Gillen, Francis James, and Baldwin Spencer

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GILLEN, FRANCIS JAMES, AND BALDWIN SPENCER . Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen both came to Australia in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Gillen arrived in Adelaide from Ireland, still in his mother's womb, in 1855 and was born later that year, while Spencer, born in England in 1860, migrated to Melbourne as a young man in 1887. Their backgrounds and careers were very different, yet they formed a remarkable ethnological partnership after first meeting in 1894. Gillen, the son of a laborer, received minimal formal education and chose a career in the postal service, eventually going to work on the Overland Telegraph Line that connected Adelaide and Darwin after 1872. Spencer, the son of bourgeois parents, was educated at a private school and at the University of Oxford, where he later became a fellow.

Spencer came to Australia to take up a chair in biology at the University of Melbourne, and it was in his capacity as biologist on the Horn Scientific Expedition to central Australia that he met Gillen in Alice Springs. By that time Gillen had long been an enthusiastic amateur ethnographer, and he was also the local magistrate and sub-protector of Aborigines. Spencer and Gillen became close friends, with Gillen's ethnographic enthusiasm firing Spencer's preexisting but tangential anthropological interests. When Spencer returned to Melbourne, he and Gillen corresponded feverishly about anthropological and other matters, and Spencer invited Gillen to contribute to the anthropological report of the expedition. In 1896 Gillen helped some local Arrernte (Arunta, Aranda) groups to stage a large-scale ceremony in Alice Springs, which Spencer attended. The records of this ceremony were added to those that Spencer and Gillen had conspired to produce mainly through long-distance correspondence, culminating in their 1899 landmark ethnography, The Native Tribes of Central Australia.

In 1901 Spencer and Gillen were both given leave to undertake ethnographic research in remote South Australia and the Northern Territory. The material generated from this trip considerably broadened their ethnographic base, resulting in a second major monograph, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, published in 1904. Gillen's health declined dramatically after this and he died in 1912. Spencer, however, went on to cement his reputation as Australia's foremost expert on Australian Aborigines, undertaking further ethnographic research in the far north of the Northern Territory from 1911 to 1912 and in central Australia in 1923 and 1926, and producing further volumes. Among other things, he updated his and Gillen's 1899 study by publishing the two-volume The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People in 1927. Spencer died two years later on Tierra del Fuego, during an ethnographic expedition to the Yahgan Indians.

Gillen published very little by himself, mainly acting as a remote field-worker sending information to Spencer in Melbourne. It was Spencer who penned their jointly authored monographs, although Gillen's contribution went beyond the mere provision of data. Reflecting a not uncommon contemporary pattern, the formally educated Spencer acted as a kind of hinge between the metropolitan centers of Europe, where there were furious debates about the origins of religion and society, and the remote outpost of Alice Springs, where Gillen allegedly dwelt cheek by jowl with living representatives of the Stone Age. Spencer's evolutionist outlook was most specifically informed by his biologist's commitment to Darwinian principles, but it was also influenced at various stages by debates initiated by commentators such as Edward Tylor and James Frazer and ethnographers such as Lorimer Fison and Alfred Howitt. For his part, Gillen's outlook was informed partly by Spencer's prompts and questions, partly by his own reading of contemporary ethnography, and partly by inspiration derived from his life experiences. While Gillen deferred to Spencer as a trained scientist and sought to emulate the objectivity of the scientific establishment in general, his letters to Spencer indicate that his appreciation of Aboriginal religion was also inspired by a somewhat mischievous gift for comparing "Stone Age" myths and rituals with biblical tenets and solemn Christian practices.

Spencer and Gillen's detailed ethnographic descriptions provided material out of which many of the best-known general accounts of "primitive" religion were partly constructed. Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) relied heavily on Spencer and Gillen's ethnography, as did some of the work of James Frazer (particularly Totemism and Exogamy [1910]) and Sigmund Freud (including parts of Totem and Taboo [1913]). The 1899 and 1904 ethnographies were widely acclaimed and taken up by the academic establishment as setting new standards in ethnographic reporting. They also excited the popular imagination, with Spencer eventually compiling volumes (Across Australia [1912] and Wanderings in Wild Australia [1928]) to meet the demand from the nonacademic market, in the process turning "the Arunta" and many aspects of their culture into household names.

All of Spencer and Gillen's books heavily reflect contemporary primitivist concerns with totemism, magic, kinship, and marriage, but the question of totemic religion is always most central. In 1899 the authors devoted no less than nine consecutive chapters to Arrernte totemism and its attendant mythology, ritual, and sacred paraphernalia. The 1904 book was similar and also popularized the term dream times, a translation of the Arrernte word alcheringa (altyerrenge ). This term later evolved into Dreamtime or Dreaming, both of which are now widely used by Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike to describe indigenous Australian cosmology. The 1899 and 1904 books also popularized the Arrernte term churinga (tywerrenge ), which, in its original context, refers to wooden or stone sacred objects and other things associated with totemic ancestors. As a result of the recent worldwide rush to embrace Aboriginal art and spirituality, churinga is now best known as a designer clothing label, whose shirts, sweaters, and other items carry totemic designs.

Spencer and Gillen's reputation is primarily based on their detailed descriptions of Arrernte and other Aboriginal people's lives. But while their apparently "raw" ethnography was an important way station on the road to contemporary anthropological fieldwork practice, they also provided muted conceptual insights into "primitive" religion, a fact that has often been obscured by their work's appropriation into more famous and explicit theoretical frameworks put forward by the likes of Durkheim, Frazer, and Freud. At a time when European scholars such as Frazer were questioning whether Aborigines had anything that could genuinely be labeled religion, Spencer and Gillen never balked at describing certain Aboriginal ceremonies and beliefs as "sacred." Indeed, detailed comparisons of passages from Spencer and Gillen with related ones from Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life suggest that Durkheim developed certain aspects of his sacredprofane dichotomy, at least insofar as it applied to totemism, from the descriptive language employed by Spencer and Gillen. On the other hand, Durkheim, like Frazer and others, also tended to simultaneously overtheorize and oversimplify the complex dimensions of Aboriginal totemism described by Spencer and Gillen. In that respect, Spencer and Gillen's intermediary position between the sometimes wild European theorizing about "primitive" religion and the little understood empirical complexities of Aboriginal ritual and belief remains critically important. That importance is measured by the extent to which the ethnographers' descriptions have stood the test of time in relation to the more radical revision of the theoretical systems that were allegedly confirmed or discredited by Spencer and Gillen's data. Of particular note in this regard was their conclusive demonstration that Aboriginal totemism was not in any simple or singular way connected to clans or group exogamy.

Howard Morphy argues that Spencer and Gillen's detailed accounts of Arrernte myth and ritual have a phenomenological character. Spencer and Gillen most certainly did not have phenomenological sensibilities in any formal sense, but their ethnographic accounts were firmly based on experience and attention to detail in the observation of ritual action and, to a lesser extent, the expression of religious sentiment. But the work of Spencer and Gillen's ethnographic and intellectual rival, the Lutheran missionary Carl Strehlow in Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral Australien (19071920), truly was phenomenological, and the balance Strehlow provided in this respect made it regrettable that his work was not used nearly as extensively as Spencer and Gillen's in many European circles. Géza Róheim suggests in "Psycho-analysis of Primitive Cultural Types" that, while Spencer and Gillen's approach to Aboriginal religion was essentially "behaviorist," being based on observation but lacking in the kinds of insights that emerge from an intimate knowledge of Aboriginal languages, Strehlow's approach, premised firmly on fluency in Arrernte and painstaking translation work, was that of lifeless exegesis ("lifeless" because of Strehlow's self-imposed ban on attending "heathen" ceremonies). In that sense, Spencer and Gillen's ethnographic descriptions of Arrernte religion are best appreciated in conjunction with Strehlow's parallel contemporary account. A more singular appreciation of the mutual interpenetration of "word" and "flesh" in Arrernte religion did not occur until the next generation of ethnographers, particularly with the psychoanalytic approach of Róheim and with the intensive ethnographic work of Carl Strehlow's son, Theodore (T. G. H.) Strehlow (for example, in Aranda Traditions [1947] and Songs of Central Australia [1971]).

Although Spencer and Gillen had firm evolutionist sensibilities, these were hardly reflected in their actual descriptions of sacred myths and ceremonies. These accounts stand out today as authoritative treatises on Aboriginal, especially Arrernte, religion, marking them off from the grander theoretical systems that were built on them and which have wearied with time. On the other hand, the accounts reveal a partiality of their own and are best treated as part of a larger corpus that gives a more rounded and intelligible picture of classical religion in central Australia. That religion persists in a recognizable form today, with Spencer and Gillen's books and collections sometimes making a significant contribution to the ongoing vitality of ancestral law. Books such The Native Tribes of Central Australia are treated with considerable fear or reverence by contemporary Aborigines because of the sacred material that they contain, and they may even be stored in secret places alongside other sacred objects, some of which are being repatriated to Aboriginal custodians from Spencer and Gillen's museum collections. The fate of these objects, and of the totemic religion connected with them, could not have been foreseen by either Spencer or Gillen, but it is certainly ironic that the two ethnographic pioneers should be posthumously playing the role of totemic ancestors in this "primitive" religious revival.


Cantrill, Arthur, and Corinne Cantrill. "The 1901 Cinematography of Walter Baldwin Spencer." Cantrill's Film Notes 3738 (1982): 2556. A discussion of Spencer's pioneering cinematography. Spencer's ethnographic films include a number of religious ceremonies, including secret/sacred footage.

Morphy, Howard. "Empiricism to Metaphysics: In Defence of the Concept of the Dreamtime." In Prehistory to Politics: John Mulvaney, the Humanities, and the Public Intellectual, edited by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths, pp. 163189. Melbourne, 1996. Partly a defense of Spencer and Gillen in relation to a postcolonial critique of their use of the term dream times.

Morphy, Howard. "Spencer and Gillen in Durkheim: The Theoretical Constructions of Ethnography." In On Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life, edited by N. J. Allen, W. S. F. Pickering, and W. Watts Miller, pp. 1328. London, 1998. A detailed examination of the relationship between Spencer and Gillen's ethnography and Durkheim's most important work on religion.

Morton, John. "Sustaining Desire: A Structuralist Interpretation of Myth and Male Cult in Central Australia." Ph.D. diss., Australian National University, Canberra, 1985. The most comprehensive synthesis of Arrernte ethnography in relation to religion, amongst other things clearly placing Spencer and Gillen's work in its broader ethnographic context in the twentieth century.

Mulvaney, D. J., and J. H. Calaby. "So Much That Is New": Baldwin Spencer, 18601929. Melbourne, 1985. Magisterial, comprehensive biography of Spencer.

Mulvaney, John, Howard Morphy, and Alison Petch, eds. My Dear Spencer: The Letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer. Melbourne, 1997. These letters to Spencer illustrate Gillen's own particular thoughts about Aboriginal religion. The book carries a biographical essay on Gillen by John Mulvaney and an assessment of Gillen's work by Howard Morphy.

Spencer, Baldwin. Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia. London, 1914. Spencer's lesser known ethnographic account of Aboriginal life in parts of the northern portion of the Northern Territory. Contains a great deal of material on local totemic religions.

Spencer, Baldwin, ed. Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia. 4 vols. Melbourne, 1896. Volume 4 contains an important early ethnographic report by Gillen.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F. J. Gillen. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London, 1899. Spencer and Gillen's most famous account of central Australian religion and social life. Regarded as a benchmark in ethnographic reporting.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F. J. Gillen. The Northern Tribes of Central Australia. London, 1904. Greatly extends the insights and ethnographic range of the 1899 book.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F. J. Gillen. The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People. 2 vols. London, 1927. Spencer's late update of the 1899 classic.

Strehlow, T. G. H. Songs of Central Australia. Sydney, 1971. Detailed study of Aboriginal song poetry. The introduction contains a lengthy critique of Spencer and Gillen's work from a broadly phenomenological perspective.

Wolfe, Patrick. "On Being Woken Up: The Dreamtime in Anthropology and in Australian Settler Culture." Comparative Studies in Society and History 32, no. 2 (1991): 197224. Critical discussion of the genesis and legacy of Spencer and Gillen's use of the term dream times.

Wolfe, Patrick. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. London, 1999. Broad postcolonial critique of early Aboriginal anthropology and its legacy. Contains many discussions of Spencer and Gillen's work in relation to totemism.

John Morton (2005)

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Gillen, Francis James, and Baldwin Spencer

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