Mardu Religion

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MARDU RELIGION . The name Mardu refers collectively to Aborigines belonging to a number of language-named groups in Western Australia, principally the Kartujarra, Manyjilyjarra, and Warnman. Their traditional homelands lie in the vicinity of Lake Disappointment, a huge salt lake in the Gibson Desert, between 22° to 25° south latitude and 122° to 126° east longitude. It is impossible to estimate accurately the population of these groups prior to contact with Europeans, but today they number about 1,600. Many of them live in incorporated communities, run by elected Aboriginal councillors, at Jigalong, Parnngurr and Punmu, and in towns such as Newman, Nullagine, Marble Bar and Port Hedland. The Mardu speak mutually intelligible dialects of the Western Desert language, which covers one-sixth of the continent.

Since the mid-1960s, when the last groups of previously uncontacted desert people moved into settlements, there have been no fully nomadic hunter-gatherers living beyond the range of white Australian cultural influences. In the Western Desert region, their migration into settlements was gradual, beginning around the late 1800s. Some of the small, scattered bands that had exploited large overlapping tracts in their arid homelands began making contact with Europeans living at outposts on the pastoral frontier. Since then, their sedentarisation and increasing involvement with whites has wrought many changes: today they wear clothes, live in houses, watch television, shop in supermarkets, and so on, and continue to battle with the pernicious consequences of colonization, including high rates of unemployment, "life-style" diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, and problems arising from alcohol misuse. Yet the Mardu retain strong continuities with their past in major beliefs and behaviors pertaining to kinship, religion, and values. Much of their rich religious life has been maintained into the present, because religion was absolutely fundamental to their culture. It is tenaciously maintained, albeit in a progressively more attenuated form, and still underpins Mardu worldview. Some Mardu have become Christians, but usually as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the traditional religion.

It is important to stress that, despite the use of the present tense, this account refers to a past era, prior to and following initial contacts with the invading Europeans. It is, however, constructed on the basis of direct observation and interviews occurring during field research since 1963. Over this period, this author has observed many changes, and although the religious life has become less vigorous, it remains highly significant in the lives of most Mardu.

The Spiritual Imperative

Traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures are notable for the striking contrast they exhibit between comparatively simple material technologies and social and religious forms that reveal great richness and complexity. Clear proof of the adaptational skills of the Aborigines can be seen in their success in colonizing all of a continent that is almost three-quarters arid. Yet to appreciate fully their cultural accomplishments it is vital to understand how completely religion pervades their lives. The Aborigines base their existence firmly in the belief that spiritual beings are the sources and controllers of all power. As they understand it, spiritual power flows freely into the human realm as long as they act out their lives in accordance with the grand design originally laid out by their spiritual forefathers in the world-creating era. Aborigines learn obedience to the dictates of a heritage that, while transmitted by their ancestors, is nonetheless believed to have its origins in spiritual, not human, actions. Since all knowledge and power are said to derive from the spiritual realm, the Aborigines in effect deny the human innovatory component in their culture. They understand history in cosmic rather than chronological terms, and they grant primacy to spiritual conceptions of cause, being, and purpose. This certainly does not mean that people are denied their individuality, but simply that creativity is not admissible as part of the measure of a person's social worth. In the Aboriginal view, human worth is based on conformity to the founding design and on its perpetuation, which ensures that power will continue to flow from the spiritual realm and thus maintain the fertility of all life forms.

At the heart of Aboriginal religion is the Dreaming, a complex concept that embodies a creative era long past but also implicates the present and the future. During the Dreaming powerful ancestral beings, singly or in groups, are believed to have transformed the face of Australia in the course of their wanderings and creative activities. They hunted and gathered in much the same way as their human descendants, but much of their behavior was on a grander scale and sometimes more excessive than that permitted the first people they left behind as pioneers of human society. Aborigines point to a host of topographical features as undeniable proof of the Dreaming's reality. The eternal verities of the Dreaming are also encoded in mythology, rituals, songs, and objects, and all relate back to the land, the bedrock of metaphysical conceptions that formulate an indivisible unity of spirit and substance.

When their earthly wanderings ended, the creative beings "died," and they metamorphosed into landforms or celestial bodies, where their spiritual essence remains, withdrawn from, but watchful of, human affairs. The creative beings release enabling power into the human realm in response not to prayer or sacrifice, which have no place in Aboriginal religion, but to ritual performance. Individuals who are able to transcend their human consciousness for brief periods (during dreams, dances, visions, or heightened emotional states) may also bring about a release of power. The withdrawn creative ancestors use spirit beings as intermediaries for direct intervention in human affairs, most often while people are sleeping, and such encounters result in the transference of new knowledge and power from the spiritual realm. To maintain the unity they perceive in their cosmic order, the Mardu must, as their spiritual imperative demands of them, perform rituals regularly and in the proper manner, and they must also obey the dictates of the life design that is the legacy of the Dreaming.

The Totemic Connection

The Mardu see themselves as quite distinct from the natural world because of their culture and their ritual control over all fertility, yet they acknowledge their intimate relationship with it. Totemic beliefs express and affirm this link, by positing a unity between individuals or groups and elements of the natural world. To the Mardu, the animals, birds, plants, or minerals that are identified as totems are signs or exemplifiers of the link between humans and nature, so their religious significance lies not in the particular identity of the totem, but in the linkage it represents. There are totemic connections linking Mardu groups to natural species, but these are much less significant than the ways in which totemism connects individuals to their spiritual origins. These ascribed affiliations are experienced as enduring and unbreakable bonds uniting every individual to the great powers of the Dreaming. The two most important forms of individual totemism, which are closely related in Mardu thought, can most aptly be termed "ancestral" and "conception." Wherever creative beings traveled during the Dreaming, they left behind inexhaustible supplies of life essence or power from which tiny spirit-children emanate. Thus a person's ancestral totem derives from whichever creative being or group of beings "left him or her behind." The totem is identified by linking the area or site where an individual was conceived with knowledge regarding the particular creative beings known to have traveled through or lived there during the Dreaming. Before entering its human mother, the spirit-child disguises itself in some plant, animal, or mineral form, which, when recognized by the parents, becomes the child's conception totem. People may share the same object or species as a totem, but never exactly the same set of circumstances or events that mark their "coming into being." So, in combination, these two forms of totemic affiliation not only enable everyone to establish his or her descent from the marvels of the Dreaming epoch but also provide each individual with a unique facet of social identity. The medium of the totem itself is less important culturally than the message of a personalized link between the individual and the associated spirit-child and Dreaming event.

Life Cycle and Male Initiation

The Mardu do not possess reincarnation beliefs, but they view life as cyclical in that it begins and ends with a spirit or soul that is indestructible. The life crises of birth, menarche, and marriage are not ritualized. A young woman's change of status to wife and mother is unheralded, and involves an essential continuity in activities, for she is already an accomplished food provider. Males, by comparison, undergo a protracted and richly detailed initiation into social adulthood and are not permitted to marry until they have passed through a long series of named initiatory stages. They learn to endure physical operations, to obey their elders, to observe strict taboos, to hunt meat for the older men in payment for ritual knowledge, and to assist in the supervision and care of younger novices.

At about age sixteen, after they have undergone minor rites involving tooth evulsion and the piercing of the nasal septum, youths are circumcised amid a great deal of ceremonial that is modeled symbolically on death and rebirth. The large ceremonies that conclude several months of preparation focus the energy and attention of the community on the several novices who are circumcised together. Within a year full manhood will be attained via subincision, an operation in which the ventral surface of the penis is slit open. Of the initiatory stages that follow, the most important is the Mirdayidi, a ceremonial feast held at the site of a group's secret cache of sacred objects, which are then revealed to the novice for the first time. After his introduction to the spiritual roots of his own being, a young man must subsequently go through the same ritual in neighboring territories and thus gain formal admission to the natural resources and ritual activities in those areas. The final initiatory stages entail the cutting and carving of sacred objects symbolizing the novice's links to his home territory, its creative beings, and the Dreaming. This stage completed, a man is entitled to claim his betrothed in marriage. Throughout the rest of his life he continues to acquire more knowledge through participation in rituals, and by middle age he is referred to as a nindibuga ("knowledgeable one"). With old age comes increased wisdom, respect, and a less physically active role in ritual life.

Women's Role in the Religious Life

Men control the secret and sacred core of the religion and the major rituals whose performance is considered by all Mardu to be essential to the future of their society. Women do not dispute men's dominance of the religious life. They, too, are actively involved in many aspects of it, and have their own secret-sacred rituals and associated objects, but they devote much less time to religious activities than men do and must arrange their activities to fit in with the plans of the men, not vice versa. Women collect the bulk of the food supply and maintain the life of the camp while men are engaged in religious activity, but they are also active participants in many rituals that are held in the camping area. In a passive sense, too, women and children provide a vital baseline or antithesis for men's division of life into dangerous-exclusive and mundane-inclusive dimensions. The conviction of mature men that only they have the knowledge to control powerful and dangerous spiritual forces invests their religious life with much of its tension and excitement.

Mythology and Song Sequence

Mardu learn much about their spiritual heritage and about the Dreaming from a rich mythology, which relates how things came to be as they are and outlines the memorable events of the Dreaming era. Long narrative myths chronicle the travels of the creative beings, following the paths they took and dwelling on the naming of places, but details of their secret-sacred doings are known only to initiated men. Together with song sequences and, in many cases, rituals, these narratives broaden people's horizons by providing vivid mental and "historical" maps of areas that may as yet be unseen, so that when people do visit such places for the first time they already "know" them in a religious sense. There are times and situations that are conducive to the telling of myths, even when this is an informal affair: for example, when children have the spiritual significance of landforms explained to them, or when initiates view secret-sacred objects for the first time and have extra details added to the version of the myth they already know.

All major rituals have an associated sequence of songs, which follows the movement of the creative beings concerned and highlights in cryptic fashion the more notable events of the Dreaming. Rote learning of the hundreds of songs in a given sequence is made easier by the brevity of each song, which consists only of a few words, and by repetition (each is sung several times). There is great variation in pitch, tempo, and loudness, and the singing often generates great excitement among performers and audience alike. In some public rituals women and children join in the singing and sometimes dance. The song sequence and myth associated with a given ritual are often very similar in theme, but the song sequence is not a mnemonic for the myth such that it would be possible to reconstruct the myth from the songs.


Mardu group rituals are culturally more important than individual rites, but both have the same aim: to induce the flow of power from the spiritual realm for human benefit. The manipulative aspects of ritual as communication are most evident in individual rites, most of which are publicly performed and socially approved. However, some individuals and groups are believed to practice sorcery, which is invoked at times as an explanation for serious illness or sudden death. Most individual ritual acts are spontaneous, as when magic is used to make a strong wind abate or to beckon a rain-bearing cloud. Although any adult with the requisite knowledge can perform such acts, they are most often the task of diviner-curers (mabarn ), who are said to possess stronger psychic and magical powers than others. These part-time specialists use their diagnostic and curative skills for the benefit of sick individuals and the community at large.

One vitally important ritual that involves relatively few actors is the "increase" rite. This generally simple and brief rite is performed annually at particular sites, scattered throughout the Western Desert, that are the spirit homes of many different plants and animals. The purpose of the increase rite is to summon the spirits concerned to emerge, scatter, and be plentiful. There is at least one such site within the home area of every local group, so the Mardu and their neighbors are mutually dependent in ensuring through ritual the continued supply of food resources.

The major focus of group rituals is the japal ("big meeting"), a large assembly of bands from a wide area, who meet perhaps once or twice a year at a prearranged site when food and water resources permit. These gatherings mark the high points of the Mardu social calendar, when much activity is crammed into a short space of time in an atmosphere of excitement and intensified sociality. Besides their vitally important religious functions, Big Meetings provide an occasion for settling major disputes, arranging marriages, gift exchanges, and disseminating a large amount of information and gossip. Initiatory rituals usually form the major focus of religious activity, but many other ceremonies are held as well, and the exchange of religious lore is a major item of business. Initially there is an important division between hosts and visitors, but this soon dissolves in favor of kinship considerations in the conduct of the affairs at hand. The timing and coordination of large numbers of people and a complex division of labor demand planning and direction. An informal gathering of mature men directs the meeting, and the host group is most active in master-of-ceremonies roles. There is much discussion and consultation between the sexes and among the groups present. Ritual leadership is situational and changes as the rituals performed change. Ritual activities usually alternate between the camp area and secret bush grounds that are tabooed to women and children. Singing and dancing sometimes continue day and night.

Both men and women attain senior ritual status by repeated participation in the religious life over a period of many years and by diligent performance of their allotted tasks. The men with the highest status are generally elderly; they prepare food for ceremonial feasts, advise and direct rituals, dance the major secret-sacred dances, and caretake the caches of sacred objects. Next in the hierarchy are the active middle-aged men, who manage the ritual activity, transmit directives from those above them, and perform many important dances. Below them are the legmen, who play major roles as hunters and as supervisors of novices. At the lowest level are the partly initiated young male novices, who must obey all instructions, look on in silence, and learn.

Group rituals may be organized, too, when enough bands are assembled to provide the needed personnel. The death of anyone older than an infant is an occasion for ritual, which is performed by members of bands that are in the vicinity at the time, and the reburial of the bones, which occurs a year or two later, is the more significant ritual event.

The Mardu have two major ritual categories: mangunyjanu, said to have been passed down from the Dreaming; and bardunjarijanu ("from the dream spirit"), which have been revealed to humans during their dreams. The Dreaming rituals predominate, but it is highly likely that they were originally of the second type, wherein spirit-being intermediaries of the creative beings encounter humans during dreams and reveal ritual information. Men share these revelations with others, who then have similar dream experiences and add details concerning the necessary body decorations, song lyrics and tunes, and dances. When a new ritual comes into being, the old one is passed on to other groups and, with the passage of time and over great distances, becomes identified as a Dreaming ritual. The great appeal of the dream-spirit ritual is that it requires no special ground and can be staged with a minimum of preparation by small groups. Women and children join in the singing and a little of the dancing, and are excluded from only a small part of the proceedings. Although its secret-sacred element is not large, dream-spirit ritual is taken just as seriously by the men as are the important Dreaming rituals.

The Mardu identify some of their rituals in terms of a specific, primary purpose, such as rainmaking or increase of species, but all their rituals fulfill very important functions in the culture. As acts of communication and commemoration, rituals maintain the relevance of the Dreaming in the present. They are educational because novices are invariably involved, and they are beneficial because participants acquire strength and protection against malevolent powers through contact with the spiritual realm. To be effective, rituals require the harmonious unity of participants and the complete absence of conflict. In the Western Desert, group rituals override many other kinds of allegiances and thus serve to dilute rather than reinforce any tendencies toward local parochialism. The widely shared major rituals, in particular, force people's attention outward to regional concerns and wider bonds of interdependence, in which survival in this extremely harsh land is ultimately grounded.

Sites and Portable Objects

Particular landforms and a variety of portable objects provide tangible reminders of the reality and power of the Dreaming. The sites created in the epoch of the Dreaming elicit powerful emotions of belonging that anchor a people to their home territory. Portable objects derive sacredness and power from their believed origins in, or close association with, the Dreaming. The most sacred are stones said to be the metamorphosed parts of the bodies of ancestral beings and wooden boards that men carve in representation of similar power-laden objects that were carried by the creative beings. In addition to these highly valued group-owned objects are those that are individually owned. Each man has a bundle of secret and nonsecret paraphernalia; these are often items of gift exchange and are frequently displayed and discussed when groups of men meet informally.


The genius in Mardu religion resides in its successful accommodation of two strongly contradictory elements: the everyday reality of an inherently dynamic culture and a dominant ideology that stresses continuity and changelessness. This ideology is founded in the concept of the Dreaming, which ordained a life design that is held to be fixed and immutable, so as to assure (prior to the European invasion, that is) the continuity of present and future with the founding past. Throughout the desert there is a continual diffusion and circulation of religious lore, and Aborigines are regularly engaged in the creation, acquisition, performance, and transmission of their religion. How, then, can the Mardu accommodate the undeniable facts of change in an ideological framework that entertains no notion of progress or evolution?

A close examination of the structure of their rituals provides an important clue. Each "new" ritual is in fact a unique recombination of already existing constituent elements rather than a structure fabricated from hitherto unknown components. The assimilation of incoming rituals is made easy because they contain so much that is already familiar. In their long history of isolation from the rest of the world, Aborigines were spared the trauma of confronting radically different or alien cultural forms. Thus the kinds of change and innovation they have encountered are those which "fit the forms of permanence," as W. E. H. Stanner so aptly put it in his seminal work On Aboriginal Religion (1968, p. 168).

Not all the knowledge derivable from the Dreaming is embodied in the life-design legacy that the Mardu faithfully perpetuate. Further knowledge and power are available to the living through the mediating activities of spirit beings, which link the spiritual and human realms. How, then, can newly acquired knowledge undergo transformation from peripheral, individually experienced phenomena into communally shared and supposedly timeless structures of the religious life? One example of this process was provided above, in the brief description of the creation of dream-spirit rituals from what initially are highly individual experiences. But once in existence, both ritual structures and song sequences become highly circumscribed in performance, and the necessity for faithful reproduction precludes them from becoming common avenues for the incorporation of new religious knowledge that is individually acquired. Mythology, on the other hand, has an inherent flexibility that makes it an ideal vehicle for incorporative purposes. In the easy and informal atmosphere of myth telling, people are free to indulge in elaboration and character development while leaving intact the main story line and theme. But myths also lend themselves readily to expansion to accommodate new information flowing from dream revelations and the discovery of hitherto unlocated sacred objects. Once new knowledge is embedded within existing myths, the Aborigines may examine the associated song sequence, if one exists, and reinterpret the meaning of the cryptic references therein, so as to accord with the truths of the expanded myth. In this way, and in the absence of the written word, changing political, social, and religious realities are validated and absorbed effortlessly into the ahistorical, cosmological flow of time. Thus is the "is-now" transformed into the "ever-was" of the Dreaming.

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article; Dreaming, The.


Two monographs that deal with the past and present of Mardu religion are my own The Jigalong Mob: Aboriginal Victors of the Desert Crusade (Menlo Park, Calif., 1974) and The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia's Desert (revised and enlarged 2d ed., Fort Worth, 1991). Aspects of Western Desert religion are discussed in Ronald M. Berndt's Australian Aboriginal Religion, 4 vols. (Leiden, 1974), in Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt's The World of the First Australians, 2d ed. (Canberra, 1988), and in an early monograph by the same authors, A Preliminary Account of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia (Sydney, 1945). A book by noted ethno-archaeologist Richard A. Gould, Yiwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert (New York, 1969), contains details concerning desert ritual and belief.

Robert Tonkinson (1987 and 2005)