There are many legends concerning the waratah--Australia's most glorious flower and all her own, for it does not occur in any other part of the world, while its supposed rival, the wattle, is as common in all parts of the Southern Hemisphere as it is in Australia. The aborigines wove some very pretty and fanciful stories about their prettiest bloom. Most of them come from the Burragorang Valley, though at least one must have filtered through from very far west, for in this story lies enclosed the fact that the waratah did in early tertiary times flourish in West Australia.
This story is one of the making of the waratah red. It was supposed, it seems, that it was at first a white flower, though that idea does not pervade the other stories of it. Still it was loved then just as much as it is now, and its whiteness did not detract from its charm. The day was away back in the alcheringa and it had been very still and very hot, and the whole tribe, with the exception of one man, lay amongst the bracken in the shade of big eucalypti and lesser myrtles and other scrub. The sweet-scented Sassafras grew there, too, and that other perfumed shrub, the Olearia or Musk, and without a doubt, the exquisite Ceratopetalum or Christmas Bush, as well. The spot was at the foot of very high bouldered cliffs that bounded a deep, clear-pooled river, and the one man who was not prostrated was fishing. All this was in a valley, and out from it the land was a parched and barren tract. The sun blazed down and the heat dazzled, and the sandy and gravelled ground was too hot to walk upon. Now not a zephyr moved the air. The season must have been spring, for the waratah blooms only in that season, always waiting until the cold of winter had retreated to the Pole to which it belongs, or to the regions above the clouds.
Most of the people were asleep. They had retired to the shade. They knew that great cumulus clouds would at length appear from beyond the west and that most surely they would bring thunder and lightning and rain and coolness. An infant-a very pretty child not yet able to walk and perhaps not yet entirely black, for aboriginal babies were born brown, and the black of them showed first under their fingernails and spread from there--crawled away from its dozing mother or whatever woman had charge of it, and the dogs were too indolent in the heat to notice it laboriously getting closer and closer to a tangle of Hibbertia, or Guinea-flower vine, through which stood the Waratah plant resplendent with gleaming white flowers. In there, coiled but alert, lay something else that gleamed-a watching black snake.
Now, the child was of the black snake totem, and, that being so, the reptile was its guardian, not its enemy.
As some of our children have done, the little baby put out its hand to play with the usually deadly thing, and just at that moment the guardian awoke. She missed the child at once. One hurried glance around and she saw the situation. There was the baby about to play with a venomous snake. Forgetting that the child was of that totem and that it would do her no harm, she grabbed a nullah and flung it with all her might, and the back of the snake was broken, and its blood streamed out. The only movement it was then capable of was a swaying of the forward part, and this part it placed around the baby.
Another missile was thrown, and, had the snake not been where it was, the child would certainly have received the blow and been hurt. The snake was again hit, as it, being the protector of the child, intended that it should. Slowly and painfully it unwound itself. The now frightened baby rolled away. The snake laid its injured self amongst the stalks of the waratah bush, and slowly its blood was absorbed as it trickled from the wounds. In a few days streaks of red were to be seen in the flowers, and by degrees the whole of them were so coloured, and therefore we have the bright and beautiful blooms of far greater quantity than the white ones.
It is certainly strange that the white waratahs appear to be much older than the usual crimson ones.
The last full-blooded woman of the Cammaray tribe says that she is a black snake woman and that the black snake is her guardian. When a baby, her life was saved in a manner somewhat similar to the way the baby of this story was saved and it always warns her of approaching danger, and when her intentions, if carried out, will not be to her advantage. So sure is she of that, that she takes careful notice in summer, and she only undertakes serious matters in that season so that she may be warned by her black snake.