Kaberry, Phyllis M.

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KABERRY, PHYLLIS M. Phyllis Mary Kaberry (19101977), the first anthropologist to study religion and culture from the vantage point of Aboriginal women in Australia, showed that the benefits and responsibilities of the Ngarrangkarni spelled by Kaberry as Narungani and translated by her to mean "The Time Long Past"were equally relevant to women as they were to men. Ngarrangkarni, or "The Dreaming," as it is known in the Kimberley, northern Australia, embraces a profound body of Aboriginal religion and law. Often described as a creative epoch that lives on in the present via myth, ritual, art, and oral traditions, the powers of the Dreaming ancestors formed the human and physical world, while also revealing a way of life for humankind to follow. Arguing against peers such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1913), Géza Róheim (1933), and especially W. Lloyd Warner (1937) that Aboriginal religion was an all-male domain, and critical of Émile Durkheim's (1915) sociological thesis that religious beliefs and behaviors could be organized into distinct secular and nonsecular spheres, Kaberry made her findings explicit in Aboriginal Woman, Sacred and Profane, first published in 1939.

A graduate of Sydney University and the London School of Economics, Kaberry worked among Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Jaru, Kija, Malgnin, Nyikina, and Walmajarri groups between 1934 and 1936. According to Kaberry, the Time Long Past encompassed various totemic beliefs (such as conception, birth, and clan totems) and complementary symmetrical social divisions or moieties, which provided connections between people and all other life forms. She interpreted conception totems and the animation of spirit children, ultimately born as human beings, as central to the culturally complex and integrated nature of Aboriginal religion and law (Kaberry, 1936, 1937, 1937a, 1939).

Mythological narratives (given expression through performance, song cycles, trading, and artworks) were also described by Kaberry as a medium through which the cosmology occupied a practical socializing role. She wrote, for example, about the mythic rainbow snake, or kalpurtu, as the maker of rivers and rain, about social classifications known as subsections, and about marriage laws. Rainmaking also fell into the category of "increase ceremonies," where rituals ordained by ancestral beings were enacted to ensure the stability and replenishment of food and other resources.

In keeping with a holistic approach to Aboriginal religion, Kaberry discussed death as well as birth. She recorded how death and grieving were incorporated into the "sacred and profane" lives of men and women (Kaberry, 1935, 1939). Death in old age was often accepted, but when a child or young adult died, relatives sought reason in the supernatural, such as that a taboo had been broken, an avoidance relationship ignored, or that unauthorized contact with sacred objects had occurred. Kaberry claimed that spirits had the power to influence the living in positive or negative ways. If the deceased was old or very young, for instance, the corpse was buried in the ground. When this was not the case and the cause of death was unclear, the body was placed on a platform in a tree, covered with soft bark, and then left for as long as it took for the flesh to disintegrate. The purpose of this kind of burial was to allow the deceased's juices to fall on stones placed beneath the corpse so that the cause or murderer could be divined. While this took place, the husband or wife and in-laws would smear themselves with mud. Other kin, such as the mother, father, sisters, sons, and daughters, would be painted by grieving family members with ochre. Wives shaved their hair and the belongings of the deceased were distributed to distant kin or burnt. Mourning taboos restricted the consumption of meat, leaving vegetable foods or small fish, grubs, and so on to be eaten. Such taboos could be removed only when the required period for mourning was over.

Kaberry paid some attention to religious rites associated with the initiation of young men, but as a female observer of and participant in a society where both joint and gender-specific activities occurred, her account of men's rituals was understandably limited. She described, however, the role of women during the initiation of male kin (such as men related to them as sons or brothers) and about women-only ceremonies, including yoelyu.

There are several features that define Kaberry's contribution to the study of religious beliefs and practices. Firstly, she analyzed the Narungani as a rich body of religion, law, and lore central to the reproduction of Aboriginal society and human/land/water relationships. Secondly, in contrast to Durkheim, she argued that cosmological and temporal beliefs, ideas, and actions merged into and were dependent upon each other. Kaberry rejected entirely the notion that Aboriginal religion could be demarcated into disparate religious and secular domains. Thirdly, Kaberry challenged Malinowski, Róheim, and Warner who, when writing about Australian Aboriginal religion, portrayed women as "profane." It is the latter for which Kaberry is most well known, an assessment that has perhaps restricted a full appreciation of her contribution to the study of Australian Aboriginal religion.


Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London, 1915.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. "Death and Deferred Mourning Ceremonies in the Forest River Tribes." Oceania 6, no. 1 (1935): 3347.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. "Spirit Children and Spirit Centres of the North Kimberley Divisions." Oceania 6, no. 4 (1936): 392400.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. "Subsections in the East and South Kimberley Tribes of North-west Australia." Oceania 7, no. 1 (1937): 436458.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. "Totemism in East and South Kimberley." Oceania 8, no. 1 (1937a): 265288.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. Aboriginal Woman, Sacred and Profane. London, 1939.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. The Family among the Australian Aborigines: A Sociological Study. London, 1913.

Róheim, Géza. "Women and Their Life in Central Australia." Royal Anthropological Institute Journal 63 (1933): 259265.

Warner, W. Lloyd. A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe. New York, 1937.

Sandy Toussaint (2005)