Lizards and Human Creation


Lizards and Human Creation


Texts, Stories, and Histories in Central Australia
Paperback 12/02/1998 ISBN13: 9780195115888 ISBN10: 0195115880 Storytracking is a work of theory and application. It is both a study of history and culture and the academic issues accompanying the interpretation and observation of other peoples. Sam Gill writes about Central Australia, but, more importantly, he writes about the business of trying to live responsibly and decisively in a postmodern world faced with irreconcilable diversity and complexity, with undeniable ambiguity and uncertainty.
Storytracking includes engaging accounts of many of the colorful figures involved in the nineteenth-century development of Central Australia, and it is an argument for a multiperspectival theory of history. It presents descriptions of an important aboriginal culture--the Arrernte--and it critically examines ethnography. It exposes the colonialist underbelly of all modern academic culture study, yet it embraces the situation as one of creative potential outlining an interactivist epistemology with which to negotiate the classical alternatives of objectivism and subjectivism. Gill presents an examination of the emergent academic study of religion focused on two exemplary scholars--Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Smith--offering a play theory of religion as the basis for innovative critical discussions of text, comparison, interpretation, the definition of religion, academic writing style, and the role of "the other."
Based on painstakingly detailed research, Gill exposes disturbing and confounding dimensions of the modern world, particularly academia. Yet, beyond the pessimism that often characterizes postmodernity, he charts an optimistic and creative course framed in the terms of play.

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Lizards and Human Creation

There is evidence that in Southeastern Australian accounts of creation or transformation, whether they be ancestors or human beings, those being created or transformed first appeared in an unfinished state. Róheim refers to an example in Victoria where "a number of young men in an unfinished state were sitting on the ground in darkness. Bundjil, an old man, at the request of his daughter Karakarook, held up his hand to the sun, which then warmed the earth and made it open like a door.(1) Another example Róheim presents from the Yuin culture indicates that "before there were men there were creatures somewhat like human beings but without members. Muraurai, the emu-wren, turned them into men and women by splitting their legs, separating their arms from their sides, slitting up their fingers, and otherwise perfecting them.(2) Another example given by Róheim based on his field work with people he identified as the Pindupi and Jumi at a place named Ilpila. "Pupula the lizard made the first tukutitas (ancestors). They were all ngaluru-pungata (grown together); their bodies were quite smooth and flat. Pupula gave them breasts, nose, eyes, ears, vulva, penis; he cut the fingers, put nails on, made the joints, and everything.(3)

In his 1907 work, Carl Strehlow presents an interesting variation on the story presented by Spencer and Gillen involving embryo-like beings and the fly-catching lizard as outlined above in Chapter One. In a section entitled "The Primordial Times," immediately following "Altjira" (for a full discussion of this term see Chapter Five), Strehlow describes the period in which the altjirangamitjina (or totem gods) arose and traveled about the land, Strehlow includes these undeveloped people. Some groups of them lived on the slopes of the mountain, others lived in the primordial waters that covered much of the earth. Strehlow understands these two groups of people, the land dwellers and the water dwellers, as identifying the principal moiety division. Once the waters retreated the altjirangamitjina era took place. During this era, Strehlow includes the following:

After the earth had dried up, the rella manerinja [people grown together] continued to live for quite some time in their helpless state. Their condition was not improved until a Mangarkunjerkunja, the totem god of the fly-eating lizard, came from the north. Using a stone knife (banga) he first separated the persons from each other (ltjarakaa); cut slits for the eyes (alkna ltjaraka); opened the ears (ilpa altjurilaka), the mouth (arágata) and the nose (ala altjurilaka); separated the individual fingers (iltja tjaraka) and toes (inka ltjaraka); and circumcised (intunaka) them with a stone knife (lélara).(4) He also subincised them (araltakaka). He then showed them how to rub fire (matja womma) and how to prepare their meals in future. He gave them the spear (tjatta), spearthrower (mera), shield (alkuta) and boomerang (ulbárinja), as well as a tjurunga for each of them.(5)

While studying the northern tribes in central Australia, Spencer and Gillen reported that the Unmatjera and Kaytej people had traditions similar to the inapertwa (incomplete humans) they had earlier documented for the Arrarnta. The term designating these people was inmintera, but it was crow rather than fly-catching lizards that formed the people.

They say that in the Alcheringa an old crow lived at Ungurla, a place on what is now called the Woodford River. One day he saw afar off a large number of inmintera whom he determined to go and make into men and women. Accordingly he did so separating their limbs, etc., with his bill. Having completed this part of his work he returned to his camp to get his stone knife with which to initiate them. However, while he was away, two Parenthie (large lizard) men, who came from the south, appeared upon the scene and with their teeth circumcised and subincised the men, and performed the operation of atna-ariltha-kuma upon the women, after which they returned to their home again. When the old crow had got his knife ready and was preparing to start off, he looked out and saw that the two Parenthies had been before him, so he stayed at his home at Ungurla, and a big black stone arose to mark the spot at which he died.(6)

And Spencer and Gillen include a story of lizards that refers to this transformation of half-formed human beings by crow and elaborates the role of the lizards.

Two Parenthie lizards, who were elder and younger brothers, came away from the south into the country of the Unmatjera, and finding there some men and women, whom the old crow had transformed out of Inmintera creatures, they operated upon the men, both circumcising and subincising them. When all was over they said to the men, "Do not say anything to the lubras about what has been done to you, because it is Churinga and must not be known by women, and then they will think that you arose just as you are." The men promised to do as they were told, and, looking at themselves, said that they were like the Parenthies.

The younger Parenthie then said to the elder, "Shall we leave the women incomplete and not cut them also; we have cut the men, why not cut the women too?" The elder brother did not answer, being afraid that the women might die if they cut them, but at last he decided to do so, and performed the operation of atna- ariltha-kuma upon all of them. This done, the two lizards turned back intending to go straight to their own country, but they lost their way.(7)

The lizards then continued their journey in much the fashion of most totem ancestral journeys.

Further evidence of unformed human beings can be found in what appears to be a Kaytej story about various groups of women, of the Kumara subsection and of the Namungi-yera or little bird totem, who walk across the land between Unmatjera country and Central Mount Stuart.

As they marched along they left women behind them at various spots, thus forming oknanikillas. One of them was left with the celebrated Alcheringa man named Unkurta, whom they came across during the course of their wanderings. The later took place at an early time when there were yet many inter-itera (half formed human beings), of whom they appear to have been very frightened, as, on seeing them, they always went down into the ground and traveled on out of their sight. From the country of the Unmatjera they went on to that of another tribe (probably the Ilpirra), by whom they were called Quaralkinja, but by the Unmatjera they were called, and called themselves Ertwaininga, and, like most of the women who figure in the Alcheringa traditions, they carried yam-sticks instead of Churinga.(8)

Unkurta is none other than Amunga-quinia-quinia, the flycatching lizard of the Arrarnta story, identified in this Kaytej study as "jew lizard" (Amphibolurus barbatus). A story of his travels as a totem ancestor, which does not include any transformation of incomplete creatures, is recounted.(9)

Related Kaytej material was also reported:

According to one Kaitish [Kaytej] tradition there were, in the Alcheringa, no human beings, only indefinitely shaped creatures, sometimes called inter-intera and at others atna-thera-thera--the later name in allusion to the fact that they are commonly supposed to have had two anal openings, one on each wrist in the hollow between the ends of the ulna and the radius. Two Ullakuppera (little hawk) boys, who were respectively Thungalla and Umbitjana, came up from the other side of the Ilpirra country. They were the same boys to whom Atnatu sent down the sacred stone knives when he saw them vainly trying to circumcise themselves. The Kaitish [Kaytej] people say that the boys started far away to the south, and as they traveled along they transformed numbers of incomplete creatures into men and women, carving out the various parts of their bodies, just as the ungambikula did amongst the Arunta. After having done this they circumcised and subincised the men and performed atna-ariltha-kuma upon the women. They went as far north as the Bonny River--the southern boundary of the Warramunga tribe--and then turned south-west and came to a place called Atnungara, where they lay down on the top of their Churinga and so died, a big hill and water hole arising to mark the spot.(10)

Spencer and Gillen note that a common explanation for the origin of human beings, is that the totemic ancestors originated in the form of human beings.

In 1929, Róheim was aware of these several versions of the story in which lizards created human beings and asked Old Moses, one of Carl Strehlow's informants, for clarification. He reports that "the lizard Mangar-kunjer-kunja is also called ankallankalla because it was circumcised the same day as Mangar-kunjer-kunja (ankalla = cross cousin) and is therefore in the relationship of ljeilja to the ancestor. Another lizard called ikwara belongs to the kwara knanindja (girl totem) while the lizard kangitja is arakutja knanindja (women totem).(11)

Róheim does not tarry in seeing "the key to Australian mythology" in these incomplete human beings and in the lizard that separates them. He sees the incomplete humans as representing his dual-unity organization, that is, the indissoluble unity of the mother and child. The lizard, particularly when recognized as a "sex totem," is identified with the phallus, supporting Róheim's restatement of the Aboriginal human origin story in his psychoanalytic terms: "In the beginning there was the separation of mother and child and what separated them was the phallos or the life impulse. All institutions originate after this separation; culture is a reaction to it, a finding of mother substitutes.(12)

What is relatively clear is that Spencer, Carl Strehlow, and Róheim understood lizard ancestor stories as generic Aboriginal stories of human creation. Spencer went to considerable lengths to eliminate the presence of lizards or the lizard totem in his account of the Arrarnta story. This concern seemed less urgent by the time he and Gillen presented stories from the peoples in the northern part of this area. Carl Strehlow certainly identifies the events with lizard ancestors, but the story appears as one of the first in his collection of totem ancestral stories. Róheim placed an ontogenetic spin on his understanding of the story recognizing it as key to all Aboriginal mythology in that it represents the initial mother-child unity and the act of separation of child from mother.

There appears to be sufficient evidence to suggest that lizard totem stories in Central Australia, and perhaps other regions, included the existence of unfinished people being fully formed by the acts of the totem ancestor which was completed by the circumcision and subincision of males and the clitoridectomy of females. The ancestral traditions of many totem groups includes the performance of circumcision and subincision and it is clear that men who have not undergone these ritual surgeries are not considered complete human beings.

It seems that with the expectations brought from Western religious traditions that account for human origins as well as world origins, none of these ethnographers could be satisfied without identifying some explanation for human origins. The lizard totem stories provided the best candidates for such accounts and none of these observers failed to take advantage of them.


(1) Géza Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, p. 200. He cites T. H. Braim, History of New South Wales, 1846, p. 244; A.W. Howitt, Abenteuer in den Wildnessen von Australien, 1856, p. 292; and T. Gunther, "Report on Australian Languages and Traditions," Journal Anthro Institute II, p. 278.

(2)Ibid. Róheim cites A. W. Howitt, Native Tribes of Southeast Australia, 1904, pp. 484-5.

(3)Róheim, Eternal, p. 200.

(4) I have no explanation for the two Arrarnta terms for stone knife.

(5) Carl Strehlow, Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien, 5 vols (Frankfort: Baer, 1907), I, I., p. 7.

(6) Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (London: Macmillan and Co, 1904), pp. 152-3.

(7) Ibid., pp. 405-6.

(8) Ibid., pp. 403-4.

(9) Ibid., pp. 400-403. Interestingly, given the confusion both Gillen and Spencer had regarding the identification of the inapertwa with porcupine is the same confusion experienced by Unkurta himself. "Then he looked at himself and said ?Hullo, I have got bristles like porcupine.' At first he was stiff and could not walk, but he lay down all day long in the sunlight, and warmed himself and stretched his legs. After a time he looked at himself and saw that he was not a porcupine, but an Unkurta, a jew-lizard." p. 400.

(10) Ibid., p. 153.

(11) Róheim, Eternal, p. 201.

(12) Róheim, Eternal, p. 202. (Róheim's italics). He develops his argument pp. 200-204.