Reuther, Johann Georg, Rev. (1861-1914)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter, 2019
Birth / Death: 

Born: 1861

Died: 1914


Missionary Georg Reuther was a tortured figure from very modest background, who dedicated his life to an ethnographic contribution to science in the same mould as his better schooled and better connected contemporary, the teacher's son Carl Strehlow. Previously untranslated correspondence in the Neuendettelsau mission archives show the struggle of this self-taught ethnologist who tried to decipher the life-worlds of the Dieri and surrounding peoples of the Coopers Creek area. Some of the Reuther material is still too hot to handle, and the South Australian Museum bought into Reuther's struggle with its acquisition of Reuther's material legacy.



Pastor Georg Reuther (1861–1914) was the Lutheran missionary in charge of Bethesda mission at Lake Killalpaninna for eighteen years (1888 to 1906), and collaborated with Pastor Carl Strehlow in translating the Bible into Dieri (also known as Diari, or Dyari). After Strehlow's departure for Hermannsburg Reuther continued to engage with Dieri language and customs and produced a massive manuscript that became a translation of Dieri religious texts into German, rather than the other way round. His mission committee castigated him for his excessive writing, while he became engrossed in a part-imagined, part-deciphered Aboriginal life-world that eventually affected his mental health.


Reuther struggled with ethnography, both in the sense of his engagement with the body of knowledge that he was trying to map, and in the sense of his relationships with significant others in his discipline: his employers, his colleagues (notably Otto Siebert and Carl Strehlow), his sources (including published sources and indigenous informants), and the gatekeepers (like Moritz von Leonhardi). Reuther's material legacy is so vast and so unadulterated by proofreading that it is still largely untapped except in terms of his linguistic record, where Luise Hercus has been 'looking at the detail'.1 In the South Australian Museum (SAM) it occupies 3.71 linear meters of shelf-space.2 Its sheer quantity raises the question why he wrote so much, and for whom he was writing.


That the Reuther material ended up in the museum owes something to the strong German imprint in the history of the SAM as narrated by Phillip Jones. Its director in the early 1880s was German zoologist Wilhelm Haacke, who hired Amandus Heinrich Christian Zietz (1840–1921), a former collector for the Godeffroy ethnological museum in Hamburg, who went on to become assistant director of the museum from 1898 to 1910. It also had something to do with the exclusivist tendency of Baldwin Spencer that led Edward Stirling, the museum director from 1889 until 1912, to turn instead to the Lutherans for ethnographic material and information.3


In October 1907 assistant director Zietz travelled to the far end of the Barossa Valley to see the vast ethnographic and botanical collection of the recently retired Pastor Reuther from Killalpaninna mission. Zietz reported that he ‘inspected’ the collection, but Reuther’s diary categorically states on 14 October 1907 that ‘Mr. Zietz packed the museum things’.4 The two Germans must have reached an understanding quite easily once Zietz saw the massive and well-described collection. Reuther made no secret that he was also negotiating over a possible sale with Berlin and Hamburg with the help of Frankfurt-based anthropologist Moritz von Leonhardi, who proved to be so helpful in the sale of material by Carl Strehlow in the same year. Well after 'Mr. Zietz packed the museum things', the museum committee decided to purchase Reuther's collection for £400, a sum that roughly equalled four years of salary for Reuther.


Through his marriage to Pauline Stolz née Rechner, Reuther joined a pivotal family in the Lutheran mission community.5 Pauline's father Pastor Julius Rechner (1830-1900) had been in charge of the mission committee, her first husband had been the pastor of the Strait Gate church, and later one of her sons became president of the Synod. But at that moment Reuther's 'Father', Pastor Julius Rechner, had already passed away, while the seven sons who were later to become ordained pastors, were still studying, and Reuther had fled from the Bethesda mission at Lake Killalpaninna in disgrace. The Reuthers were buying a property at Eudunda (three miles from Point Pass, where their sons were schooling) to make themselves an independent home, no longer secure in the lap of the South Australian Lutheran community. Reuther was at his lowest ebb in health, wealth, and spirit. How did he fall so hard?


When 27-year old Reuther arrived at Killalpaninna in 1888 the mission was well established with a substantial church and a thriving local economy. There were three other German couples on the mission and its outstations (Kopperamanna, Etadunna and Bucaltaninna), and so many German children that the staff paid £1 per child for school taught in German and English.6 The colonist Heinrich Vogelsang had been a pioneer of the mission and knew all the practical aspects of the station work, but very soon young Pastor Reuther was put in charge, not only as superintending missionary but also as station manager. From the beginning Reuther felt that he was working at the limits of his capacity and that he was out of his class. Just being an ordained pastor was a deeply felt honour for him, and he struggled to live up to his own expectations of the profession and to the reputation of his esteemed mentors in the Neuendettelsau Mission Society. As mission superintendent he felt that he was thrown into a sink-or-swim situation with little preparation, no English, and no idea how Australian society worked.7 Nonetheless he made his home in Australia with no intention to return to Germany. He married an Australian-born woman in 1889, and was naturalised in 1896.8 There was no turning back.


During their mission years Georg and Pauline Reuther struggled to afford an education for six of their ten surviving children at the Lutheran college in Point Pass, where Pastor Leidig charged £20 for each boy. To afford their enrolment in the missionary training seminary in Neuendettelsau, Reuther appealed directly to its director, Inspector Martin Deinzer, who took in four Reuther and Stolz boys free of charge.9


As the boys were leaving home, the Reuthers in their turn also hosted long-term guests in the mission house that became something like an unofficial sanatorium, a practice they retained in their Gumvale home, which they liked to call the 'pilgrim's rest'. 10 The English teacher Henry (Harry) Hillier stayed in the Reuther home at Killalpaninna for ten years, at first as the English tutor of the Reuther boys while recovering from pulmonary disease.11 Perhaps this helped to cover costs. Pastor Paul Löhe from Natimuk in Victoria spent a while for recuperation from sickness. Occasionally Aboriginal people also stayed in the Reuther home, such as 15-year old Maria Pingilina, who died there from consumption around 1895.12 A girl afflicted with pulmonary disease spent the first half of 1904 in the Reuther home.13 This may have been Frieda, who was to be Reuther's undoing at the mission, his fall from grace. Frieda's case continues to mystify.


Reuther said that Frieda 'grew up' in their home.14 Frieda spent only about three years in the Reuther household in her early teens. In a letter to his step-son Paul Stolz in September 1903, Reuther explained who Frieda was, which suggests that Frieda must have moved into the household during 1903, after Paul's departure for Germany in February 1903. Reuther explained that Frieda was 'Mother's adopted daughter', a mixed descendant suffering from 'pulmonary consumption' (Lungenschwindsucht), and Reuther had little hope that she would survive for long. Reuther called her 'our Frieda', as if she were a daughter, and 'mei Mädle' (Bavarian for 'me lassie'), but Reuther also had a habit of speaking of other domestics as part of the household family, for example if he referred to 'Siebert's girls' he meant their Aboriginal domestics. In early 1904 three of the Reuther boys were sent to Point Pass for education, Martin (age 14), Arthur (age 13) and Albert (age 12), and Frieda spent a period at Point Pass with them until Reuther brought her back to the mission to be accommodated in the Logiehaus (meaning either visitor accommodation or the mission house).15 In 1905 she had a light-skinned baby in a childbirth that was conducted in secrecy. Frieda explained her pregnancy as a night-time rape at the lodge (Logiehaus) and maintained that she had no idea who the offender was. Neither did she absolve 45-year old Reuther, and Reuther's colleagues felt that he tried to cover up instead of making investigations.16 Reuther was called to a hearing before the Synod, at which most of his confreres accepted his innocence, but he further implicated himself by suddenly leaving his mission service in the midst of these allegations. By January 1907 Frieda had passed away and the Reuthers adopted her baby Laura, who stayed with them like a dutiful daughter, so that twenty years later Pauline wrote that Laura 'is a great help to us’.17


The Frieda 'case' brought Reuther to the point of physical and mental collapse, but actually he had shown signs of depression for years. ‘Es will Abend werden' he wrote in January 1902, after Lucas 24. 29: 'it is toward evening and the day is far spent'.18 He contemplated the predominance of grey hair among the mission residents, the dearth of young folk, and the high mortality rate of children, counting up how many child funerals he had conducted that year. But more to the point, he felt overtaxed by his responsibilities and already suffered from nervous exhaustion. In 1905, during the 'Frieda case' Reuther consulted two physicians, Dr. Edward Stirling, professor of physiology at Adelaide University, and his family doctor, who wrote:


J. G. Reuther consulted me to-day for attacks to which he has been liable for twelve months in which he has convulsive jerkings of his limbs followed by loss of consciousness lasting for some hours. Under these circumstances I advise him to leave Killalpaninna and live in the cooler climate along the coast and give up his mental work and live where he can have a more varied diet.19


Reuther felt that his ethnographic work was driving him mad. He wrote that both physicians agreed that he had to 'leave off from the books' or end up in a lunatic asylum.20 For years Reuther watched helplessly as the mission population dwindled. He could literally smooth their dying pillow by taking some of them into his home, but he could not halt the population decline. He found purpose by trying to record their culture and spiritual life-worlds, before it was too late. Thus all the current policy slogans over Aboriginal people converged on the Reuther home, and so did all the fashionable scientific investigations.


Inspired by scientific visitors to the mission Reuther explored marriage classes and tried to trace the origins of words. In July 1900 Dr. Erhard Eylmann showed great interest in the Dieri grammar, in 1901 Prof. J. W. Gregory and his students used Dieri legends to try and find diprotodon bones at Lake Eyre. In August 1903 Professor Aleksandr Jashenko (or Alexander Yashenko) from the Imperial Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences21 spent ten days at the mission. The following month Reuther expressed the conviction that the religious ideas (Götterlehre) of the Dieri stemmed from Mosaic teachings, and that local Aborigines had Phoenician origins. The ancient tribes had been pushed ever further into the interior, and their legends 'led to the Jews' while their astrological knowledge could be traced to the Phoenicians, and their religion was an admixture of both. This imaginative theory, presented as agreed fact (but only in one letter to Paul Stolz) may have emerged from Yashenko's company during long evenings on the mission verandah. Yashenko apparently offered to publish Reuther's work, but Reuther felt it was far from ready. He expected that one day one of his sons may have to complete it. Reuther's ethnography had already become an all-consuming passion.22


It had all started with the translation of the New Testament into Dieri, a proper task for a Lutheran missionary, and much commended. There is some disagreement about the relative input from Carl Strehlow and Reuther, with Reuther claiming the larger share.23 The mission committee rewarded Reuther with £18 and Strehlow with £10 'in recognition of their excellent achievement in translating the New Testament into the Dieri language'.24 It ran to 600 pages and was the first complete translation of the New Testament into any Aboriginal language, considered a major achievement and receiving much praise.


Reuther's ethnography was not so praised. After Strehlow was called to Hermannsburg mission in 1894 and began work on the Aranda (also known as Arrernte), Reuther continued with ethnographic and linguistic work on the Dieri, gathering myths, legends, beliefs, and toas as well as other objects, including a large fossilized tree that is still on display outside the SAM. Reuther produced altogether some 2,600 pages in dense German handwriting, bound into 14 thesis-sized volumes. The mission committee in South Australia castigated him for his excessive writing:


If only you would send us some brief monthly reports instead of the fat reams of lies and fables which you write up and which are of no use to anybody - who will spend the money for printing that?— then you would be fulfilling your duty, satisfy us and do something useful.25


That must have hurt. Criticism from their own ranks was always hardest to bear for missionaries under fire from all sides. There had also been tensions on the mission. In his later recollections Reuther gives the impression that he was labouring alone, when in fact he had assistant missionaries for most of the time: Carl Strehlow (1892 to October 1894), Otto Siebert (March 1894 to 1902), Nicolaus Wettengel (1896 to 1899), and Johannes Bogner (1900 to 1902, and again from about 1904). Reuther was in two minds about the need for an assistant. He thought there was not enough work for two missionaries, but too much for one, but at the same time he complained that Bogner was 'only half in the saddle'.26


Otto Siebert lasted the longest as Reuther's assistant, possibly because he created some room for himself off the mission station as a travelling missionary on the 750 square mile mission reserve. He learned Dieri very quickly and reputedly preached in the language three months after his arrival. He also collected a vast amount of ethnographic material. When Siebert arrived on 11 March 1894, Reuther prayed 'God grant that our trio [Reuther, Strehlow and Siebert] will work together in love and faith and humility'.27 But there was much tension between Reuther and Siebert. Even after Strehlow left, Reuther kept pleading that there was not enough work even for two missionaries. Nobody on the mission committee or in Neuendettelsau believed him. Siebert fell seriously ill in 1901. In early 1902 Reuther claimed that his colleague was 'quite recovered', but only a few weeks later Reuther had to admit that Siebert was spitting blood.28 Siebert was hastily granted furlough to Germany with his wife and two-year old son in May 1902. Siebert thought he was going to come back one day, but Reuther had no intention of taking Siebert back and even suggested that Siebert's possessions left behind at the mission should be put up for auction. Whatever it was between these two, the tension was palpable: a really bad match in the social isolation of Bethesda mission.


Siebert's opinion was to have a strong impact on the later reception of Reuther's work. Siebert felt that his own scientific contribution was not recognised and took issue with the way in which others eclipsed his contribution: Alfred Howitt (who published joint work under his own name), Erhard Eylmann (who ascribed to Reuther the Dieri grammar which Siebert claimed as his29), Reuther, who showed work to Pastor Adolf Ortenburger (after which Siebert no longer shared his work with Reuther), and Siebert also claimed that the work Reuther published in Globus was basically Siebert's work.30 This raised questions of intellectual property that made Reuther's work too hot to handle for its posthumous gatekeepers Norman Tindale, the South Australian Museum, and AIATSIS (then the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies).


Scientific interest in ethnographic material was so strong that it had become a source of revenue, but to graft onto the collecting networks that formed its international market, missionaries needed the support of respectable scholars as much as the armchair scholars needed the collecting missionaries.


The anthropologist Baron (Freiherr) Moritz von Leonhardi had first approached Neuendettelsau in 1899 seeking to make contact with their Australian missionaries, and received responses from Carl Strehlow and Wilhelm Poland.31 Reuther, too, addressed three of the thirty questions in Leonhardi's questionnaire with a 14–page essay on dreams.32 Sigmund’s Freud’s Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) was published in 1899, and Freud was interested in a psychoanalytical reading of Aboriginal dreaming.33 Spiritualism and the re-enchantment of the European imagination was a strong intellectual current in modern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, and Reuther’s observations on Aboriginal dream interpretation were riding the top of the wave. Reuther sent his essay to Neuendettelsau in 1904, where Inspector Deinzer scribbled a polite 'thank you' in the margins of Reuther's essay and filed it away together with Reuther's other voluminous letters. It is unlikely that Reuther's notes ever reached Leonhardi. Instead, Leonhardi began a very productive relationship with Carl Strehlow at Hermannsburg, described by Anna Kenny.34


Reuther knew that there was scientific interest in his work, and therefore value in his collection. When Professor J. Gregory was visiting the mission, following an invitation by Siebert, Reuther confided to Pastor Ludwig Kaibel directing the mission committee in Tanunda:


Do not believe that I will bring my museum out (for that I should get a lot money). It already cost me a lot of money out of my own pocket. The natives are not in a hurry to give anything away, as some of their pieces are rare. They say: Kalala. Many of their things are already rare, and they ask steep prices.35


The notion of bringing the 'museum out' suggests that Reuther's collection was still reasonably modest in 1901. Five years later he had over 1,000 artifacts and drummed up some press interest in his collection. The Adelaide Observer in February 1906 described his missionary work, his bible translation, his fossil tree and the massive collection. Strehlow began to sell ethnographic material to Germany at a good price in 1907, mediated by Leonhardi, and Reuther also began to negotiate through Leonhardi and used this in his negotiation with the SAM to achieve the substantial price of £400.36 In October 1908, as the fossil tree was being installed outside the museum, its director Dr. Edward Stirling returned to Reuther the watercolour drawings of the toas and artefacts which Harry Hillier had produced in 1905.37 In 1916 Hillier submitted a separate request for payment for his 400 sketches accompanying the collection.38 The more that they were kalala, the more the Dieri artifacts, and representations of them, became commodities on an international market.


Reuther had sold his vast collection, but he still had the manuscript that actually deciphered it in detail. He had sent some of the watercolours and parts of his manuscript to Leonhardi, which Leonhardi used to publish on the Mura under his own name in 1909.39 Siebert, who was now in Germany, at once went to see Leonhardi in August 1909 to discuss the piece and then followed up with a Globus article in 1910 to correct Reuther.40 He argued that the Dieri legends did not permit the conclusion of a belief in a Higher Being, unlike the Aranda and Loritja (also known as Arrernte and Gogadja).41 He insisted that what Reuther claimed as a 'high god' (Mura) among the Dieri, was merely an adjective, meaning sacred, and that the redoubling (mura-mura) was an intensification of that meaning.42 Neither Leonhardi nor Wilhelm Schmidt, highly respected editor of the journal Anthropos, agreed with Siebert's interpretation. Nonetheless Reuther's standing as an authoritative source was undermined as soon his name appeared on the publishing scene, and by one of his closest collaborators. Reuther no longer suffered from panic attacks, but his mind was still clouded with depression. On the last day of the year 1913 the 52-year old Reuther entered in his diary:


May the year of 1914 be my last year. I am yearning for the heavenly home. After all, there is no peace on earth, for alongside the joys of this earth there is much sorrow. Mother is very worried ... A long wished-for death would be my salvation and deliverance from this earthly sorrow.43


He then sold the remainder of his life work, the Dieri manuscripts, to the South Australian Museum for £75. Just a few weeks later he drowned in a horse cart accident so the seventy guests arriving for the Reuthers' silver anniversary were instead attending a funeral. At the time of Reuther's death his whole estate was valued at £3,000, which means that the £475 paid by the museum equalled 14% of his entire life savings — a substantial amount. For the Museum, too, it was a substantial amount, an investment that had to be put to use. The 13-volume44 handwritten German manuscript ended up on the desk of the busy curator of the ethnographic collection, Norman Tindale, who had his own ambitious project of mapping all Australian tribes. Reuther had given up his struggle with ethnography and the Museum had bought into it.


The various attempts to translate the Reuther manuscript took longer than the twelve years Reuther had probably taken to write it (1894–1906). It began with Volume 12, Reuther's descriptions of toas, since these were of most direct interest to the museum. Zietz and director Stirling himself, assisted by Stirling's daughter T. B. Robertson set to the task and brought it to publication in the Records of the South Australian Museum (1919) accompanied by copies of Hillier's watercolour drawings.


A decade later the son of a Tanunda pastor, Paul Hossfeld45, translated two volumes on religious ideas, Volume 10 (Religion: Myths and Legends, 1927, 1928) and Volume 11 (The world of Gods and Spirits, 1929). This was the most promising part of the manuscript from a religious point of view.


A few years later Norman Tindale, evidently under pressure to put the manuscript to some use, asked for help. He asked Ted Vogelsang, who had grown up and worked at Killalpaninna and was familiar with Dieri and German, to 'assess' the Reuther text with a view to translating the remaining nine volumes.46 From 1935 to 1937 Tindale also began to edit Hossfeld's translations of Volumes 10 and 11 in preparation for publication and prepared a list of all the different spellings of tribes in the Reuther manuscript. He also requested the help of Carl Strehlow's son Rev. Dr. Ted Strehlow with the many place names mentioned in Reuther.47 Tindale asked for a cataloguing clerk to prepare the Reuther manuscript for publication.48 He began to make inquiries in Germany, and in early 1937 he visited Otto Siebert near Hannover and Dr. Leo Frobenius and others in Frankfurt.49 The correspondence between Reuther and Leonhardi could no longer be found in the ethnographic institute at Frankfurt (later the Frobenius Institute)50, and one of the volumes of the manuscript that Reuther may have sent to Leonhardi, is missing (Volume 14, Songs of the Dieri).


It was the discussion with Siebert that sealed the fate of the Reuther manuscript. Siebert described Reuther as 'a good practical man' but 'lame at languages', 'his work was confused and disjointed'. More to the point, Siebert claimed part authorship, in particular of the Dieri grammar, but also of the legends (some of which he had published, but in less detail), and of the genealogies and social organisation of the Dieri. Tindale asked Reuther's son Tom Reuther to look through the Reuther diaries to ascertain how much of the work was done by Siebert, Reuther, and Strehlow. The diary, which is now available, does not reveal such detail. Pastor Tom Reuther offered to translate his father's manuscript for free51, but Tindale by now judged the work as unworthy of further investment of time and effort — it was too bulky and disjointed for publication and needed condensing and re-writing.52


The world of science had almost given up on Reuther's work, but Lutherans continued to express interest in it. The manuscript rested for another 37 years before Pastor Philip Scherer, the first archivist of the Lutheran Church Australia (a national body formed in 1966), obtained funding in 1974 for a translation from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS, now AIATSIS, formed in 1965). When the AIAS funding ran out, Scherer continued unfunded. Meanwhile the young linguist Luise Hercus with the help of her German-speaking mother translated the four-volume Dieri grammar and what Reuther had on the Wonkanguru and Yandruwanta grammar.53


Once Scherer's opus of translation was completed, negotiations between AIAS and SAM stalled as the Museum asserted its legal ownership of the original manuscript, and the publication of the translation was suppressed as nobody felt in a position to fund a publication. Only a microfiche version was produced. Using Scherer’s translation, two of the senior staff of the museum, Dr. Philip Jones and Dr. Peter Sutton, published Art and Land providing a scholarly discussion, to accompany a much debated exhibition at the SA Museum in 1986. They excuse Reuther as an 'untrained observer'.54


Reuther was definitely untrained, since there were no anthropology departments in 1888 when he arrived at the mission. But his manuscript reveals an empathetic purveyor of knowledge, who respects those whom he describes, and attempts to show the internal hermeneutics of a sensible and decipherable Lebenswelt (life world). He occasionally distances himself from the assertions made when his own religion requires him to do so, but in general he does not pass judgement on what he writes. He records and narrates it, and most of all, tries to organise it, as Luise Hercus points out, without any electronic devices that make editing so easy now, and even without index cards. In many cases he simply layered a more recent take on an issue over those written up earlier. For example Volume 13 is a revised version of Volume 12. Hercus notes that Volume 10 was based on public versions of stories told by the Dieri informants, whereas Volume 7 has a very similar content, but is based on restricted versions.55 This partly answers the question posed at the beginning — why Reuther wrote so much, and for whom.


Reuther must have misunderstood some of the information he was given by his informants, but he dedicated all his energies to systematising the information. Apart from the grammar and description of toas and other objects, Reuther renders the myths, legends and beliefs of the Dieri and relates these to names, places, spirit beings, and objects. He well understood the interconnectedness of all of these dimensions, the spiritual, the spatial, the personal, the social, and the material. Volume 7a explains 1,100 place names and has been digitised by the South Australian Attorney General’s Department. Volumes 8 and 9, also digitised, describe the meaning of 303 personal names. Volume 10, on myths and legends, originally listed 175 mura-mura (spirit ancestors) and was condensed by Scherer to about 30, with some explanatory notes forming separate chapters. Volume 11 on the ‘Götterwelt’ (spirit world, or realm of the gods) describes 226 spirit beings and refers to six languages. It gives the forms for key terms in Dieri and in the five neighbouring languages to demonstrate the degree of variation between them, inspired by the Kulturkreise approach favoured by German anthropologists at the time. Volume 12 describes 383 toas and 591 items in the ethnological collection.


Sitting in front of this massive manuscript gives the clear impression that it represents an all-consuming life work, an obsession, an intellectual labyrinth that leads further and further into a life-world that resisted the author’s stubborn intent to classify, order, number and understand it. Even without formal training, Reuther did understand much of it, since there is much that can be learned just from understanding the grammar of a language. Reuther, in line with Lutheran thought, was convinced that his command of the Dieri language enabled him to think and feel with the Aborigines.


Footnote 5 in Volume 11 lists the 24 grammatical forms of the personal pronoun ‘he’, depending on whether ‘he’ is (1) present, or (2) in the visible distance, or (3) at a remote distance, or (4) in the remote past (deceased), and whether the verb is (1) transitive or (2) intransitive, and whether it is (1) certainly him or (2) not quite sure or (3) not an issue (I am paraphrasing here). In other words, the personal pronoun has 4 x 2 x 3 forms. Then of course there are also the 24 forms of ‘she’. For example nauja is ‘he’ who is present, definitely him, in the intransitive form. Kutji is the spirit — and there can be benevolent and malevolent ones — and in combination kutji nauja is the spirit-who-is-present: actually the devil in person. Just reading the grammar of the personal pronoun can strike your heart with fear, and there is ample reference to magic and devil things and secrets in the manuscript.56


The main informant on sorcery and spiritual beliefs was Elias Palkalina, one of the two top shearers at Etadunna sheep station managed by the mission. Palkalina narrated in detail the process through which he became a kunki, which means he was occupying the highest position of honour in his group. In the process of telling and recording, some kind of synthesis is taking place between the teller and the recorder. The process involves an ordering, formalisation, fossilisation, and therefore a creation in just the same way as writing down an oral language always does. Palkalina told, and Reuther recorded, the 17 steps of the 3-day procedure and the 13 rules of the kunki.


Addressing the question of an all-Father in indigenous societies, a topic that was much debated at the time, Reuther explains that there are many mura-mura (spirit ancestors) who account for the linguistic diversity among the Dieri and their neighbours, because they each did their own naming of useful plants and animals. Their souls are stars and constellations. Mura, the all-being, creator of everything, is constantly petitioned by the mura-mura, acting for the Dieri, for edible plants, animals, rain, and other things necessary or desirable for life. These mura-mura make conflicting demands, therefore not all demands can be met. The Dieri can submit such demands by enacting the biography of a particular mura-mura, including where he surfaced, where he travelled, what he met, and named, where he found water, food, and where he died. Of course, Reuther notes, instead of petitioning Mura, one can also just engage in trade in order to obtain the things that are necessary or desirable.


The Reuther manuscript clearly arises out of a dynamic between Reuther and his informants. Reuther was instructed in terms that made sense to him and that inculcated in him a respect for the system of thought he encountered: there is an all-powerful creator (much like the Christian God) who can be appealed to through the intercession of spirit ancestors, who really did once live on earth and have biographies (much like Christian saints, in fact). Chanting sacred texts will help a person in need or great fear. Upon death the soul rises into the heavens, and there is a beautiful heaven above in the skies. The bad and evil is the realm of the devil.


This is precisely the kind of narrative that gave rise to the allegation, raised for example by Alfred Howitt, that the missionaries invented the all-Father in Aboriginal cosmology. However I think that it was not so much a missionary invention, but a phenomenon of the contact zone that produced a mutual invention, in just the way that Richard White describes for the American north in his book, The Middle Ground. Robert Kenny describes a similar joint invention in one of the founding moments of the Moravian mission at Ebenezer (Victoria), where a group of missionaries and young local men colluded to produce a possible, but highly unlikely, connection between the evangelical written story of a Wimmera orphan boy, and the lived experience of the young Wimmera men present at the reading of the story. In the collusive process of telling and re-telling, a story written in England and read out to them at Ebenezer became a story of their real lives, and text became transformed as lived reality in an electric moment of substantiation.57 It was this moment that created a craving for what the missionaries had to teach at Ebenezer: reading and writing, a powerful tool for carrying knowledge across vast distances.


Reuther also related that witchdoctors can save souls and act as intermediaries to the Mura. He recognised the parallels in this Dieri narrative with the teachings he was trying to impart on the Dieri, but here he felt compelled to insert one of his disclaimers. Witchdoctors differed from Western priests because they were associated not with the benevolent creator, but with the devil. As a matter of fact the contact cults such as observed by the Jesuit missionaries at the Daly River and by the Pallottine missionaries in the Kimberley cast the colonisers, including their priests, as the evil force, according to the anthropologist who later discussed them.58


The whole Reuther manuscript reads like Reuther was being recruited, or trained, into a Dieri way of knowing. Why else would he be told how to cast a magic spell on fifteen types of objects including waterholes, yellow ochre, brown ochre, the sun, and the rain? And was this an appropriate task for a missionary? The mission committee found it more appropriate for a pastor to manage a sheep station and send quarterly reports.


Anna Kenny's treatment of Carl Strehlow, The Aranda's Pepa (2014) offers a surprising answer to the questions I have been posing about Reuther: who was the missionary ethnographer writing for, and why did his informants share so many secrets with him? There are many instances of mission experience that show how magical powers were seen to be invested in the Bible and other kinds of paper. The Bible was the object in which resided the powerful law of Christians, it had to be handled with care and respect, because of its immanent meaning, force and power. Senior lawmen were interested in this new technology of power. Pepa was the address the Aranda used for Father Strehlow, so the Aranda's Pepa was Father Carl Strehlow. But pepa also meant paper, in particular this paper embodying the law, the Bible. Kenny suggests that the Aranda lawmen told Strehlow everything that was necessary to produce the authoritative law-book of the Aranda, the book of Aranda law in paper, the Aranda's Pepa.


Is it possible that the Dieri tried to get Reuther to write down the Dieri book of law to compete with the Christian book of law? Reuther became so lost in the Dieri lifeworlds that it affected his sanity. He increasingly suffered from insomnia, trembling and epileptic fits, to which he referred as his 'nervous condition'. In the end he believed that he would either have to leave it alone or face the lunatic asylum. According to Reuther's own account, when he left the mission in a great hurry in 1906, it was his ethnographic work that he was running away from, rather than the suspicions of his Brethren. Perhaps he realised that his Dieri informants had turned the tables on him: he had become the student and they the teachers. They were colonising his mind and he was losing his.





1 Hercus, Luise. 2015. 'Reuther's Diari: looking at the detail', paper presented at The German Anthropological Tradition in Australia, Nicolas Peterson and Anna Kenny, ANU 18–19 June.
2 Heffernan, Luke and Francesca Zilio. 2011. South Australian Museum Finding Aid, March,
3 Jones, Philip. 2011. ‘Colonial Wissenschaft: German naturalists and museums in nineteenth century South Australia’. Peter Monteath (ed)Germans - Travellers, Settlers and their Descendants in South Australia. Wakefield Press, Adelaide, xxi: 204–236.
4 ‘Museum Report’. The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889–1931) 5 Nov 1908: 12,, accessed: 8 October 2012. Diary of J.G. Reuther 1888–1914, translated by R.B. Reuther 1970, Nuriootpa, Lutheran Archives Australia (LAA). 20 December 1901, Diary of J.G. Reuther 1888–1914, LAA.
5 Rod Lucas. 2015. 'Pulcaraurannie: losing and finding a cosmic centre with the help of J. G. Reuther and others'. Paper presented at The German Anthropological Tradition in Australia, Nicolas Peterson and Anna Kenny, ANU 18–19 June
6 In 1900 both Reuther and Hillier gave German lessons. 2 January 1900 Reuther to Kaibel, Correspondence, Reuther and Kaibel, Reuther Boxes, LAA and 3 April 1902, 2 February 1905, 16 March 1905 Immanuel Synod Minutes, LAA.
7 Reuther felt that Vogelsang 'stuck with the blacks' and 'looked at me sideways' (hat mich schief angeschaut) because Reuther, rather than the older and more experienced Vogelsang, was appointed as station manager. Both families had enough children to need the small pay-rise attached to the managerial position. Reuther to Kaibel, 20 March 1908, in 1. 6. 35 Reuther, Georg, 1861–1912, Pers. Korresp. Vorl. Nr. 4.93/5, Neuendettelsau.
8 Reuther, J. G. File A711 3610 NAA.
 9 Reuther letters to Neuendettelsau in 1. 6. 35 Reuther, Georg, 1861–1912, Pers. Korresp. Vorl. Nr. 4.93/5, Neuendettelsau.
10 Reuther at Gumvale (Julia) to Neuendettelsau, 19 April 1913 in 1. 6. 35 Reuther, Georg, 1861–1912, Pers. Korresp. Vorl. Nr. 4.93/5, Neuendettelsau.
11 Reuther at Gumvale to Deinzer at Neuendettelsau, 8 February 1910. According to the Immanuel Synod Minutes, Hillier left Killalpaninna in February 1905 and in 1900 he had a child attending the Killalpaninna school. Presumably Hillier was married and made a financial contribution to the Reuther household while he lived there.
12 Stevens, Christine. White man's dreaming: Killalpaninna Mission, 1866–1915. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994:123. For a biography of Maria's father Johannes Pingilina, see 'German missionaries in Australia a web-directory of intercultural encounters' –
13 Reuther at Killalpaninna to Neuendettelsau, 1 June 1904.
14 Reuther wrote about Frieda: ‘Ein halbweißes Mädchen, welches in unserem Hause großgezogen worden war und für eine Zeit bei unseren Kindern in Lights Pass diente, kam mit mir zurück nach der Station, wurde in ihrem Zimmer im Logiehaus genotzüchigt, gebar ein dreiviertelweisses Kind und ich sollte weil sie des angegebenen Vaters, weil Nacht unschlüssig wurde, zuletzt der Vater sein. Das Gerücht war schnell genug in die Welt hinausgeplaudert u. kam vor die Synode." Reuther at Eudunda to Deinzer at Neuendettelsau, 14 January 1907.
15 Reuther at Eudunda to Deinzer at Neuendettelsau, 14 January 1907.
16 Reuther at Eudunda to Deinzer at Neuendettelsau, 14 January 1907, 1 June 1904, 17 June 1905, in 1.6. 35 Reuther, Georg, 1861–1912, Pers. Korresp. Vorl. Nr. 4.93/5, Neuendettelsau.
17 Pauline Reuther at Gumvale, 8 October 1929, in Judy Gale Rechner, ‘GJ Rechner and his descendants: Rechner, Fischer/Fisher, Stolz and Reuther Journeys’, Adelaide, Rechner Researchers, 2008:235.
19 Reuther at Gumvale to Deinzer in Neuendettelsau, 14 January 1907.
20 'Seit einem Jahr habe ich keinen Nervenanfall mehr gehabt. Es dauerte über 3 Jahre bis die Nerven zur Ruhe kamen. Die Doktoren in Adelaide hatten Recht. Vor der Irrenanstalt, die sie mir prophezeiten, wenn ich die Bücher nicht beiseitelege, fürchtete ich mich.' Reuther at Gumvale to Deinzer in Neuendettelsau, 8 February 1910.
21 A.L. Yashchenki i ego puteshestyne v Avstraliyu 1951 (A.L. Yaschenko and his journey to Australia, 1978) G. Barratt Translation of I. E. Iachenko's journal of his 1903 visit ... 1985 MS1285 Box 2 Item 23 Nr. 9 and Box 3 item 2 Nr. 6. AIATSIS. See also - Foundation
22 'Nun ja, ist die eigene Seele geretted [sic] und, hilf’s Gott, noch einige anderen [sic] dazu, dann ist die Tagesarbeit mit ihren Beschwerden nicht umsonst gewesen und mir nicht leid, gelebt zu haben.' Reuther at Killalpanina to Paul Stolz at Neuendettelsau, 24 September 1903.
23 Reuther later claimed he had started this work before Strehlow arrived on 11 July 1892) but his diary shows that he began to translate the Gospel on 10 April 1893. According the SAM's Guide to the Records, Reuther and Strehlow completed the Bible translation in 1895, but according to the Immanuel Synod Committee Minutes it took until 1897 to be sent to G. Auricht, the Lutheran publishing house in Tanunda and was published with funding from the British and Foreign Bible Society in August 1898. (Minutes of 16 August 1898, 19 April 1900). It was only then that Reuther recorded in his diary, on 16 August 1898, that he had 'finished the new Testament', four years after Strehlow had left Killalpaninna mission.
24 6 September 1899, Immanuel Synod Mission Committee Minute Book (1895–1901) translated, LAA.
25 'Wenn Du für die dicken Stöße Lügenden & Fabeln, welche Du zurecht geschrieben hast, die keinem Menschen etwas nützen – wer wird das Geld zum Drucken daran wenden? – uns monatlich kurze Nachrichten zukommen ließest, erfülltest Du Deine Pflicht, befriedigtest und und tätest etwas Nützliches.' Kaibel to Reuther, 18 February 1904, Box 19 Bethesda, LAA.
26 'Bogner sitzt hier blos halb im Sattel'. Bogner's wife was ill with malaria in the South. Reuther at Killalpaninna to Neuendettelsau, 1 June 1904.
27 Reuther diary, 11 March 1894, LAA.
28 Reuther at Killalpaninna to Kaibel at Light Pass, 3 February 1902, LAA.
29 In fact Luise Hercus (pers. comm.) finds that the Dieri Grammar ascribed to Reuther makes little advance on that of Johann Flierl, rather the opposite.
30 Tindale, May 1937, reporting on his visit to Otto Siebert, Dr. L. Frobenius, and Dr. Niggemeyer in charge of Strehlow collection in Frankfurt, AA 266/5, SAM.
31 Leonhardi at Gross-Karben to Deinzer in Neuendettelsau. 1 Mai 1899 in Reuther file, Neuendettelsau.
32 Reuther file 1. 6. 35 Reuther, Georg, 1861–1912, Pers. Korresp. Vorl. Nr. 4.93/5, Neuendettelsau
33 Gingrich André 2015. 'German-language anthropology traditions around 1900 and their methodological relevance for ethnographers in Australia and beyond'. Paper presented at The German Anthropological Tradition in Australia, Nicolas Peterson and Anna Kenny, ANU 18–19 June.
34 Kenny, Anna. 2013. The Aranda’s Pepa: An introduction to Carl Strehlow’s Masterpiece Die Aranda-und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien (1907–1920). ANU E Press.
35 Reuther to Kaibel, 26 November 1901, Correspondence, Reuther and Kaibel, Reuther Boxes, LAA, translated. Clara Stockigt (pers.comm.) kindly translated 'kalala' as meaning 'finished', 'nothing is left'.
36 Reuther to Stirling at SAM, 25 August 1907 stating that the Berlin museum is interested in purchasing his collection, but he is offering it to the SAM. 'Papers relating to the Reuther Collection Purchased 1907' AA 266/14/2, SAM.
37 Stirling to Reuther, 4 May 1908, asking when will the coloured plates be returning from Europe? Reuther to Stirling, 4 July 1908, apologising for not sending the toa plates, due to ill health. Stirling to Reuther, 13 October 1908, thanking Reuther for the loan of the plates and returning them, thanking for the remaining toa descriptions, and mentioning that the fossil tree has been installed. Stirling to Reuther, 14 October 1908 requesting permission to publish the toa plates. 'Papers relating to the Reuther Collection Purchased 1907'AA 266/14/2, AA 266/6/16/1-5, AA 266/14/7/1-2, AA266/23 SAM.
38 Hillier, Henry to Edward Stirling, Honorary Curator of Ethnology, 8 July 1916. However, only copies of his drawings were published in 1919, so perhaps the Museum did not purchase Hillier's watercolours separately.
39 Reuther to Stirling at SAM, 14 November 1907, re. his publication of toas with the assistance of Baron von Leonhardi AA266/14/5/1-4 SAM. See also Moritz Freiherr v. Leonhardi, 'Der Mura und die Mura-Mura der Dieri', Anthropos, IV 1909:1065–1068.
40 Völker, Harriet. 'Missionare als Ethnologen - Moritz Freiherr von Leonhardi, australische Mission und europäische Wissenschaft', in Reinhard Wendt (ed) Sammeln, Vernetzen, Auswerten: Missionare und ihr Beitrag zum Wandel europäischer Weltsicht, Günter Narr Verlag, Tübingen 2001:173-185.
41 Siebert, Otto. 'Sagen und Sitten der Dieri und Nachbarstämme in Zentralaustralien', Globus, 1910:44–50, 53–59.
42 Boehmer, Julius. 'Die südostaustralischen Dieri und Otto Siebert' (Review of P. Wilh. Schmidt, and a response from Schmidt) Anthropos, Vol. 23, Nr. 1/2 Jan-April 1928:316–320.
43 Reuther diary, 31 December 1913, LAA.
44 Volume 14, 'Songs of the Dieri', is missing from the collection.
45 Paul Hossfeld's father Pastor Franz Hossfeld (1862–1937) studied at Hermannsburg and married Berta Richter in 1895, so he was a relation by marriage of Reuther. He was expelled from ELSA in 1895 for remaining faithful to the Hermannsburg Mission Society and joined the Immanuel Synod in 1909. He was pastor at Dutton from 1892 to 1928 and then assisting pastor of the Tabor Church in Tanunda, which means that he was available to help his son with the translations. Weiss, Peter. Short General and Statistical History of the Australian Lutheran Church, Lutheran Archives Australia, 2001–2007.
46 Tindale to Hale, 28 October 1935, AA 266/5/10, SAM.
47 File note, May 1935, AA266/23; and Tindale, 16 November 1935, AA266/5 SAM.
48 Tindale SAM ethnologist to Hale, SAM director, 4 February 1935, AA266/23 and AA 266/5/5/1-2 SAM. >
49 Tindale to Hale 2 May 1937, informing that he had received two reports on the Reuther MS, AA 266/5/13 SAM. Tindale, May 1937, reporting on his visit to Otto Siebert, Dr. L. Frobenius, and Dr. Niggemeyer in charge of Strehlow collection in Frankfurt, AA 266/5, SAM.
50 'Die Eingeborenen der Kolonie Südaustralien', Berlin 1908, pp.93-98 in Tindale, account of his visit in Germany, May 1937, AA 266/5 SAM.
51 Sheard, Harold at Nuriootpa to Norman Tindale, 29 July 1937, AA 266/5, SAM.
52 Tindale, Norman MS 1937, AA 266/5/20, SAM.
53 SAM description of 'Papers relating to the Reuther Collection Purchased 1907' AA 266/14/2, SAM.
;54 Jones, Philip G., Peter Sutton, and Kaye Clark. Art and Land: Aboriginal Sculptures of the Lake Eyre Region by Philip Jones and Peter Sutton. South Australian Museum, 1986.
55 Hercus, Luise. 2015. 'Reuther's Diari: looking at the detail', paper presented at The German Anthropological Tradition in Australia, Nicolas Peterson and Anna Kenny, ANU 18–19 June.
56 Reuther, Johann G. 1981, The Diari vols 1-13. Translated by Philipp A. Scherer. Vol. 5 translated by T. Schwarzschild and L.A. Hercus. AlAS Microfiche No.2, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Original volumes in South Australian Museum, AA266.
57 White, Richard. 1991. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press. Kenny, Robert. 2007. The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World. Melbourne, Scribe Publications.
58Bill Stanner and D.B. Rose described the tyaboi encountered by the Jesuits on the Daly River, and Ronald and Catherine Berndt observed the ko'rangara (or gorangara) in Arnhem Land. Rose, Deborah Bird. ‘Signs of life on a barbarous frontier: intercultural encounters in north Australia. The Archaeology of Difference: Negotiating Cross-Cultural Engagements in Oceania. London: Routledge (2000). Berndt, Ronald Murray. Australian aboriginal religion. Brill Archive, 1974. See also Petri, H. 1950 'Kurangara - Neue magische Kulte in Nordwest-Australien', Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, vol. 75