Debate Magazine

Stanner on Aboriginal Religion

By Cris

Between 1959 and 1963, Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner published a classic six-part series of articles on Aboriginal religion. Those articles appeared in the journal Oceania, which also published them as a set in Oceania Monograph 11 (1963). This monograph is hard to find and usually expensive when found. Those with institutional access to journals may be surprised to find, as I just found for CU-Boulder, that they do not have a subscription to Oceania. Thankfully, the Sydney University Press has re-published the essays, along with two introductory essays, in a volume titled On Aboriginal Religion (2014). Even better, the entire volume can be downloaded for free here. In Stanner’s own Introduction to the series, he states the guiding principles:

The history of the study of primitive, in particular, Aboriginal religion suggested that I should observe certain conditions. In the first place, it seemed advisable to concentrate on a region since there have been few really intensive studies of regional cults, and a better perspective on the continent as a whole can be attained only in that way. Secondly, I thought I should take Aboriginal religion as significant in its own right and make it the primary subject of study, rather than study it, as was done so often in the past, mainly to discover the extent to which it expressed or reflected facts and preoccupations of the social order. That is, study it as religion and not as a mirror of something else. It seemed desirable, thirdly, to avoid entanglement with any particular definition or theory of religion and, lastly, to resist any temptation to draw from the single instance any conclusions about all religion. Anyone familiar with the literature on the subject will agree that a good case can be made for such limitations.

This is quite refreshing, given that “Aboriginal religion” (there is, by the way, no such essential or singular thing) has been the tool used by too many scholars to advance their favorite theory of religion. When it comes to Aborigines, Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade have been prime offenders. I first became aware of Stanner’s work while reading Tony Swain’s mind-bending book, A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Aboriginal Being (1996). If you read only one of Stanner’s essays, the final installment — “Cosmos and Society Made Correlative” — should be the one.


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