Sacred Texts  Australia  Index  Previous  Next 



THE wirreenuns sometimes hold meetings which they allow non-professionals to attend. At these the spirits of the dead speak through the medium of those they liked best on earth, and whose bodies their spirits now animate. These spirits are known as Yowee, the equivalent of our soul, which never leave the body of the living, growing as it grows, and when it dies take judgment for it, and can at will assume its perishable shape unless reincarnated in another form. So you see each person has at least three spirits, and some four, as follows: his Yowee, soul equivalent; his Doowee, a dream spirit; his Mulloowil, a shadow spirit; and may be his Yunbeai, or animal spirit.

Sometimes one person is so good a medium as to have the spirits of almost any one amongst the dead people speak through him or her, in the whistling spirit voice.

I think it is very clever of these mediums to have decided that spirits all have one sort of voice.

At these meetings there would be great rivalry among the wirreenuns. The one who could produce the most magical stones would be supposed to be the most powerful. The strength of the stones in them, whether swallowed or rubbed in through their heads, adds its strength to theirs, for these stones are living spirits, as it were, breathing and growing in their fleshly cases, the owner having the power to produce them at any time. The manifestation of such power is sometimes, at one of these trials of magic, a small shower of pebbles as seeming to fall from the heads and mouths of the rivals, and should by chance any one steal any of these as they fall, the power of the original possessor would be lessened. The dying bequeath these stones, their most precious possessions, to the living wirreenun most nearly related to them.

The wirreenun's health and power not only depend upon his crystals and yunbeai, but also on his Minggah; should an accident happen to that, unless he has another, he will die-in any case, he will sicken. Many of the legends deal with the magic of these spirit-animated trees.

They are places of refuge in time of danger; no one save the wirreenun, whose spirit-tree it was, would dare to touch a refugee at a Minggah; and should the sanctuary be a Goomarh, or spirit-stone, not even a wirreenun would dare to interfere, so that it is a perfectly safe sanctuary from humanly dealt evil. But a refugee at a Minggah or Goomarh runs a great risk of incurring the wrath of the spirits, for Minggah are taboo to all but their own wirreenun.

There was a Minggah, a great gaunt Coolabah, near our river garden. Some gilahs build in it every year, but nothing would induce the most avaricious of black bird-collectors to get the young ones from there.

A wirreenun's boondoorr, or dillee bag, holds a queer collection: several sizes of gooweeras, of both bone and wood, poison-stones, bones, gubberahs (sacred stones), perhaps a dillee--the biggest, most magical stone used for crystal-gazing, the spirit out of which is said to go to the person of whom you want to hear, wherever he is, to see what he is doing, and then show you the person in the crystal. A dinahgurrerhlowah, or moolee, death-dealing stone, which is said to knock a person insensible, or strike him dead as lightning would by an instantaneous flash.

To these are added in this miscellaneous collection medicinal herbs, nose-bones to put through the cartilage of his nose when going to a strange camp, so that he will not smell strangers easily. The blacks say the smell of white people makes them sick; we in our arrogance had thought it the other way on.

Swansdown, shells, and woven strands of opossum's hair are valuable, and guarded as such in the boondoorr, which is sometimes kept for safety in the wirreenun's Minggah.

Having dealt with the supernatural part of a wirreenun's training, which argues cunning in him and credulity in others, I must get to his more natural remedies.

Snakebite they cure by sucking the wound and cauterising it with a firestick. They say they suck out the young snakes which have been injected into the bitten person.

For headaches or pains which do not yield to the vegetable medicine, the wirreenuns tie a piece of opossum's hair string round the sore place, take one end in their mouths, and pull it round and round until it draws blood along the cord. For rheumatic pains in the head or in the small of the back and loins they often bind the places affected with coils of opossum hair cord, as people do sometimes with red knitting-silk.

The blacks have many herbal medicines, infusions of various barks, which they drink or wash themselves with, as the case may be.

Various leaves they grind on their dayoorl-stones, rubbing themselves with the pulp. Steam baths they make of pennyroyal, eucalyptus, pine, and others.

The bleeding of wounds they stanch with the down of birds.

For irritations of the skin they heat dwarf saltbush twigs and put the hot ends on the irritable parts.

After setting a broken limb they put grass and bark round it, then bind it up.

For swollen eyes they warm the leaves of certain trees and hold them to the affected parts, or make an infusion of Budtha leaves and bathe the eyes in it.

For rheumatic pains a fire is made, Budtha twigs laid on it, a little water thrown on them; the ashes raked out, a little more water thrown on, then the patient lies on top, his opossum rug spread over him, and thus his body is steamed. To induce perspiration, earth or sand is also often heated and placed in a hollowed-out space; on it the patient lies, and is covered with more heated earth.

Pennyroyal infused they consider a great blood purifier they also use a heap as a pillow if suffering from insomnia. It is hard to believe a black ever does suffer from insomnia, yet the cure argues the fact.

Beefwood gum is supposed to strengthen children. It is also used for reducing swollen joints. A hole is made in the ground, some coals put in, on them some beefwood leaves, on top of them the gum; over the hole is put enough bark to cover it with a piece cut out of it the size of the swollen joint to be steamed, which joint is held over this hole.

Various fats are also used as cures. Iguana fat for pains in the head and stiffness anywhere. Porcupine and opossum fats for preserving their hair, fish fat to gloss their skins, emu fat in cold weather to save their skins from chapping.

But what is supposed to strengthen them more than anything, both mentally and physically, is a small piece of the flesh of a dead person, or before a body is put in a bark coffin a few incisions were made in it; when it was coffined it was stood on end, and what drained from the incisions was caught in small wirrees and drunk by the mourners.

I fancy such cannibalism as has been in these tribes was not with a view to satisfaction of appetite but to the incorporation of additional strength. Either men or women are allowed to assist in this particularly nauseating funeral rite, but not the young people.

Nor must their shadows fall across any one who has partaken of this rite; should they do so some evil will befall them.

If the mother of a young child has not enough milk for its sustenance, she is steamed over 'old man' saltbush, and hot twigs of it laid on her breasts. To expedite the expulsion of the afterbirth, an old woman presses the patient round the waist, gives her frequent drinks of cold water, and sprinkles water over her. As soon as the afterbirth is removed a steam is prepared. Two logs are laid horizontally, some stones put in between them, then some fire, on top leaves of eucalyptus, and water is then sprinkled over them. The patient stands astride these logs, an opossum rug all over her, until she is well steamed. After this she is able to walk about as if nothing unusual had happened. Every night for about a month she has to lie on a steam bed made of damped eucalyptus leaves. She is not allowed to return to the general camp for about three months after the birth of her child.

Though perfectly well, she is considered unclean, and not allowed to touch anything belonging to any one. Her food is brought to her by some old woman. Were she to touch the food or food utensils of another they would be considered unclean and unfit for use. Her camp is gailie--that is, only for her; and she is goorerwon as soon as her child is born-a woman unclean and apart. Immediately a' baby is born it is washed in cold water.

Ghastly traditions the blacks have of the time when Dunnerh-Dunnerh, the smallpox, decimated their ancestors. Enemies sent it in the winds, which hung it on the trees, over the camps, whence it dropped on to its victims. So terror-stricken were the tribes that, with few exceptions, they did not stay to bury their dead; and because they did not do so, flying even from the dying, a curse was laid on them that some day the plague would return, brought back by the Wundah or white devils; and the blacks shudder still, though it was generations before them, at the thought that such a horror may come again.

Poison-stones are ground up finely and placed in the food of the person desired to be got rid of. These poison-stones are of two kinds, a yellowish-looking stone and a black one; they cause a lingering death. The small bones of the wrist of a dead person are also pounded up and put into food, in honey or water, as a poison.

One cure struck me as quaint. The patient may be lying down, when up will come one of the tribe, most likely a wirreenun with a big piece of bark. He strikes the ground with this all round the patient, making a great row; this is to frighten the sickness away.

What seems to me a somewhat peculiar ceremony is the reception a coming baby holds before its birth.

The baby is presumably about to be born. Its grandmother is there naturally, but the black baby declines to appear at the request of its grandmother, and, moreover, declines to come if even the voice of its grandmother is heard; so grannie has to be a silent spectator while some other woman tempts the baby into the world by descanting on the glories of it. First, perhaps, she will say:

'Come now, here's your auntie waiting to see you.'

'Here's your sister.'

'Here's your father's sister,' and so on through a whole list. Then she will say, as the relatives and friends do not seem a draw:

'Make haste, the bumble fruit is ripe. The guiebet flowers are blooming. The grass is waving high. The birds are all talking. And it is a beautiful place, hurry up and see for yourself.'

But it generally happens that the baby is too cute to be tempted, and an old woman has to produce what she calls a wi-mouyan-a clever stick-which she waves over the expectant mother, crooning a charm which brings forth the baby.

If any one nurses a patient and the patient dies, the nurse wears an armlet of opossum's hair called goomil, and a sort of fur boa called gurroo.

If blacks go visiting, when they leave they make a smoke fire and smoke themselves, so that they may not carry home any disease.

As a rule blacks do not have small feet, but their hands are almost invariably small and well shaped, having tapering fingers.

Next: Chapter VI. Our Witch Woman