Monday, February 28, 2011

Out of nothing

This is one of the most famous poles in the study of religion, the kauwa-auwa of the Achilpa (an Arrernte group) of Central Australia. Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen mention it in passing in their very copious The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People (1927), where it caught the eye of Mircea Eliade. Primed by the insights of comparative study, Eliade had his eye out for anything like an axis mundi, the paradigmatic hierophany which forges a link with the transcendent, providing existential orientation to people lost in the "chaos of homogeneity and relativity." To find one among the "archaic" Australian Aborigines would validate the universality of his theory of religion.
In The Arunta, we read of Achilpa ancestors wandering and wandering, encountering various peoples whom they ignore, circumcise, have sex with, and/or have ceremonies with, usually leaving one of their number behind when they move on. They break up into four groups which wander on until eventually each dies. One group was carrying along a kauaua, something we'd read about much earlier, before the wanderings began: after creating the land and its denizens, the ur-ancestor Numbakulla had made his exit by climbing up a kauwa-auwa he'd covered in blood; the Achilpa he bade follow couldn't because he kept slipping, so Numbakulla went on alone, drew the pole up after him and was never seen again (360).

Back to the wanderers: one day an accident befell them which made them all feel very sad: an old man accidentally broke the pole off just above the ground where it had been implanted. They were already on their last legs, having lost members of their group at every recent stop to disease. They were just surviving on infusions of each other's blood. This was the straw which broke the camel's back. When next they encountered a thriving group of ancestors our protagonists gave up: They were too tired and sad to paint themselves, their Kauaua in its broken state was inferior to many of those which the Unjiamba people had, so they did not erect it, but, lying down together, died where they lay. A large hill, covered with big stones, arose to mark the spot. (388)

[They're group iii, and end at Unjiacherta. Can you find them?]

Eliade uses the story prominently in his discussion of "Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred" in The Sacred and the Profane, and glosses it: Life is not possible without an opening to the transcendent (34). Some years later, in a book on Aboriginal religions, he tells the story again, and concludes: Seldom do we find a more pathetic avowal that man cannot live without a "sacred center" which permits him both to "cosmicize" space and to communicate with the transhuman world of heaven. So long as they had their kauwa-auwa, the Achilpa Ancestors were never lost in the surrounding "chaos." Moreover, the sacred pole was for them the proof par excellence of Numbakulla's existence and activity. (53)

It's a powerful story, but, it turns out, almost completely concocted: for starters, Numbakulla's not mentioned in the story of the breaking pole! ("Concocted" is a term from Sam Gill, who was so incensed by the evident plantedness of Numbakulla's pole that he wrote a whole book about it.) In class today we read the chapters in The Arunta to which Eliade refers, and tried to understand what Eliade was up to. I'm not entirely sure quite why, but I defended him - tongue of course firmly in cheek, though students don't always notice: Eliade thought he could see farther than Spencer and Gillen. What seemed an unimportant detail to them loomed large for him because his decades of work in the comparative study of religion had taught him what the sacred looks like. His construction also made a teleological whole of what in Spencer and Gillen's account otherwise seemed no more than aimless rambling.
Of course we know, as neither Eliade nor his sources could even imagine, that there's nothing aimless in the world of hunter-gatherers, and no rambling along story tracks. The Arrernte world is fully and completely horizontal, no axis mundi required, thank you very much! But it's useful for us to figure this out, since the presumption that religion is about transcendent creators and vertical solutions to the existential problems of the horizontal is part of our own cultural inheritance. (Gill actually shows that Numbakulla was already concocted before Eliade shone his spotlight on him. Spencer conflated various things he fudged from field notes and wishful thinking to generate a cosmic creator out of a mere ritual ancestor whose name is but the nominalization of an adjective, ungambikula, which means "jump up of themselves" or "out of nothing" and referred to fly-catching lizard ancestors (13).)

It was actually quite fun to excavate in Eliade and then in the Spencer and Gillen text, peeling away their structuring assumptions and distortions and finding what seemed like evidence for the dynamic land-based kinship-related understanding of Aboriginal religion we've been getting from more recent work! But things really got interesting when we looked at some of the things Eliade had ignored, like the stories of incest and cannibalism that had floated the boat of fellow Spencer and Gillen fan Sigmund Freud. And then a student drew our attention to a cameo of the old canard that Aboriginal people were somehow unaware of the connection between sex and pregnancy:From it dangles this remarkable footnote, which proved the trigger for a veritable landslide of postcolonial deconstruction: It must, of course, be remembered that this expresses the primitive belief of the natives before the advent of the white man and half-castes. (363)

Mircea Eliade, Australian Religions: An Introduction (Cornell 1973)
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1987)
Sam D. Gill, Storytracking: Texts, Stories & Histories in Central Australia (OUP 1998)
Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People (1927, rpt. Anthropological Publications 1966) - also where all the images are from

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