Spiritual Versus Biological Paternity

Daisy M. Bates, more than any other outsider, understood the Broome District Aborigines. This gentle English woman pitched her camp and lived a nomadic lifestyle with the Aborigines for nearly forty years.(3) Bates discovered something unusual about the Aborigines: paternity is the responsibility of the spirit-child rather than the father’s sexual act. A man’s dream determines his fatherhood rather than his sperm. So firm was the spirit-child paradigm among Broome District Aborigines that no man acknowledged paternity unless he had met the spirit-child in his sleeping hours. In one instance, a husband accepted a child born to his wife during their five-year separation, thereby ignoring the lapsed time between intercourse and birth.

An anthropologist found parallel beliefs among Tiwi Aborigines. Larry, as a case in point, accepted his wife’s child as his own spiritual daughter upon returning after a two-year absence. Larry’s daughter had appeared to him in a dream during the couple’s separation. She touched him with a spear and asked, “Where is my mother?” Larry described how to find Dolly at Snake Bay.

One full moon night, upon Larry’s return to his wife Dolly, he walked along the beach cradling his wife’s infant in his arms. He was delighted with his wife and ecstatic about their newborn daughter, even though he was not the biological father. He sang to the baby about “the spirit land from which all people came and to which they return on death.”

Bates cites further reports of men who denied paternity even if the couple had never been apart. In such cases, the men did not have a spirit-child dream, or dreamed of a daughter, but their wives birthed sons or vice versa. In these cases, the mother must locate the “real” father who had the spirit-child dream.

Lost Visions

Aborigines reported fewer pre-conception dreams once Western religion, rationalism, and science began to spread throughout Australia. A number of subtle factors contributed to population decline of Aborigines, as Dr. Andreas Lommel discovered.(4) As part of the Frobenius Expedition in 1938, Lommel studied modern culture’s impact on Aborigines in the Kimberly Division of Northwestern Australia. The German ethnologist interviewed Ungarinyin, Worora, and Unambal Aborigines, including “civilized” Aborigines and those on the fringe of settlement, as well as the “untouched” who maintained their heritage.

To begin with, Aborigines who had been raised on missions and government stations knew little more about hunting kangaroos with spears or collecting edible roots than a typical white man. These stock boys, farm-hands, and laborers had adopted European dress and preserved only fragments of their native language. These assimilated men differed from their forefathers in another significant way. They were losing the ability to have “proper” spirit-child dreams. Birth rates were decreasing. As a result, despite excellent economic and sanitary conditions, only one-tenth of the two hundred members of the Worora in the Kunmunja Mission was under twenty, typical of a population in decline.

A missionary’s advice, “Increase sexual contact with your wives,” fell upon deaf ears. The Worora knew that conception depends upon a spirit-child’s will to be born. The physical sex act was “more or less insignificant,” even though the men had been educated about male sperm.

In Lommel’s discussions with the Aborigines, the men offered one reason for fewer spirit-child dreams: “Sleep must not be too heavy.” The dreamer must remain alert and sensitive, even as the body rests. When a man dreams like that, the spirit-child’s name enters his heart; then, it “goes into his head” and the man becomes “fully conscious” of it. In essence, the Aborigines attributed proper dreams to a duality of consciousness event, an alert mind and resting body — comparable to conscious dreams as defined by yogis who pursue a meditative life-style. The Aborigines began to accumulate modern stress once they left the tranquil, silent life of the bush where they had practiced sacred ceremonies and had time to contemplate and meditate.

Lommel spoke to Aborigines who hid in the back country away from white men. The lifestyle of the Unambal, as a prime case, remained unchanged. Kangaroos were abundant and economic conditions remained favorable. The government prohibited visiting adventurers, traders, and settlers from entering Unambal territory.

Nevertheless, the Unambal reported falling birth rates. And instead of spirit-child dreams, they encountered nightmares. Even though the Unambal had never seen a white man, they were irritated by the rumors and dreamed of “white men who looked pale like the spirits of the dead,” devices flying overhead, and strange lighted steamboats that passed in the night. News of the approaching civilization upset their peace of mind. The Unambal no longer attained the psychological “disposition necessary for the physical act of generation.” In a sense, the Aborigines were suffering from a kind of psychic shock. As Lommel put it, the spirit-child dream might well be indispensable for biological conception.


1. Ashley Montagu (1974) Coming Into Being Among the Australian Aborigines. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p.63.

2. James G. Cowan (1992) The Aborigine Tradition. Boston: Element Books (160 N. Washington, Boston, MA 02114.) p.25.

3. Daisy M. Bates (1940) Passing of the Aborigines: A lifetime spent among the natives of Australia. London: John Murray, p. 27.

4. Andreas Lommel (1951). Modern culture influences on the Aborigines. Oceania, 5, 21.

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