Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": PATTERNS OF INITIATION

AN AUSTRALIAN TRIBAL INITIATION


The terms 'tribal initiation,' 'puberty rites,' and 'initiation into an age group' designate the collective rituals whose function is to effect the transition from childhood or adolescence to adulthood, and which are obligatory for all members of a particular society. The puberty initiation represents above all the revelation of the sacred-and, for the primitive world, the sacred means not only everything that we now understand by religion, but also the whole body of the tribe's mythological and cultural traditions. Through initiation, the candidate passes beyond the natural mode-the mode of the child-and gains access to the cultural mode, that is, he is introduced to spiritual values. (cf.. M.Eliade, Birth and Rebirth [New York: Harper & Row, 1958]

Broadly speaking, the Australian initiation ceremony comprises the following phases: first, the preparation of the 'sacred ground,' where the men will remain in isolation during the festival; second, the separation of the novices from their mothers, and, in general, from all women; third, their segregation in the bush, or in a special isolated camp, where they will be instructed in the religious traditions of the tribe, fourth, certain operations performed on the novices, usually circumcision, the extraction of a tooth, or subincision, but sometimes scarring or pulling out the hair. Throughout the period of the initiation, the novices must behave in a special way, undergo a number of ordeals, and be subjected to various dictary taboos and prohibitions. Each element of this complex initiatory scenario has a religious meaning.

The separation of the novices from their mothers takes place more or less dramatically, in accordance with the customs of different tribes. The least dramatic method is found among the Kurnai, where the initiation ceremony is in any case quite simple. The mothers sit behind the novices, the men come forward in single file between the two groups and so separate them. The instructors raise the novices into the air several times, the novices stretching their arms as far as possible toward the sky. The meaning of this gesture is clear. the neophytes are being consecrated to the Sky God. They arc then led into the sacred enclosure where, lying on their backs with their arms crossed on their chests, they arc covered with rugs. From then on they see and hear nothing. After a monotonous song, they fall asleep, later, the women withdraw. A Kurnai headman explained to A. W. Howitt-from whom we quote below if a woman were to see these things, or hear what we tell the boys, I would kill her.' When the neophytes wake, they are Invested with a 'belt of manhood' and their instruction begins.
The central mystery of the Kurnai initiation is called 'Showing the Grandfather.'

'Showing the Grandfather.' This is the cryptic phrase used to describe the central mystery, which in reality means the exhibition to the novices of the Tundun, and the revelation to them of the ancestral beliefs. It is used, for instance, by the Bullawangs to their charges, as in telling them 'This afternoon we will take you, and show your grandfather to you.'

The Kurnai have, two bull-roarers, a larger one called 'Tundun,' or 'the man,' and a smaller one called 'Rukat-Tundun,' the woman, or wife of Tundun. 'The larger one is also called 'Grandfather,' Wehntwin, or Mukbrogan. In this the Kurnai differ from the Murring, who have only one bull- roarer, but they agree with several other Australian tribes. I think, but I cannot be sure, that where two bull-roarers are used, it indicates ceremonies in which the women take a certain part, whereas in tribes where there is only one, as the Murring, the women are totally excluded.

While the novices were thus under tutelage during the day following the sleeping ceremony, and while most of the men were out hunting, the Headman and several others went away to prepare for the great ceremony of the grandfather. The spot chosen was, as I afterwards ascertained, over 2000 paces distant from the camp of the Tutnurring. While sitting there, talking to the Bullawangs, I several times heard the peculiar screech of the 'woman Tundun,' when the men who were making them tried one to see if it was satisfactory. When they were ready, about an hour before sunset, word was brought to the Bullawangs, who took their charges to the appointed place under the pretext 'Let us go for a walk. You must be tired with sitting there all day.'

On reaching the place, which was at the edge of an extensive and dense scrub of Ti-tree (Melaleuca), with a little open plain of some fifty acres in front, the novices were halted, and made to kneel down in a row, with their blankets drawn closely over their heads, so as to prevent their seeing anything. One of the Bullawangs knelt before each, and another stood behind. The principal Headman stood near, holding his throwing-stick in his hand. This being arranged satisfactorily, the ceremony commenced. The second Headman emerged from the scrub at about a hundred and fifty yards' distance, holding his bullroarer, a 'man Tundun,' in his hand, which he commenced to whirl round, making a dull-sounding roar. The man immediately following him had a 'woman Tundun'; and in this way sixteen men came slowly forward, each one, as he came into the open, whirling his instrument and adding to the roaring and screeching din. By the time the last man had marched out into the dear ground, the leader had gained a point on the opposite side of the kneeling Tutnurrings, and the performers then halted in a semicircle, and produced a finale of discordant sounds. When this ceased, the Headman ordered the novices to stand up, and raise their faces towards the sky. Then, pointing upwards with his spear-thrower, the blanket was pulled off the head of each boy by his Bullawang, and the eyes of all the novices being directed to the uplifted throwing-stick, the Headman said, 'Look there! Look there ! Look there !' successively pointing first to the sky, then lower, and finally to the Tundun men. Two old men now immediately ran from one novice to the other, saying in an earnest manner, 'You must never tell this. You must not tell your mother, nor your sister, nor any one who is not jeraeil.' In the olden times spears were held pointed at the novices at this juncture, to emphasize the threats that were made, should they reveal the mysteries unlawfully. The old Headman then, in an impressive manner, revealed to the novices the ancestral beliefs, which I condense as follows:
Long ago there was a great Being, called Mungan-ngaua, who lived on the earth, and who taught the Kurnai of that time to make implements, nets, canoes, weapons-in fact, all the arts they know. He also gave them the personal names they bear, such as Tulaba. Mungan-ngaua had a son named Tundun, who was married, and who is the direct Jeraeil ancestor-( of the Wehntwin, or father's father)-of the Kurnai. Mungan-ngaua instituted the jeraeil, which was conducted by Tundun, who made the instruments which bear the names of himself and of his wife.

Some tribal traitor once impiously revealed the secrets of the Jaraeil to women, and thereby brought down the anger of Mungan upon the Kurnai. He sent fire (the Aurora Australis), which filled the whole space between earth and sky. Men went mad with fear, and speared One another, fathers killing their children, husbands their wives, and brothers each other. Then the sea rushed over the land, and nearly all mankind were drowned. Those who survived became the ancestors of the Kurnai. Some of them turned into animals, birds, reptiles, fishes; and Tundun and his wife became porpoises. Mungan left the earth, and ascended to the sky, where he still remains.

From that time, say the Kurnai, the knowledge of the jeraeil and, its mysteries has been handed down from father to son, together with the penalty for unlawfully revealing them, and for breaking the ordinance of Mungan-namely, destruction by his fire, or death at the hands of the men to whom his laws have been transmitted.

The novices having been thus properly instructed, were told to take the Tundun in hand, and to sound it, which they did with evident reluctance and apprehension.


A. W. Hoitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (London, 1904), pp. 628-31

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