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ALL-FATHER . Nineteenth-century reports on southeastern Australia showed a widespread belief in a male spirit who transcended others in this part of the continent. Known by diverse names, including Baiame, Bunjil, Daramulun, Kohin, and Munganngaua, he was said to live in the sky (although earlier he had been on earth). The Aborigines credited him with great achievementslaying down laws, instituting man-making ceremonies, shaping the earth, and teaching the arts of life. The amateur anthropologist A. W. Howitt (18301908), who collected much of the data on the topic, saw through differences in name and detail to underlying resemblances in the various tribal conceptions and suggested that this spirit be identified by the term All-Father. Howitt denied the being's divinity, while others voiced the suspicion that such a spirit must reflect Christian influence on the Aborigines. The extent of the area over which beliefs in the All-Father were known made this implausible even then (although it is likely that some of the descriptions were colored by Christianity). Since the 1940s a high degree of circumstantial probability has been lent to the All-Father's authenticity by reports of an All-Mother from northern Australia. Evidently Aborigines have had no difficulty in conceiving of a spirit who stands above the social order in the sense of having the same relation to all personsfor obscure reasons this being is male and paternal in some regions, female and maternal in others.

Howitt's denial of the All-Father's divinity appears to have rested on the absence of worship and, perhaps more subtly, on the absence of the elevated properties ideally ascribed to the Christian God. Yet in his Native Tribes of South-East Asia (1904), he readily admitted the All-Father to be supernatural, and he propounded a theory of his genesis as an otherworldly embodiment of a tribal headman"full of knowledge and tribal wisdom, and all-powerful in magic, of which he is the source, with virtues, failings and passions, such as the aborigines regard them" (pp. 500501).

More rewarding to consider than questions of definition is the All-Father's role in Aboriginal life (in the past, that is, for the belief is almost certainly now moribund). Here scholars are especially indebted to Howitt and his younger contemporary Robert Hamilton Mathews (18411918), also an amateur anthropologist. All southeastern Aborigines knew something of the All-Father, but deeper knowledge was revealed to those who went through the man-making ceremonies. An old Theddora woman told Howitt that the spirit came down with a noise like thunder when boys were initiated. The ceremonies themselves were, for most men, the main avenue of knowledge about the All-Father. Not only were they said to have been instituted by him, but they included many symbolic references to him, and sometimes the fiction of an actual encounter with him was maintained. The Wiradthuri people's Burbung, for example, was an initiation cermony that was supposed to have been set up by the All-Father after he slew a lesser spirit who used to kill and eat some of the boys whom the All-Father took for tooth avulsion (the man-making operation). Having put the monster's voice in the trees, the All-Father found that he could reproduce it in a bull-roarer. He told the leading men that from then on they should initiate boys and use bull-roarers. Women and children were to continue to believe that the monster destroyed the boys and then restored them to life.

The All-Father's appearance was shown by images made of him in this and other ceremonies. In a Burbung attended by Mathews in 1893 a figure of a man was molded from earth to represent the All-Father. Lying face down with arms outflung, the figure had tripped and fallen while chasing an emu he had speared. The figure was 6.6 meters long, 1.7 meters across, and 0.5 meters at the highest point. The anthropomorphic conception is also confirmed by rock engravings and by outlines cut into trees.

An even more esoteric communication between human and supernatural (one which even the most knowledgeable men seemed to regard as literal and not merely symbolic or fictional) took place in the making of magicians. It was believed in at least parts of southeastern Australia that the All-Father played an essential part in this process, which itself was a foundation of the moral and political order. Postulants appeared before the All-Father (no doubt in dream or trance state), were shown how to use quartz crystal for magical purposes, and had this and other objects "sung" into their bodies by him. A Wiradthuri man who underwent the experience described the All-Father to Howitt as "a very great old man with a long beard from his shoulders extended two great quartz crystals to the sky above him" (Howitt, 1904, p. 408).

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article.


The most important single source for the All-Father's role in magic, cosmology, and ritual is A. W. Howitt's The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (London, 1904). He collected many observations by others as well as recording his own. For the heated debate over the All-Father's significance and authenticity, the most accessible source is Mircea Eliade's Australian Religions: An Introduction (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973), which gives valuable bibliographical references to the ethnographic and polemical literature. My own work, The Australian Aborigines: A Portrait of Their Society (London, 1972), puts the All-Father beliefs and the associated man-making ceremonies in a wider Australian mythical and ritual context. Ernest A. Worms's "Australische eingeborenen Religionen," in Hans Nevermann, Ernest A. Worms, and Helmut Petri's Die Religionen der Südsee und Australiens (Stuttgart, 1968), pp. 125322, may also be consulted with advantage, especially for its stimulating linguistic explorations.

Kenneth Maddock (1987)

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