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The Native Tribes of North Central Australia, by Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen [1899], at

p. 512

Chapter XV the Iruntarinia and Arumburinga, or Spirit Individuals

The spirit part of an Alcheringa individual and the Nanja tree or rock—From the Nanja issues a second spirit, which is the Arumburinga—The spirit individuals are collectively the Iruntarinia—They are aggregated into local groups just as the living members of the tribe are—When a spirit goes into a woman there remains the Arumburinga which is its double—Relationship between an individual and his Arumburinga—When a man dies his spirit is called Ulthana—This goes finally to the Nanja spot and joins the Arumburinga—Certain gifted individuals can see the Iruntarinia—Habits of the Iruntarinia—Carrying off women—Presenting sacred ceremonies to particular men—Native feeling with regard to them.

IN the Arunta tribe there is a firm belief in the existence of spirit individuals, between whom and the individual members of the tribe there exists a very definite relationship.

As we have already seen when dealing with the Churinga, every individual is supposed to be the reincarnation of an Alcheringa being. Now these Alcheringa beings are very closely indeed associated with the animals or plants whose name they bear; indeed, some of them are regarded as having remained in the form of animals, such, for example, as the celebrated kangaroo called Ultainta. We can distinguish three forms of Alcheringa individuals, (1) those who were the direct transformations of animals or plants into human beings; (2) those who were at first Inapertwa, and who were transformed into men and women by the Ungambikula; and (3) those who, like the kangaroo mentioned, were never actually transformed into human beings, but were endowed with powers not possessed by the ordinary animal, and were practically animal-men. In all cases the Alcheringa individuals were possessed of powers far greater than those p. 513 exercised by living men; they could travel on, or above, or beneath the ground; by opening a vein in the arm each of them could flood whole tracts of country or cause level plains to arise; in rocky ranges they could make pools of water spring into existence or could make deep gorges and gaps through which to traverse the ranges, and, where they planted their sacred poles, there rocks or trees arose to mark the spot. In regard to one point of fundamental importance they all agreed—each of them carried about some sacred object, a stick or stone called Churinga, with which was associated their spirit part. When, as happened to all of them sooner or later, they died and went into the earth, that Churinga remained behind and along with it the spirit part. At the same time there always arose some natural object, a rock or tree, to mark the spot where the Alcheringa being went into the earth, and this natural object was henceforth the Nanja rock or tree of the spirit of that particular individual whom it represented. From that Nanja there issued another spirit being whom the natives speak of as the Arumburinga of that particular individual. The spirit of each Alcheringa individual, when resident in the Churinga, is thus closely associated with, indeed watched over by, an Arumburinga, so that at each Oknanikilla, or local totem centre, we have a group of what are called the Iruntarinia, each of whom is either a spirit associated with a Churinga or else the Arumburinga of one of these spirits.

The Iruntarinia are especially given to wandering during the summer time, as they do not like the cold of the winter nights; in fact, during the latter period they spend most of their time in underground caves, where are streams of running water and perpetual sunshine, the two great desiderata of the Arunta native, as the one implies a plentiful food supply, and the other the warmth of which, being himself fond, he naturally supposes that the spirits are so too. Each local group has its group of Iruntarinia who are supposed to be associated with that special locality and its inhabitants, and of course bear the name of the Alcheringa individuals with whom they are each one associated, that is, the Iruntarinia are aggregated in local totemic groups just as p. 514 the living members of the tribe are. Close to Alice Springs is an ancient hollow tree which is supposed to form a favourite entrance of the Iruntarinia of that district to the caves, which, according to native belief, stretch out for many miles underground.

When a spirit individual goes into a woman there still remains the Arumburinga, which may be regarded as its double, and this may either dwell along with the Iruntarinia, of whom it is of course one, or may at pleasure follow the spirit which is within the woman, or may attend the woman's husband as he goes out hunting. The Iruntarinia are, indeed, supposed to have their likes and dislikes as regards the human members of the group to which they belong. Some men who are popular amongst them will often be followed as they go out hunting by perhaps two or three of the spirit people who will assist them by driving prey towards them. A man's Arumburinga is not, however, supposed to watch over him continuously, but only in a more or less general kind of way. The idea in this respect is a vague one; but if, say, to take a special example, a man be out hunting and has his eye fixed on his prey, and for some reason, apparently without any cause, he suddenly looks down and sees a snake just where he was about to tread, then he knows at once that his Arumburinga is with him and prompted him to look down suddenly. The Arumburinga can of course travel over long distances with ease, and though they spend most of their time at the Nanja tree or rock, still if their human representative lives far away, as he may do, they will frequently visit him, and if he be gifted with the power of seeing spirits, will make themselves visible to him, or if not, then they sometimes send him a message through a man who is thus gifted.

When a man or woman dies and the body is buried, there remains the spirit part or Ulthana, that is, practically what may be called the equivalent of the ghost of the dead person, which is supposed to haunt the burial place and at night time to come into the camp, or it may go back to its old Nanja rock or tree; but at all events for a period it is supposed to spend a considerable time either around the grave or in the p. 515 camp. The name Ulthana is given to the spirit until such time as the Urpmilchima ceremony has been performed and it has ceased to regularly haunt the camp and burial ground. The Ulthana is supposed to be capable, like other spirits, of hurting its enemies, and the sure sign of an attack by one of them is the presence of human teeth in the body of the victim. Medicine men will sometimes extract these, which are regarded as an infallible indication of an attack by an Ulthana.

Finally, when all the mourning ceremonies have been carried out, the Ulthana is supposed to leave the grave and to return to its Nanja, where it rejoins and lives along with its Arumburinga. After a time it gets itself another Churinga, with which it becomes associated, just as before it was associated with the Alcheringa Churinga, and then, after the lapse of some time, but not, it is supposed, until even the bones have crumbled away, it may once more be born again in human form.

To sum up the Arunta belief we have (1) the spirit part of an Alcheringa being in connection with a Churinga; (2) the Arumburinga which arises from the Nanja tree or rock, which marks the spot where the Alcheringa being went into the earth; and (3) the Ulthana or spirit part of the dead man or woman, and which is, in reality, identical with (1). The Arumburinga is changeless and lives for ever; the spirit part of the Alcheringa individual also lives for ever, but from time to time undergoes incarnation.

There are certain ideas with regard to the spirits or Iruntarinia with which we may conveniently deal here.

In addition to the medicine men, who have the power of seeing and communicating generally with the Iruntarinia, there are others to whom this privilege is granted. It is believed that, so say the natives, children who are born with their eyes open, or, as it is called, alkna buma (alkna, eye; buma, open), have this power when they arrive at maturity, provided always that they grow up sedate, for the Iruntarinia much dislike scoffers, frivolous people, and chattering men and women, and will not show themselves to such on any account. Men and women who are what is called irkun p. 516 oknira (irkun, chattering; oknira, much) are supposed to annoy the spirits. Children who are born with the eyes closed, alkna bunga, cannot communicate with the spirits when they grow up unless they become medicine men.

In general appearance the Iruntarinia are supposed to resemble human beings, but they are always youthful looking, their faces are without hair, and their bodies are thin and shadowy. They are fond of decorating themselves with down or undattha, of which they are supposed to have unlimited supplies, some of which, as it is highly prized amongst the natives, they every now and again present to specially favoured individuals.

As a general rule they only go about at night time, and only make themselves visible when men or women are alone. They are fond of prowling about the camp, and sometimes, when successful in evading the notice of the camp dogs, who have the gift of seeing them at all times, they steal hair and fur string, or other material, which after a time is as mysteriously returned to its owner as it disappeared in the first instance. It is, so the natives say, no uncommon thing for a man to wake in the morning, or even after a sleep in the middle of the day, and find that his spare string has disappeared. He looks around for tracks, but finds none, and at once concludes that the Iruntarinia have been visiting him. He must not be angry or else he would offend them, and, moreover, he feels that his Arumburinga, who has most likely taken the string, needed it for some special purpose, and will return it safely when done with. Sooner or later he will awake to find it by his side. What may be the real meaning of this belief it is difficult to see, unless, what is not by any means impossible, the explanation lies in the fact that one of the so-called Iruntarinia men has cunningly taken the articles, and then after a time returned them, his object being to keep up the belief in the existence of the spirits, owing to his supposed power of interviewing whom he is held in considerable respect.

The spirits kill and eat all manner of game, but always uncooked, for they are not supposed to have any fires, and not seldom they steal game which has been wounded, but not p. 517 killed on the spot, by men. For instance a kangaroo which has been speared but not killed will perhaps run away out of sight of the hunter, who tracks it up for some time and then loses all trace of it, and when this is so he knows that the Iruntarinia have taken it.

It is a matter of tradition that now and again they have carried off women who have wandered too far away from their camp after dark; in fact, it is not considered safe for a woman to go about too much alone, as there is always the danger of the Iruntarinia seizing her and carrying her away to be imprisoned in the depth of a cave. This fear, which is ever present with the women, acts as a wholesome check upon their wandering about alone too much. Not very long ago at a place called Undoolya, a woman strayed some distance from her husband's camp in the dusk, and he was only just in time, when attracted by her cries, to prevent her being carried off by the Iruntarinia, who had seized upon and were dragging her away when he came upon the scene.

There is a tradition that long ago, before any of the oldest men now living were born, a party going to the south from the Macdonnell Ranges was met at the Edith Range, near to Ooraminna water-hole, about twenty-five miles distant from Alice Springs, by a host of Iruntarinia, who drove the party back with great slaughter.

The Iruntarinia are also supposed to possess a number of Churinga, which are of both wood and stone, and occasionally they present one or two to specially favoured individuals. The men amongst the natives who, in addition to the medicine men, can communicate with them are held in considerable esteem, and to some of them the spirits impart sacred ceremonies. An example of one of these ceremonies, which is associated with the eagle-hawk totem, is described in connection with the Engwura. Another very characteristic Iruntarinia ceremony may be described here, as it is concerned with one of the important features in regard to the character of the spirits and their relation to men. This particular ceremony was shown to a medicine man of the witchetty grub totem by the Iruntarinia of a Hakea tree totem, for, as we have already said, the Iruntarinia naturally p. 518 have their totems just as the men do whose doubles they in reality are, though at the same time, unlike the men, the Iruntarinia are endowed with the powers characteristic of the Alcheringa individuals.

p. 519

The important feature of the ceremony consisted of a cross, each of the two arms of which were about six feet in length, one being fastened across the other at a distance of eighteen inches from what was the upper end when it was fixed upright in the ground. There were three performers, decorated as usual with lines of down, and each one of them wore in his head-dress two pointing sticks or Ullinka, arranged as if they were horns projecting in front. The curious cross is called Umbalinyara, and when the Iruntarinia, whose totem was the same as that of the medicine man's mother, showed it to the man, he told the latter to go and show it to his companions, and to tell them that no medicine man, however clever he might be, could possibly extract the cross if once the Iruntarinia had placed it in the body of a man. At first only one of the performers sat beside the cross and moved about, quivering in the usual way; then he stood to one side and from some little distance the other two were seen approaching, while the onlookers sang of how the Iruntarinia walked about in the Alcheringa and kept hiding out of sight, as the two performers pretended to do. They were performing all kinds of antics, causing the audience much amusement; finally they reached and sat down by the cross, round which they shuffled with their legs bent under them; after a short time the third man joined them, and then the audience rushed round and round them, shouting “Wah! Wah!” until, with a final prolonged quiver, the performance came to a close.

It is not at all necessary for the Iruntarinia to give the ceremony to a man of any particular totem; but, if the recipient wishes to hand it on as a compliment to some other man, which he frequently does, then that man must belong to the totem to which the ceremony refers.

It is again the Iruntarinia who are supposed frequently, but not always or of necessity, to communicate in dreams to the Alatunja of any group the time at which it is right for him to perform the ceremony of Intichiuma. They themselves perform similar ceremonies; and if a plentiful supply of, say, witchetty grub or emu appears without the performance of Intichiuma by the peoples of the respective totems, then the p. 520 p. 521 supplies are attributed to the performance of Intichiuma by friendly Iruntarinia.

To the native the Iruntarinia is a very real personage, who, as a general rule, is a beneficent being, though at times capable of great cruelty; he is in fact a man of the Alcheringa endowed with all the powers possessed by such an one. If he be offended, then he may place in the body of the offender one of his pointing sticks, or Ullinka, which as a general rule is a barbed stick a few inches in length and attached to a string, the malicious pulling of which causes severe pain, and the stick can only be removed by the aid of a very skilled medicine man.

There is always the feeling that it is well to be careful not to offend the Iruntarinia, or to tempt them by going out too much after dusk, when there is almost sure to be an odd spirit or two in search of lonely wanderers on whom they may at least play some unpleasant prank. On the other hand, the Arumburinga is supposed to keep a general watch over his human representative, and though he does not personally do the latter any harm, quite in fact the reverse, yet he cannot always shield him from the capricious malice of some other individual spirit.

Next: Chapter XVI. The Making and the Powers of Medicine Men; Various Forms of Magic