1902 Encyclopedia > Totemism > Ceremonies at Puberty. Sex Totems.

(Part 4)


Ceremonies at Puberty

The attainment of puberty is celebrated by savages with ceremonies some of which seem to be directly connected with totemism. The Australian rites of initiation at puberty include the raising of these scars on the persons of the clansmen and clanswomen which serve as tribal badges or actually depict the totem. They also include those mutilations of the person by knocking out teeth, &c., which we have seen reason to suppose are meant to assimilate the man to his totem.

At one stage of these Australian rites a number of men appear on the scene howling and running on all fours in imitation of the dingo or native Australian dog; at last the leader jumps up, clasps his hands, and shouts the totem name "wild dog." [Footnote 470-10] The Coast Murring tribe in New South Wales had an initiatory ceremony at which the totem name "brown snake" was shouted, and a medicine-man produced a live brown snake out of his mouth. [Footnote 470-11] As the fundamental rules of totem societies are rules regulating social intercourse, perhaps those pantomimes were intended to supply the youths with a symbolic language by means of which they might communicate with persons speaking different languages, and thus ascertain whether they belonged to clans with which marriage was allowed. The totem clans of the Bechuanas have each its special dance or pantomime, and when they wish to ascertain a stranger’s clan they ask him, "What do you dance ?" [Footnote 470-12] We find elsewhere that dancing has been used as a means of sexual selection.

But in some cages these dances seem to be purely religious. At their initiatory rites the Yuin tribe in New South Wales mould figures of the totems in earth and dance before them, and a medicine-man brings up out of his inside the "magic" appropriate to the totem before which he stands : before the figure of the porcupine he brings up a stuff like chalk, before the kangaroo a stuff like glass, &c. [Footnote 470-13]

Again, it is at initiation that the youth is solemnly forbidden to eat of certain foods; but, as the list of foods prohibited to youths at puberty both in Australia and America extends far beyond the simple totem, it would seem that we are here in contact with those unknown general ideas of the savage, whereof totemism is only a special product.

Thus the Narrinyeri youth at initiation are forbidden to eat twenty different kinds of game, besides any food belonging to women. If they eat of these forbidden foods it is thought they will grow ugly. [Footnote 470-14] In the Mycoolon tribe, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, the youth at initiation is forbidden to eat of eaglehawk and its young, native companion and its young, some snakes, turtles, ant-eaters, and emu eggs. [Footnote 470-15] The Kurnai youth is not allowed to eat the female of any animal, nor the emu, nor the porcupine. He becomes free by having the fat of the aninial smeared oil his face. [Footnote 470-16] On the otherhand, it is said that "initiation confers many privileges on the youths, as they are now allowed to eat many articles of food which were previously forbidden to them." [Footnote 470-17] Thus in New South Wales before initiation a boy may eat only the females of the animals which he catches; but after initiation (which, however, may not be complete for several years) he may eat whatever he finds. [Footnote 470-18] In North America the Creek youths at puberty were forbidden for twelve months to eat of young bucks, turkey-cocks, fowls, pease, and salt. [Footnote 470-19]

These ceremonies seem also to be meant to admit the youth into the life of the clan, and hence of the totem. The latter appears to be the meaning of a Carib ceremony, in which the father of the youth took a live bird of prey, of a particular species, and beat his son with it till the bird was dead and its head crushed, thus transferring the life and spirit of the martial bird to the future warrior. Further, he scarified his son all over, rubbed the juices of the bird into the wounds, and gave him the bird’s heart to eat. [Footnote 470-20] Amongst some Australian tribes the youth at initiation is smeared with blood drawn from the arms either of aged men or of all the men present, and he even receives the blood to drink. Amongst some tribes on the Darling this tribal blood is his only food for two days. Among some tribes the youths at initiation sleep on the graves of their ancestors, in order to absorb their virtues. [Footnote 470-21] It is, however, a very notable fact that the initiation of an Australian youth is said to be conducted, not by men of the same totem, but by men of that portion of the tribe into which he may marry. [Footnote 470-22] In some of the Victorian tribes no person related to the youth by blood can interfere or assist in his initiation. [Footnote 470-23] Whether this is true of all tribes and of all the rites at initiation does not appear.

Connected with totemism is also the Australian ceremony at initiation of pretending to recall a dead man to life by the utterance of his totem name. An old man lies down in a grave and is covered up lightly with earth ; but at the mention of his totem name he starts up to life. [Footnote 471-1] Sometimes it is believed that the youth himself is killed by a being called Thuremlui, who cuts him up, restores him to life, and knocks out a tooth. [Footnote 471-2] Here the idea seems to be that of a second birth, or the beginning of a new life for the novice ; hence he receives a new name at the time when he is circumcised, or the tooth knocked out, or the blood of the kin poured on him. [Footnote 471-3] Amongst the Indians of Virginia and the Quojas in Africa, the youths after initiation pretended to forget the whole of their former lives (parents, language, customs, &c.), and had to learn everything over again like new-born babes. [Footnote 471-4] A Wolf clan in Texas used to dress up in wolf skins and run about on all fours, howling and mimicking wolves; at last they scratched up a living clansman, who had been buried on purpose, and, putting a bow and arrows in his hands, bade him do as the wolves do—rob, kill, and murder. [Footnote 471-5] This may have been an initiatory ceremony, revealing to the novice in pantomime the double origin of the clan—from wolves and from the ground. For it is a common belief with totem clans that they issued originally from the ground.

Connected with this mimic death and revival of a clansman appear to be the real death and supposed revival of the totem itself. We have seen that some Californian Indians killed the buzzard, and then buried and mourned over it like a clansman. But it was believed that, as often as the bird was killed, it was made alive again. Much the same idea appears in a Zuni ceremony described by an eyewitness, Mr Cushing. He tells how a procession of fifty men set off for the spirit-land, or (as the Zunis call it) "the home of our others," and returned after four days, each man bearing a basket full of living, squirming turtles. One turtle was brought to the house where Mr Cushing was staying, and it was welcomed with divine honours. It was addressed as, "Ah ! my poor dear lost child or parent, my sister or brother to have been ! Who knows which ? May be my own great great grandfather or mother?" Nevertheless, next day it was killed and its flesh and bones deposited in the river, that it might "return once more to eternal life among its comrades in the dark waters of the lake of the dead." The idea that the turtle was dead was repudiated with passionate sorrow; it had only, they said, "changed houses and gone to live for ever in the home of ‘our lost others.’" [Footnote 471-6] The meaning of such ceremonies is not clear. Perhaps, as has been suggested, [Footnote 471-7] they are piacular sacrifices, in which the god dies for his people. This is borne out by the curses with which the Egyptians loaded the head of the slain bull. [Footnote 471-8]

Sex Totems.—In Australia (but, so far as is known at present, nowhere else) each of the sexes has, at least in some tribes, its special sacred animal, whose name each individual of the sex bears, regarding the animal as his or her brother or sister respectively, not killing it nor suffering the opposite sex to kill it. These sacred animals therefore answer strictly to the definition of totems.

Thus amongst the Kurnai all the men were called Yeerung (Emu-Wren) and all the women Djeetgun (Superb Warbler). The birds called Yeerung were the "brothers" of the men, and the birds called Djeetgun were the women’s "sisters." If the men killed an emu-wren they were attacked by the women, if the women killed a superb warbler they were assailed by the men. Yeerung and Djeetgun were the mythical ancestors of the Kurnai. [Footnote 471-9]

The Kulin tribe in Victoria, in addition to sixteen clan totems, has two pairs of sex totems: one pair (the emnu-wren and superb warbler) is identical with the Kurnai pair; the other pair is the bat (male totem) and the small night jar (female totem). The latter pair extends to the extreme north-western confines of Victoria as the "man’s brother" and the "woman’ sister." [Footnote 471-10] The Ta-ta-thi group of tribes in New South Wales, in addition to regular clan totems, has a pair of sex totems, the bat for men and a small owl for women; men and women address each other as Owls and Bats; and there is a fight if a woman kills a bat or a man kills a small owl. [Footnote 471-11] Of some Victorian tribes it is said that "the common bat belongs to the men, who protect it against injury, even to the half killing of their wives for its sake. The fern owl, or large goatsucker, belongs to the women, and, although a bird of evil omen, creating terror at night by its cry, it is jealouidy protected by them. If a man kills one, they are as much enraged as if it was one of their children, and will strike him with their long poles." [Footnote 471-12]

The sex totem seems to be still more sacred than the clan totem ; for men who do not object to other people killing their clan totem will fiercely defend their sex totem against any attempt of the opposite sex to injure it. [Footnote 471-13]


470-10 J. A. I., xiii. 450.

470-11 Ibid., xvi. p. 43.

470-12 Livingstone, South Africa, p. 13 ; J. Mackenzie, Ten Years North of the Orange River, p. 391, cf. p. 135 n.; J. A. I, xvi. 83.

470-13 Jour. and Proc. R. Soc. N.S. Wales, 1882, p. 206.

470-14 Nat. Tribes of S. Austral., p. 17.

470-15 J. A. I, xiii. p. 295.

470-16 Ibid., xiv. p. 316.

470-17 Ibid., 360.

470-18 Jour. and Proc. R. Soc. N S. Wales, 1882, pp. 208.

470-19 Gatschet, Migration Legend of the Creek Indians, i. p. 185.

470-20 Rochefort, flist. nat. et mor. des Iles Antilles (Rotterdam, 1666), p. 556; Du Tertre, Histoire générale des Antilles, vol. ii. p. 377.

470-21 Jour. and Proc. R. Soc. N. S. Wales, 1882, p. 172.

470-22 Howitt in J. A. I., xiii. 458.

470-23 Dawson, Australian Aborigines, p. 30.

471-1 J. A. I., xiii. 453 sq.

471-2 lb., xiv. 358.

471-3 Angas, i. 115 ; Brough Smyth, i. 75 n; J. A. I, xiv. 357, 359; Nat. Tr. of S. Austr., pp. 232, 269.

471-4 R. Beverley, History of Virginia (London, 1722), p. 177 sq.; Dapper, Description de l’Afrique, p. 268.

471-5 Schoolcraft, Ind. Tr., v. 683.

471-6 Mr Cushing in Century Magazine, May 1885.

471-7 See SACRIFICE, vol. xxi. p. 137.

471-8 Herod., ii. 39.

471-9 Fison arid Howitt, 194, 201 sq., 215, 235.

047-11 J. A. i., xv. p. 416, cf. xii. p. 507.

471-12 Ibid., xiv. 350.

471-13 Dawson, Australian Aborigines, p. 52.

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