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'Some Remarks on Totemism as Applied to Australian Tribes' by Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 (1899), pp. 275-280.


In our work upon The Native Tribes of Central Australia, we have described in detail certain features concerned with the totemic system of the Arunta, Ilpirra, and other tribes, and at the suggestion of Mr. Frazer, to whose work and personal assistance we are deeply indebted, we venture to put forward certain tentative ideas with regard to the possible meaning and origin of totemism as applied to our Australian tribes--ideas also which have independently suggested themselves to Mr. Frazer.

Totemism, to use Mr. Frazer's terms, has both a religious and a social aspect, and it would appear that in the Arunta and other Central Australian tribes, the former, which we believe that Mr. Frazer would now prefer to designate as magical rather than religious, is predominant, whilst in the coastal tribes such as those dealt with by Messrs. Fison, Howitt, and other workers, the social is at the present day the predominant feature, the religious or magical being but slightly marked. In the case of other tribes, such as the Urabunna and Dieri, the area occupied by which lies between that of the Central and Eastern coastal tribes, the social aspect is strongly marked, but at the same time the religious is also clearly indicated.

In all tribes, so far as is known, there is supposed to exist some special connection between the material object and the members of the group of individuals who bear its name as their totem name, while in addition to this, i in certain tribes, the social aspect is revealed by the fact that members of one or more particular totemic groups are restricted in their marital relations to the members of other particular totemic groups.

In addition to these totemic groups we find in all Australian tribes, with very rare exceptions, that there are other and larger social divisions which are variously designated as class and sub-class, or phratry and sub-phratry, and that primarily each tribe is divided, quite apart from the totemic groups, into two exogamic moieties.

In the majority of Australian tribes yet studied, each exogamous moiety has been found to include a certain number of totemic groups, and the latter have, in consequence of this, been described as exogamic. If, for example, we take the Dieri or Urabunna tribe, we find that there are two moieties, one called Kirarawa and the other Matthuri, and that in the former are included such totemic groups as carpet snake, lizard, crow, and in the latter others, such as duck, dingo, emu. 

... The hypothesis which is now suggested, and which has been advanced independently also by Mr. Frazer, is that in our Australian tribes the primary function of a totemic group is that of ensuring by magic means a supply of the object which gives its name to the totemic group, and that further, the relation between totemism and exogamy is merely a secondary feature.

In regard to the latter the traditions of the Arunta tribe point to a very definite introduction of an exogamic system long after the totemic groups were fully developed, and further, they point very clearly to the fact that the introduction was due to the deliberate action of certain ancestors. Our knowledge of the natives leads us to the opinion that it is quite possible that this really took place, and that the exogamic groups were deliberately introduced so as to regulate marital relations. By this we do not mean to imply that the regulations had anything whatever to do with the idea of what we term incest, or of any harm accruing from the union of individuals who were regarded as too nearly related. Such ideas could only arise after some system regulating marital relations had been introduced and as a result of this. The idea of incest, for example, is a perfectly arbitrary one: what we regard as a perfectly natural and normal union, an Australian native will regard in the light of what we call an incestuous union and vice versa. It can only be said that far back in the early history of mankind there was felt the need of some form of organisation, and that this gradually resulted in the development of exogamic groups.

If we presuppose a tribe with certain totemic but with no exogamic groups--a condition revealed to us in the early traditions of the Arunta tribe--then any division, such as apparently has taken place in all Australian tribes, into two exogamic moieties would result in (1) placing all the members of one totemic group in one of the two moieties, or (2) in each of the latter comprising indiscriminately the members of various totemic groups. As this division of the tribe came to regulate marriage--possibly it was introduced for this purpose--it would follow that in (1) as in perhaps the majority of Australian tribes, a man of one totem was obliged to marry a woman of another, while in (2) such was not of necessity the case. When once in the case of (1) this train of reasoning had been followed up for some time, then it is not perhaps difficult to imagine that it would lead finally to the restriction of men of one totem to women of another special totem. The social aspect of the totem would thus become emphasized, and it would appear as if the totemic groups were essentially exogamic in nature, whereas, in reality, there is no primary relationship between the totemic system and exogamy.

In conclusion a few words may be added with regard to the question of soul transference in connection with the totem. Dr. Tylor says, "The difficulty in understanding the relation of a clan of men to a species of animals or plants is met by the transmigration of souls which bridges over the gap between the two, so that the men and the animals become united by kinship and mutual alliance: an ancestor having lineal descendants among men and sharks, or men and owls, is thus the founder of a totem family, which mere increase may convert into a totem clan, already provided with its animal name. By thus finding in the world-wide doctrine of soul-transference an actual cause producing the two collateral lines of man and beast, which constitute the necessary framework of totemism, we seem to reach at least something analogous to its real cause." Dr. Tylor then adds, illustrating the point by a reference to the Arunta system, "But considering the variations found even between neighbouring tribes in the working of their ideas, it would be incautious to lay down as yet a hard and fast scheme of their origin and development."

In the Arunta and other tribes the myth invented to account for the existing relationship between a totem clan and the totem animal or plant is that the ancestor of the former were the transformation of certain of the latter. At the same time it must be remembered that there isn o idea of any such thing as the placing of the soul of a member of the totem in the totem animal or plant, and that the life of this is not held sacred on account of the possibility of its containing the soul or spirit part of a near relative. A man will tell you that his totem is "the same thing as himself,"I but though he will only kill and eat it on certain special occasions, yet he will actually help a friend belonging to another totem to do so at any time.

Until we were more deeply conversant with the totemic system of the Arunta people, we were under the impression that in regard to the non-eating of the totem we were dealing with a state of affairs practically identical with the well-known often-quoted description of Grey. The two most striking facts which the native tells you with regard to his totem are (1) that the man regards his totem as the same thing as himself, and, (2) that he will not kill and eat it, or only very sparingly and with reluctance. It was only at a later period when we had gained more minute information with regard to the significance of the totems as revealed in the sacred ceremonies concerned with Intichiuima, that we came to see more clearly the relationship between the man and his totem, and to understand that, though he regards his totemic animal as being "the same thing as himself," and that he will only on rare occasions kill and eat it, yet this by no means implies that he regards it as possibly containing the soul or spirit part of himself or of a human relative. In other tribes in which the social organisation is the same as in the tribe studied by Grey, and in which also a man will tell you that he only kills and eats his totem with reluctance, and sparingly, we find the same significance attached to the totem as in the Arunta tribe, and we venture to think that there is not sufficient evidence in regard to Australian tribes to warrant the idea that the totemic animal or plant is regarded as containing the soul or spirit part of an individual bearing the totemic name. 


Professor TYLOR congratulated Professor Baldwin Spencer on the success with which he had carried his zoological training into the path of Anthropology. A zoologist, he remarked, is half an anthropologist from the beginning. Among the novel and important information which Professor Baldwin Spencer had brought back from his exploration, his account of the native totem-system had, even in anticipation of the publication of the Spencer and Gillen volume on The Native Tribes of Central Australia, aroused lively interest among anthropologists. The interpretation of the Arunta totems as resulting from soul-transmission carried on through sacred objects is not only intelligible, but is perhaps the only clearly formulated scheme of totemism yet described, which is intelligible at every step on savage animistic principles. In this it differs remarkably from most other totem-systems such as that of the Algonquins of America, in which the relation of the man to the totem-animal of his clan is obscure, probably because most foreigners who have described it have failed to ascertain the spiritual connexion involved. An important feature in the Arunta-totem is their agreement with Wilken's theory, which traces them to the doctrine of transmigration of souls. So remarkable  a new element thrown into the midst of the older accounts in Australia, America, and other countries, should be a warning against the premature framing of theories as to the origin of totems by anthropologist, especially in the absence of full comparison of evidence as to the animistic ideas connected with them. 






[1]  The substance of these remarks was delivered by Professor Baldwin Spencer at the meeting of the Anthlopological Institute held 14th December, 1898. 

[2]  Remarks on Totemism, Journ. Inst. Anthr. November 1898, p. 147.

Transcribed by AP August 2013.

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