The Australian aborigines believed that the Milky Way was a "pukkan" or track, along which many spirits of departed blacks travelled to heaven, and that the dark place that we call Magellan's Cloud was a hole or split that occurred when the universe was frightfully shaken by some mighty upheaval which gave us many of the wonders of Nature, including the brilliant waratah, gorgeous caves such as Jenolan and others less magnificent, burnt patches of rock, and so on.
Legends also make mention of a hidden river, over which certain spirits have to travel to a Promised Land. This river flowed at the edge of a mighty forest, and beyond a fearful range of huge jagged mountains, at the nearer foot of which lay an extensive marshy lake, in the centre of which was an enchanted island. The natives of the South-East of Australia were very clear about the picture just described. They said that not only had some people spoken to returned men who had waded through the lake and been on the island and climbed the mountain and nearly reached the river, but they had also had amongst them at one time and another living men who had seen these fairy places and always knew that a continuous stream of spirits passed that way to the Unseen River.
Two giant trees grew on the bank, and a tortoise lay athwart it. Up to the time of this happening all tortoises and turtles had long tails. This tortoise reached from the bank just opposite the big trees, to the other.
On the journey many spirits were supposed to be in some way tempted to do evil, and succumbed to the temptation; therefore there were some fallings by the way. Some were kept floundering about in the lake itself, and these congregated on the island until they had expiated their sins, when they were allowed to go on. Others failed when climbing the mountain, and there on some barren peak they had to wait, while others remained faithful until reaching the lower level, and then were within sight of the river. But there was a test for them. They had to squeeze between the trunks of the giant trees, and then the bridge they reached was the tortoise.
Then came a time when many people quite good enough to get into heaven failed to reach the opposite bank of the river. It was known that they had got between the trees, and then all trace of them was lost; but one day a man arrived amongst the people who had been remade, and he told them his experiences.
He said that he had died and reached the tortoise on the unseen river. He stepped upon it, and was half way along it when it gave a sly jerk, and he fell off its tail into the river. He was borne along very swiftly, for it is a fast flowing stream, and suddenly he was swept underground. For a long time he was carried through deep subterranean passages, and at last he came out into sunlight. He found himself still in a river, and now it flowed between high banks, and playing in it were blacks that he knew. Some were just swimming, some were fishing, some were hiding in the rushes awaiting ducks. They did not know of his presence, though some seemed to hear him, for they suddenly became afraid and rushed off to their camp. At last he was swept into the sea, and a great wave washed him ashore. As soon as he touched land he found that he was changing. It took a long time, but at last he became a man again, and when he looked at his chest and felt his back he was aware of the scars that he 'had borne in his other existence.
He now suggested that when the next great man died--the chief or the doctor or the rainmaker or the clergyman--his best stone axe be buried with him.
Then a sorcerer came forward and proclaimed that he would undertake to go to the river and secure the passage of it for all time. He selected some other brave people, and by the aid of his sorcery he set out on the way of the spirits. He soon reached the forest, but found it full of the "little men of the bush." They barred the way of the party. Try as they would, no passage through the ranks of the "little men" could be made. So then they turned and followed the flow of the river, and that way no opposition was offered.
They came to a tree even higher than those at the crossing-place, and up that the great sorcerer climbed. From the top of it he could see the spirits stepping on to tail of the tortoise and some being shaken off. Many of these were taken by the claws of the hind feet of the beast and afterwards eaten. Others were carried down stream. The shadow of the tree was impenetrable to the "little men," and a bright star shed a beam to the tortoise.
The sorcerer saw that he must die before he could pass the little men and he and his party returned home. He sharpened again his axe. He put a sharpened bone in the fire, and scraped some of the burnt part off into his food. Then he died, and as a good spirit, he reached the giant trees, and there were no "little men" to stop him. But in their place was a great snake that reared its head and prepared to strike.
With a blow of his axe he severed the head from the body, and picking it up he squeezed between the trees and stepped on to the tail of the tortoise. When he was about half way over, just as he had seen it do to others, and just as the returned man had told it did to him, it gave a great shake. But he was wary, and with another great blow of his axe he cut the tail off. Quickly rushing to the other bank he turned and swung the axe at the head of the tortoise and that was severed too. Of this, though, he repented, and as the head swung down the stream he put the head of the snake in its place. Then the beast rolled over and sank out of sight.
And so now all tortoises and turtles have a snake's head and are tail-less.
And if the last woman of the Illawarra Group, who is still living, is asked about it, and if all the points of the story are examined, it will be found that there is as much truth as fiction in it.
Those who ask, however, must have the right sympathy or they will hear nothing.