More than Just a Haircut: Aboriginal Mourning Rituals in Samson and Delilah

Setting an atypical love story between two adolescents in a modern Aboriginal community, the multi-award winning Australian movie gives a special insight into this people’s traditional behaviour and ceremonies. In particular, when death suddenly occurs in the lives of the protagonists, the presence of some of their long-standing customs subtly reveals itself, challenging the audience’s capacity to understand the action. 

Women of the Warramunga tribe embracing and crying during a mourning ceremony

While watching Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, it is difficult not to wonder what tradition lies beneath Delilah’s decision to cut her hair after the death of her grandmother. And why does she get beaten so violently by the other members of her community after this loss ? Unaccustomed to such reactions, Western viewers are likely to assume that there is some connection with Aboriginal death rituals without however fully understanding their impact and meaning. And don’t count on the quiet Samson to go into details about the subject.

In times of grieving, Aboriginal rituals are particularly codified and even today, as shown in Samson and Delilah. Of course, centuries of cultural incomprehension, repression and assimilation policies have not helped their preservation, but it appears that, in terms of mourning, some customs do not die.

No pain no grief

Capture d’écran 2013-10-21 à 21.09.01
Screen capture from « Samson and Delilah »

Perhaps the most unsettling element of the mourning process for our Western eyes is the one however most represented in the film: physical violence. The suffering of losing a relative is indeed reinforced in certain Aboriginal tribes by the intensional infliction of pain during grief. And believe it or not, Delilah could have come off much worse. As notably described by François Giner in Heart of Arnhem Land, a widespread custom in the Bulman-Weemol community, located in the Northern Territory, in such situations is for women to cut a part of their body or even, during the funeral ceremonies, to hit their head with a stone1.

Cutting a visible part of their body is also a way to inform other members of the community that a death has occurred. And indeed, when Samson wakes up and sees his friend roughly cutting her hair, he seems to  understand immediately what has happened and silently moves back to his brother’s home.

The burial, more than only dedicated to grief, was a real community celebration”

As for the question of the beating, it echoes the issue of responsibility in the death of a relative. During his research, François Giner lived and established genuine friendships with members of the Bulman-Weemol tribe and witnessed some of these ceremonies. He explains that “the burial, more than only dedicated to grief, was a real community celebration”, therefore affecting the whole population and not just close relatives who are in fact often blamed for not having been able to prevent the tragic event2 hence Delilah’s lot in the movie.

Of songs and Taboos

But even before cutting her hair, the first reaction of the teenager, played by the talented young actress Marissa Gibsona, after she realises her grandmother has passed away is to sing. Traditional songs as well as dances are of central importance in many Aboriginal rituals, and the film does not betray this ancient rule, which breaks its dominant silent atmosphere. Customarily, both singing and dancing are performed to guide the soul of the deceased to find its way back to the Dreamtime, the Aborigines’ spiritual and sacred world. A way to prevent the deceased from staying and haunting the community, a belief reinforced later in the grieving process by the implementation of taboos3.

Though they, of course, differ from one indigenous tribe to another, other rituals aim at keeping any angry spirits away. In her book Rêves en Colère avec les Aborigènes australiens, Barbara Glowczeski gives the notable example of members of the Warlpiri community who would avoid saying the name of the deceased as well as other phonetically close names or nouns, replacing it by the term “ Kumanjayi”, meaning ‘without a name’ in Warlpiri, which is also the language spoken in Samson and Delilah.  “Not to respect taboos is to cause so much pain to the deceased’s relatives that it might just hold up the spirit’s departure and urge it to harm those who keep it there” explains the French anthropologist specialised in Aboriginal cultures4. Taboos also apply to some of the personal belongings of the deceased, as well as to his/her representation in photos or videos5. Therefore, the dot painting previously made by Delilah and her grandmother is burned after her death.


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Screen capture from « Samson and Delilah »

Knowing more about the significance of Aborigines’ mourning traditions gives an even larger understanding to the movie and to Delilah’s pain to discover in Alice Spring the presence of one of Nana’s last paintings in a shop, accompanied with her picture and her name.

Similarly, rituals can be identified in other films, such as Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer, and Rabbit Proof Fence, by Phillip Noyce. In both movies a loss is experienced by the characters, the death of a tribe’s chief in the former and the removal of three children in the latter. In Ten Canoes, a voice over comments and explains the implications of the  mourning rituals, then explaining why these people from Arnhem Land dance and sing the way they do when a member of the community dies. However, in Rabbit Proof Fence, no clues are given as to why one of the mothers repeatedly strikes her head with a stone when her child is stolen from her and taken 1500 miles away from their Jigalong community. Indeed, being equipped with knowledge of the significance of these ancient rituals allows contemporary viewers to better understand how contemporary cinematographers are adapting and reformulating traditional practices.  

Works cited :

1François Giner, En terre aborigène: Rencontre avec un monde ancien (Editions Albin Michel, 2007), p 267-268.

2Katie Glaskin, Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2008), p 44.

3Barbara Glowczewski, Rêves en colère: Alliances aborigènes dans le Nord-Ouest australien (Pocket, 2006), p 278-279.

4Ibid, p 279.

5Ibid, p 279.

See also :

Noyce, Phillip. Rabbit proof fence. Miramax films, 2002.

De Heer, Rolf. Ten canoes. Palace Films, 2006.

Banting, Erinn. Australia – The People. Crabtree, 2001.

Charlesworth, Maxwell John, Françoise Dussart, and Howard Morphy. Aboriginal Religions in Australia: An Anthology of Recent Writings. Ashgate, 2005.

Havecker, Cyril. Le temps du rêve: La mémoire du peuple aborigène australien. Editions du Rocher, 2003.

Magowan, Fiona. Melodies of Mourning: Music & Emotion in Northern Australia. James Currey, 2007.

Muecke, Stephen, and Adam Shoemaker. Les Aborigènes d’Australie. Gallimard, 2002.


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