Tony’s Notes From The Bony Novels (Part 16)

Posted on Fri 04/22/2011 by


Preface for the Posts on the role of the Tribal Shaman.

Where I mention the word ‘tribe’ here, this is in no way meant to reinforce one of those age old stereotypes. The word may be used also as expressing family, group, or community.

What also needs to be mentioned here is that what I have detailed in these Posts on the role of the Shaman is in no way definitive. I would not class myself as even a beginner in the understanding of this complex subject, let alone an expert. However, having said that, everything I do detail here I have gleaned from the reading of Upfield’s novels, as prior to that, I knew virtually nothing of the aboriginal culture. So, what I have here is just aspects of what I have learned from those novels.

What needs to be realised here is that some large tribes had vast areas of land that was their ‘territory’. Within the boundaries of that large area, there would have been smaller groups, mainly as these smaller groups were easier to manage.

Think of an analogy similar to an Army. There is one huge Army. In that Army are smaller groups, and within each of those groups, are even smaller groups. Each of those smaller groups has someone in charge, but they also have superiors in charge of them further up the chain of command.

Something similar applies here with a large tribe in a large area. Being as they were, hunter gatherers, it was easier to move smaller groups from one place to another in constant search for food, and those smaller groups then became easier to feed, set up camp with, and move from one place where water was to another.

There would have been a very large main camp where the senior elders would remain, as it would be difficult for those older men to be as mobile as some of the smaller groups needed to be. So, while those smaller groups moved around a lot, that larger encampment would have been fairly static in nature.

While each of those smaller groups had a leader, it would have been just that. A subordinate leader with a small group of young fit men, their tribal wives and children, and probably one of those Elders still able to move around effectively.

In the main, those smaller groups would not have had a Shaman with them, as this position was virtually a solitary one, so, being a senior elder, he would probably stay at the home base with the Senior ‘Chief’ and those other senior Elders.

If any of those smaller groups had need of the abilities of the Shaman, then that person would be sent back to the main area where the Shaman could best serve that need.

Each tribe had a head man, respected elders, and a Shaman, who was probably the second most respected elder in the tribe.

Here, I refer to this man as Shaman, not to reinforce white thinking, but that there is no name that best describes this position.

The Shaman has been given many names over the years, not many of them respectful of the man himself or the high position he held in each family, considering this man was second only to the head man, and even the head man took advice from the Shaman.

They have been called Medicine Man, or even the awful term Witch Doctor, mainly by white people who looked upon what they did in that role as mumbo jumbo, and with very little understanding at all of the important role this man had. He was perceived as being a somewhat sinister character, working in the shadows, giving those false impressions of how we perceived them to be.

In a similar vein to the young boys each having a Mentor, who was an Elder now not fit enough to stay with the younger men as they moved around, the same would also apply in the case of the Shaman.

This is a role that is thought out very early on in a young boy’s life. Being close knit families as these tribes were, then very early on, Elders can see which of those boys are best suited to the roles they will assume when they become men.

At a very young age, the existing Shaman would see which of those boys would be best suited in the role, and from that point forwards, that young boy then has the Shaman as his tribal mentor. Everything this boy then does revolves around the Shaman, who after all, does not live forever. So when the Shaman reaches an age when he can no longer carry out the duties, there is a younger man to take his place, and that older Shaman now ‘retires’ as one of the senior elders, also acting as a further reference point for the younger man, and then the process would begin all over again.

Effectively, this Shaman would then have to be one of the most protected men in the tribe. No hunter gathering for him, because he has the knowledge no one else has, so he has to be looked after.

This may be one of those areas where later, white people perceived this Shaman as being specially treated, almost as if he did nothing while wielding immense power.

The Shaman was the repository for all of the tribal secrets, and he knew things that no one else did, so he was looked upon as a somewhat very special person in that tribal hierarchy.

See how something like this is difficult to explain, and from that, how difficult it would then be to understand.

Upfield mentioned this Shaman in many ways throughout his novels, and each time he emphasised the special place this Shaman had within that tribal structure.

A cursory reading of where Upfield does mention may tend to reinforce that he has just gone with those age old stereotypes, and really, nothing could be further from the truth.

He had to make plain that this Shaman was, in most respects, the man behind the man who was the head of that tribe, sort of like the power behind the throne.

In the following two Posts, I will detail just some of the ways Upfield portrayed the role of the Shaman in his novels.