CHILDREN OF THE DESERT BY GÉZA RÓHEIM
Géza Róheim (1891-1953) was a Hungarian anthropologist and psychoanalyst, often credited with founding the field of psychoanalytic anthropology. He is best known for his stay with his wife in 1929 at and around the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission in the Central Australia territory of Australia. This Mission had been set up by Lutherans in the heartland of a large aboriginal region. Róheim’s object was to gather far-reaching insights from study of what he believed to be a uniquely primitive people. His work generated great interest in psychoanalytical circles at the time, and is of Greek love interest, even though he only mentioned the subject as if it were incidental and did not venture deeply into it, as concerning a hunter-gatherer people who had institutionalised pederasty.
He first wrote about the Central Australians, including their practise of pederasty, in an essay, “Psycho-Analysis of Primitive Cultural Types” published in The International Journal of Psycho-analysis XIII (Jan.-Apr. 1932) pp. 1-224, but his intended book about them was only finally published posthumously in 1974 as Children of the Desert: The Western Tribes of Central Australia, as explained in the extract given below from the introduction by Werner Muensterberger, the editor. The following extracts, which are either of direct Greek love interest or provide some context to its practice, are taken from the edition published by Harper and Row, New York in 1976.
INTRODUCTION by Werner Muensterberger
A few days before his death (in 1954) Géza Róheim handed me a voluminous bundle of material gathered in 1929 during his field work in Australia. It was his unpublished work on the Pitjentara or, more generally, the Aranda and Lurittja among whom he had spent approximately eight months. Róheim considered this work his magnum opus and, having a premonition of his death, asked me to prepare his writing for publication. [p. ix]
Introducing the particular theories of Sigmund Freud that Róheim had followed and hoped to test:
[…] especially with regard to his novel explanations of the origins of cultural ethics and religious beliefs, which made extensive reference to the most primitive tribes known, the Australian aborigines. [p. x]
4. THE CHILDREN
Most of this chapter was devoted to what Róheim learned from his play sessions with Central Australian children, but first he gave a detailed description of the children’s upbringing. These tribes were patrilineal, both in their family structure and in that they were ruled by hereditary chiefs descended in the strictly male line. Fatherhood was of great importance, which fathers teaching their own sons needed skills such as hunting from an early age. The bonds between fathers and sons were often very close. The Central Australians practised occasional cannibalism of their own infants, but only of the newborn and still unnamed. [pp. 70-72]
Play Sessions at the Mission
Introducing his sessions with Central Australian children at the Hermannsburg Mission, during which he observed their talk and play, mostly about sex, enabling him to compare it with those of the children living in the Bush (the subject of his next section):
I spent twenty-three hours during a period of about two months with four children at Hermannsburg. One of the children, Depitarinja, a ten-year-old boy, was present at all the meetings. Nyiki, a boy of about eight, was present at all but one.
Depitarinja accused Nyiki of having had intercourse with a lizard, and was in turn accused of having cohabited with a mouse. Gradually, the accusations became more plausible. Depitarinja ﬁnally declared that Nyiki and another boy had put their arms into a camel's vagina up to the elbow. Nomi bore witness to the occurrence. Nyiki then related a tale about Depitarinja. A few days earlier, Depitarinja had caught hold of a smaller boy. He had pushed back the foreskin, rubbed sand on the penis, and masturbated the child until he ejaculated. Then he had had anal intercourse with the boy. Shortly after that, another boy in the boys' house had had anal intercourse with Depitarinja, and when he had ﬁnished, Depitarinja had done the same with him. Depitarinja was somewhat embarrassed while Nyiki told this story. He made several half-hearted denials, but they were made without real conviction. He tried to prove by his subsequent actions that he had nothing to do with that sort of thing. He took the water pistol and threatened the girls with it. They bowed their heads in humble submission and in expectation of the “shooting.” Then he shot into the monkey's vagina and rectum with the pistol. He was most emphatically a man. [p. 97]
[Depitarinja was] the most prominent figure in the groups of children I observed at Hermannsburg. […] from the point of view of the anthropologist, Depitarinja was in 1932 the best-known primitive child in the world. His mother died when he was five […] Depitarinja was left at the Mission and grew up in the native camp there […] he actually lived in the boys’ house. [p. 103]
Depitarinja developed differently at the Mission station than he would have developed in the bush. At the station, there were no initiation ceremonies, no organised male society with a cult of mythical ancestors which could serve as vehicles for sublimation of homosexual trends. In the desert there was a great deal of free sex play between the boys and girls, while at the station the boys lived in the boys’ house, where homosexual practices and sadomasochistic perversions were rife. […] However, the situation at the Mission did not seriously harm his good temper, sociability, and the genitality of his libidinal trends. [p. 105]
Nyiki was less of a ‘personality’ than Depitarinja. He was also closer to the ‘bush’ type. This was to be expected, in that he had come into the station more recently. [p. 105]
Play Sessions in the Bush
The circumstances in the desert were much less favourable than were those at the Mission station. Linguistic difficulties were increased and it was impossible to isolate a small group of children; all who wanted to come were include in the sessions. [p. 106]
The liveliest of all the children was Wilikutuku, a Nambutji boy about nine years old, who played the same role in the bush that Depitarinja had played at the Mission station. [p. 107]
The children amused themselves at the beginning of this meeting by trying to touch each other’s genitals. The game was both hetero- and homosexual and went on promiscuously for some time. [p. 109]
Wilikutuku enacted a coitus scene using the trumpet as a penis. However, he soon dropped the toy and concluded the scene using his own penis. He rushed at the other children, both the girls and the boys, threatening to cohabit with them in the normal positions and per anum. […] When he ran toward the other children, holding his penis in his hand, they ran away from him as fast as they could. [p. 112]
Wilikutuku passed from symbolic play to reality. He pinched another boy’s buttocks and grabbed his penis. [p. 115]
The leader of the group of children in the bush was Wilikutuku, a good-looking, lively and friendly youngster. I saw him perturbed only once. I had shown him his own photograph; he shuddered and threw it away, and later refused to speak about the matter. He was a Nambutji boy, and since he was of the appropriate age, he was a passive homosexual, the “boy-wife” of his future father-in-law, with whom he camped. However, this passive homosexual practice had not deprived him of his virile temperament. He missed no opportunity to give the group and myself evidence of his virility. [p. 117]
The one fact that emerged with startling clarity about the desert children was that almost their only, and certainly their supreme, game was coitus. This was an important game for the children at the Mission, too. But whereas the Mission children were constantly talking about cohabitation and making the toys perform coitus, the bush children acted out the game, either with their own bodies or with objects held to the proper parts of their own anatomy. The difference between the two groups of children was the result of the inﬂuence of the school and the Mission. If we compare these Australian children to European children, there is a striking contrast between the direct libidinal gratiﬁcation of the ﬁrst group and the sublimation of the second.
Another aspect of the children’s play which interests us is the polymorphous character of the sexuality of the children of the desert. The boys and girls played both male and female roles, with homosexual and heterosexual partners. In their imitations of coitus they switched from the conventional to the anal position with scarcely any transition. In this respect, their behavior was strikingly similar to that of the monkeys and apes described by Zuckerman. The distinctively human element in this sexual behavior was Wilikutuku’s denial that he had actually had intercourse. Although he continually pretended to have intercourse, he dropped the symbolic penis when an adult told him to “put it into a hole.“ [pp. 119-20]
7. THE SEXUAL LIFE
Marriage and Jealousy
In this section, Róheim described how men could be polygamous, though were often not. They were sexually possessive of their wives, and though they could be exchanged, any infidelity or signs of a wish for it on the part of the wives was usually punished.
Masturbation and Homosexuality
Among the Nambutji tribe, homosexuality is institutionalized. (This word refers to relationships which are socially acceptable and even included in the mores, whereas “ritualized” refers to practices which form part of the ceremonial life.) After his initiation, every young man becomes the boy-wife of his future father-in-law. This custom exemplifies the general trend of the initiation ceremonies. Libido is displaced from the women to the men, from the mothers to the fathers. [pp. 243-4]
Oral, Anal, and Phallic Organizations
I do not know whether adults ever have anal intercourse in normal heterosexual relationships; however, the practice certainly exists among homosexuals and children. The language testifies to the fact that an unconscious identification is made between the vagina and the anus. In Aranda, atna, and in the Lurittya dialects, kunna, mean both the vagina and the anus. [p. 247]
The phallic phase is probably the most important determinant of Australian sex and fantasy life. […] The male child is interested in his own phallus. He attributes a penis not only to all human beings, but to everything alive. [p. 247]
The child is disposed toward homosexuality and tends to deprecate the female genital, seeing the female as a castrated male. [p. 247]
Besides a tendency to regard females as inferior beings, the phallic phase is also characterized by either an open or a sublimated homosexual tendency. This set of ideas is present throughout Central Australian culture. Not only is there institutionalized homosexuality, but there is also the homosexual character of all rituals. At the same time, women are excluded from all ritual and religious observances. [pp. 247-8]
The libidinal organization of the Central Australians may be described as being somewhere between the phallic and the genital. Their object relations are not so much ambivalent as weak. They do not make bad consorts, but they are not romantic lovers. Grief for a dead spouse is not of great duration. These are the only people in the world, so far as I know, who perform love magic, not for the purpose of gaining the love of one woman, but in order to attract women in general. The genital act is exciting, rather than the object, and the phallus or coitus rather than the woman. This is what may be called phallic rather than genitality – as we aspire to in Western civilization. [p. 254]
The final paragraph of the book:
In summary, we may say that, on the whole, the picture is quite favourable. The sexual life and potency of the Australian male is far more “normal” than the sexuality of the European male. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that he has received fewer of the advantages of education. While he still must repress his incestuous desires, the repression need not be as deep as it is among Europeans, and therefore the sexual impulses are not as fatefully distorted. [p. 255]
 S. Zuckerman, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes (London: Kegan Paul, 1932). [Author’s note 12]
 Though Róheim here uses the euphemism “young man”, as quoted earlier, he had already said that Wilikutuku, “about nine years old”, was the boy-wife of his future father-in-law, being “of the appropriate age.” Moreover, Clellan Ford and Frank Beach in Patterns of Sexual Behavior (New York1951) p. 123 quote an earlier anthropologist, Carl Strehlow, Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien Vol. IV (ii), Das Soziale Leben der Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme (Frankfurt, 1915) p. 98 as saying that among the Aranda of Central Australia, boys became boy-wives when they were aged 10 to 12.
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