Folk-Lore/Volume 11/Totemism and Some Recent Discoveries

Folk-Lore. Volume 11
Number 1. (March)
Presidential Address: Totemism and Some Recent Discoveries
1056986Folk-Lore. Volume 11 — Number 1. (March)
Presidential Address: Totemism and Some Recent Discoveries


The delivery of a Presidential Address has now become a custom so firmly established in this as in other scientific societies that it is not lightly to be broken through, otherwise I confess I should have shrunk from a task which I feel to be one of the most onerous and difficult falling to a President's lot. In some societies the President is expected to give a sort of funeral oration on all the members who have passed away during the year. That is not a cheerful undertaking, even though sweetened with all the spices of the embalmers. In some societies the President is expected to dilate on the position and prospects of the organisation: a function performed for us by the Annual Report of the Council. We have been wont to leave the President a wider discretion: he may talk at large with impunity; and if this result in his airing his own hobbies the members are generous enough to forgive him, and to make allowance for the occasion when they are most indifferent to the subject. The hope of this indulgence is my excuse, albeit a lame one, for the observations I am about to address to you. Fragmentary they needs must be, from the nature of the subject I have chosen. Yet I hope at least they may be helpful, though in ever so feeble a measure, to some who are interested in the problems confronting the student of folklore.

But, first of all, though I do not propose to detail the losses inflicted upon the Society by death during the year, one of them is of no ordinary kind and not to be passed by in silence. I refer to the death of Dr. Brinton. He was not an old man. Indeed many more years of activity might have been anticipated for him. But measured by the extent and variety of his works, and by the influence he wielded in anthropological science, especially in his native country, his life was great and fruitful. To enumerate all his writings would be to recite a lengthy catalogue. Many of them were on subjects more or less controversial; yet I will venture to say that, however widely one might differ from his conclusions, it was impossible to read anything he wrote without receiving an intellectual stimulus such as results only from contact with an original mind. Some men display their best qualities only in their books. I remember a favoured undergraduate who had been asked to meet a writer of genius at the table of the head of his college, telling me afterwards of his disappointment. The author, to whose conversation he had looked forward with such lively anticipations, would only talk about the excellencies of buttered toast! Dr. Brinton would not have disappointed him. A man of wide learning and exquisite literary taste, there were few intellectual subjects on which he could not and would not talk in a way that conveyed instruction without patronage and made discussion one of the keenest of pleasures. He received every honour which academic and scientific bodies in America, as well as many in Europe, could bestow; and he added lustre to them all. His name was a household word to British, hardly less than to American, anthropologists; and we join with sad hearts in the last homage of regret universally paid by his countrymen to the author of The Myths of the New World, The American Race, and Religions of Primitive Peoples.

Nor can I forget, among those who on our own side of the water have passed into the unknown, one whose premature departure has for some of us cast a darker gloom over the closing months of a gloomy year, and has called forth more than one eloquent memorial of sorrow from intimate and sympathetic friends, and at least one graceful and touching tribute from an opponent in many a controversial tournament. Mr. Grant Allen was not, like professor Brinton, a member of this Society. But he was an earnest and widely-read student of tradition. Of great and multiform accomplishments, of a singular versatility and alertness of mind, he could not but be fully alive to all the possibilities of anthropological discovery and speculation; and his edition of the Attis of Catullus and his Evolution of the Idea of God contained notable contributions to the discussion of some of the important problems debated of recent years. These make it the more to be regretted that circumstances did not admit of his giving himself wholly to scientific inquiry. His various erudition, accessible on every occasion, his high ideals and strenuous purposes, often expressed with gentle humour, the boldness of his opinions, maintained with vigour tempered with unfailing geniality, and the courage with which he faced consequences not to be disregarded even in these days, rendered personal intercourse with him always fascinating, and gave life and charm to his writings. He has, alas! gone from us, leaving behind for all who knew him the memory of one of the truest, bravest, and most lovable of men.

After these mournful themes, let me pause for a moment on one of a different kind. Allusion has been made in the Report to Professor Starr's visit last June, when he crossed twice three thousand miles of land and ocean to present and explain his collection illustrative of Mexican folklore We passed formal votes of thanks to him; and in the Report we have renewed the expression of our indebtedness. We could not, however, have realised the magnitude of his gift without the Catalogue he has compiled with such care. It is by this time in your hands; and in reading it you will note how, besides gathering and rendering accessible information from various quarters, he has poured forth abundantly from his own stores of observation. I rejoice to know that the collection has found a permanent place of deposit in one of the ancient homes of English learning. There, with the Catalogue in hand, we can study large divisions of the folklore of a people whose more barbarous traditions have been overlaid and transformed by modes of thought, European indeed, but of a relatively backward type. It is due to our neighbours across the channel to say that they first appreciated the scientific instruction capable of being conveyed by such objects. M. Sébillot's collection of Breton children's toys filled one of the most interesting cases at the Exhibition of Paris in 1889, and now forms part of the National Museum at the Trocadero. I hope that Professor Starr's generosity will keep us in mind how much we owe in anthropological matters to America, and bind us more closely in friendship to a nation of the same language, and mainly of the same stock and the same ideals as ourselves. Nor has his personal claim on our gratitude ended here. I have the pleasure of laying on the table a further gift in the shape of a copy of his beautiful Ethnological Album of the native races of Southern Mexico. It is intended for our library, where students making use of it will prize it as a witness to his energy and unselfish enthusiasm, as well as for its own intrinsic value.

I am not going to trouble you to-night with a review of folklore during the century now rapidly drawing to an end. Such reviews may be useful and appropriate; but it is equally appropriate and more immediately important to touch upon some current questions. If, however, we glance back for a moment at the past, we shall, I think, find nothing more remarkable in the history of the science of folklore than the change in the methods of record and study since the establishment of the Society twenty-two years ago. Then, folklore had hardly got out of the stage of dilettantism. People in general had only begun to perceive that the phenomena with which we are concerned were something more than curious, in spite of the writings of Sir Henry Maine, Maclennan and, most, important of all, Dr. Tylor. The term folklore, in fact, was confined to scraps of tradition; and anything like the conception of it we now hold was unknown. The Handbook of Folklore, issued by the Society in 1890, marks a long step in advance; and nine or ten years' subsequent experience has taken us beyond even that. Some people are said to prefer being in a minority. If there are such people, I am not one of them. Yet I look back with satisfaction on a vote which I gave in the Council when the initial chapter of the Handbook was under discussion, and I found myself alone, or almost alone, in objecting to the definition of folklore as there proposed, namely: "The comparison and identification of the survivals of archaic beliefs, customs, and traditions in modern ages." The Handbook itself, when published, justified, as I venture to think, my criticism and my vote, for the logical implications of the definition were silently set aside in the manner of treatment. I do not recall this from any personal reason, but as an illustration of the growth, the inevitable growth, of our conception of folklore. I say "the inevitable growth," because it was inevitable that, when folklore came to be studied scientifically by a number of students, it would be found impossible to confine the view primarily to the fragmentary relics of earlier stages of culture cropping out here and there in the midst of modern European civilisation, and to use the larger, more varied, and still living products of savagery and barbarism all over the rest of the world as mere illustrations to explain them. We were bound to take a wider view, for the illustrations themselves required to be explained. We were bound to begin at the other end by a careful study of savage life and custom as a whole. Thus only was it possible to understand the folklore of Europe; thus only could we see it in its true perspective, in its real relations with the immense and complex history of humanity.

But this was not simply to take a more scientific view of folklore; it was not simply to cast away the swaddling clothes that enwound the infancy of the study. In abandoning the last traces of dilettantism wherein all science begins, in attaining that insight which perceives that between the tradition of the Irish peasant and the tradition of the Maori no generic difference exists, but both are equally folklore, and in grasping the importance of folklore as thus conceived for any investigation into the past of the human race, the study of folklore has become frankly anthropological. It is no longer possible, even if it were desired, to draw a line between the science of folklore and that side of anthropology which deals with the earlier intellectual, spiritual, and institutional development of mankind. They are one and the same.

Along with this advance in the conception of folklore has gone an advance in the method of recording it. During the last twenty years the work of observation and collection all over the world has swollen our libraries to an alarming extent. Happily the quality of the materials thus brought together has also improved, though we still have only too much cause to harden our hearts, if not to roughen our tongues, against that impertinent person the writer of scraps, the man of scissors and paste, for whom any piece of gossip, or any apocryphal story tricked out with what he may be pleased to call graces of style or local colour, is folklore. Such a person brings discredit on folklore; and charity, or even patience, is a doubtful virtue in dealing with him. The advance in accuracy of record I am referring to has been specially productive in the case of savage peoples. The way has been led by the American Bureau of Ethnology, to whose detailed researches on the tribes of the western continent anthropology is so greatly indebted. In other quarters of the globe individual effort has followed this example. To confine our view to Australia, Mr. Howitt, Mr. Roth, and Messrs. Spencer and Gillen have revealed to us a new world of savage thought. The discoveries thus made have been promptly seized by inquirers into the history of human institutions and belief with the daring, but not always with the success, of a Cortes or a Pizarro. Their jarring theories and conflicting claims have raised the din of controversy. The quiet non-combatant student is astonished to find himself in the theatre of war, and hardly knows where to seek a bomb-proof burrow that he may hide his head from the shells of their polemics.

One of the subjects on which recent inquiries have thrown most doubt is that of Totemism. We had looked upon Totemism as one of the most important and far-reaching of anthropological discoveries. We thought the theory solidly established, its foundations laid by Maclennan, its superstructure carefully erected by Dr. Frazer, and adapted by Robertson Smith and Dr. Jevons to the most modern requirements of theology. On a sudden two smashing blows are delivered, one by Dr. Franz Boas and the other by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen; and it seems there is hardly one stone of the fabric left upon another.

Dr. Boas has conducted for many years a remarkable series of investigations among the north-western tribes of Canada. The results have been given to the world partly in reports to the British Association, partly in publications of the Smithsonian Institution; and an important volume of stories has been issued by the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte. The monograph on the Kwakiutl Indians to which I want now to direct your attention was contained in the Annual Report of the National Museum at Washington for 1895, actually published in 1898.

I need not do more at the outset than remind you that totemism is a system having a religious and also a social side. The totem of a clan—it is with such only that we are concerned—is a class of material objects[1] reverenced by a body of persons who believe themselves to be united to the totem and to one another by a special bond, conferring certain mutual rights and obligations. The totem is the crest or symbol of the clan. The bond uniting the clansmen to one another is that of blood: the tie of kinship. The questions raised by Dr. Boas concern the nature of the bond uniting the clansmen to the totem. "The members of a totem clan," says Dr. Frazer, generalising the information available up to 1887, "call themselves by the name of their totem, and commonly believe themselves to be actually descended from it."[2] But among the tribes of British Columbia, Dr. Boas tells us, "it must be clearly understood that the natives do not consider themselves descendants of the totem."[3] The characteristics of the totem, in fact, suggest relationship rather with the manitous of other North American tribes. When a youth belonging, for instance, to the Ojibways arrives at puberty, he undergoes certain religious rites, and fasts, until some supernatural being appears to him, generally in the form of an animal, and becomes his personal manitou, that is, his guide and protector for the rest of his life. Now the totem in British Columbia, according to Dr. Boas, would seem to be a personal manitou, become the hereditary manitou of a family.[4] Miss Alice Fletcher, who has long lived in intimate converse with the Omaha of the United States, has been led independently to form the same opinion as to the origin of the totems among the Indians of the prairies. These opinions, if correct, will profoundly affect scientific speculation on savage religion and social polity. Though they cannot yet be considered as definitely established, we must accord them the respect due to opinions formed after long inquiry by competent and painstaking observers. At the same time, the legends related by Dr. Boas are hardly decisive of the exact relationship of the totem to the clan, as conceived by the peoples of the Pacific Coast of Canada and Alaska. Let us examine one or two.

The Tsimshians are a tribe reckoning kinship through the mother. One of their clans is that of the Bear; and this is the legend of the clan: "An Indian went mountain-goat hunting. When he had reached a remote mountain-range, he met a black bear, who took him to his home, taught him how to catch salmon, and how to build canoes. For two years the man stayed with the bear; then he returned to his own village. The people were afraid of him because he looked just like a bear. One man, however, caught him and took him home. He could not speak, and could not eat anything but raw food. Then they rubbed him with magic herbs, and gradually he was retransformed into the shape of a man. After this, whenever he was in want, he called his friend the bear, who came to assist him. In winter, when the rivers were frozen, he alone was able to catch salmon. He built a house, and painted the bear on the house-front. His sister made a dancing-blanket, the design of which represented a bear. Therefore the descendants of his sisters use the bear for their crest."[5] Read literally, this is an example of what I may call the manitoutotems; and indeed Dr. Boas expressly brings it forward as such. But you will probably be of opinion that the expressions lead to the inference that at one time the totem stood in a closer relation to the clan; in a word, that the bear was once believed to be the ancestor of the clan. The suspicion is strengthened when we find Dr. Boas writing of the North-western tribes in general: "There exists, however, another class of traditions, according to which the crests or emblems of the clan are . . . brought down by the ancestor of the clan from heaven, or from the underworld or out of the ocean, wherever he may have derived his origin. This is the case with the Sīsîntlaē, whose emblem is the sun. Here also belong the numerous tales of ancestors who came down from heaven, took off their masks, and became men, for in all these cases the mask has remained the crest of the clan."[6]

If I rightly understand Dr. Boas' account of these tribes, however, this statement is hardly strong enough. In the first place, the word Sīsîntlaē means "children of the sun," and the sun himself is explicitly said to have come down to earth and become the father of the clan.[7] Next, some clans appear to dispense with the apparatus of the mask, that of the G.īg.îlqam of the Nimkish, for instance, who believe themselves to be descendants of the thunder-bird (a mythical being, common to the tradition of many American tribes) and paint its figure upon their house-front.[8] Lastly, even when the apparatus of the mask is retained, it is doubtless no more than a modern and rationalistic expression of the old, deep-seated belief in transformation. So that we have clear evidence of the descent at all events of some of the clans from non-human ancestors, as set forth in the words I have already quoted from Dr. Frazer.

On the other hand, there are cases where the story of the acquisition of the crest, though betraying a certain "analogy," as Dr. Boas says, "to the acquisition of the manitou," is clearly to be distinguished from it. Of such is the story of the chief of a clan, who went hunting and saw a fabulous bird, supposed to be similar to a crane, and heard its cry. It was larger than a man. He hid, and the bird tried to find him. On discovering him at one side of a cedar-tree, the bird tried to peck him, but missed him, because he jumped to the other side of the tree. The bird failed to kill him, and when he got home "he carved the crane out of yellow cedar, and now it is the carving of his clan." The clan is called by a name signifying "going through,"[9] which is quite different from that of the bird. All that is here recorded is a successful evasion of an attack by a supernatural being. But there is probably something more in the story. What is hinted at, and what, if we had the tale in a perfect form, we should perhaps find, is that the man conquered and killed the bird. Among these curious peoples "names and all the privileges connected with them," like the ancient priesthood of Aricia, "may be obtained by killing the owner of the name, either in war or by murder. The slayer has then the right to put his own successor in the place of his killed enemy." Now the crest is a very special privilege; and although the name of this clan does not now correspond with the crest, it belongs to a class called by Dr. Boas "names of honour," which "there is a decided tendency to substitute for" older names.[10] It may be, therefore, that the present name of the clan has quite recently succeeded to that of the mythical bird.

Again, there are instances of a clan bearing the name of one animal and the emblem of another. "The crest," says Dr. Boas, "is used for ornamenting objects belonging to a member of the clan; they [that is to say, the crests] are carved on columns intended to perpetuate the memory of a deceased relative, painted on the house-front, or carved on a column which is placed in front of the house, and are also shown as masks in festivals of the clan. It is impossible to draw a sharp line between the pure crest and figures, or masks illustrating certain incidents in the legendary history of the clan." As an example, he gives a headdress of the bear clan of the Nîsqá. Whether it is the only headdress he does not state distinctly, but I infer that it is. It represents the owl surrounded by small human heads, called "claw-men," probably because each head rests on a sort of claw. The legend is that a chief had a son who by constant crying irritated his father, until he drove the boy out of the house, saying: "The white owl shall fetch you." With the boy his sister went out; and the owl did fetch not him, but her, and had a son by her. When her son grew up she sent him home to her mother, telling him "to carve a headdress in the shape of an owl for use in his dance, and to sing" a song which his father, the owl, made for him. The owl and the woman then disappeared.[11] What may be the explanation of the discrepancy between name and emblem here I do not know. A conjecture is of very little value; but it may conceivably have originated from the coalescence of two clans, the bear and the owl, of which the latter traced its descent from an owl.

But even if we were to establish the original position of the totem as ancestor, the problems offered by these interesting tribes would be very far from solved. The manitou-idea dominates not merely the conception of the totem, or crest, but the entire social life of the tribes. Some peoples eat their totem-animal as a solemn religious act: nobody thus eats his manitou. Consequently the sacrificial meal is wanting; and this, I need not remind you, is a part of the totem-superstition in its most complete form, on which great stress has been laid in anthropological speculation. More important still in this connection is the position of the secret societies, which have attained a growth exceeding anything known elsewhere. Indeed, the societies can hardly be called secret. They include women, and even children, as well as men. Their sessions are held throughout the winter, and in public; and from the moment they begin the entire social organisation is changed. "Instead of being grouped in clans, the Indians are now grouped according to the spirits which have initiated them. All those who are protected by" one spirit "form one group; those who stand under" another spirit "form another group," and so on; "and in these groups divisions are made according to the ceremonies or dances bestowed upon the person. . . . During this period the place of the clans is taken by a number of societies, namely: the groups of all those individuals upon whom the same, or almost the same, power or secret has been bestowed by one of the spirits."[12] This astonishing development must have results on the social life of the people which would be still more remarkable, were it not that the dances and the offices connected with them are still to a large extent hereditary or acquired by marriage. Hence the clan system, though greatly disturbed and dislocated, is not in effect altogether set aside. Only certain persons have a right to be initiated in each society. The initiations are not performed by the other members assembled in meeting, as is the case with really secret societies. The candidate goes alone into the woods, remaining there for a certain period, during which any one who finds him may kill him if he can, and thereupon may take his place. While the candidate is absent, he is initiated by the spirit. And "the object of the whole winter ceremonial is, first, to bring back the youth who is supposed to stay with the supernatural being who is the protector of his society, and then, when he has returned in a state of ecstacy, to exorcise the spirit which possesses him and to restore him from his holy madness. These objects are attained by songs and by dances."[13] The proceeding is, in fact, an adaptation of the acquisition of the manitou by the Indians of the prairies.

Postponing for awhile our consideration of these practices, let us turn to the Arunta of Central Australia as depicted by Professor Baldwin Spencer and Mr. Gillen. Striking differences at once reveal themselves in the mode of regarding the totem. The totem of British Columbia is derived from a single ancestor. Its origin, whether we accept the manitou-theory or not, is attributed to an individual. The Arunta totems, on the contrary, are none of them believed to be individual in origin. The notions held by the tribe as to birth preclude this. The theory of paternity—what we call birth in the ordinary course of nature—is unknown. Some years ago I ventured to suggest that certain archaic beliefs and practices found almost all over the world were consistent only with, and must have arisen from, imperfect recognition of fatherhood. I hardly expected, however, that a people would be found still existing in that hypothetical condition of ignorance. Yet, if we may trust the evidence before us, it is precisely the condition of the Arunta. They hold the cause of birth to be simply the desire of some Arunta of earlier days to be reincarnated. The doctrine has thus been summarised by Dr. Frazer: "They suppose that in certain far-off times, to which they give the name of 'Alcheringa,' their ancestors roamed about in bands, each band consisting of members of the same totem-group. Where they died their spirits went into the ground and formed, as it were, spiritual storehouses, the external mark of which is some natural feature, generally a stone or a tree. Such spots are all over the country, and the ancestral spirits who haunt them are ever waiting for a favourable opportunity to be born again into the world. When one of them sees his chance he pounces out on a passing girl or woman and enters into her. Then she conceives, and in due time gives birth to a child, who is firmly believed to be a reincarnation of the spirit that darted into the mother from the rock or tree." And he adds, "This is the first case on record of a tribe who believe in immaculate conception as the sole cause of the birth of every human being who comes into the world."[14]

Let me digress here for a moment to call your attention to a passage taken from a very different work. "The Erewhonians" it runs, "believe in pre-existence; and not only this . . . ., but they believe that it is of their own free act and deed in a previous state that they come to be born into this world at all. They hold that the unborn are perpetually plaguing and tormenting the married of both sexes, fluttering about them incessantly, and giving them no peace of mind or body until they have consented to take them under their protection."[15] I am not quoting now from an anthropological work, but from a very clever and amusing satire on English religion and social arrangements, published eight-and-twenty years ago by Mr. Samuel Butler. The author located the imaginary people whose customs he describes in the undiscovered interior lands of a British colony; and it would require very little straining of his words to suppose that the lands now found to be occupied by the Arunta were comprised in the district he had in mind.

We will leave our friends who are so positive that all (or nearly all) märchen came from India, or that the perplexing civilisations of America were derived from Asia, to reckon up the resemblances here, and to settle at their leisure whether the Arunta philosophy of birth is to be traced to Erewhon, or the Erewhonian philosophy to the Arunta. Meanwhile, we may return to the wandering bands from whom the Arunta of the present day derive their totems. I want you first to note that they are bands, and not single individuals,[16] and next that they are believed to be the same persons as those now living, but in a previous incarnation. There is thus no tracing back to a single ancestor, and no possibility of what I have called a manitou-totem. Moreover, these bands are expressly believed to have originated from the animals and plants after which they are called. "In the Alcheringa," we are told, "lived ancestors who, in the native mind, are so intimately associated wath the animals or plants the name of which they bear that an Alcheringa man of, say, the kangaroototem may sometimes be spoken of either as a man-kangaroo or as a kangaroo-man. The identity of the human individual is often sunk in that of the animal or plant from which he is supposed to have originated."[17] Here we are taken back to Dr. Frazer's generalisation whence we started. The mental confusion referred to is common to savages; it perpetually recurs in savage tales, not less among the Kwakiutl than among the Arunta. We may reasonably suspect that Messrs. Spencer and Gillen's volume does not contain all the folklore of the Arunta. If not, we may be sure there are other tales betraying the same confusion.[18]

So far, therefore, as the Arunta are concerned, and putting out of sight the qualification implied in the belief that the descendants to-day are themselves the ancestors in a new incarnation. Dr. Frazer's generalisation is not contravened, while it would seem as though there is less deviation from it among the tribes of British Columbia than might be inferred from Dr. Boas' account. Returning to them at this point, it must not be forgotten that the organisation, the ceremonies, and the tales of the peoples of the north-west coast of America are the result of many different influences which have met and crossed in that interesting region. The custom of acquiring a transfer of name and privileges by slaughtering their previous owner points to the more or less violent breaking-up of an older organisation in which great value was attached to clan-membership. It is obvious that where the clan-system is powerful such a custom would not be tolerated, and that in any society where it once got a footing it would prove a strong disintegrating force. That it has done so among these north-western tribes is evidently Dr. Boas' opinion. "In this manner," he says, "names and customs have often spread from tribe to tribe."[19] Furthermore, he brings evidence to prove "that the present system of tribes and clans is of recent growth, and has undergone considerable changes," some of which I may add are still in progress.[20] Not less important is it that the so-called secret societies are of novel introduction. If amid all these movements confusion had not been generated there would have been cause for wonder. Nor can we be by any means sure that the manitou-idea was always at the basis of the belief and practice of the tribes, closely as it now seems to underlie their legends and institutions, or even that any form of totemism was known to some of the tribes until a comparatively recent period. My own impression decidedly is that, whether or no totemism was anciently a part of the tribal organisation, the manitou-conception is of modern date. It is part of the individualism which is tending, not among these tribes only, to obscure the older communistic traditions. I will not say that it is useless to examine the beliefs and institutions of the British Columbian peoples, with the hope of arriving at any conclusions on the origin or early form of totemism. But I greatly doubt that any trustworthy conclusions can be derived from the ideas and practices now dominant.

The side of totemism on which the discoveries of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen have broken most seriously into our previous conceptions is that of social organisation. Hitherto all the totem-clans known to science had an invariable rule against marriage between men and women who belonged to the same clan and bore the same totem. This rule the Arunta totally disregard. Their marriage-regulations are founded upon a different principle. Formerly, indeed, if we may trust their traditions of the Alcheringa, the Arunta did observe the clan-system. But then they observed it in topsy-turvy fashion, for the practice was, they say, for the men and women of the same clan to intermarry.[21] Now, however "primitive" some of the institutions of the Arunta may seem, and may indeed be, others have travelled a long way from any state capable of being so described. Progress is hardly ever, if ever, made equally on all lines. It is one of the most ordinary phenomena to find a people relatively advanced in one direction and relatively backward in another. The Arunta, I venture to think, are an instance of unequal progress. Students who hold that the traditions of the Alcheringa—that mythical time of the early ancestors of the tribes—enclose tangible facts, must also hold that the same traditions are evidence of progress. For my own part, I am slow to affirm that many grains of fact (in the sense of actual occurrences) can be extracted from such ore. Some can, of course; but the ore requires a deal of milling and washing to separate them. Still, the traditions are undeniable witness to the belief of the Arunta in their own progress. How else are we to interpret the stories of what I may term the evolution of men and women out of the rudimentary beings whom they call Inapertwa, the introduction of various rites, and the establishment of the present organisation? And the Arunta belief may a least count for something as evidence of progress. What that evidence amounts to, having pointed it out, I am content for others to value. We shall be on surer ground if we turn to the organisation and institutions of the tribes.

Most of the Australian communities whose organisation is known have been found divided into two exogamous groups. Men, that is, are not allowed to take their wives from the group into which they themselves were born, but from the complementary group. Mr. Howitt, than whom there is no more competent living authority, considers that these two groups were originally totem-clans, or, as he would say, totem-hordes. The right of marriage is still further restricted by an ingenious system of classification, which has the effect, where it is most fully developed, of completely preventing the intermarriage of near kin. I will not try now to explain this system (known as the class-system), but I may say that it offers the most complicated puzzle that savage institutions have ever offered to civilised inquirers; and that is saying a great deal. In what appears to be the oldest form of the organisation, it is accompanied by the reckoning of kinship and descent through the mother only—what we call Mother-right. Moreover, there is reason to believe that individual marriage was formerly unknown: groups of men and women possessed and exercised conjugal rights in common. Unmistakable relics of this condition still exist; but gradually a double transformation has taken place in many of the tribes. Group-marriage has been giving way to individual marriage; and Mother-right has yielded to Father-right, or Agnation, the tracing of descent through the father only. What may be the object of the change from mother-right to father-right, and whether that object was one consciously pursued, are questions I cannot now discuss. One effect, however, of the change is to localise the group or clan which adopts father-right, for it binds together in a common tie the fighting and hunting force of any community in a manner and to an extent generally unknown where mother-right prevails. A man as a rule takes his wife with him; he does not go to live with her. In mother-right this tends to scatter the kin; in father-right it tends to consolidate the kin with the local group. This tendency, it will be easily understood, contributes in no small measure to strengthen the organisation of the local group in its struggle for life. Consequently, it is not surprising to find that most aggressive and progressive communities have, at one stage in their career, been organised on the basis of agnation.

A few years ago Mr. Howitt mapped out these changes among the Australian tribes according to geographical areas as far as he was then able to trace them; and his investigations led to significant results. He found that: "The most backward-standing types of social organisation, having descent through the mother and an archaic communal marriage, exist in the dry and desert country; the more developed Kamilaroi type, having descent through the mother, but a general absence of the Pirauru marriage practice [a relic of communal or group-marriage] is found in the better watered tracts which are the sources of all the great rivers of East Australia; while the most developed types, having individual marriage, and in which in almost all cases descent is counted through the father, are found along the coasts where there is the most plentiful supply of water and most food. In fact, it is thus suggested that the social advance of the Australian aborigines has been connected with, if not mainly due to a more plentiful supply of food in better watered districts."[22]

To the list of tribes given by Mr. Howitt must now be added the Arunta. The districts inhabited by the Arunta and their allied tribes, though dry, are rather to be described as steppe-country than desert.[23] We should, therefore, be prepared to find, if Mr. Howitt's conclusions be correct, that their social arrangements would not belong to quite the most archaic type. As we shall see in a moment, they turn out to be even more advanced than we might expect. But Mr. Howitt goes on to observe: "Also it must be borne in mind that the origin of individual marriage, the change of the line of descent, and the final decay of the old class organisation, are all parts of the same process of social development, and that not one cause only has been at work but a number of causes which have worked together towards that ultimate result which can be seen in the most advanced communities."

In what particulars then has the Arunta organisation advanced? First of all, it has advanced to individual marriage; and that it has advanced to individual marriage from group-marriage the tables of kinship and certain of the tribal ceremonies contain abundant evidence, with which I need not trouble you. Secondly, descent is traced in the male line. This is a startling feature of the organisation of a people which has no proper knowledge of paternity. It should be explained, however, that it only means that a child belongs to the same exogamous moiety of his tribe as the husband of his mother. Assuming the account we have of the beliefs of the Arunta to be correct as far as it goes, the tracing of descent in the male line for the purpose of determining the exogamous group to which a child shall belong involves, and can involve, no real recognition of blood. Yet the tables of kinship show that some relation is held to subsist between father and child. Exactly what that relation is conceived to be we are not in a position at the present moment to say. It is noteworthy that an Arunta man in speaking of his child employs a different term from that employed by a woman in speaking of her child. This is by no means an isolated phenomenon in communities in a similar stage of organisation, and points to an earlier condition of mother-right. A careful philological and sociological comparison of the terms of relationship throughout the Australian continent is one of our most urgent needs.

In a community so small as an Australian tribe usually is, severe limitations are obviously imposed on the choice of a bride by the division into two exogamous groups and the further division into mutual connubial classes. But I am sure I shall not call in vain upon you to pity the sorrows of the Australian youth, when I remind you that his choice was usually more limited still. For to each of the two exogamous groups was assigned a number of totems, and it by no means followed that marriage was permitted into any of the totem-clans composing the opposite exogamous group. On the contrary, it was often limited to one or two. The consequence would be that an eligible bride was uncommonly scarce, even when the aspirant had a sister or a cousin or an aunt ready to be bartered in exchange. To a disconsolate bachelor the relaxation or the abolition of the limitation imposed by the totem might be a measure of relief, none the less welcome though it enfranchised a troop of competitors also.

If the evidences of progress I have enumerated—the legends of the Alcheringa, and the traces of group-marriage and mother-right—be of any value, they enable us to see that the present disregard of the totem in marriage may be a stage in the sloughing of totemism altogether. The only object now fulfilled by the totem-organisation among the Arunta is the performance at intervals of the Intichiuma and Engwura ceremonies. The former are of a magical character, and certainly wear an archaic appearance. Thus much may safely be said, without pronouncing an opinion on Dr. Frazer's contention that we have in these ceremonies[24] a clue to the original purpose of totemism, namely, to secure for the community, by means of magic, a plentiful supply of necessaries and immunity from the perils to which man is exposed in his struggle with nature. At all events, they are periodical ceremonies having for their object the increase of the totem-animal or plant. "Every local totemic group has its own Intichiuma ceremony," when, save by special invitation, no one else is allowed to be present. Nor in any case can the invitation be extended beyond the tribal totem-group or beyond that moiety of the tribe to which the great majority of the members of the local group belong.[25] Not less important are the Engwura ceremonies. They are part of the rites of initiation into manhood. But here an interesting difference reveals itself. The Engwura are not owned by the local totemic group. "Each totem," we are told, "has its own ceremonies, and each of the 'ceremonies' may be regarded as the property of some special individual who has received it by right of inheritance from its previous owner, such as a father or an elder brother," or who in some cases may have received it direct from the Iruntarinia, or spirits. So among the Kwakiutl the claim to initiation, the dances, the songs, the clan- and family-traditions, and other privileges, are ordinarily obtained through inheritance. Tartarin and his friends were not so jealous of their own songs as a Kwakiutl of these properties. The jealousy of the Arunta is hardly less obvious; for the right of anyone outside the totem to be present at an Engwura ceremony is dependent on the will of the owner, though the invitations are more freely given than to the Intichiuma.[26]

It will be seen that these two groups of ceremonies, the Intichiuma and the Engwura are of great importance in the life of the tribe. Upon the former depends the supply of food and other necessaries. The latter are the final rites in the admission of youths to manhood. Thus, on the one hand, their continuance is safeguarded; on the other hand, they have a conservative influence: totemism cannot die out while they continue to be performed. On the side of organisation, however, as distinguished from the ceremonial side, the totem-clan is in decay. Nay, it has already ceased to be a clan. The tie of blood is no longer recognised; and where the tie of blood is destroyed, there is no clan in the proper sense of the word. Mr. Howitt's inquiries tend to show that the change in the line of descent, from reckoning exclusively through the mother to reckoning exclusively through the father (which is exactly what has happened among the Arunta) is accompanied by "a profound alteration in the social arrangements," and that the decay and even the disappearance (as among the Chlpara of southern Queensland) of the totemclans are part and parcel of the changes that take place.[27] The course of development in other tribes thus leads us to anticipate what is taking place among the Arunta. But at present the organisation survives as a totem-group, having as its sole bond of union the performance of the ceremonies.[28] On the whole, though the conjecture may be a bold one, it would not surprise me if it should turn out that the organisation is undergoing a slow transformation into something more like the so-called secret societies of the British Columbian tribes.

If this view be correct, then vanishes the difficulty that here is a totemistic people to whom the rule of exogamy does not apply; for it is only a difficulty if we insist on regarding the Arunta as a people wholly "primitive." The rule remains true that where totemism is in full force, "persons of the same totem may not marry or have sexual intercourse with one another."[29] The disregard of the rule would be an inevitable stage in the decline of the institution.

It may, however, be objected that there is no trace of totemic exogamy among the Arunta; whatever traces there may be of any totemic regulation of marriage point in an opposite direction. These traces consist of little more than frequent references in the legends to men and women of the same totem living in local groups together, whence it is inferred to have been quite normal for a man to have a wife of the same totem as himself. I am not sure that a complete and satisfactory answer can be given to the objection. But the character of the legends must be taken into consideration. I have already referred to them, not as narratives of actual events, but as possible witnesses to the bare fact of progress. They seem in almost all cases expressly framed to account for the present condition of something which to the native mind requires explanation. In other words, they are mainly ætiological. Now, a restriction or taboo of any kind is always a subject requiring explanation. Consequently, the present marriage-restrictions would be felt to require a legend to account for them, and they are accounted for by a legend. The absence of restrictions, on the other hand, requires no explanation. Restrictions, again, which have been abolished or have passed silently away no longer need to be accounted for. Accordingly they are forgotten, and any explanation of them once extant is forgotten also. Hence we are not likely to find references to prohibitions of marriage within the totem-group, or to practices indicating the existence of such prohibitions. If, then, we are asked why the converse case of conjugal relations within the group continues to be prominent in the legends, the answer must be that it is not a veritable memory of what actually took place, but a reflection of the condition of things to which there is a general tendency in the present day, namely, the tendency for the totem-group to coincide with the local group. In the legends this tendency would be emphasised. Where it exists, that is, where the local group consists largely or chiefly of the members of one totem-group, and there is no prohibition against conjugal relations within the totem-group, there conjugal relations within the totem-group will become frequent in proportion to the comparative local strength of the totem-group, unless they be checked by any other restriction. They are now held in check to some extent by the class-regulations. But in the times of which the legends speak there were no class-regulations, for the institution of of these regulations is among the subjects to be explained by the legends themselves.

I am afraid I have committed the unpardonable sin of dulness. It is an easily-besetting sin to one who pries into savage thought. Yet savage thought is the seed-plot of civilised literature and of much of civilised philosophy and civilised religion. To the ordinary man or woman of our time and country, its details are often strange and repulsive; more usually they are, from their remoteness, utterly devoid of interest. Such a person feels like one I knew who was taken to hear a lecture on spiders. "What are spiders to me?" he asked; "I am willing to let them alone, if they will only let me alone." Totemism has not been allowed to let us alone. Until lately it has occupied a large place in the speculations of anthropologists. Now, at a time when it has been a little discredited, I have thought it might be useful to pause and ask whether all the recent discoveries have left it in evil case, whether some of the interpretations placed on facts are quite justified, whether, in fine, the fabric is really as much battered as we have been led to fear. If to some of you much of what I have said be trite as well as dull, I would plead that it is labour not always lost to restate the obvious; for the obvious is in danger of being overlooked, because it is obvious. The points I have chosen to touch were not chosen because they were the easiest to deal with, but because they were vital to the definition of the totem as we have understood it. I have not tried to discuss the question whether totemism is as large a factor in social and religious evolution as many have been inclined to think.[30] All I have tried to show is that we need not at present revise our conception of it in the two material points of exogamy and the relation of the totem to the clan, in consequence of anything lately published concerning the tribes of which I have been speaking. But of course we must never forget that no theory of totemism is other than provisional. Totemism itself is but a name for a working hypothesis which may at any time have to be revised or abandoned.

When I began I pointed out that in the natural growth of science it was inevitable that we should shift our base of operations from European tradition to savage tradition. Let me urge further that among savage peoples the Australian aborigines and the Indian tribes of the North-West Coast of America are entitled on national grounds to more than superficial attention. They dwell, the latter chiefly, the former wholly, within the limits of .aur own Empire. They are our own fellow subjects. We are deeply interested in their moral and material condition; we are largely responsible for their welfare. To understand their arts and institutions, their traditions and ideas, is the first requisite for their proper government. Over and above that is our duty to provide for the preservation of the memory, and not merely of the memory of perishing races under our sway, and of stages of culture in process of transformation or total disappearance within our borders, but also of as full a record as may be of what they were and what they signified in the history of the world. To do so will add to our imperial glory; and we are just now very jealous of that. Moreover, it will assist us to interpret our own past, and the prehistoric monuments in our own islands. I need not remind this Society of the traces of animal-worship lingering here and there in our midst. They were discussed some years ago by Mr. Gomme and Mr. Lang, when the question was debated whether totemism was a stage of our own development. They have been lately considered in the same connection by Mr. N. W. Thomas, likewise a member of the Society, in the Revue de l'Histoire des Religions. To take another instance, the famous barrow of Willy Howe in Yorkshire, and other barrows where it was clear that no human remains had ever been interred, were long an insoluble riddle to archaeologists. And so they would have been still, but for Dr. Frazer's investigations into savage rites of burial and theories of the soul, and Mr. Geo. Coffey's ingenious and satisfactory application of the results of these investigations to the barrows of the Bronze Age. For the human mind everywhere travels in the same direction and causes men to act in analogous ways. Hence, when we are inquiring into matters as remote from our immediate surroundings as the totemism of the Arunta, or the mock-funerals of Vancouver Island, it may well be that we are unconsciously throwing a searchlight on the dark places of our own antiquity.

I could say more. I could claim for the study of the traditions of savage races a still higher function in the economy of thought. It is needless. "The original of ancient customs," Dr. Johnson declared, "is commonly unknown; for the practice often continues when the cause has ceased; and concerning superstitious ceremonies it is vain to conjecture; for what reason did not dictate, reason cannot explain."[31] These words were written a hundred and forty years ago. No writer of repute—nay, not the most infallible of journalists—would venture to write them to-day, when science is constantly revealing the source of ancient customs, and when by reason we are slowly, and it may be not without vain conjectures by the way, yet surely, being led to the true significance of many a superstitious ceremony, wild song and uncouth tale. Painfully, indeed, and step by step we are exploring the caverns whence, in the myths of that strange people in the west, mankind emerged through much tribulation into this loftier, happier, and more spacious world; and we are bringing back to light the lowly and long-forgotten beginnings of the race. The coming century has doubtless many surprises in store for us and our children. It will be no surprise for students of anthropology if the progress of discovery enable us by-and-bye to reconstitute the history of humanity to an extent of which Dr. Johnson and all the generations of learned men in the past never so much as dreamed.

  1. This is only a general statement; and it must not be taken to exclude a few objects, such as the Sun, the Evening Star, and so forth, which do not form, in the same sense as the rest, a class, and yet, I think are true totems.
  2. Frazer, Totemism, p. 3.
  3. U. S. Nat. Mus. Rep., 1895, p. 323.
  4. Ibid., loc. cit.
  5. Ibid., loc cit. This is not an uncommon ætiological myth. Another example is given by Mr. Boyle, Archæological Report, Ontario, 1898, p. 165.
  6. U. S. Nat. Mus. Rep., 1895, p. 337.
  7. Ibid., p. 333. Boas, Indianische Sagen, p. 166.
  8. Nat. Mus. Rep., p. 375. The omission to mention the mask may, however, be accidental. Another clan of another tribe claim descent from a thunder-bird of which it is expressly recorded that he "took off his birdmask and became a man" (p. 418). But in any case the mask is modern. Originally there was none; for in savage belief personal identity does not depend upon form, and the power of transformation is a very extended one.
  9. Ibid., pp. 336, 330.
  10. Ibid., pp. 335, 333.
  11. Ibid., p. 324.
  12. Ibid., p. 418.
  13. Ibid., p. 431.
  14. J. G. Frazer, "The Origin of Totemism." Fortnightly Review, April, 1899, p. 649. But it looks as though they "had their suspicions." Spencer and Gillen, p. 265.
  15. Erewhon, or Over the Range, by Samuel Butler, 5th Edition, 1873, p. 149.
  16. The Evening Star totem is an exception to this; but there seems to be only one representative of it at a time. Spencer and Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, p. 565.
  17. Ibid., p. 119. See also pp. 121, 127, 424, 428, 437, 438, 440, 441.
  18. It extends, as elsewhere, to other existences than animals and plants, for example, to the heavenly bodies. The sun, among both the Arunta and the Kwakiutl, is depicted as human, and is the totem of a clan. Among the Arunta, however, the sun is female. Indeed, there seems to have been three women all called Ochirka, sun. Two of them dwelt in the country of the bandicoot people, the third ascends the sky during the day, but goes back at night to the bandicoot country. Ibid., p. 561.
  19. Nat. Mus. Rep., p. 335.
  20. Ibid., p. 333
  21. Spencer and Gillen, pp. 393, 418, 419.
  22. Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. xviii., p. 33.
  23. Spencer and Gillen, op. cit., p. 2. Cf. Horn Expedition Report, part iv., p. 6. The Warramunga are mentioned by Howitt, but his information about them was meagre. Are they not an offshoot of the Urabunna? The name seems related, and so also do several words in the table of kinship. Some of the class-names are unquestionably identical.
  24. Fortnightly Review, May, 1899, p. 835 seqq.
  25. Spencer and Gillen, pp. 167, 169.
  26. Boas, op. cit. passim; Mythology of the Bella Coola, p. 123; Spencer and Gillen, pp. 278, 280. Speaking generally, "the old men will not reveal tribal secrets to the young men unless they show themselves worthy of receiving such knowledge." Ibid., p. 281.
  27. Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. xviii., pp. 40, 47 seqq.
  28. Spencer and Gillen, pp. 34, 557.
  29. Frazer, Totemism, p. 58.
  30. On this point the masterly articles of M. Marillier in the Revue de l'Histoire des Religions, vols, xxxvi. and xxxvii., and Dr. Jevons' reply in Folk-Lore, vol. x., p. 369, should be consulted. The controversy cannot yet be considered closed.
  31. Rasselas, chap. 48.