VENUS in the Summer evenings is a striking object in the western sky. Our Venus they call the Laughing Star, who is a man. He once said something very improper, and has been laughing at his joke ever since. As he scintillates you seem to see him grinning still at his Rabelais-like witticism, seeing which the aborigines say:
'He's a rude old man, that Laughing Star.'
The Milky Way is a warrambool, or water overflow; the stars are the fires, and the dusky haze the smoke from them, which spirits of the dead have lit on their journey across the sky. In their fires they are cooking the mussels they gather where they camp.
There is one old man up there who was once a great rainmaker, and when you see that he has turned round as the position of the Milky Way is altered, you may expect rain; he never moves except to make it.
A waving dark shadow that you will see along the same course is Kurreah, the crocodile.
To get to the Warrambool, the Wurrawilberoo, two dark spots in Scorpio, have to be passed. They are devils who try to catch the spirits of the dead; sometimes even coming to earth, when they animate whirlwinds and strike terror into the blacks. The old men try to keep them from racing through the camp by throwing their spears and boomerangs at them.
The Pleiades are seven sisters, as usual, the dimmed ones having been dulled because on earth Wurrunnah seized them and tried to melt the crystal off them at a fire; for, beautiful as they were with their long hair, they were ice-maidens. But he was unsuccessful beyond dulling their brightness, for the ice as it melted put out the fire. The two ice-maidens were miserable on earth with him, and eventually escaped by the aid of one of their 'multiplex totems,' the pine-tree. Wurrunnah had told them to get him pine bark. Now the Meamei--Pleiades--belong to the Beewee totem, so does the pine-tree. They chopped the pine bark, and as they did s-o the tree telescoped itself to the sky where the five other Meamei were, whom they now joined, and with whom they have remained ever since. But they -who were polluted by their enforced residence with the earth-man never shone again with the brightness of their sisters. This legend was told emphasising the beauty of chastity.
Men had desired all the sisters when once they travelled on earth, but they kept themselves unspotted from the world, with the exception of the two Wurrunnah captured by stratagem.
Orion's Sword and Belt are the Berai-Berai--the boys--who best of all loved the Meamei, for whom they used to hunt, bringing their offerings to them; but the ice-maidens were obdurate and cold, disdaining lovers, as might be expected from their parentage. Their father was a rocky mountain, their mother an icy mountain stream. But when they were translated to the sky the Berai-Berai were inconsolable. They would not hunt, they would not eat, they pined away and died. The spirits pitied them and placed them in the sky within sound of the singing of the Meamei, and there they are happy. By day they hunt, and at night light their corroboree fires, and dance to the singing in the distance. just to remind the earth-people of them, the Meamei drop down some ice in the winter, and they it is who make the winter thunderstorms.
Castor and Pollux, in some tribes, are two hunters of long ago.
Canopus is Womba, the Mad Star, the wonderful Weedah of long ago, who, on losing his loves, went mad, and was sent to the sky that they might not reach him; but they followed, and are travelling after him to this day, and after them the wizard Beereeun, their evil genius, who made the mirage on the plains in order to deceive them, that they and Weedah might be lured on by it and perish of thirst.
When they escaped him Beereeun threw a barbed spear into the sky, and hooked one spear on to another until he made a ladder up which he climbed after them; and across the sky he is still pursuing them.
The Clouds of Magellan are the Bralgah, or Native Companions, mother and daughter, whom the Wurrawilberoo chased in order to kill and eat the mother and keep the daughter, who was the great dancer of the tribes. They almost caught her, but her tribe pursued them too quickly; when, determined that if they lost her so should her people, they chanted an incantation and changed her from Bralgah, the dancing-girl, to Bralgah, the dancing-bird, then left her to wander about the plains. They translated themselves on beefwood trees into the sky, and there they are still.
Gowargay, the featherless emu, is a debbil-debbil of water-holes; he drags people who bathe in his holes down and drowns them, but goes every night to his sky-camp, the Coalpit, a dark place by the Southern Cross, and there he crouches. Our Corvus, the crow, is the kangaroo.
The Southern Crown is Mullyan, the eagle-hawk. The Southern Cross was the first Minggah, or spirit tree a huge Yaraan, which was the medium for the translation of the first man who died on earth to the sky. The white cockatoos which used to roost in this tree when they saw it moving skywards followed it, and are following it still as Mouyi, the pointers. The other Yaraan trees wailed for the sadness that death brought into the world, weeping tears of blood. The red gum which crystallises down their trunks is the tears.
Some tribes say it was by a woman's fault that death came into the world.
This legend avers that at first the tribes were meant to live for ever. The women were told never to go near a certain hollow tree. The bees made a nest in this tree; the women coveted the honey, but the men forbade them to go near it. But at last one woman determined to get that honey; chop went her tomahawk into that hollow trunk, and out flew a huge bat. This was the spirit of death which was now let free to roam the world, claiming all it could touch with its wings.
Of eclipses there are various accounts. Some say it is Yhi, the sun, the wanton woman, who has overtaken at last her enemy the moon, who scorned her love, and whom now she tries to kill, but the spirits intervene, dreading a return to a dark world. Some say the enemies have managed to get evil spirits into each other which are destroying them. The wirreenuns chant incantations to oust these spirits of evil, and when the eclipse is over claim a triumph of their magic.
Another account says that Yhi, the sun, after many lovers, tried to ensnare Bahloo, the moon; but he would have none of her, and so she chases him across the sky, telling the spirits who stand round the sky holding it up, that if they let him escape past them to earth, she will throw down the spirit who sits in the sky holding the ends of the Kurrajong ropes which they guard at the other end, and if that spirit falls the earth will be hurled down into everlasting darkness.
So poor Bahloo, when he wants to get to earth and go on with the creation of baby girls, has to sneak down as an emu past the spirits, hurrying off as soon as the sun sinks down too.
Bahloo is a very important personage in legends.
When the blacks see a halo round the moon they say,
'Hullo! Going to be rain. Bahloo building a house to keep himself dry.'
All sorts of scraps of folk-lore used to crop out from the little girls I took from the camp into the house to domesticate. When storms were threatening, some of the clouds have a netted sort of look, something like a mackerel sky, only with a dusky green tinge, they would say: 'See the old man with the net on his back; he's going to drop some hailstones.'
Meteors always mean death; should a trail follow them, the dead person has left a large family.
Comets are a spirit of evil supposed to drink up the rain-clouds, so causing a drought; their tails being huge families all thirsty, so thirsty that they draw the river up into the clouds.
Every natural feature in any way pronounced has a mythical reason for its existence, every peculiarity in bird life, every peculiarity in the trees and stones. Besides there are many mythical bogies still at large, according to native lore, making the bush a gnome-land.
Even the winds carry a legend in their breath.
You hear people say they could have 'burst with rage,' but it is left to a black's legend to tell of a whole tribe bursting with rage, and so originating the winds.
There was once an invisible tribe called Mayrah. These people, men and women, though they talked and hunted with them, could never be seen by the other tribes, to whom were only visible their accoutrements for hunting. They would hear a woman's voice speak to them, see perhaps a goolay in mid-air and hear from it an invisible baby's cry; they would know then a Mayrah woman was there. Or a man would speak to them. Looking up they would see a belt with weapons in it, a forehead band too, perhaps, but no waist nor forehead, a water-vessel invisibly held: a man was there, an invisible Mayrah. One of these Mayrah men chummed with one of the Doolungaiyah tribe; he was a splendid mate, a great hunter, and all that was desirable, but for his invisibility. The Doolungaiyah longed to see him, and began to worry him on the subject until at last the Mayrah became enraged, went to his tribe, and told them of the curiosity of the other tribes as to their bodily forms. The others became as furious as he was; they all burst with rage and rushed away roaring in six different directions, and ever since have only returned as formless wind to be heard but never seen. So savagely the Mayrah howled round the Doolungaiyah's camp that he burrowed into the sand to escape, and his tribe have burrowed ever since.
Three of the winds are masculine and three feminine. The Crow, according to legend, controls Gheeger Gheeger, and keeps her in a hollow log. The Eagle-hawk owns Gooroongoodilbaydilbay, and flies with her in the shape of high clouds. Yarragerh is a man, and he has for wives the Budtha, Bibbil, and Bumble trees, and when he breathes on them they burst into new shoots, buds, flowers, and fruits, telling the world that their lover Yarragerh, the spring, has come.
Douran Doura woos the Coolabah, and Kurrajong, who flower after the hot north wind has kissed them.
The women winds have no power to make trees fruitful. They can but moan through them, or tear them in rage for the lovers they have stolen, whom they can only meet twice a year at the great corroboree of the winds, when they all come together, heard but never seen; for Mayrah, the winds, are invisible, as were the Mayrah, the tribe who in bursting gave them birth.
Yarragerh and Douran Doura are the most honoured winds as being the surest rain-bringers. In some of the blacks' songs Mayrah is sung of as the mother of Yarragerh, the spring, or as a woman kissed into life by Yarragerh putting such warmth into her that she blows the winter away. But these are poetical licences, for Yarragerh is ordinarily a man who woos the trees as a spring wind until the flowers are born and the fruit formed, then back he goes to the heaven whence he came.
Then there are the historical landmarks: Byamee's tracks in stone, and so on, and the battle-fields, too, of old tribal fights. Just in front of our station store was a gnarled old Coolabah tree covered with warty excrescences, which are supposed to be seats for spirits, so showing a spirit haunt.
In this particular tree are the spirits of the Moungun, or armless women, and when the wind blows you could hear them wailing. Their cruel husband chopped their arms off because they could not get him the honey he wanted, and their spirits have wailed ever since.
Across the creek is another very old tree, having one hollow part in which is said to be secreted a shell which old Wurrunnah, the traveller of the tribes, and the first to see the sea, brought back. No one would dare to touch the shell. The tribe of a neighbouring creek, when we were first at the station, used to threaten to come and get it, but the men of the local tribe used to muster to protect it from desecration even at the expense of their lives.
The Minggah by the garden I have told you of before. Further down the creek are others.
At Weetalibah was the tree from which Byamee cut the first Gayandi. This tree was burnt by travellers a few years ago. The blacks were furious: the sacred tree of Byamee burnt by the white devils! There are trees, too, considered sacred, from which Byamee cut honey and marked them for his own, just as a man even now, on finding a bee's nest and not being able to stay and get it, marks a tree, which for any one else to touch is theft.
A little way from the head station was an outcrop of white stones. These are said to be fossilised bones of Boogoodoogahdah's victims. She was a cannibal woman who had hundreds of dogs; with them she used to round up blacks and kill them, and she and her dogs ate them. At last she was outwitted and killed herself, and her spirit flew out as a bird from her heart. This bird haunts burial grounds, and if in a drought any one can run it down and make it cry out, rain will fall.
During a drought one of these birds came into my garden, hearing which the blacks said rain would come soon, and it did. In another drought when the rainmakers had failed, some of the old blacks saw a rain-bird and hunted it, but could not get it to call out.
Geologists say there should be diamonds along some of the old water-courses of the Moorilla ridges. Perhaps the white stone that the blacks talk about, which shows a light at night, and has, they say, a devil in it, is a diamond. Ruskin rather thought there was a devil in diamonds, making women do all sorts of evil to possess them. The blacks told me that a Queensland tribe had a marvellous stone which at great gatherings they show. Taking those who are privileged to see it into the dark, there they suddenly produce it, and it glows like a star, though when looked closely at in daylight seems only like a large drop of rain solidified. This stone, they said, has to be well guarded, as it has the power of self-movement, or rather, the devil in it can move it.
The greatest of local landmarks is at Brewarrina; this is the work of Byamee and his giant sons, the stone fisheries made in the bed of the Barwon.
At Boogira, on the Narran Lake, is an imprint in stone of Byamee's hand and foot, which shows that in those days were giants. There it was that Byamee brought to bay the crocodiles who had swallowed his wives, from which he recovered them and restored them to life.
At Mildool is a scooped-out rock which Byamee made to catch and hold water; beside it he hollowed out a smaller stone, that his dog might have a drinking-place too. This recurrence of the mention of dogs in the legends touching Byamee looks as if blacks at all events believed dogs to have been in Australia as long as men.
At Dooyanweenia are two rocks where Byamee and Birrahgnooloo rested, and to these rocks are still sticking the hairs he pulled from his beard, after rubbing his face with gum to make them come out easily.
At Guddee, a spring in the Brewarrina district, every now and then come up huge bones of animals now extinct. Legends say that these bones are the remains of the victims of Mullyan, the eagle-hawk, whose camp was in the tree at the foot of which was the spring. This tree was a tree of trees; first, a widely spreading gum, then another kind, next a pine, and lastly a midgee, in which was Mullyan's camp, out of which the relations of his victims burnt him and his wives, and they now form the Northern Crown constellation . The roots of this gigantic tree travelled for miles, forming underground water-courses. At Eurahbah and elsewhere are hollowed-out caves like stones; in these places Birrahgnooloo slept, and near them, before the stock trampled them out, were always to be found springs made at her instigation for her refreshment; she is the patroness of water.
At Toulby and elsewhere are mud springs. It is said that long ago there were no springs there, nor in the Warrego district, and in the droughts the water-courses all dried up and the blacks perished in hundreds. Time, after time this happened, until at last it seemed as if the tribes would be exterminated. The Yanta--spirits--saw what was happening and felt grieved, so they determined to come and live on the earth again to try and bring relief to the drought-stricken people. Down they came and set to work to excavate springs. They scooped out earth and dug, deeper and deeper, until at length after many of them gave in from exhaustion, those that were left were rewarded by seeing springs bubble up.
The first of those that they made was at Yantabulla, which bears their name to this day.
The blacks were delighted at having watering-places which neither a drought nor the fiercest sun could dry up. The Yantas were not contented with this nor with the other springs they made. They determined to excavate a whole plain, and turn it into a lake so deep that the sun could never dry it, and which would be full of fish for the tribes.
They went to Kinggle and there began their work. On they toiled unceasingly, but work as they would they could not complete their scheme, for one after another wearied and died, until at last nothing was left on the plain but the mud springs under the surface and the graves of the Yantas on top. No blacks will cross Kinggle plains lest some of these spirits arise through the openings of their graves.
This legend shows what a disheartening country the West is in a drought. When even the spirits gave in, how can ordinary men succeed? But indeed it is not ordinary men who do, but our 'Western heroes,' as Will Ogilvie calls them, who wear their cross of bronze on neck and cheek in the country where 'the green fades into grey.'