Beyond "the Primitive": The Religions of Nonliterate Peoples
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), pp. 19-21.
[A necessary self-disclosure is my use of Eliade's Numbakulla account drawn from his The Sacred and the Profane without checking his sources.]
According to their [the Achilpa] stories, their world was created by a deity named Numbakula. He not only made the world; he also created the ancestors of the people and lived with them for a time in order to establish their way of life. When he had finished his work of creation, Numbakula made a pole from the trunk of a gum tree. Upon anointing the pole with blood, he climbed it and disappeared into the sky.
The Achilpa kept the pole as their most sacred possession and it stood at the center of their lives, reminding them of the ways that had been established for them by Numbakula. They used the pole to direct their nomadic movements. When they were ready to move to a new location, they consulted the pole and moved in the direction in which it leaned. It was always taken with them and carefully protected.
Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, who lived among the Achilpa for a time, described what happened once when the sacred pole was broken. The people were very disturbed and confused and seemed to wander about aimlessly for a time until finally they all lay down on the ground to await the death they thought was to come. . . .
The Achilpa, by carrying their sacred pole with them and by erecting it wherever they camp, are asserting the meaning and order revealed by the deity Numbakula upon the temporary space in which they live. It is the point from which all their activities gain orientation. It signals the basic distinctions which give them identity and by which they cohere. It is the channel through which they may continue to communicate with Numbakula, who lives in the sky. And through it Numbakula can communicate with the people, telling them, among other things, which way to travel. Even though it moves with them, the pole is the fixed point, the point of origin, the point giving meaning about which their lives are ordered. Seen in this way it is little wonder the Achilpa were so upset and even submitted to death when their sacred pole was broken. Symbolically they were cut off from their deity, from their heritage, from the order and orientation of their world. Without this center, they were symbolically in a state of chaos. Their aimless wandering and submission to death show the degree to which they found the meaning of their lives and livelihoods linked to their sacred pole. It was no ornament, no vacuous symbol, no superstition. It was the center and source of meaning in their whole way of life.