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The Aranda’s Pepa

IV. The Making of a Masterpiece

The publication of Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien was the result of the collaboration between Carl Strehlow and his editor and friend, Moritz von Leonhardi.1 Although his editor understated his contribution in the making of this masterpiece, his contemporaries N.W. Thomas (1909), P.W. Schmidt (1908), Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss2 were aware of his involvement. Durkheim remarked that it would be ‘proper to add to Strehlow’s name that of von Leonhardi, who played an important role in the publication. Not only was he responsible for editing Strehlow’s manuscripts, but also, by judicious questions on more than one point, he led Strehlow to specify some of his observations’ (Durkheim 1995: 89, fn. 21 quoted in Kreinath 2012: 408). Von Leonhardi carefully studied Carl Strehlow’s manuscript, compared it with all other literature available on the subject, compiled long lists of questions, added references, had Australian animals, insects and plants classified, inserted their Latin names into the text and, finally, went yet again through the arduous work of reading the proofs. But most importantly he never tired emphasising empiricism and displaying scepticism when Strehlow’s field results seemed inconsistent. The research at Hermannsburg was driven by von Leonhardi’s never-ending desire for empirical data and the precise questioning of what it really was that Strehlow encountered daily at his mission station. Armchair-researching the cultures of central Australian Aboriginal people in Germany, he had noticed gaps, contradictions and broad generalisations in the existing material. He wanted to know what the different researchers had exactly observed in different parts of the continent and why their research yielded different results. Thus, he was keen on further field investigation to verify or reject the existing assumptions on Australian indigenous cultures.

Through his editor’s persistent interest in empirical observations, Carl Strehlow wrote his seven volume monograph in a five year period, an impressive achievement considering his many other duties and difficulties he faced on his lonely mission in central Australia. Although he had been side-lined in the English-speaking anthropological world even before he had written the first volume of his monograph (Marett and Penniman 1932: 95–97; Veit 1991, 2004b; John Strehlow 2004b, 2011), in Germany the research was driven forward and elsewhere read and celebrated (Preuss 1908; van Gennep 1908; Schmidt 1911; Mauss 1913).

Sehr geehrter Herr Strehlow!

On the 10 of September 1901, with Spencer and Gillen in mind, Baron Moritz von Leonhardi was sitting at his desk in his country retreat, writing to Pastor Carl Strehlow at the central Australian Hermannsburg Mission, who was at this stage unknown to him. Von Leonhardi had by chance read, during his extensive research into the religion of the Australian peoples, a letter written by the missionary in the church newspaper Kirchlichen Mitteilungen of the 15 May of the same year. He had been struck by a sentence in it, namely ‘Their God is not at all concerned about human beings, just as they are not with him.’ This remark induced him to write:

Gross-Karben, d. 10/IX 1901.

Grossherzogthum Hessen.

Esteemed Sir!

In Mission Inspector Deinzer’s Kirchlichen Mitteilungen of the 15 May of this year I saw a letter by you,3 which described the situation on your mission and also contained a few remarks relating to the natives of your station. I read in it: “Their God is not at all concerned about human beings, just as they are not with him.” This indicates that some kind of concept of a divine being exists among the natives. As I have studied for many years the religion of primitive people, I have of course endeavoured to collect everything I could find on the religious-ethical views of the Australian peoples. The information on the natives in the vicinity of your mission – they are called Arunta by researchers; is this name correct? –, is scanty, although, as you may be aware, in the past years two large and very important publications on the natives of your area and its surroundings have been published. I am referring to Horn’s Scientific Expedition to Central Australia Vol. IV Anthropology and Gillen and Spencer’s4 Native Tribes of Central Australia.5 Both publications are densely packed with information, in particular on initiation ceremonies and mythology of the tribes studied; however, the material also raises a number of questions. For example, little or nothing can be gathered on the existence of one or more divine beings or spirits who created the world and human beings, and taught them the sacred ceremonies (circumcision, male youth’s and men’s initiation etc.) from these publications. However, I suspect, in analogy to other tribes of the continent, that such a concept cannot be completely absent. Your remark referred to above as well as a statement (“Children are a gift of Altjira (God)”6) in an older scientific journal by one of your predecessors, missionary Kempe,7 confirm my inference and leads me to ask you for a great favour, if you had the energy and time. I would be very thankful if you could answer a few questions.8

Von Leonhardi was addressing an empirical problem. It seemed to him that there were gaps in the existing literature caused by lack of attention to particularities. His queries related mainly to the concepts of Ulthana,9 Twanyirika,10 and ‘two beings who were Ungambikula (out of nothing, self existing)’ and had come ‘to Earth in the oldest Alcheringa time’ (Spencer and Gillen 1899: 388), but he also remarked that ‘It goes without saying that I would be very thankful for any other information about the natives, their lives and intellectual concepts’.11 The letter travelled overland from Gross Karben to Frankfurt and then north to one of the ports in Germany (Bremerhaven or Hamburg) to embark on a ship to one of the remotest areas of the known world. About six weeks later the letter arrived in Port Adelaide, where it was loaded on a train going north to Marree (Herrgott Springs) and Oodnadatta in remote Australia. At Oodnadatta the railway ended. Cargo and mail going any further into the inhospitable interior of this still largely unknown part of the Australian continent was transferred with much needed food supplies and other essentials onto camel caravans led by Muslim camel drivers or a mail buggy, which would trek for weeks northwards through central Australian desert regions.

On the 20 December 1901, Carl Strehlow answered the German aristocrat’s queries about his little Aranda congregation. Only extracts of Strehlow’s letter, copied by others, have survived in a number of archives in Australia and England.12 Strehlow answered and explained the concepts of ‘Twanyirika’ and ‘Ulthana’, and wrote that ‘according to the view of the Aranda there is a being of the highest order called Altjira or Altjira mara’ and that they did not know anything about ‘reincarnation’. He also mentioned some other indigenous beliefs at Hermannsburg which deviated from Spencer and Gillen’s recordings. However, what really made Strehlow’s work controversial was that he discussed the semantics of ngambakala (‘surely the Ungambikula of Gillen-Spencer’) and altjira, which did not ‘agree’ with Spencer and Gillen’s concept of Alcheringa, and explained that they had not understood some key concepts due to the lack of language skills.13 They maintained, for instance, that Alcheringa meant ‘Dream-times’ (Spencer 1896: 111).14 According to Strehlow, this was a linguistic misinterpretation of the term (Strehlow 1907: 2).15

14. Map of postal routes between Germany and Australia.

Source: Clivie Hilliker, The Australian National University; adapted from Kleiner Deutscher Kolonialatlas 1904.

Carl Strehlow’s reply reached von Leonhardi sometime in early 1902; and what he read was pleasing. Strehlow’s comments were sent to none other than Andrew Lang in England, who had set himself against the whole tendency of Tylorian anthropology (Stocking 1995: 60; Hiatt 1996: 103). Lang received Strehlow’s findings on a superior divine being amongst the Aranda in late 1903. They were a welcome contribution in the controversy surrounding high gods, which Lang seemed to be losing.

The high god debate that began in the mid 1800s (Swain 1985: 34) was about the emerging view that evidence of primeval or early forms of monotheism existed in indigenous beliefs. The reports from Australia even threatened to place ‘the blackfellow on a par with his white supplanters’ (Hiatt 1996: 100). Although, according to E.B. Tylor, religion was universal to humans, he defined religion simply as ‘the beliefs in spiritual beings’ (Morris 1987: 100).16 Tylor and his circle could not accept a high being or monotheism among Aborigines because it would place them on a higher level in their evolutionistic schema that moved from animism to monotheism and would have thrown their theory into disarray. Frazer, whose evolutionistic chain of events did not even allow religion among Aboriginal people, also opposed people such as Lang, who postulated the existence of a supreme being amongst indigenous people, which in Frazerian terms proved that Aborigines had religion. For people like Lang and Frazer having religion was tantamount to having a high god (Swain 1985: 94, 96). There was a shared assumption embedded in their thought, namely that having a high god had a uniform significance throughout all religions – which it clearly did and does not. This made Strehlow’s observations particularly acute.

Thus, Lang showed Strehlow’s notes to Tylor and wondered if Spencer knew the indigenous language, as Native Tribes of Central Australia did not have ‘philology in it’.17 In letters to Tylor he remarked that ‘I had my suspicions of Twanyirika’, although Spencer and Gillen ‘are excellent’,18 and that:

I hold it also not only for possible, but in the highest degree for probable, that the myths and legends of the arunta should by different persons differently reported. The accounts according to Spencer and Gillen make quite too much the impression of a universal widespread determined metaphysical system … I hope certainly further communications on the Arunta through the German missionary to receive [Lang’s wording].19

Lang could not resist, and sent ‘the original German to Prof Spencer in Melbourne’.20 Lang’s main motivation in spreading word on Strehlow’s highest being was to back his thesis that high gods and thus an early form of religion existed among indigenous Australians that many of his colleagues rejected.

Therefore, there was a difference between Lang and von Leonhardi’s understanding of the underlying issues. Lang’s assumption of a universal widespread system (i.e. proving the origin of religion) stood in contrast with German empiricism and particularism as well as diffusionism that were an alternative to evolutionistic theory (Swain 1985: 105). Von Leonhardi had simply been making the point that field observations could contradict theories, and deviate or complement other field observations. However, he was well aware of the ‘controversy’ and is likely to have tried to show that even in English theorising the Aranda had ‘religion’ and hence might undermine evolutionism.

‘Temper and bias have set in like a flood’

The impact of Carl Strehlow’s first letter dated 20 December 1901 on the British anthropological establishment and Baldwin Spencer has been discussed a number of times in contributions by Mulvaney and Calaby (1985), Veit (1991, 2004b) and John Strehlow (2004, 2011). The exact events and dates of the ensuing ‘controversy’ are still not quite clear. What really transpired between Australia and England after Strehlow’s letter had been circulated amongst important members of the anthropological scene is hard to say. However, a number of letters give a flavour of what might have transpired. Without doubt, Spencer felt troubled by Strehlow’s research and set out to side-line him.

After Carl Strehlow’s information on a supreme being or a ‘high god’ amongst the Aranda had been handed around to key players of the British anthropological establishment, Spencer, who was just about to publish another volume on the Aborigines of central Australia, wrote angry and to some degree defamatory letters to Lang and Frazer about Strehlow’s observations.

Spencer wrote to Frazer, who was proof reading his and Gillen’s forthcoming book The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, on the 9 December 1903, that he had to write a long letter to Lang in reply to ‘a short paper by a Lutheran missionary named Strehlow’ that had ‘more utter misleading nonsense packed into a small space that I recollect having come across before’ and ‘remarks (hostile in tone to Gillen and myself) are appended by some one’ (Marett and Penniman 1932: 96). Von Leonhardi seems to have added these remarks, and they could hardly have been called ‘hostile’. For example, one stated in regard to ‘Altjiramara’:

Here again one finds the influence of the missionaries or imagines it, unjustly as I believe. In mode of expression one may trace Christian influence. “He is the creator of the world & the ruler of mankind” – such an expression is taken from “the almighty creator of heaven and earth” of the Apostles’ Creed. But in actual fact there is no need to attribute anything to Christian influence. As early as 1882 a case was noticed by Miss. Kempe in his report.21

Spencer furiously pointed out that the early missionaries had been teaching the ‘poor natives that Altjira means “God”’ and that Strehlow had seized upon this doing the same and now was making the claim that his informants were telling him that Altjira meant ‘God’. He told Frazer that Strehlow’s linguistic explanations of the word Altjira and its compounds were naïve and that ‘Strehlow is talking rubbish when he speaks of Twanyirika as the leader of the ceremonies’. He had to tell ‘Lang that, after spending months watching the natives preparing for and performing their ceremonies, to meet with this rubbish from a man who not only has never seen a ceremony, but spends a good part of his time telling the few natives who frequent the station that all their ceremonies are wicked, is rather too much of a good thing’ (Marett and Penniman 1932: 95–97). Lang reported Spencer’s reaction to Strehlow’s notes on the 13 January 1904 to Tylor:

Dear Tylor,

… Today comes a long tirade of Spencer against Strehlow. Is it proper to send it to you? If you think so, I will add, typed, my reply, which, at all events, I may send, and from it you would gather what Spencer said.

It comes to this, Strehlow is a beast of a missionary, not admitted to ceremonies, and would not go if he got a ticket. But Spencer adds that he and Gillen have not worked Strehlow’s district at all, so how can they know what he found there? He does not explain why Gillen in Horn Expedition (IV 182, I think)22 has “a great being of the heavens”, with an emu foot, as in Strehlow. Any being with a wife and child, (as Zeus, Apollo) is borrowed from missionaries.

I understand that Howitt recants his remarks on great beings, but how the deuce was I to know that, and why, 20 years after date, does he recant what he published in initiation. He never told me, though I think I sent him my book.

Spencer thinks Strehlow wants to discredit him, whereas he only answered inquiries. I sent you what he said. Temper and bias have set in like a flood, and if Howitt and Gillen disclaim their published words, how can we trust any body’s reports ... Of course I shall not print a line on Strehlow just now. I enclose Strehlow, which please return.23

Frazer raised Carl Strehlow once more with Spencer in 1908 after he had read the first volume of Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien (Strehlow 1907): ‘I wish you would tell me what you think of it and of Mr. Strehlow as an anthropologist’ (Marett and Penniman 1932: 106). Spencer replied with indignation, ‘I don’t know what to do in regard to Strehlow. He is so uneducated that he can’t write publishable German’ (Marett and Penniman 1932: 109). He again made similar dismissive remarks on Strehlow’s understanding of ‘Altjira’ and his biases as a missionary that disqualified him as a reliable source (Marett and Penniman 1932: 110–111).

On the 19 April 1908, Frazer responded to Spencer’s assessment of Strehlow and also mentioned his ‘new book on Totemism’ in which he was intending ‘to describe all the principal facts of totemism so far as they are known at present in geographical or ethnographical order’ beginning with ‘Central and North Central Australia, drawing my materials, of course, exclusively from you and Gillen; then I take up south-east Australia, using chiefly Howitt’s facts. … So you see I am making the “Geographical Survey” pretty full’ (Marett and Penniman 1932: 116). Then he turned to the missionary living in central Australia:

From what you tell me about Strehlow, it seems to me that I cannot safely use his evidence; so I intend to make no use of it. I wish you would publish your reason for distrusting his evidence, such as you have stated them to me, so that I could refer to them. The shakiness of Strehlow’s facts ought to be known here in Europe. (Marett and Penniman 1932: 116)

Spencer did not publish his views on Strehlow until 1927, well after the missionary’s death, and incorporated linguistic explanations of some key terms that are conspicuously reminiscent of Strehlow’s material. Nevertheless, Frazer ignored Carl Strehlow’s research in his Totemism and Exogamy of 1910 on the grounds that he was a missionary and therefore, biased. The Director of the Frankfurt museum, Bernhard Hagen, remarked in von Leonhardi’s obituary (Strehlow 1911: I): ‘Unfortunately, an intended preface, in which Frazer’s critique was going to be rejected, remained unfinished.’ While von Leonhardi had managed to edit the fourth volume of Strehlow’s work (1911) before he died, he did not get around to writing the preface intended to respond to Frazer’s allegations that missionary Strehlow’s sources and information were ‘deeply tainted’ (Frazer 1910: 186–187), and thus, not scientifically reliable sources. Instead, Pater Wilhelm Schmidt launched an attack on Frazer in his journal Anthropos (1911: 430–431). He criticised Frazer for dismissing information provided by missionaries and in particular by Carl Strehlow, who had collected ethnographic and linguistic material for ‘scientific’ discourse despite of his Christian mission context. Strehlow mentions, for example, the work of missionary Spieht among the Eweer in Africa.24 Although Spieht’s article relates to bible translation, Strehlow extracted the ethnographic data on how the Eweer personify the celestial elements and how this correlates with Aranda views of Altjira and the sky. Schmidt pointed out that Frazer had used the information of at least 46 missionaries if not more in Totemism and Exogamy;25 and that there was no reason to believe missionaries any less than agnostic ‘professionals’ (Marchand 2003: 297). Frazer’s treatment of Carl Strehlow also met with disapproval from Haddon (Veit 1991: 114) and other Cambridge scholars,26 and from the French quarter. Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim (1913: 101–104) wrote in L'Année sociologique that Frazer’s and Spencer’s resistance to Strehlow’s work was not justified.

What was problematic about the high gods amongst central Australians was that they did not fit into Frazer’s sequencing of evolutionistic events. They were not a problem per se. The existence of Strehlow’s ‘highest being’ Altjira meant that the Aranda had ‘religion’ in Frazer’s evolutionistic framework. He rejected this, because he classified Aranda beliefs as ‘magic’. It stood in opposition to Frazer’s view that belief systems moved from magic to religion and then to science (Morris 1987: 104; Hiatt 1996; Frazer 1922). While he had taken Tylor’s idea of uniform progress in human religious development up, he had reduced Tylor’s parameters ‘animism, polydaemonism, polytheism and monotheism’ (Tylor 1871). Spencer and Gillen followed Frazer’s lead integrating central Australian Aboriginal people at the beginning of a simple line of development. Thus, they were exemplary for the lowest stage on this linear development:

Frazer believed that magic precedes religion in the social evolution of mankind. In his view the Aranda were proof of this because they were obviously the most primitive people in existence and their totemic ceremonies were magical fertility rites. (Peterson 1972: 15)

A final note on high gods

In this context it seems necessary to comment briefly on the ‘high god’ debate of the turn of the century, because its ongoing discussion in Mulvaney and Calaby (1985), Veit (1991, 2004), Hill (2002) and John Strehlow (2004b, 2011) still evokes the impression that Carl Strehlow gave prominence to a high god amongst the Aranda and Loritja and participated in this controversy, which he did not.

For the German researchers the debate was not about the existence or non-existence of a high god that would prove ‘religion’. The Aranda, according to Strehlow and von Leonhardi, had religion regardless of whether or not they had a high god. It was about empirical observation. Von Leonhardi had noticed that the generalisations in Spencer and Gillen’s publications did not seem uniformly applicable to all Arandic peoples. Clearly Strehlow’s observations suggested that the Western Aranda at the Hermannsburg Mission had different or at least additional views and outlooks. And for that matter even Spencer and Gillen (1904: 498–500) had found a ‘high god’ among the Kaitish (Kaytetye), a northern Arandic group.27

Von Leonhardi did not believe in high gods in the same way as Pater W. Schmidt, who was trying to prove that monotheism existed among all peoples in one way or another. During his long academic life, the Austrian scholar Pater Schmidt was bent on proving the primeval revelation amongst indigenous people around the world. The theory in question was his theological diffusionism, which suggested that hunters and gatherers would ‘remember’ god’s creations in their own belief system, i.e. the primeval revelation or Ur-monotheism (see Conte 1987). In the debate about the existence of ‘high gods’ amongst indigenous people Andrew Lang was seen by the Schmidt school as their British ally (Marchand 2003: 294), although the reasons why Lang wanted indigenous people to have high gods was different to the Austrian school’s views. There were serious efforts under way to instrumentalise empirical data, including Strehlow’s, for underpinning Schimdt’s theory of ‘primeval revelation’ that would be almost as racist as some forms of evolutionism. However, Strehlow’s data and views were not suited to fit Schmidt’s theory of primeval monotheism, which emphasises the merits of Strehlow’s achievements that have survived the passage of time, while Schmidt’s attempts at best provoke a tired shrug (Conte 1987: 262). Thus, von Leonhardi stated to Strehlow that he was ‘not of the opinion that these [high gods] represent calls from a primeval revelation’28 but rather that high gods or supreme beings were a common feature of Australian belief systems (see also Ridley 1875: 136; Howitt 1884: 459; Parker 1905: 6). On the 28 August 1904 von Leonhardi wrote:

Most tribes in the South East of the continent have such a belief: A big/large with supernatural powers endowed Black lives in the sky now, previously he also lived on earth. He is immortal, created people and everything else, taught customs and ceremonies (Kult) (sometimes also morals); he is good. However, no one is troubled by him, only at the initiation of young men does he play a role, women and children do not know about him etc. (Baiame of the Kamilaroi or Munganjaur of the Kurnai, for example). This concept may also exist amongst the Aranda and according to you, it exists untouched by white people’s beliefs. Further examination would be at any rate very desirable. Possibly the old men do still know more about it. For instance, is thunder, the voice of Altjira mara? Further I would like to point out that Spencer and Gillen – I am sure you will soon get hold of it yourself – found a Kaitish myth on a supreme being, but do not comment on it (p. 498). It is exactly these kinds of myths that I suspect to exist everywhere in various modifications.29

In my view, von Leonhardi was only provoking the English establishment. He used the ‘high gods’ to make a point against unwarranted generalisations and selectiveness of material to justify evolutionistic sequencing in culture development (see also Swain 1985: 93). He remarked later on to Strehlow:

I share your impression that Howitt is completely under the influence of Spencer and in many ways it is not a good one; in any case it is biased. That Howitt does not mention Mura in the sky, although missionary Reuther certainly told him about it, is not acceptable. He should have expressed his doubts, as he was not entitled to simply suppress the matter. The Dieri – and for that matter the Aranda too – in contrast to the natives of SE Australia, are to be classified at all costs on the lowest stage of development. Thus, certain views and beliefs are not allowed to be found! A further reason for classifying the Dieri, Urabanna etc as representatives of the lowest stage of development is the supposition that they practice group marriage of primeval times (analogy to the Piranguru relationship?). Hopefully this fairytale will soon be laid to rest; even in England, no one less than Mr N.W. Thomas is fighting against it. For most English and in particular Australian scientists group marriage of the Dieri is still a dogma.30

N.W. Thomas, who briefly corresponded with Carl Strehlow and participated as a proponent of the ‘high god’ in the debate, wrote that it was naive to get the Christian god and indigenous ‘high god’ mixed up, because it was evident in Strehlow’s description that he had emu feet and many wives that could only qualify him as an indigenous god. He even made a cynical remark that one could see if one wanted to elements of Mohammedan beliefs in Altjira’s description (Thomas 1905a). Ironically this may not have been an absurd idea. After all, Muslim cameleers had been present in remote Australia since the 1860s, servicing the mission and the pastoral settlement. They had not only interacted with the new settlers, they had also formed relationships with the indigenous population (Kenny 2009b). The Aranda at Hermannsburg called them Apagana or Matawalpala and even had a hand sign for them (Strehlow 1915: 58).

N.W. Thomas made the first published comment in Folklore on Strehlow’s work and description of Altjira and his many wives:

Immortal virgins, it is true, are hardly a savage conception; but it seems hardly likely that such an idea would be derived from a Lutheran missionary; if anything they rather recall the houris of Mohammedanism than any Christian idea. (Thomas 1905a: 431)

High beings are not unusual in indigenous Australian religion. Independent reports on the ‘high god’ phenomenon have been present in the anthropological literature since material on Aboriginal religion has been recorded (Swain 1985). Hiatt (1996: 100–119) has shown that high being beliefs did exist in Australian indigenous religion and are not necessarily an import of Christian provenience. Many peoples have had ‘high gods’ positioned, though, quite differently from Judeo-Christian or Islamic schemes. They often do not figure as the major creators or as an ultimate source of a moral order. Indigenous Australian high gods were, rather, beings with more power and significance who coexisted with the rest of the ancestral beings, and assumed prominence due to variable circumstances in particular context and ceremony. Hiatt indicates that Aboriginal beliefs were far more resilient than many researchers have maintained and remarks in a footnote that ‘No modern Australianist, to the best of my knowledge, denies change as a fact of history, but we do affirm the existence of a pre-contact structure of cult belief and practice strong enough to survive the immediate impact of colonization’ (Hiatt 1996: 199).

Neither Carl Strehlow nor missionary Reuther, a Lutheran ethnographer at Lake Eyre and Strehlow’s contemporary, attributed overwhelming importance to a ‘high god’ or a supreme being among Aboriginal people.31 Only the first one and a half pages of the first volume of Strehlow’s publication Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien contains a brief account of a supreme being called Altjira or der Unerschaffene/Ewige (the unmade/eternal one) and the remaining hundreds of pages of the work deals with the mythological ancestral beings, the altjirangamitjina, in contemporary literature referred to as dreamings or dreaming beings. Also the second volume on Loritja myths dwells only in the opening page on the so called ‘high god’ Tukura.

Carl Strehlow’s perception of Aranda, Loritja and Diyari high gods and other indigenous religious concepts was complex and differentiated. The high gods he called Altjira, Tukura and Mura were only a part of indigenous cosmology and indeed they were not the main creators of the world. Strehlow wrote that ‘highest beings’ and the dreaming ancestors co-existed:

The Loritja also know of a highest being in the sky, called Tukura; which is differentiated from the Tukutita, the totem gods, like the Altjirangamitjina of the Aranda, they turned into trees and cliffs, or into Tjurunga. This view seems to be quite common amongst Australian peoples, the Dieri have a similar tradition. Among the peoples mentioned the totem gods are differentiated from the highest god. The Dieri call their highest being Mura and the totem gods or divinities, Muramura; the Aranda call the highest being Altjira, the Totem Gods Altjirangamitjina (the eternal unmade ones; Altjira: unmade, ngamitjina: the eternal) or Inkara, the immortals (the ones who never die). The Loritja call the highest being Tukura (the unmade one), the Totem Gods, Tukutita (from Tuku: unmade and tita: the eternal one).32

Although Carl Strehlow found that a ‘high god’ called Altjira, existed in the cosmology of the Aranda as well as of the Loritja, called Tukura, and Mura among the Diyari, he maintained that the ancestors, called altjirangamitjina, tukutita and muramura had overriding importance in indigenous mythology and were the ones that determined the belief system and the shape of the world. He understood this supreme being as existing beside the ancestors and not as an overarching powerful being that brought about a biblical genesis. Indeed, as his research into indigenous cosmology progressed he qualified and amended the concept of this supreme being.

Strehlow had doubts about the high god concept, because he had realised that it had no similarity with the concept of a Christian God and monotheism. He wrote to his editor that ‘the blacks do not think of their God as an absolutely sacred, sinless being, not even as the creator of the universe’.33 He nevertheless published the Altjira and Tukura accounts, because his senior informants reassured him that this being in the sky existed and they believed in him. In one of his footnotes some reluctance is discernable:

Although I have to accept as certain that the Aranda and Loritja believe in the Highest Being in the sky and that they held this belief prior to their contact with whites, it is nevertheless beyond question that the traditions pertaining to it are far less important than the myths concerning the totem ancestors. (Strehlow 1908: 2)

It only remains to be mentioned here that at the end of his career, Spencer went full circle. When he republished his and Gillen’s data in The Arunta (1927: 355–372), he added an extensive section on ‘the supreme ancestor, overshadowing all others’ known as Numbakulla, but did not feel the need to correct any earlier impression he may have given’ (Hiatt 1996: 106). Numbakulla34 was conspicuously similar to Carl Strehlow’s Altjira as well as to Gillen’s early account of Ulthana, a powerful being in the sky, in the Horn report Anthropology (Gillen 1896: 183). At the time Carl remarked in a footnote:

In the ‘Report of the Horn Expedition’ IV. p. 183, Gillen states this about the Arunta [Aranda], “The sky is said to be inhabited by three persons – a gigantic man with an immense foot shaped like that of the emu, a woman, and a child who never develops beyond childhood.” Obviously, what he is referring to is Tukura and his wife and child, and I suspect that Gillen obtained his story from a Loritja and not an Aranda. (Strehlow 1908: 1)

With this discussion, I hope the high god debate in connection with Carl Strehlow has been sufficiently conceptualised and for the moment can be laid to rest. Three factors seem especially pertinent: (i) the relation between pre-contact indigenous knowledge and that of newcomers, Central Asian as well as European; (ii) the role of ‘high gods’ in critiques of nineteenth century evolutionism; and finally, (iii) the challenge that empirical methods face in the context of competing theories, institutions and nations.35 This said, discussion of Strehlow’s masterpiece on the earth-dwelling and place-bound ancestral beings can finally move beyond the first pages of his volumes.

‘Our publication of your manuscript’

Although Strehlow’s first letter of 1901 made a significant impression on its recipients, the German collaboration began after Spencer and Gillen’s second book The Northern Tribes of Central Australia had been published in mid 1904. It triggered, nearly three years later, von Leonhardi’s second letter to Carl Strehlow because he had again detected inconsistencies, over-systematisations and generalisations in Spencer and Gillen’s publication. He wrote to Strehlow:

The big mistake of the books by these two researchers, seems to me, is that they systemise too much and try too hard to show universal views existing in a large area, where there may be no more than individual myths, local views and customs etc. and not a coherent, well-ordered system of mythology and custom. Only by providing individual stories and customs is it possible to tease out by comparison general aspects, this however needs to be done in the study.36

The critique of the attempt to systematise and generalise social and religious frameworks of indigenous peoples lies at the heart of von Leonhardi’s inquiries. As with the high gods he was not interested in proving any kind of theory but wanted to know what was really said on the ground and what were the particularities. Towards the end of his ethnographic research, Strehlow would also express this view:

I believe that Spencer and Gillen commit the same error in this case as they have in others, in my opinion they do it often, by generalising information and observations of individual culture traits and then by imputing the deduction to the blacks, or perhaps to have it confirmed by them, something that natives are quite willing to do. (Strehlow 1910: 7–8)

Von Leonhardi was convinced that different Aboriginal groups could not possibly have such a homogenous culture as Spencer and Gillen were proposing again in their new book. Thus, at the end of his second letter he offered to have everything printed that Strehlow would write. Strehlow immediately accepted the challenge; he had been contemplating a scientific publication on central Australian indigenous culture,37 and had begun collecting ethnographic material. He had just published the Aranda service book Galtjindintjamea-Pepa Aranda Wolambarinjaka, and was in need of a new intellectual challenge. He sent a copy of this service book to von Leonhardi on the 9 February 190538 as well as some answers to his queries.39

During this letter exchange a remarkable friendship gradually developed between two men from diametrically opposed backgrounds. This intellectual friendship brought von Leonhardi, a wealthy aristocrat with poor health and an insatiable curiosity, as close as one could ever get in an armchair to a vastly different place and people’s Geistesleben (spirit and mind) compared to his own. Beside the detailed ethnography of the Western Aranda and Loritja peoples, von Leonhardi would receive over the years plants, animals, insects, photographs and objects from his collaborator in central Australia. In his private hothouse in Gross Karben he created his own central Australian landscape from seeds Strehlow had sent him. Von Leonhardi dedicated the last years of his life to Carl Strehlow’s research and ‘our publication of your manuscript’.40

Carl Strehlow’s motivation to embark on this time-consuming intellectual journey is far more difficult to comprehend. A number of reasons spring to mind for his immediate willingness to collect ‘for science invaluable data’.41 Firstly, the Neuendettelsau Seminary, where he had been prepared for his mission, encouraged their students to pursue linguistic and to a certain degree ethnographical studies to understand the peoples with whom they were involved (Veit 2004a) and to be able to spread God’s Word in vernacular. Secondly it was a way to contribute knowledge to his homeland, Heimat. The significance of Heimat should not be underestimated as Strehlow’s motivation to form an intellectual relationship with von Leonhardi. Heimat as a concept is both emotionally highly loaded and essential to a German sense of belonging.42 Thirdly, von Leonhardi’s offer was compelling as an outlet for his intellect. Not only was it an escape from the isolation of Hermannsburg and a link to the outside world, but the recognition and respect of a very well situated and educated man must have been enticing. His editor’s interest did not wane once during their entire correspondence.

Carl Strehlow’s empiricism

Although all observations have some implicit theory, researchers can reduce their assumptions by striving for awareness of their own limitations. So while all observation is theory laden to a degree, there are differences in the extent to which an investigator’s assumptions flow into a work, depending on how constantly they examine and question their records. Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien was understood as source material. The ethnography was Herderian and Humboldtian, particularistic and linguistic, and through von Leonhardi’s attempts to explain Graebnerian Kulturkreislehre (diffusionism) with Boasian ethnographic source material on language and literature and refined diffusionism, historical. Therefore, von Leonhardi and Strehlow’s aspiration, simply to observe and record, could never be entirely realised as such, but it did guard against premature generalisation and systematisation. Their approach was far from an explicit and systemised theory that late nineteenth century evolutionism had become. As it was, von Leonhardi would constantly remind Strehlow and himself, that the current theories were all still ‘problematic’, ‘hypothetical’ and ‘speculative’.43

Von Leonhardi sent many key questions to Strehlow, which gave the research project at Hermannsburg its general bearings. Religious beliefs were the centre of his inquiries, thus questions on totemism, ceremonies, ritual paraphernalia, spirit concepts and individual myths dominated his letters and questionnaires.44 He sent precise questions on ‘Altjira’, ‘Twanyirika’, ‘guruna and ltana’ and of course wanted to know exactly what the tjurunga concept was all about and requested lists of totems, and exact descriptions of flora and fauna. Queries on Altjira, a divine being, and its possible influence were of initial interest, but soon the earth-dwelling ancestors moved centre stage, as it became clear that ‘the word Altjira would not only be a proper name, but would also be used for the totem ancestors’.45 This research also raised questions indirectly related to land tenure because subjects such as mother’s dreaming, the possible collective symbol of mother filiation through the wonniga and conception sites affiliation emerged.46 The initial interest in high beings broadened and scepticism was always close. Even when he was very pleased to hear that Strehlow’s research was progressing well, and fine results were obtained, he never seemed to be completely convinced or satisfied:

The discovery of the relationship of each person to the maternal totem beside the one received through conception, is a very fine result. Thus, the Aranda can clearly inherit a totem and for that matter from the maternal side. This result places the totemism of this tribe among other known totemic relationships and takes it out of its previous isolation. Possibly, the totem acquired through conception is secondary and came into existence only in the course of the development of the tribe; or emerging from the personal totem (called Nagual in America; also shown to exist in Australia)? I will have to consider the issue further and wait for your upcoming reports before I form a final opinion. I cannot quite follow your deduction of tmara altjira from Altja. It seems to me that here too altjira equals ‘divine being’. The totem is altjira because it is connected to the ancestors who are worshipped as gods. However, for the moment this is only an assumption. Linguistically I cannot make a judgement on whether altjira may be derived from altja.47

The Aranda concepts of soul and spirit, ltana and guruna, and what happens with these entities caused von Leonhardi lots of ‘headaches’. He struggled over a long period with the ‘ltana and guruna’ concepts and the beliefs connected with them.48 Answering yet again an inquiry about the soul, Carl Strehlow wrote:

Personally I agree with you, that the guruna is the ‘Körperseele’ (body’s soul?) and the ltana could be called the ‘Geist’. However, I do not want to impose these interpretations of the words on the blacks, because they surely would simply agree with me. The question is what becomes of the guruna when the ltana has left the body? Does it stay forever at the grave? Not according to the natives. They think that the ltana (ghost) stays at the grave until … And then it goes north, after it has picked-up its tooth at its tmara altjira which had been knocked out in his youth. This stuff I got to know about, when I was investigating the custom of knocking out teeth. I will continue to investigate the relationship of guruna and ltana.49

It was enormously difficult for the researchers to grasp these concepts that were new to them. They sometimes tried to find related concepts to be able to understand and articulate these indigenous ideas adequately. Von Leonhardi pursued for years the concept of tjurunga and other issues of their research project. He repeatedly asked Strehlow to reinvestigate subjects surrounding tjurunga:

The nature of tjurunga is still not quite clear to me. You think, it is not the seat of the second soul, (called soul box by English ethnographers), but a second body. Is it possible that a person’s life is in the tjurunga? This would be similar to a commonly held belief found in German and Nordic fairy tales. A person’s life is magically connected with a particular object and has to die, when it is destroyed. However, the latter does not seem to apply to the tjurunga. Or is it a misfortune for the Aranda when a person’s tjurunga is stolen or destroyed? Your statements about the relationship between the tjurunga and the bullroarer meet my expectations. One idea is dependent upon the other.50

Strehlow matched von Leonhardi’s inquisitiveness and rarely seemed to be satisfied with his initial impressions. In 1907, for example, he was still sceptical about his understanding of the underlying concepts of the tjurunga. And when he finally thought that he had understood it, he only discovered that there was more to it and his inquires led into new areas:

However, this investigation had rather the benefit, that it clarified the relationship of an individual to his totem ancestor. The totem ancestor is seen as the guardian, ‘the second I’,…51

The research seemed never ending, results had to be adjusted, reconceptualised and rearticulated. The investigations went ever deeper as their understanding broadened and the questions became more relevant and detailed. While von Leonhardi was impressed by Strehlow’s initial research, he thought that observations should be continued, as Spencer and Gillen had certainly left some open questions. He seems to have pushed, in particular, questions relating to terms and concepts that were obvious to Strehlow or taken for granted by him. Strehlow may have been immersed in Aranda and Loritja life in such a way, that some issues not at all obvious to von Leonhardi or any other outsider, were completely clear to him. In such instances his editor typically sent new queries, hints and reminders to ‘delve deeper’ into matters:

I assume that you will record the detailed myth of the Rukuta men, which I consider as very important. What does Rukuta and Tuanjiraka mean? It appears that the small bull-roarers are the bodies of novices. Is the bullroarer, given to a certain young man, the body of an Iticua52 of the same totem as the young man? It would be important to establish this. … And now to tnantantja (nurtunja Sp. and G.). It seems clear that the kauaua is the feather-plume on the tnantantja. It is, or rather, it represents the bundle of spears of a particular “totem god”. Is it therefore not the representation of the “totem god” itself?

As the taking down of this pole seems to be particularly diligently performed and all the other proceedings associated with this ceremony (the totem images on the bodies) are different to the ones already described, it may be justified to ask about the special and particular meaning of this event.

It always seemed unlikely to me that this could be a sun cult, however, Foy stays with it and has based a whole theory on it. That’s how theories come into being!53

Very pleased to have been able to deflate yet again a theory, as the conclusion was that the ceremonial object represented objects of ancestors or ancestors, and was not a sun cult (Strehlow 1910: 23, fn. 2), von Leonhardi rounded his letter off with ‘By the way what is actually the proper name of the Engwura?’ As the religious concepts took shape, marriage-order and kin terminology, which was generally the focus of turn of the century research into classificatory kinship,54 began to emerge in connection with myths, songs and ceremonies, and became increasingly an important subject of discussion. Carl Strehlow recorded, for example, that only certain kin could perform in particular ceremonies held by particular individuals (see Strehlow 1910, 1911). By late 1907, they regularly discussed the ‘marriage-order’, ‘marriage classes’, descent and how the subsection system locks into the kinship system.55 During the research into social classification and marriage order, von Leonhardi again emphasised that ‘What is of real importance is how the natives group the classes; everything else is marginal in comparison’.56 Right to the end of their research he continued to point inconsistencies out,57 and usually Strehlow reinvestigated and if necessary adjusted his conclusions.

With his editor’s ‘Fingerzeiger58 (indications) Carl Strehlow’s field research became anthropological, as far as that was possible at a time when in Australia all researchers who pursued anthropology were from other disciplines. In this sense they were all amateurs. As Strehlow was conducting fieldwork he was also reading all Australian anthropological literature he could get hold of which included Spencer and Gillen, Stirling, Howitt, Taplin, Roth, Kempe, Schulze, Schmidt, and Mathews.59

Von Leonhardi’s main methodological advice was to consult the old men and record what they say. He never tired to ask, implore and repeat ‘to reinvestigate with the old men’,60 ‘In general old magicians would be the best informants’61 and to emphasise to ignore theories. Even in his second last letter to Carl Strehlow on the 16 November 1909, he repeated to ‘have the old men dictate the texts to you’.62 Von Leonhardi was not interested in the opinions or interpretations of European researchers of foreign cultures. He wanted to know about the views of people of particular cultures, what they say about their customs and if they make conscious reflections on their traditions. He had a particular aversion to theories that isolated cultural elements pressing them into preconceived categories, such as Foy’s sun cult projected on to the Inkura ceremony63 due to analogies found in a North American ceremony that ‘are quite striking’64 (see above).

Strehlow’s editor guided the research project in central Australia towards a form that went beyond philology and mission ethnography; he impressed on Strehlow the importance of the production of primary source material based on solid empirical research, sometimes by citing examples of misleading or rash inferences by armchair anthropologists or even by himself. With von Leonhardi the work went towards an inductive research project, which had the purpose to document the languages and cultures of the Aranda and Loritja in their own right, attempting to avoid Christian and other theoretical biases. Without von Leonhardi’s guidance Carl Strehlow may very possibly have been drawn to making unwelcome parallels with Greek mythology or other ancient worlds known to him.65

In the third volume on Aranda song and ceremony, the German researchers addressed explicitly the methodology of their ethnographic project and noted its limitations, especially due to the fact that the missionary did not attend ceremonies believing it would jeopardise his credibility as a Christian evangelist (Strehlow 1910). They had a commitment to transparency which they thought was not apparent in Spencer and Gillen’s publications.66 Thus, Strehlow’s missionary context had to be made apparent and explained. Von Leonhardi wrote to him:

I think we will have to make a few comments on how you conducted your research on the tjurunga songs and performances. What do you think? We will have to say that you, due to mission work, have never actually taken part or have been present at performances, i.e. that you therefore describe the performances only from what the men have told you about them, but that you wrote down the songs after their recitation, exactly as the men performed them for you. I believe it is necessary to make such a statement so it does not appear as if you withheld anything, which might be of interest for the assessment of the material provided.67

Baron von Leonhardi had discovered through R.H. Mathews that Spencer and Gillen had set up a depot of food in Alice Springs and invited ‘the natives promising them all these lovely things if, in return, they would perform ceremonies’.68 He asked Strehlow if he had heard about this and commented:

It is possible, that these days this is the only way to see ceremonies – similar approaches have been taken in other countries – but in these instances researchers have mentioned this fact quite openly and indeed have a scientific obligation to do so. Spencer and Gillen, however, give the impression that the performances were being performed as they were arriving; that is dishonest! The scientific value of such performances on demand is of course of less value; the use of data and photographs has to be far more cautious.69

Von Leonhardi was aware that Spencer and Gillen had created an artificial context for the performance of ceremonies in 1896 and that the photographic equipment had interfered with the usual process of performing ceremonies in Alice Springs.70 He in contrast had asked Strehlow nearly two years earlier, before he had uncovered what he perceived as fraud, to describe the contemporary circumstances of Aboriginal life in central Australia:

If I may express a further request for the manuscript, it would be a brief history of the mission work among the Aranda, as well as of the white settlement of the area. It would be lovely if photographs of the area (mission station) and of the natives, maybe of your main informants, could be included in this chapter.71

According to Middendorf (2006: 22–34), Spencer and Gillen’s photographic representation of their indigenous informants was the one of the Australian Aborigines as doomed ‘gothic figures’ (Middendorf 2006: 26). While it is likely that Spencer was trying to create a remote and ancient time in his photography, it was rather an earlier evolutionistic stage of human development that he was attempting to evoke, or the ‘alcheringa’ that became Spencer and Gillen’s famous ‘Dreamtime’. Jones (2005: 14–17) remarks that Spencer employed an ahistorical style in the text of Native Tribes of Central Australia where historical incidents in Gillen’s original text had been edited out; a similar process occurred with the published images in which shadows of the photographers (Gillen and Spencer) were retouched. Kreinath (2012) proposes that the use of photography created the illusion that an armchair anthropologist could participate at such ritual events. He makes a careful analysis of Durkheim’s use of Spencer and Gillen’s images.

Von Leonhardi was not so much bothered by the fact that the Aranda were not in ‘their natural state’, because he acknowledged it might have been the only way to see ceremonies,72 but that Spencer and Gillen were trying to make their presentation seem more authentic by withholding the context. He asked Strehlow to point this fact out:

Somewhere you should also mention the fact that Spencer and Gillen asked the aboriginals to come together and that without artificial feeding it would just be impossible for a larger gathering of Aboriginals to stay together in Central Australia for weeks, or even months. Also the misconception of Spencer and Gillen’s absolute credibility will need to be addressed publicly.73

Strehlow’s approach differed from Spencer and Gillen’s and seemed less authentic. He had never been present at ceremonies, because he believed that it would have compromised his position as a missionary (Strehlow 1910) and possibly his authority. However, while he chose not to participate actively at ceremonies, he inevitably saw and heard them. Ceremonies were performed only a stone’s throw away from the mission boundary in the dry riverbed of the Finke from where the chanting must have been occasionally audible at the mission precinct. In 1896, for example, he came upon an emu ceremony.74 Years later, he wrote that ‘Aranda and Loritja today still regularly hold the cult rituals according to the instruction of their altjirangamitjina’ (Strehlow 1910: 1) around Hermannsburg (Albrecht 2002: 347). Today, Western Aranda people still perform initiation ceremonies during the hot months of the year.

Strehlow’s great advantage over the English researchers was his intricate knowledge of the Aranda and Loritja languages (including the secret-sacred language registers) as well as Diyari and his long residency at Hermannsburg. This enabled him to collect myths and songs in vernacular. He took the exact dictations from his Aboriginal informants and discovered that they were well aware of the meaning of their myths and songs. In contrast, Spencer and Gillen (1904: xiv) had contended that they were not understood by their performers. Strehlow remarked after he had recorded hundreds of verses that they had meaning and were understood, in particular by the old men, the ‘knaribata’.75 He wrote:

The old Tjurunga-songs, I have already collected over 300, provide the desired clues on their religious views. I will try to make a literal translation of them in German and in footnotes I will indicate as far as I can when the meaning of words deviate from current language use. In some of the songs there are words from other dialects, which the blacks are not quite sure about. Thus, I cannot guarantee their correctness. While the meaning of most words are completely clear, it is sometimes the translation that is very difficult, as the natives think and express themselves very differently to a European.76

Carl Strehlow’s informants dictated and sang word for word their myths and songs in Aranda and Loritja prose and verse to him in countless sessions. They described and explained to him the choreography and meaning of the sacred ceremonies, and the material culture used on these occasions in their own languages and words. Von Leonhardi emphasised that it was a very wearing methodological process ‘not only on Strehlow’s part, but also on the part of the blacks’ (von Leonhardi in Strehlow 1910: iii). Thus, Carl recorded the descriptions, explanations and interpretations of Aranda and Loritja people of their own cosmology. It was not an eyewitness description of a monolingual English observer who saw ‘naked, howling savages’ who were ‘chanting songs of which they do not know the meaning’ (Spencer and Gillen 1899: xiv). Carl Strehlow’s method, transcribing over years in indigenous languages the reports of the actual performers of the events, stood in contrast to eyewitness reports of people who did not understand the languages of the performers and observed for only a few weeks.77

Róheim made in his article ‘The Psycho-Analysis of Primitive Cultural Types’ (1932: 19–20) a comparative assessment of Spencer and Gillen’s ethnographic methodology with that of Carl Strehlow. He called Spencer a ‘behaviourist’ and said that Strehlow Senior had a ‘lifeless study-method’, because he refused to attend ceremonial activity. Strehlow Junior appears to have been on Róheim’s side on this one (Strehlow 1971: xvi). (Needless to mention that Róheim maintains that his own psychoanalytic method got it just right.) It appears, however, that despite of Strehlow Senior’s failings, e.g. not attending ceremonies, he nevertheless brought ‘life’ to ‘culture’ where Spencer and Gillen perhaps did not. The Aranda and Loritja myth and song collections were after all made from the direct dictations of their owners.

Problems in the field

Strehlow’s ethnographic research was stretched over a long period of time. He often carefully revisited subjects he had already discussed a number of times with his informants so he would not be left with any doubts. Von Leonhardi, on his part, kept on asking new questions as well as posing old questions over and over again, to find further details and push Strehlow to delve ever deeper into the Aranda’s world. The questions on the same subjects changed over time. The departure points were sometimes abandoned, as they had to adjust to the results that the field yielded. Observations raised new questions and he was constantly reminded to pay great attention to what elements were ‘original’ and what elements imported. In 1904 his editor had written:

I assume that these beliefs, just like amongst other peoples, are determined by very uncertain or even contradictory ideas; often a more recent concept has covered an older one, without completely replacing the older one. This generates a great confusion of ideas which, however, does not disturb the peoples themselves in the slightest. Local variations may also play a role.78

Carl discovered that there were ‘newer’ views and mythological features woven into the fabrics of myth complexes as well as variations of myths.79 He even observed that Christian beliefs seemed to have influenced some Aranda beliefs and concepts;80 Christian teachings of his predecessors had after only 15 years made an impact.81 In some instances he had to make detailed and persistent inquiries and argued with his indigenous informants trying to convince them that Christian beliefs had made their way into their cosmology:

I read in Kempe that God created humanity by dropping a Tju.-Stone on earth during a visit which some Christians who grew up on the station confirmed. This is definitely a skewing of biblical82 and heathen beliefs; for this reason I retreat from this view. In the meantime, after consulting heathens, who have grown up in heathenism and have been in influential positions (one of them is a famous Zauber-Doctor),83 I had to concede that Kempe’s view is wrong.84

Another problem Strehlow faced was that he suspected that his informants deliberately made their cosmology appear Christian to appease him and his missionary zeal. He wrote:

Here it means to check and recheck. Towards a missionary the blacks like to show themselves in a better light and thus give their myths a Christian tinge. In this regard missionary Kempe was not careful enough; I thought initially, that I was able to follow his lead on Altjira, as some of the Christian blacks had confirmed, that Altjira had created everything, even the totems. However, on further investigation with some heathens and Christians who have not absorbed Christianity completely, I found a lot different. A researcher can simply not develop his own view and then ask a black: is it like this. … The right question is: What did the old people say about this story?85

He was cautious about what he collected, often remarking, that he was unsure and needed more time for further investigation, or that he did not want to push an issue as he may not receive the right answer and ‘they would agree with my view’.86 For example, he wrote about his efforts to get to the bottom of the high god concept in Aranda and Loritja belief:

In order to clarify this issue I have put some precise questions to the old men of both tribes. They emphatically assure me that they themselves believe in the existence of the Highest Being and that they teach the young men the concepts related to it as truth. They maintained this assertion even though I told them that I would rather correct an error in order to learn the truth than to write down something that was false. (Strehlow 1908: 2)

What kind of impression did it make on his informants, who appear in his genealogies with their ‘totem affiliation’, when he was trying to explain to them that Christian teaching had affected their cosmological beliefs? He may have compromised his mission and the conversion of the indigenous people at Hermannsburg with his intense study of their cultures. According to his own accounts, his overall success rate of Christianisation was modest.87 He had only baptised 46 adults by 1920.88 He seems to have spent as much time talking with senior Aranda men about their own beliefs as he was about the gospel. The recording of the myth, song and language data was extremely time consuming, as were the interlinear and free translations and annotations,89 and required long consultations and discussions on semantics. Through his thorough studies of indigenous cultures he developed a deep appreciation of their human achievements. Many missionaries who had been sent around the globe developed a relativistic worldview (Veit 1991: 129–130), including the Protestant pastor and missionary Maurice Leenhardt (1878–1954) who became the chair after Lucien Lévy-Bruhl at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Clifford 1980).90 Jesuits, for instance, sometimes refused to translate their Christian materials back into the original languages, as too many unpredictable surprises could have emerged (Foertsch 2001: 93–94). Carl Strehlow’s behaviour must have appeared to the very least ambiguous to his informants.

The Aranda’s pepa

So what was the motivation of the senior Aboriginal men to go to so much trouble and effort to tell Strehlow their stories in such detail and to spend countless hours teaching and explaining to him their myths, songs and ceremonies? It has been suggested that it may have been a religious exchange (Gent 2001: 463; John Strehlow 2011) and the men felt that they had to preserve this knowledge for the future because there were no young worthy men to give it to (T.G.H. Strehlow 1971; Völker 2001). Although these reasons may have been part of their motivation, none of these seem forceful enough to have facilitated this extraordinary transmission of indigenous knowledge to a single non-Aboriginal person. It is, for example, nearly impossible to imagine what Loatjira’s motivation could possibly have been to tell Carl Strehlow, who, as an inkata (ceremonial chief), had taken his dreaming place Ntaria over.

While this transmission was linked to exchange there was another crucial factor that made it possible. Austin-Broos (2003b) makes an important observation which may explain why the senior men worked so hard with Carl Strehlow. She discusses ‘pepa’, a new Aranda word, used for everything connected to Christian belief and which assumed a related meaning to tjurunga:

This rendering of God’s law as a form of Western Arrernte [Aranda] law was known as pepe [pepa], the Arrernte word for “paper” and one that is deployed with a range of references similar to the Arrernte term tywerrenge, used for the sacred boards or stones that carry men’s ritual designs. Just as the latter refers not simply to the boards or stones but all paraphernalia and practices involved in Western Arrernte rite, so pepe refers to the bible but also to the Lutheran liturgy generally – to all the books, buildings, calls to prayer and services that are part of Lutheran practice. This similar naming of different laws is indicative of the way in which the Arrernte became Christian by rendering Christianity in an Arrernte way. (Austin-Broos 2003b: 312)

It seems that Carl Strehlow’s senior informants ‘hoped that this form of inscription might be more enduring than their revered tywerrenge [tjurunga], which were abused by settlers and some of their own, and then de-legitimised by missionaries’ (Austin Broos 2003b: 314) and were making a new type of tjurunga called pepa with him. By transferring their cosmology into this new medium, which the bible used, they may have hoped to give their own beliefs new power. Aranda people were literate in their own language by the 1890s. They wrote letters, postcards and short essays. Literacy took hold at Hermannsburg and its people had an understanding what the medium of the written word could achieve (Kral 2000).91 They laboured with the missionaries over the translation of biblical myth and must have been at least to some degree aware of the power of codification.

A remarkable incident occurred in the 1890s that may have demonstrated the power of ‘pepa’ in the Lake Eyre region and is likely to have been known at Hermannsburg, because a fair amount of traffic occurred between the two Lutheran inland missions. Pastor Reuther had barged into a meeting and started to argue in Diyari with an Aboriginal man who finally asked him if he was armed. Reuther had kept one arm in his pocket and slowly withdrew his hand and produced not a firearm, but a pocket bible. With the suspense of the situation he managed to sit everyone down in front of him and read a text from the bible (Stevens 1994: 125).

While the use of the new word ‘pepa’ was probably at the beginning of the century metaphorical – its semantic connotations and syntactical use fluid – in the course of the twentieth century its meaning seems to have solidified, relating to Christian ‘tjurunga’. Nevertheless, the agency of the Aranda in the making of this masterpiece should not be underestimated.

Towards refined diffusionism

Carl Strehlow’s Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien is practically devoid of theory. This is mainly due to von Leonhardi’s constant probing and scepticism. He had never ceased to emphasise to Strehlow the need to avoid preconceived ideas, to ignore theories and to describe as faithfully as possible the old men’s information. This did not stop them, however, from privately discussing theoretical approaches to their new data that they largely managed to keep out of the publication itself.

Strehlow’s myth collection seemed to be a perfect case study to test diffusion and borrowing of myth elements and language, because some of his material related to the territorial and linguistic boundary area of the Aranda and Loritja peoples. His work detailed differences (i.e. language affiliation) as well as communalities in spiritual beliefs and social structure between these cultures. Von Leonhardi was very keen to establish links or their lack thereof between them, based on language and myth comparison,92 which seemed to show evidence of small-scale diffusion.

Von Leonhardi’s approach to diffusionism was a combination of Boasian ‘refined diffusionism’ and Graebner’s Kuturkreislehre, a theory on general large-scale diffusion across continents. He was testing with this Boasian small-scale approach Greabner’s desk-top theory and suggested diffusion and the incorporation of borrowed elements into local myths. His approach indicates that he is likely to have read Boas in American Anthropologist and other journals he subscribed to. In a footnote, for example, he made a comment on particular elements of the Loritja myth ‘The rainman and the rainbow’:

Many motives … of this very strange myth remind of the Jonas-myth, which is dispersed over the whole world. This wandering tale (Wandermärchen) is also known in Melanesia, Polynesia, on the islands of the Torres Straits and has been recorded in North Queensland by W.E. Roth in a particular variation. L. Frobenius (Zeitalter des Sonnengottes 1 pag. 16) claims to see this myth also in New South Wales and Tasmania, which seems to me rather doubtful. In this case, if one wants to admit a connection at all, one has to assume that this wandering myth has fused with a genuinely Central Australian rain totem myth and the view of the dangerous water-snake, which is distributed Australia-wide. (Strehlow 1908: 10)

Although his analysis was carefully formulated and tentative, von Leonhardi seemed to consider this myth to be the result of diffusion and borrowing in a Boasian vain. At the same time he may also have been playing with a Frazerian approach to myth, and hinting at a universal, human mythical theme or even independent invention. Strehlow’s editor had a tendency to test all theories and methods of interpretation on the material he had available.

Language was also understood to give clues about cultural change and history. Like Pater W. Schmidt, who wrote extensively about Oceanic and Australian languages to bolster his version of diffusionism (Kulturkreislehre), von Leonhardi was interested in linguistics. The comparison of vocabulary, he speculated, would possibly indicate from where the central Australian Aboriginal peoples had come from:

Thank you for completing the word-glossary. I expected a greater correlation between Loritja and Dieri. Thus, Loritja belongs to the Western Australian languages. The isolation of the Aranda vocabulary [and surely also their grammar] – or more precisely – their isolation in regard to other Australian languages and link to the northern tribes and possibly to New Guinea languages and cultures, which we assumed, shows up quite clearly.93

To be able to make further supporting statements on this issue he needed further empirical evidence. He asked Strehlow for additional Loritja texts so they could be compared with the Aranda texts, because ‘It would be of great importance to establish if the Loritja and Aranda languages are distinct in structure and vocabulary’.94 Von Leonhardi wanted to know if there were any correlations between the language and culture of the Centre and the South Coast of Australia. He understood some of the linguistic material as possible proof or evidence that the Aranda had come from the north (New Guinea) and that the Loritja seemed to belong to an earlier cultural layer of people from the south due to their affiliation to Western Desert languages. This approach was reminiscent of an early view held by Boas in 1888:

The analysis of dialect enables us to follow the history of words and of concepts through long periods of time and over distant areas. The introduction of new inventions and migration into distant countries are often indicated by the appearance of new words the origins of which may be ascertained. (Boas 1940: 631)

As Boas developed his understanding of cultures, he limited this possibility to small-scale diffusion, because diffusion could only be empirically observed in small areas, which were not necessarily applicable to other areas where the same phenomenon appeared but caused by other events. Although it seemed to von Leonhardi that Strehlow’s material showed a certain degree of diffusion and exchange of cultural elements between two distinct groups, he remained sceptical because he believed that ‘analogies deceive only too often’.95

Von Leonhardi further speculated that very ancient elements of culture may have been preserved on the southern coasts of Australia where apparently no boomerangs, shields, marriage classes and no real totemism existed and it ‘would be the very oldest population of Australia, probably the Tasmanian one, which may have been pushed by migration waves with a slightly higher culture and differing language to the south and south east and possibly to the south west coast where they seem to have survived’. However, he concluded, ‘this is all still very problematic’.96

Along with evolutionism, diffusionism would be abandoned and never became an unquestioned paradigm. Diffusionism had been used to critique evolutionism but was soon supplanted by functionalism (Swain 1985: 101–105). It had not been possible to define individual culture circles precisely. Particularities and language border areas made it impossible to make conclusive judgements on the cultural and linguistic make-up or denominators of a ‘culture’ area. In the border area of Kukatja-Loritja and Aranda, for instance, the Kukatja belong linguistically to the Western Desert peoples, but their traditional laws and customs in relation to their land tenure system, connects them clearly to their Arandic neighbours to their east. T.G.H. Strehlow (1965: 143; 1970: 99–100, 109–110) wrote some years later that although these groups spoke different languages, due to communalities in their religious beliefs and close kin ties, they shared ‘a local group system’. He wrote that the Kukatja, often called Western Loritja by his father, were not a typical Western Desert group and that the cultural boundary occurred further to the west, where the landscape became more arid, and, thus the land tenure model fluid.

The exact description of language and transcription of original indigenous text had various uses. It was believed to give insight into peoples’ worldviews and their true spirits, and possible clues to the history of migration. Indeed, the collection of indigenous literature was one of von Leonhardi’s earliest requests from his Australian colleague,97 and without doubt the linguistic publication, a comparative grammar and dictionary of Aranda and Loritja would have followed had it not been for von Leonhardi’s premature death.

Von Leonhardi’s health was failing by the end of 1909, when he wrote his last letters to Strehlow in central Australia. He was desperately working on the third and fourth volume of ‘our publication of your manuscripts’ as well as on the remaining parts on the social life of the Aranda and Loritja. Although sometimes unable to work, he still wrote to Strehlow and sent lists of questions, because Carl Strehlow was about to leave Hermannsburg with his family to visit Germany and it was not clear if he would return. Von Leonhardi not only asked for clarification of some issues in the manuscript, he also sent a long wish list of objects, tools, animals and plants. One desperate question, demand and request after the other poured out of the ailing scholar. Thus, in the last few months of 1909 Carl Strehlow was working frantically on the conclusion of his oeuvre. After five years of intensive research he finished his ethnographic inquiries on the 24 November 1909 and copied the last pages for von Leonhardi on the 16 February 1910.98

On the 11 December 1909 von Leonhardi sent his last Christmas and New Year’s wishes. In it he thanked Carl Strehlow for the continuation of the manuscript and expressed his delight that six additional Loritja myths had been recorded. It is the last letter to Strehlow in Australia, who was due to leave Hermannsburg mid 1910 to visit his homeland. In his luggage to Germany Strehlow took many of the requested items with him including an emu egg and a kangaroo skin which were going to be his personal presents for von Leonhardi.99

However, just before Carl Strehlow was to visit Gross Karben his editor’s health gave way. Baron Moritz von Leonhardi died from a stroke late in October 1910, only days before Carl Strehlow was to visit him, a meeting he had for years been hoping for. They never met.


1 Other classics of this era were also collaborations (Jones 2005: 6-25; Nobbs 2005: 26-45).

2 F.C.H. Sarg to Carl Strehlow, 20.9.1912.

3 Carl Strehlow’s letter had been written on the 8 January 1901.

4 Von Leonhardi’s order.

5 Report on the work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia Vol. IV (1896); Spencer and Gillen’s The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899).

6 Kempe (1883: 53).

7 Kempe was one of the missionaries who established Hermannsburg in 1877. He wrote in 1883 Zur Sittenkunde der Centralaustralischen Schwarzen and in 1891 A grammar and vocabulary of the languagespoken by the Aborigines of the MacDonnell Ranges.

8 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 10.9.1901.

9 Spirit being documented by Gillen (1896: 183).

10 Spirit being documented by Spencer and Gillen (1899: 264, 654).

11 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 10.9.1901.

12 Rowan Private Collection (Melbourne), W.B. Spencer Papers (Melbourne Museum) and E.B. Tylor Papers (Pitt Rivers Museum).

13 Excerpts of Carl Strehlow letter to von Leonhardi, 20.12.1901 (Rowan collection). Spencer the recipient.

14 See Chapter V.

15 Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 2.6.1906 (SH-SP-2-1).

16 See also Lawrence (1987: 18–34) on Tylor and Frazer.

17 A. Lang to E.B. Tylor, 19.10.1903 in E.B. Tylor Papers, Box 6 (2), Pitt River Museum.

18 A. Lang to E.B. Tylor, 28.10.1903 in E.B. Tylor Papers, Box 6 (2), Pitt River Museum.

19 A. Lang to E.B. Tylor, 2.11.1903 in E.B. Tylor Papers, Box 6 (2), Pitt River Museum.

20 A. Lang to E.B. Tylor, 19.10.1903 in E.B. Tylor Papers, Box 6 (2), Pitt River Museum.

21 Excerpts of C. Strehlow’s first letter with von Leonhardi comments, Rowan Private Collection (Melbourne).

22 Report on the work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia Vol. IV (1896).

23 A. Lang to E.B. Tylor, 13.1.1904 in E.B. Tylor’s Collection, Box 6 (2), Pitt River Museum. Transcription held at the SRC.

24 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 23.10.1907 (SH-SP-14-1).

25 Frazer had not been able to abstain completely from Carl Strehlow’s work, he uses it in his fourth volume of Totemism and Exogamy (1910: 59) in a footnote. He also relied heavily on information of missionary Christian Keysser, Carl Strehlow’s brother-in-law, in his The Belief in Immortality. He wrote in his section on New Guinea: ‘Mr. Ch. Keysser, who has laboured among them for more than eleven years and has given us an excellent description of their customs and beliefs’ (Frazer 1913: 262).

26 F.C.H. Sarg to Carl Strehlow, 20.9.1912.

27 Kaytetye is an Arandic language spoken to the north of Alice Springs.

28 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

29 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

30 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 10.4.1907.

31 Reuther maintained that among the Diyari the ancestral beings, called muramura, played a prominent role in cosmology and not Mura (the high being).

32 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 19.9.1906 (SH-SP-3-1).

33 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 2.6.1906 (SH-SP-2-1).

34 See also Spencer and Gillen (1899: 388–390). This being appears later as Ungambikula (Spencer and Gillen 1927).

35 In this light it is not at all a mystery that Frazer ignored Strehlow. He could not have missed that the German’s work was outstanding, himself being a classicist and knowing a number of languages including German.

36 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

37 Carl Strehlow to Kaibel, 30.8.1904 (LAA).

38 Excerpts of this letter were published in Globus in 1907.

39 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

40 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 23.4.1907.

41 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

42 See Applegate (1990) for an extensive treatment of the concept Heimat.

43 This is not to say that types of ‘theory’ involving evolution or world-wide diffusionism has generated no useful ‘middle-range’ theories in modern anthropology.

44 Most questionnaires are missing (Strehlow inserted the answers and sent them back); they are believed to have been lost in World War II.

45 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 7.8.1906.

46 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, n.d. possibly 6.4.1907 (SH-SP-11-1, SH-SP-12-1).

47 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 26.11.1906.

48 See von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 5.9.1907; Strehlow (1908: 77); Kenny (2004a).

49 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 23.10.1907 (SH-SP-14-1). Carl Strehlow’s data on ltana and guruna deviates from contemporary perceptions of these concepts (see Kenny 2004a,b).

50 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 26.11.1906.

51 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, possibly 6.4.1907 (SH-SP-11-1). ‘the second I’ is the spirit-double of a person, called by Carl Strehlow ‘iningukua’ and by his son, ‘atua naltja’.

52 Possibly he meant ‘iningukua’.

53 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 10.4.1907.

54 See Chapter VI.

55 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 5.9.1907; Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi (SH-SP-12-1, SH-SP-13-1, SH-SP-14-1).

56 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 26.2.1909.

57 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 26.2.1909.

58 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, probably 8.4.1906 (SH-SP-1-1).

59 References to these works can be found in Carl Strehlow’s letters, von Leonhardi’s letters and footnotes in Strehlow’s handwritten manuscripts.

60 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

61 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 9.9.1905.

62 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 16.11.1909.

63 Inkura in Carl Strehlow’s work and Engwura in Spencer and Gillen.

64 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 7.8.1906.

65 His youngest son’s Songs of Central Australia, in contrast, became impregnated with references to European mythologies. This is likely to have been an influence of his father’s instructions in his childhood and later reading of his father’s work as well as his literary background. Maybe it was also a reflection of how he, his father and the German tradition valued other cultures, like their own.

66 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 18.8.1909; von Leonhardi (Strehlow 1910: v-ix).

67 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 26.2.1909.

68 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 24.9.1908.

69 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 24.9.1908.

70 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 24.9.1908.

71 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 7.8.1906.

72 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 24.9.1908.

73 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 26.2.1909. Von Leonhardi’s comment is not accurate. Although large-scale ceremonies that lasted some months were rare, they did occur. T.G.H. Strehlow (1970: 102) remarked that while each group had to stage at some point the complete ceremonial cycle, these were rare occasions.

74 Carl Strehlow to Kaibel, 10.7.1896 (LAA).

75 Carl Strehlow to N.W. Thomas, mid to end of 1906 (SH-SP-6-1).

76 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 2.6.1906 (SH-SP-2-1).

77 His son, T.G.H. Strehlow, as well as other researchers critiqued his approach. T.G.H. Strehlow had decades later the advantage of hindsight, and was able to combine knowledge of language and eyewitness report in his work.

78 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 28.8.1904.

79 Carl Strehlow to N.W. Thomas, 1906 (SH-SP-6-1).

80 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, possibly 8.4.1906 (SH-SP-1-1).

81 Carl Strehlow to L. Kaibel, 30.8.1904 (Lutheran Archives, Adelaide).

82 Although the word is not quite readable, the context makes clear that it is ‘biblical’.

83 This was almost certainly Loatjira.

84 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, possibly 8.4.1906 (SH-SP-1-1).

85 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 2.6.1906 (SH-SP-2-1).

86 Carl Strehlow to von Leonhardi, 23.10.1907 (SH-SP-14-1). See also SH-SP-2-1.

87 It is interesting to note that during a survey Carl Strehlow compiled for the census authorities in 1921 from the grand total of 176 Aboriginal adults at Hermannsburg, 66 were labelled as ‘Lutherans’, the rest clinging to their own religion. From these 29 were men and 37 women (Strehlow’s Handbook of Central Australian Genealogies 1969-70: 119-150). It would be his successor Albrecht who would have a breakthrough.

88 Kirchen und Missionszeitung, 9.1.1920.

89 Carl Strehlow, Hermannsburg, 19.9.1906 (SH-SP-3-1).

90 Maurice Leenhardt had studied for decades myth, kin and language on New Caledonia, similar to Carl in Australia. Leenhardt became a relativist by the end of his ethnographic studies. His career ended very differently to Strehlow’s; he became a professor at a secular institution.

91 See Kral (2000) generally on Arrernte literacy between 1879 and the present.

92 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 12.2.1909.

93 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 12.2.1909.

94 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 3.4.1909.

95 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 15.12.1907.

96 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 12.2.1909.

97 Von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow, 9.9.1905.

98 Strehlow’s handwritten manuscript has 1224 pages. By December 1909 von Leonhardi had 1104 pages. It is not clear if in the course of 1910 he received the remaining 120 pages on sign language. Von Leonhardi mentions in May 1910, that he had received all material for volumes five and six on Aranda and Loritja social life and material culture (Strehlow 1910: xvii).

99 From a letter by Auguste or Hugo von Leonhardi to Carl Strehlow we know that Carl gave these items to his siblings (Letter 1910 by Auguste or Hugo von Leonhardi.) Moritz did not marry or have any descendants (Peter von Leonhardi, grandson of Hugo von Leonhardi, Moritz’s brother, pers. comm., 6.5.2004).


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