A few days later I witnessed further stages of these grim initiation ceremonies, held in another sacred spot. While some of the men sat in a circle and sang, others went behind some bushes. I followed them and saw that some of the biggest and strongest of them were opening a big vein in their arms with a pointed flint and causing the stream of blood from these gashes to spurt over the novitiates so that it ran in stripes down their bodies. Blood is the source of strength, and by thus drenching the young boys with their mature blood, the men were giving them the fortitude to endure the rites of manhood. Afterwards they decorated themselves in various ways with white ashes, black charcoal and branches and performed a vivid dance, in which they impersonated dingos attacking a kangaroo.
Finally, in the early evening, before darkness fell, they performed the final initiation on a youth of fifteen or sixteen. He knew what was about to happen, and putting a stick between his teeth, so as to grind his pain into silence, he lay down on his back on top of two men, who as before were kneeling down to furnish an improvised operating table. What followed is difficult to describe outside a medical gathering. With a sharp knife they performed a deep operation which, without depriving the young man of his power of propagation, yet regulated the use of it to special occasions. A hole was pierced right through his sex organ near the root, and there was inserted into it, at either end, a splinter to keep the aperture from growing together again. The object was to ensure that henceforth the urine and the sperm would be ejected through this little hole high up on the sex organ, instead of by the normal channel. Only when the lad put a finger on the hole, and kept it there, would the fluids in future be able to pass through the proper outlet. The boy did not utter a sound while this grisly operation was performed, and only with difficulty could he stand on his feet afterwards. His body trembled, he glistened with sweat, his eyes were glazed with silent agony.
This grotesque and revolting practice has an obvious explanation. The Australian Aborigines are probably the first primitive people to devise a wholly effective birth control. In the baking wilderness they inhabit, numbers must be kept down, for they cannot maintain large families on their low level of subsistence; and long treks would be impossible with a large family of small children and babies in arms.
The initiation of girls is trivial in comparison, and consists of cutting tribal signs on the upper part of the body – as a rule some long scars across the breast – immediately after the first sign of maturity. The other preparation for womanhood is a rough-and-ready puncture to prepare her for mating with men. The puncture is performed by an old man belonging to the girl’s family group, assisted by an old woman whose role is to pacify the girl while the crude deflorescence is accomplished. The only concession made to the weaker sex is that the old man winds some kangaroo hairs round his finger so as to carry out his job as gently as possible.
Afterwards the men who happen to be present and who, according to the marriage laws, are eligible as husbands have intercourse with the girl. If she is not already promised to one of them, she continues to have casual intercourse with men of her group until she gets married. Even after marriage it sometimes happens at special ceremonies that she is ‘lent’ to one of the other unmarried men who, by group rules, might have become her legal husband. A man who objects to lending his wife in this way to a tribal brother on a visit is considered greedy and anti-social.