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Book: Restoring the Chain of Memory

Chapter: Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27446


In an article first written in 1964, and later published as an occasional paper by the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (1978), Strehlow described the social organisation of the Arrernte peoples by the term, ‘personal monototemism in a polytotemic community’. Strehlow’s intricate description of this complex system demonstrates that, unlike many other Indigenous ancestral traditions, among the Arrernte one’s personal totemic ancestor is not determined by kinship or lineage, but by the ‘conception site’, which is defined as a place associated with a totemic ancestor where the future mother first became aware that she was pregnant The particular totemic ancestor could be, for example, the honey-ant, the kangaroo or the native cat, each of which in the times of beginnings had left trails as they wandered along the land before going back into the natural environment making the various hills, rocks and geographical formations that now define the contemporary landscape. A child then is the reincarnation of the particular totemic ancestor at whose sacred site the mother first became aware of her pregnancy. This means that members of the same kinship group normally have different personal totemic ancestors, but, at the same time, major sacred ceremonial sites unite extended families under the banner of the principal totemic ancestor associated with the site. Although on first reading, Arrernte religious identity appears highly individualised, groups were bound together in a clearly delineated and carefully controlled social order, which was reinforced by ceremonial cycles. By analysing this key concept, this chapter discloses the lynchpin by which traditional Arrernte society was maintained.

Chapter Contributors

  • James Cox ( - jamescox) 'University of Edinburgh'