CHAPTER V. PIACULAR RITES AND TIIE AMBIGUITY OF THE NOTION OF SACREDNESS

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HOWSOEVER much they may differ from one another in the nature of the gestures they imply, the positive rites which we have been passing under review have one common characteristic : they are all performed in a state of confidence, joy and even enthusiasm. Though the expectation of a future and contingent event is not without a certain uncertainty, still it is normal that the rain fall when the season for it comes, and that the animal and vegetable species reproduce regularly. Oft-repeated experiences have shown that the rites generally do produce the effects which are expected of them and which are the reason for their existence. Men celebrate them with confidence, joyfully anticipating the happy event which they prepare and announce. Whatever movements men perform participate in this same state of mind : of course, they arc marked with the gravity which a religious solemnity always supposes, but this gravity excludes neither animation nor joy.

These are all joyful feasts. But there are sad celebrations as well, whose object is either to meet a calamity, or else merely to commemorate and deplore it. These rites have a special aspect, which we are going to attempt to characterize and explain. It is the more necessary to study them by themselves since they are going to reveal a new aspect of the religious life to us.

We propose to call the ceremonies of this sort piacular. The term piaculum has the advantage that while it suggests the idea of expiation, "it also has a much more extended signification. Every misfortune, everything of evil omen, everything that inspires sentiments of sorrow or fear necessitates a piaculum and is therefore called piacular.1 So this word seems to be very well adapted for designating the rites which are celebrated by those in a state of uneasiness or sadness.

Mourning offers us a first and important example of piacular rites.

However, a distinction is necessary between the different rites which go to make up mourning. Some consist in mere abstentions:

k is forbidden to pronounce the name of the dead,1 or to remain near the place where the death occurred;2 relatives, especially the female ones, must abstain from all communication with strangers;3 the ordinary occupations of life are suspended, just as in feast-time,4 etc. All these practices belong to the negative cult and are explained like the other rites of the same sort, so they do not concern us at present. They are due to the fact that the dead man is a sacred being. Consequently, everything which is or has been connected with him is, by contagion, in a religious state excluding all contact with things from profane life.

But mourning is not made up entirely of interdicts which have to be observed. Positive acts are also demanded, in which the relatives are both the actors and those acted upon.

Very frequently these rites commence as soon as the death appears imminent. Here is a scene which Spencer and Gillen witnessed among the Warramunga. A totemic ceremony had just been celebrated and the company of actors and spectators was leaving the consecrated ground when a piercing cry suddenly came from the camp : a man was dying there. At once, the whole company commenced to run as fast as they could, while most of them commenced to howl. " Between us and the camp," say these observers, " lay a deep creek, and on the bank of this, some of the men, scattered about here and there, sat down, bending their heads forwards between their knees, while they wept and moaned. Crossing the creek we found that, as usual, the men's camp had been pulled to pieces. Some of the women, who had come from every direction, were lying prostrate on the body, while others were standing or kneeling around, digging the sharp ends of yam-sticks into the crown of their heads, from which the blood streamed down over their faces, while all the time they kept up a loud, continuous wail. Many of the men, rushing up to the spot, threw themselves upon the body, from which the women arose when the men approached, until in a few minutes we could see nothing but a struggling mass of bodies all mixed up together. To one side, three men of the Thapungarti class, who still wore their ceremonial decorations, sat down wailing loudly, with their backs towards the dying man, and in

a minute or two another man of the same class rushed on to the ground yelling and brandishing a stone knife. Reaching the camp, he suddenly gashed both thighs deeply, cutting right across the muscles, and, unable to stand, fell down into the middle of the group, from which he was dragged out after a time by three or four female relatives, who immediately applied their mouths to the gaping wounds while he lay exhausted on the ground." The man did not actually die until late in the evening. As soon as he had given up his last breath,, the same scene was re-enacted, only this time the wailing was still louder, and men and women, seized by a veritable frenzy, were rushing about cutting them­selves with knives and sharp-pointed sticks, the women battering one another's heads with fighting clubs, no one attempting to ward off either cuts or blows. Finally, after about an hour, a torchlight procession started off across the plain, to a tree in whose branches the body was left.1

Howsoever great the violence of these manifestations may be, they are strictly regulated by etiquette. The individuals who make bloody incisions in themselves are designated by usage : they must have certain relations of kinship with the dead man. Thus, in the case observed by Spencer and Gillen among the Warramunga, those who slashed their thighs were the maternal grandfather of the deceased, his maternal uncle, and the maternal uncle and brother of his wife.2 Others must cut their whiskers and hair, and then smear their scalps with pipe-clay. Women have particularly severe obligations. They must cut their hair and cover the whole body with pipe-clay ; in addition to this, a strict silence is imposed upon them during the whole period of mourning, which may last as long as two years. It is not rare among the Warramunga that, as a result of this interdiction, all the women of a camp are condemned to the most absolute silence. This becomes so habitual to them that even after the expiration of the period of mourning, they voluntarily renounce all spoken language and prefer to communicate with gestures—in which, by the way, they acquire a remarkable ability. Spencer and Gillen knew one old woman who had not spoken for over twenty-four years.3

The ceremony which we have described opens a long series of rites which succeed one another for weeks and even for months. During the days which follow, they are renewed in various forms. Groups of men and women sit on the ground, weeping and lamenting, and kissing each other at certain moments. These ritual kissings are repeated frequently during the period of mourning. It seems as though men felt a need of coming close together and communicating most closely ; they are to be seen holding to each other and wound together so much as to make one single mass, from which loud groans escape.1 Meanwhile, the women commence to lacerate their heads again, and, in order to intensify the wounds they make, they even go so far as to burn them with the points of fiery sticks.2

Practices of this sort are general in all Australia. The funeral rites, that is, the ritual cares given to the corpse, the way in which it is buried, etc., change with different tribes,3 and in a single tribe they vary with the age, sex and social importance of the individual.4 But the real ceremonies of mourning repeat the same theme everywhere ; the variations are only in the details. Everywhere we find this same silence interrupted by groans,5 the same obligation of cutting the hair and beard,6 or of covering one's head with pipe-clay or cinders, or perhaps even with excre­ments;7 everywhere, finally, we find this same frenzy for beating one's self, lacerating one's self and burning one's self. In central Victoria," when death visits a tribe there is great weeping and lamentation amongst the women, the elder portion of whom lacerate their temples with their nails. The parents of the deceased lacerate themselves fearfully, especially if it be an only son whose loss they deplore. The father beats and cuts his head with a tomahawk until he utters bitter groans, the mother sits by the fire and burns her breasts and abdomen with a small fire-stick. Sometimes the burns thus inflicted are so severe as to cause death."8

According to an account of Brough Smyth, here is what happens in one of the southern tribes of the same state. As the body is lowered into the grave, " the widow begins her sad cere­monies. She cuts off her hair above her forehead, and becoming frantic, seizes fire-sticks, and burns her breasts, arms, legs and thighs. She seems to delight in the self-inflicted torture. It would be rash and vain to interrupt her. When exhausted, and when she can hardly walk, she yet endeavours to kick the embers of the fire, and to throw them about. Sitting down, she takes the ashes into her hands, rubs them into her wounds, and then scratches her face (the only part not touched by the fire-sticks) until the blood mingles with the ashes, which -partly hide her cruel wounds. In this plight, scratching her face continually, she utters howls and lamentations."1

The description which Howitt gives of the rites of mourning among the Kurnai is remarkably similar to these others. After the body has been wrapped up in opossum skins and put in a shroud of bark, a hut is built in which the relatives assemble.  " There they lay lamenting their loss, saying, for instance, ' "Why did you leave us ? ' Now and then their grief would be intensified by some one, for instance, the wife, uttering an ear-piercing wail, ' My spouse is dead,' or another would say, ' My child is dead.' All the others would then join in with the proper term of relationship, and they would gash themselves with sharp stones and tomahawks until their heads and bodies streamed with blood. This bitter wailing and weeping continued all night."2

Sadness is not the only sentiment expressed during these ceremonies ; a sort of anger is generally mixed with it. The relatives feel a need of avenging the death in some way or other. They are to be seen throwing themselves upon one another and trying to wound each other. Sometimes the attack is real; sometimes it is only pretended.3 There are even cases when these peculiar combats are organized. Among the Kaitish, the hair of the deceased passes by right to his son-in-law. But he, in return, must go, in company with some of his relatives and friends, and provoke a quarrel with one of his tribal brothers, that is, with a man belonging to the same matrimonial class as himself and one who might therefore have married the daughter of the dead man. This provocation cannot be refused and the two combatants inflict serious wounds upon each other's

shoulders and thighs. When the duel is terminated, the chal­lenger passes on to his adversary the hair which he had tem­porarily inherited. This latter then provokes and fights with another of his tribal brothers, to whom the precious relic is next transmitted, but only provisionally ; thus it passes from hand to hand and circulates from group to group.1 Also, something of these same sentiments enters into that sort of rage with which each relative beats himself, burns himself or slashes himself: a sorrow which reaches such a paroxysm is not without a certain amount of anger. One cannot fail to be struck by the resemblances which these practices present to those of the vendetta. Both proceed from the same principle that death demands the shedding of blood. The only difference is that in one case the victims are the relatives, while in the other they are strangers. We do not have to treat especially of the vendetta, which belongs rather to the study of juridic institutions; but it should be pointed out, nevertheless, how it is connected with the rites of mourning, whose end it announces.2

In certain societies, the mourning is terminated by a ceremony whose effervescence reaches or surpasses that produced by the inaugural ceremonies. Among the Arunta, this closing rite is called Urpmilchima. Spencer and Gillen assisted at two of these rites. One was celebrated in honour of a man, the other of a woman. Here is the description they give of the latter.3

They commence by making some ornaments of a special sort, called Chimurilia by the men and Aramurilia by the women. With a kind of resin, they fixed small animal bones, which had previously been gathered and set aside, to locks of hair furnished by the relatives of the dead woman. These are then attached to one of the head-bands which women ordinarily wear and the feathers of black cockatoos and parrots are added to it. When these preparations are completed, the women assemble in their camp. They paint their bodies different colours, according to their degree of kinship with the deceased. After being embraced by one another for some ten minutes, while uttering uninterrupted groans, they set out for the tomb. At a certain distance, they meet a brother by blood of the dead woman, who is accompanied by some of his tribal brothers. Everybody sits down on the ground, and the lamentations recommence. A pitchi4 containing the Chimurilia is then presented to the elder brother, who presses it against his stomach ; they say that this is a way of lessening his sorrow. They take out one of the Chimurilia and the dead

woman's mother puts it on her head for a little while ; then it is put back into the pitchi, which each of the other men presses against his breast, in his turn. Finally, the brother puts the Chimurilia on the heads of two elder sisters and they set out again for the tomb. On the way, the mother throws herself on the ground several times, and tries to slash her head with a pointed stick. Every time, the other women pick her up, and seem to take care that she does not hurt herself too much. When they arrive at the tomb, she throws herself on the knoll and endeavours to destroy it with her hands, while the other women literally dance upon her. The tribal mothers and aunts (sisters of the dead woman's father) follow her example; they also throw themselves on the ground, and mutually beat and tear each other ; finally their bodies are all streaming with blood. After a while, they are dragged aside. The elder sisters then make a hole in the earth of the tomb, in which they place the Chimurilia, which had previously been torn to pieces. Once again the tribal mothers throw themselves on the ground and slash each other's heads. At this moment, " the weeping and wailing of the women who were standing round seemed to drive them almost frenzied, and the blood, streaming down their bodies over the white pipe­clay, gave them a ghastly appearance. At last only the old mother was left crouching alone, utterly exhausted and moaning weakly on the grave.  Then the others raised her up and rubbed off the pipe-clay with which she was covered ; this was the end of the ceremony and of the mourning.1

Among the Warramunga, the final rite presents some rather particular characteristics. There seems to be no shedding of blood here, but the collective effervescence is translated in another manner.

Among his people, before the body is definitely interred, it is exposed upon a platform placed in the branches of a tree ; it is left there to decompose slowly, until nothing remains but the bones. Then these are gathered together and, with the exception of the humerus, they are placed inside an ant-hill. The humerus is wrapped up in a bark box, which is decorated in different manners. The box is then brought to camp, amid the cries and groans of the women. During the following days, they celebrate a series of totemic rites, concerning the totem of the deceased and the mythical history of the ancestors from whom the clan is descended. When all these ceremonies have been terminated, they proceed to the closing rite.

A trench one foot deep and fifteen feet long is dug in the field of the ceremony. A design representing the totem of the deceased and certain spots where the ancestor stopped is made on the ground a little distance from it. Near this design, a little ditch is dug in the ground. Ten decorated men then advance, one behind another, and with their hands crossed behind their heads and their legs wide apart they stand astraddle the trench. At a given signal, the women run from the camp in a profound silence ; when they are near, they form in Indian file, the last one holding in her hands the box containing the humerus. Then, after throwing th&mselves on the ground, they advance on their hands and knees, and pass all along the trench, between the legs of the men. The scene shows a state of great sexual excitement. As soon as the last woman has passed, they take the box from her, and take it to the ditch, near which is an old man ; he breaks the bone with a sharp blow, and hurriedly buries it in the debris. During this time, the women have remained at a distance, with their backs turned upon the scene, for they must not see it. But when they hear the blow of the axe, they flee, uttering cries and groans. The rite is accomplished ; the mourning is terminated.1