Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen":
THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE

AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINE


We often fail to realize how little meaning our way of life possesses for the Aborigines, even for those who are to all intents and purposes civilized. I can think of regions where they have been in touch with us for sixty years and where for six months of the year, the dry season of the north, they play a very valuable part in our country life, principally on the stations; during that time they dress in our way, shave and wash, appreciate our food and seem quite presentable. At the end of the time, they receive the small share of their pay which they are allowed to handle, buy a few objects (often at an exorbitant price) mostly of a kind which we regard as ridiculous for grown men, and then with their families go bush, casting off all their clothes and all else that belongs to our culture. They paint themselves, camp, hunt, perform corroborees and take part in secret ceremonies, and an this in spite sometimes of the fact that their social life has been most degraded and demoralized by association with whites during the past fifty years or so. We, of course, may think that their conduct in returning to this bush life every year is somewhat unintelligible and shows a lack of appreciation of the higher stage of living to which they adapt themselves for six months a year. But we must remember two things: in the first place, the only part of our life with which these seasonable native employees become familiar is its economic and material aspects, and they do not thereby gain the impression that our way of life is of more value to them than is their own; it has some interest for them, mainly because it enables them apparently to satisfy us and also to obtain a few material objects which they find either useful or fascinating. In the second place, our economic life is not their life-it is only an external means or a tool enabling them to do something which is obviously expedient, but it is not connected with their life of ritual and belief; on the other hand the time in the bush with its paint and hunting and ceremonies is their life, and has meaning for them. What they do there is for themselves, and in the ritual they keep in touch with the heroes and ancestors of old, realize their common life, and derive hope for the future.

Such a fact as this helps us to understand why the young fellows are drawn towards initiation and the secret life in spite of the counter attractions and influences of missionary and other civilizing agents. It means, however, that they are drawn in two ways which seem to be incompatible. What then is the result? There are two alternatives: the missionary or civilizing agent may be successful in putting an end to initiation and other secret rites, or in getting such a grip over the rising generation that the old men make the initiation a mere form and not an entry into the full secret life of that tribe. But this implies a breakdown of tribal authority and a loss of the knowledge of, let alone the respect for these ideals, sentiments and sanctions which are essential to tribal cohesion; and in Australia, such a condition is the accompaniment, and a cause, of tribal extinction. The other alternative is, for a period at least, the failure of the missionary or other civilizing agent. The old men and the glamour of the secret life win. The missionary may be quite unaware of this, for he is apt to rely on outward conformity to his demands and teaching, and if he is not conversant with the language and secrets of the tribe he cannot do otherwise. But slowly and surely, step by step, the young fellow advances along the secret path, and in heart is getting farther and farther away from the white man's doctrines and view of life. See him this morning outwardly playing his part on the station or in mission compound or church. But see him again this afternoon completely wrapped up in the performance of a secret rite and the exposition of a sacred myth by the elders-perhaps only a mile or so away from the mission or station, but an age away in mind. Yes, see him there and you will know where he finds meaning for life, sanction for conduct and hope for the future. And unless the tribal life breaks down, he will sooner or later spend a great deal of his time traversing the paths and localities sanctified by the wanderings and exploits of the great heroes of old, and performing the rites on which the life of the tribe and of nature depends.

What then is this secret life of the Aborigines? It is the life apart, a life of ritual and mythology, of sacred rites and objects. It is the life in which man really finds his place in society and in nature, and in which he is brought in touch with the invisible things of the world of the past, present and future. Every now and then we find the tribe, or groups from more than one tribe, going apart from the workaday world. A special camp is arranged where the women remain unless some of them are called upon to play a subsidiary part in the ceremony. Then the men go for a mile or so to a secret site or to sites where they spend hours, or maybe days and weeks and even months, singing and performing rites, and in some cases even eating or sleeping there. When they return later to the world of secular affairs they are refreshed in mind and spirit. They now face the vicissitudes of everyday life with a new courage and a strength gained from the common participation in the rites, with a fresh appreciation of their social and moral ideals and patterns of life, and an assurance that having performed the rites well and truly, all will be well with themselves and with that part of nature with which their lives are so intimately linked.


A. P. Elkin, The Australian Aborigines (3rd ed.; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1964), PP. 168-71

Bibliography for this page:

Books by Mircea Eliade:

Man and the Sacred | Main Menu | Keyword Search