The Firm and the Formless: Religion and Identity in Aboriginal Australia


103 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88920-117-X





Reviewed by P.J. Kemp

P.J. Kemp was a journalist living in Brigham, Quebec.


“This volume is woven around the idea that wholeness (the firm) and fragmentation (risking formlessness) alternate human affairs,” Hans Mol writes by way of introduction. For most peoples, civilized or not, religion is a means whereby identity (personal or collective) is forged to distinguish one from the general background of nature, time, and space. In the case of Australia’s Aboriginals, these methods include totemism, taboos, rites of passage, and mythology, all reinforced by strict ritual. Before the white man invaded and colonized Australia, Aboriginal ritual held the tribes together against a hostile nature and each other; after the white man’s arrival, Aboriginal identity and religion went into a severe decline for a while as a result of culture shock. Mol cites studies by other researchers and anthropologists who studied the Aborigines from initial contact through the decline, and he finds fault with most of their imperialistic interpretations.

The white man’s culture never completely “took” with the Aborigines, however. The natives accepted what was easy in the material sense — welfare, alcohol, consumer goods, some of the entertainment — and ignored what was either incomprehensible or was too antithetical to their past culture, which, while perhaps largely forgotten or ignored, still had a great psychological hold over them. And then, particularly beginning with the mid-1960s, Aborigines learned to use a powerful synthesis of the native and the transplanted to forge a new identity — a new “firmness” with which to combat the “formlessness” that had been overtaking them.

There are not so many books on Aboriginal Australia that another one should be begrudged publication, but in many ways The Firm and the Formless seems unsatisfactory. Detail is a bit scant; references to past studies aren’t as fully explained as they might be; and over all is a sense of detachment from the subject matter that makes one wonder what the motivation for writing this book may have been, since it isn’t very informative or innovative.


Mol, Hans, “The Firm and the Formless: Religion and Identity in Aboriginal Australia,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 18, 2024,