skeptical of this and question the ethnocentric assumptions of the authors without necessarily rendering useless their “factual” observations of events, objects, &c.

So far as they could determine, there had never been territorial disputes between the tribes studied. “Now and again they may have intertribal quarrels and fights, but there is no such thing as the acquisition of fresh territory. No idea of this or its advisability or otherwise ever enters the head of the Australian native” (13).  This may be due to the alcheringa.

When two savage peoples at anything like a decided different level of culture come into contact, there is hardly likely to be any true amalgamation. The men of the lower grade have no chance of marrying into the higher grade, but on the other hand their women are lawful prey to the men of the stronger group (16–7).

Relationship is by class; that is, a person who is called father or mother is plural and is represented by everyone in an equivalent position. Thus, amongst the Urabunna, a woman who is lawfully marriable is the wife of all men who may lawfully marry her and vice versa.  Thus, groups of men and women are married to one another, not individually. In other tribes, individual marriage prevails.

It would seem that upon birth one would enter into a given marriable class (eventually), though how that occurs is not clear.

Tribes are divided into moieties and generally have cross-moiety marriage requirements. Urabunna tribe are matrilineal; Aranda and others are patrilineal.

“It may be pointed out that whilst these rules prevent individuals who are actually closely related by blood from intermarrying, they also equally prevent others between whom there is no blood relationship at all, and it is at least extremely doubtful if the origin of the restriction has anything whatever to do with the deliberate intention of preventing the intermarriage of individuals whom we call cousins” (98). This is in the southern Aranda tribes specifically.

Warramunga, &c., have gender distinctions for subclass names. A Tjupila man is the brother—blood or tribal—of a Naralu woman.

See p. 119 for intermarriage diagram and discussion.

On p. 291 are food prohibitions for members of a totem. If I am understanding this correctly, one does not eat of one’s totem much, so that the increase rites (intichiuma) re for the sake of everyone else.  Amongst the Arunta, intichiuma ceremonies end with the increase of the creature and the decline to eat the totem animal; amongst the Warramunga, &c, there are performed series of ancestral wanderings, rather than types of ceremonies of increase as seen in the Arandan tribes. Amongst the coast tribes, intichiuma ceremonies are not required “the idea being that [increase of the totemic creature] will take place without the intervention of any magic” (312) on people’s parts. There are magic ceremonies, however. A summary of this starts on p. 315.

It is a striking feature of dream-time stories that hunters in the day regularly ate their totem animals, whereas currently there are (as noted above) strict taboos against eating ones totem creatures.

About totems, most are (of course) animals or plants, but also sometimes elemental occurrences (wind, rain, water, the sun), and there are two that are curious: the laughing boy, the adult male, and Wollunqua ( presumably still alive massive snake).

The oldest initiation rite seems to be knocking out a tooth, but this has come to be indiscriminately practiced in places, replaced by subincision and circumcision. “The natives themselves have no idea in regard to their significance, and it is a rather curious fact that they have no invented some tradition to explain their meaning” (330). Notwithstanding the long time spent by the authors amongst these tribes, one has to admit the possibility that they were not initiated enough to be privy to such information.

The eagle-hawk and wild cat are not eaten, in part because they were cannibals during the alcheringa (c.f., p. 336).

Amongst the Warramunga (who alternate sex each reincarnation), women are not banned from potentially witnessing the subincision ceremony.

Warramunga fire ceremony: jeering, teasing, all manner of license save sex; there is a seemingly serious attack on the women, who retreat to their wurley and then jeer at the men after they run away. The stated object of the fire ceremony is

that of bringing old quarrels to an end. If, for example, there be two men who have had a serious dispute which has not been finally settled up, they must now meet and, so to speak, fight it out with dry fiery wands, after which it may never be referred to again. They are supposed to, and in fact actually do, become quite friendly towards one another. This fire ceremony is, indeed, regarded as a method of settling accounts up to date and starting with a clean page—everything in the nature of a dispute which occurred before this is completely blotted out and forgotten” (386–7).

Numerous totem ancestor stories are recounted. As noted already, it is a striking feature of these stories that the ancestors consume their totems, as opposed to the current totem members. “Origin of Men of the Water Totem: A Purula Man Splits into Two” (p. 418) is especially evocative. In another story, women possess Churinga, which is unusual for present-day 1904. Also, in many stories the elder brother declares courses of action and accomplishes things younger brothers fail to do, but not in “Winithonguru, the Wild-Cat” (p. 424). The wild-cat totem is noted for almost never being eaten, and also for having practiced cannibalism in the alcheringa. It is not clear if this exceptional status is being reflected in this elder/younger brother reversal. In this particular story, it is not that the younger brother is always only successful—but when it comes to cutting the ground to call forth water, the younger brother is consistently more successful.[2] In another story, of making fire, it is the elder brother who declares how it will be done (after the younger brother’s rejected proposal), and once the fire is lit, the younger brother burns himself on the fire-stick (620). Another example: (p. 591), in the Alcheringa, an elder brother in the mantera (a snake) totem decided to pull their teeth out, but the younger insists on knocking it out. And that is what is done.

Of magic, there are various objects (often bones) that one may use for hurling evil magic at another to haram him or her. There are also various locations, most left over from the alcheringa, where rubbing the left-behind heaps of stones and the like may send evil magic out to others. This can occur inter- and intra-tribally. The prevalence of this imagined form of grievance settling is not stated by the authors.

“The obtaining of a woman by magic is one of the most fruitful sources of quarrels amongst all of the tribes” (473)—this means intra-tribally, I believe. If a lawfully marriable woman is achieved through magic, the man who obtained her will eventually have to fight the man who lost her. If she is not lawfully marriable, both will almost certainly be killed. Women can resort to such magic as well. Either way, women are always blamed for any elopement.

Seeing the often extremely cruel treatment with which the women who are guilty of elopement usually meet, it is really a matter of wonder that they ever consent to it. In addition to being knocked about with a fighting club and most severely handled, the enraged husband, when his erstwhile wife falls into his hands, will, on some occasions, push a lighted fire-stick into the vulva, often thereby causing terrible injury, though at the same time it is marvelous how rapidly and completely the women recover from wound which would likely prove fatal to a civilised person (474).

Amongst the Warramunga and Tjingilli, wearing a wife’s head-band can cure headaches and stomachaches.  After they’re thrown into the bush, the wives retrieve them eventually and wear them normally again. Magic also for making girl’s breasts, young women, and skinny women grow plumper. The Tjingilli perform wantju “to make both young men and women grow strong and well favoured” (476).

Hair is considered as endowed with the attributes (of a dead man) and therefore harvested and kept for that purpose.

Amongst the central tribes, the powers of the medicine man are generally only for withdrawing of evil magic. This is largely because anyone can perform evil magic. The authors (on p. 479) point out from Roth that elsewhere medicine men are specifically endowed with the ability to send out evil magic also. All of his bones are swapped out—that this specifically involves removing evil bones colors the sense of “bone replacement” in other shamanic becoming processes.

Amongst the Anula, uniquely, the position of doctor is hereditary and may be male or female, but only of the falling-star totem “who are especially associated with the unfriendly spirits living in the sky” (488). They only give bones, and the tribe has spells to ward these effects off. In serious cases, they can call in a medicine man from a nearby tribe.

Thus, we have a proper range for dealing with evil magic. Where anyone (including a doctor) might do evil magic, a doctor is provided to counteract those effects. Amongst the Anula, who are curiously afflicted by sorcerers, the tribe itself takes up the role of banishing evil magical effects or, when that fails, calling in help from a neighboring tribe. This leaves missing the cases of a group doing evil magic that an individual can counteract (perhaps Roth noted medicine men who could counteract corporate evil magic from neighboring tribes), and the case anyone might ward off evil magic as well.

Ameliorated by an Individual

Ameliorated by a Group

Inflicted by Individual

Warramunga, &c


Inflicted by a Group



Inflicted by an individual, cured by an individual; inflicted by an individual sorcerer (medicine man), cured by the group; inflicted by a group, cured by an individual; inflicted by a group, cured by a group.

Details or notes related to burial and mourning, the revenge party, and the welcoming party are detailed in other posts, i.e., here and here and here and here (sometimes explicitly, sometimes rather indirectly, and perhaps most directly, i.e., in the greatest concentration, here).

Amongst the Urabunna, one’s name changes at initiation but there are no sacred names (that Spencer and Gillen uncovered) in this tribe. Amongst the Warramunga, the common name of males is widely known, prohibited in use by women, and not used much by men, preferring to use relationship terms or subclass names (like Thapanunga, Thakomara, &c).[3]

Whereas the Arandan people have a wealth of alcheringa ancestors in each totem, the Warramunga tend only to have one or two, and thus far fewer names—there being a tendency among the Arandan to choose a man’s sacred name[4] according to whatever reincarnated ancestor they represent.


(1) In the Arunta, Kaitish, Ilpirra, and Unmatjera tribes there is:—(a) an ordinary name in common, everyday use, and (b) a sacred name known only to the members of the totemic group, and supposed to have been formerly carried by an Alcheringa ancestor.

(2) In the Warramunga group of tribes there is (a) an ordinary name, the exact equivalent of that in the Arunta tribe, and (b) a sacred name carried by some individual who lived since the Alcheringa. This is known only to the fully initiated men, but, unlike what takes place in the Arunta, to men of various totemic groups and belonging to both moieties of the tribe.

(3) In the Gnanji tribe there are two names—(a) an ordinary one in common use, and (b) that of some blood or tribal grandfather, if a man, or a grandmother, if a woman.

(4) In the Binbinga, Mara, Anula, and coastal tribes there is a single name which is that of the grandfather or grandmother. There is no truly sacred name, but the one name is the equivalent of the second name in the Gnanji and of the sacred name in the Arunta, Kaitish, and Warramunga tribes (586–7).

Knocking Out Teeth: Knocking out a tooth might have once been initiatory, but not so much anymore. Amongst the Aranda, the rain and water totem principally do it; amongst other tribes, anyone might, male or female. The claim is that it is cosmetic. Once the tooth is knocked out, it tends to be thrown in the direction of the person’s mother’s alcheringa camp—the people do not worry about the tooth being found or magic being done to or with it. Amongst the Warramunga, women more often than men knock out a tooth; afterward, the tooth is pulverized (by the operator), placed in meat, and eaten (by the girl’s mother).  For men, it is given to his mother-in-law. For women, this tends to happen around the close of the wet season, for the men after a heavy fall of rain so that no more will fall (see p. 593). Amongst the Gnanji, the tooth is thrown into water holes to stop the fall of rain and increase the water lilies.

Giving Blood: Amongst the Kaitish and Aranda, blood for ceremonies must come from the same moiety and the operation must not be seen by the other moiety; amongst the Warramunga and Tjingilli, exactly the opposite. Blood sometimes gets used as water, to quench thirst, sprinkled on heads to cool—younger men man spritz blood on an older. Generally, exchanges of blood imply bonds—initiatory blood is disposed of to other relatives, or the atninga party douses itself in shared offerings, &c. When ill, people are given blood to drink—“when drawn from a woman it is always from the labia minora” (599); amongst the Warramunga, “this is done in only very serious cases”. Often, taboo accrue from these kind of blood exchanges that must be dealt with in various ways (cf p. 600). During menstruation, women are carefully avoided, and the first menses gets addressed by sequestration, &c (601).

Customs Relating to Hair: complicated details—read page 602–05; however, hair is periodically cut and given to other people; “This disposal of the hair is evidently associated in some way with the idea of payment, on the one hand to the man who has the disposal in marriage of the woman, and on the other to some member of the group to which the wife’s mother belongs. Thus in the Arunta it is given to the wife’s father, and he has the disposal of the woman; in the Warramunga and Tjingilli it goes to the mother’s brother, and here again he is the man who gives the girl away” (602); there are still yet other details however. “The only occasions on which hair is ever destroyed are those on which it is cut off as an emblem of mourning, in which case it is always immediately burnt” (604). The continuance exchange of hair as “a very valuable article of barter” (605)—or perhaps one should say a very visible sign of mutual obligation—prevents hair from being used in magic against others, Spencer and Gillen (1904) suggest.

Customs at Childbirth: “Every individual is regarded as the reincarnation of an ancestor. In all cases the spirit was very definitely associated with a special totemic group. Sometimes, as in the Arunta, Kaitish, and Unmatjera tribes, the ancestors of the totemic groups were many in number; at others, as in in the Urabunna, they were few in number, often only one or two; at others, as in the Warramunga, there was one great ancestor, from whose body spirit individuals emanated. In every instance, however, the spirit is supposed to deliberately enter the body of the mother” (606).

Food Restrictions: Besides totemic food restrictions, there are others. For example, amongst the Aranda, “a man is strictly forbidden to eat the flesh of any animal which has been killed, or even seen, by another man standing to him in the relationship of ikuntera (father-in-law) … [or] food secured by his umba (sister’s children), mura women (wife’s mothers), and ipmunna [maternal grandmother or maternal grandmother’s brothers] men and women” (609). However, having successfully hunted, such a man will send some of it to their ikuntera, i.e., the direction of taboo is not reciprocal. The Warramunga and Urabunna are more relaxed about this; sons-in-law are not necessarily prohibited from eating food secured by their fathers-in-law, but the younger are expected to provide food to the elder. In general, prohibitions function to give the best foods to old men; younger men are under food restrictions that gradually lift as they age, women are under yet stricter prohibitions (which presumably do not lift as they age). (While a woman is pregnant, the spirit of the child may accompany the man out hunting, and ruin his chances by warning the game or deflecting the direction of his boomerang or spears.) Various food taboos upon initiation and during pregnancy. The only taboo on vegetables: amongst the Aranda, menstruating women may not gather the Irriakura bulb—“a staple article of diet for men and women” (615)—as that would “result in the failure of the supply of the bulb” (615).

Nose Boring: “To the north of the Arunta there do not appear to be any ceremonies attendant upon the operation of boring the nasal septum” (615). At this point, the gesture seems decorative; amongst the Kaitish it is performed during warm weather—possibly linking it (I suggest) to knocking out the tooth, which goes with wet weather. Amongst the Warramunga, the doctors wear their kupitja (the mark of their medical profession) in the nose.

The sun is female; the moon is male.[5] “The Kaitish people call it Arilpa, and have only very vague traditions about it. They say that in the Alcheringa the moons at down as a very old man at a place called Urnta, a big hill near to Barrow Creek. He came to Urnta from the north-east, and on arriving there said he was very sorry he had come, and went back again.  Big stone arose to mark the place where the old man sat down, and he can still be seen in the moon carrying a great tomahawk” (625).

The designs on various implements rarely have any imitative quality, being strictly geometrical (concentric circles, spirals); as far as decoration on objects, the people spoken to say they have no significance except s decorations:

So far as painted designs are concerned, the great majority of implements and weapons are merely coated over with red ochre, but in some cases a special design may be added. As a general rule this is strictly geometrical in nature, and it is extremely rare to meet with any design which can be recognized as a biomorph. The natives themselves say that these decorations have no meaning of any kind, and that they are added merely to make the object look better (708).

In the case of the bands worn by the Arunta and Kaitish on special occasions, the general resemblance between the decorations on them and those on the Churinga is very striking, but the natives say that they have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. It is a noticeable fact that it is only amongst the people who use Churinga most frequently—that is, the southern central tribes—that we meet also with the concentric circles and spirals as common designs on everyday articles such as the forehead-bands (715).


[1] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). The northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here, pp. i–xxxv, 1–787.

[2] Note: it is not until later in the story that both perform subincision, so there may be some significance in being as yet not fully initiated. At the beginning of the story following circumcision, they are declared to be thrumbruknurra (properly developed men). After subincision (not much narrative is left), the younger only follows the elder.

[3] I recall this as one of the potentially more confusing things in Vietnamese, where our term “you” is finely graded into relationships in Vietnamese pronouns, with the consequence that one might be called “you” by a range of different terms in a conversation, depending on who is addressing “you.”

[4] If women have sacred names, Spencer and Gillen do not note it. On p. 586, they mention that amongst the Gnanji, the sacred name of men and women is the paternal grandfather and maternal or paternal grandmother, respectively. (They suggest this follows the Warramunga custom of deriving a name from out of the Wingara.) These are collective groups of people, not specific biological forebears; amongst the Binbinga, Anula, and Mara tribe only this “second” name is given as a first.

[5] “The moon (Atninja) is regarded by the Arunta tribe as being especially associated with the opossum totem. According to one myth he was originally an opossum man, who came up on to the earth and was carried about by another old opossum man in a shield as the latter went about hunting for opossums. A grass-seed man stole him, and the opossum man, being unable to overtake the thief, shouted out to the moon telling him to go up into the sky, which accordingly he did, and there he has remained ever since” (625).


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