The ceremonies and superstitions of the natives are both numerous and involved in much obscurity; indeed it is very questionable if any of them are understood even by themselves. Almost all the tribes impose initiatory rites upon the young, through which they must pass from one stage of life to another, until admitted to the privileges and rights of manhood. These observances differ greatly in different parts of the continent, independently of local or distinctive variations indicative of the tribe to which a native may belong.
Thus at the Gulf of Carpentaria, the rite of circumcision is performed; at Swan River, King George’s Sound, and nearly three hundred miles to the eastward of the latter place, no such rite exists. Round the head of the Great Australian Bight, and throughout the Port Lincoln Peninsula, not only is this rite performed, but a still more extraordinary one conjoined with it. [Note 78: “Finditur usque ad urethram a parte inferaa penis.”] Descending the east side of Spencer’s and St. Vincent’s Gulf, and around the district of Adelaide, the simple rite of circumcision is retained. Proceeding but a little farther to the banks of the Murray, and its neighbourhood, no such ceremony exists, nor have I ever heard of its having been observed any where on the southeastern, or eastern parts of the continent.
So also with respect to tattooing; in one part of the continent it is adopted, in another it is rejected; when it is practised, there are many varieties in the form, number, or arrangement of the scars, distinguishing the different tribes, so that one stranger meeting with another any where in the woods, can at once tell, from the manner in which he is tattooed, the country and tribe to which he belongs, if not very remote. In the Adelaide district, Mr. Moorhouse has observed, that there are five stages to be passed through, before the native attains the rank of a bourka, or full grown man. The first is, that from birth to the tenth year, when he is initiated into the second, or Wilya kundarti, by being covered with blood, drawn from the arm of an adult; he is then allowed to carry a wirri for killing birds, and a small wooden spade (karko) for digging grubs out of the ground. At from twelve to fourteen, the third stage is entered, by having the ceremony of circumcision performed, which takes place in the following manner. Early in the morning, the boys to be circumcised are seized from behind, and a bandage is fastened over the eyes of each; they are then led away from the presence of the women and children to a distance of half a mile, when they are laid on the ground, and covered with a cloak, or skin, so as not to see what is passing amongst the adults, who proceed with the ceremony. Three of them now commence limping, and making a peculiar groaning noise, until they arrive opposite one of the boys, upon whom they seize. The individual laid hold of, jumps up, and runs off at full speed, as if he intended to escape; the three, before occupied in limping and groaning, run with him to prevent this, and after three or four races, all four run over the place where the boys are covered up, and the boy, who had been trying to escape, is caught, and laid down near the other boys, and covered with dust. He is now supposed to be in a state of enchantment, from which he is aroused by being lifted up by the ears, at the same time that loud noises are made into them. All the men now, except the sick, form themselves into a circle, and keep walking round in single file, the first individual having a katto, or long stick held down his back. After a few circles this is given to another; a short rest is taken, and then the whole party rise, except the sick, the inspired men, or sorcerers, and those upon whom the operation is to be performed, and proceed to a short distance, the man with the katto down his back leading. When assembled, they form into a line, and at word of command commence the peculiar stamping and groaning, beginning at the far end of the line, and gradually advancing towards the other. During several rounds of this noise, they advance at each, a little nearer to the boys, who when they are very near, have their eyes uncovered that they may see the men approaching. The first man who held the katto, fastens it in the ground, and all the others coming up, take hold of it, and fall down into a heap. The boys are then thrown upon the heap of men, and the operation is performed by men who are supposed to be inspired, or sorcerers. Immediately after the operation, the boys are taken away from the presence of all females, and kept upon a vegetable diet until recovered from its effects. The head is covered with grease, and red ochre, with a bandage passed round it, and is ornamented with tufts of feathers. The Yudna, or pubic covering, is worn by the circumcised for some months after the operation.
The fourth stage (Wilyaru) is entered about the age of twenty, when the back, shoulders, arms and chest, are tattooed. He is called ngulte, at the time of the operation; yellambambettu, when the incisions have begun to discharge pus; tarkange, when the sores are just healed; mangkauitya, at the time the cuts begin to rise; and bartamu, when the scars are at their highest elevation. Each tribe has a distinctive mode of making their incisions. Some have scars running completely across the chest, from one axillar to the other, whilst others have merely dotted lines; some have circles and semicircles formed on the apex of the shoulder, others small dots only.
The fifth stage is bourka or full man, and is only attained when the individual is getting grey-headed.
Among the Murray natives and contiguous tribes, instead of the rite of circumcision, a ceremony called wharepin, is performed upon youths from fourteen to sixteen. Early in the morning some of the male friends of the boy about to be operated upon, go behind him to seize him, upon which he sets off running as hard as he can, as if to escape; but being followed by his pursuers is soon captured and thrown down; he is then raised up and surrounded by several natives, who hold him and smear him from head to foot, with red ochre and grease; during this part of the ceremony, a band of elderly women, generally the mother and other near relatives, surround the group, crying or lamenting, and lacerating their thighs and backs with shells or flints, until the blood streams down. When well ochred all over, the novice is led away by another native, apart from the rest of the tribe, or if there are more than one, they stand together linked hand in hand, and when tired sit down upon bunches of green boughs brought for that purpose, for they are neither allowed to sit on the ground, nor to have any clothing on; and when they move about they always carry a bunch of green boughs in each hand.
They are now ready for the ceremony, which is usually performed by influential natives of distant tribes, and which generally takes place at the meetings of these tribes, as in the case of the meeting of the Moorunde natives, and the Nar-wij-jerook tribe described in Chapter II.P.220. On that occasion, there were three Moorunde natives to be operated upon. As soon as the ceremonial of the meeting of the tribes had been gone through, as already described, the Nar-wij-jerook natives retired about a hundred yards, and sat down on the ground, the Moorunde people remaining standing. The three spears which had little nets attached to them, and which had been brought down by the Nar-wij-jerooks, were now advanced in front of that tribe, still seated and stuck in a row in the ground. Three men then got up and seated themselves at the foot of the three spears, with their legs crossed. Two other natives then went over to the Moorunde people, to where the three novices stood shaking and trembling, like criminals waiting for their punishment, seizing them by the legs and shoulders, and carefully lifting them from the ground, they carried each in turn, and laid them on their backs at full length upon green boughs, spread upon the ground in front of the three men sitting by the spears, so that the head of each rested on the lap of one of the three. From the moment of their being seized, they resolutely closed their eyes, and pretended to be in a deep trance until the whole was over. When all three novices had been laid in their proper position, cloaks were thrown over them, but leaving the face exposed, and a Nar-wij-jerook coming to the side of each, carefully lifted up a portion of the covering and commenced plucking the hair from the pubes. At intervals, the operators were relieved by others of both sexes, and of various ages; little children under ten, were sometimes but not frequently officiating. When all the hair had been pulled out, that belonging to each native was carefully rolled up in green boughs, the three lots being put together, and given to one of the wise or inspired men to be put properly away; bunches of green boughs were now placed under each arm of the boys as also in their hands, after which several natives took hold of them, and raised them suddenly and simultaneously to their feet, whilst a loud gutteral Whaugh was uttered by the other natives around. They were then disenchanted and the ceremony was over, but for some time afterwards, the initiated are obliged to sleep away from the camp, and are not allowed to see the women; their heads and bodies are kept smeared with red ochre and grease, and tufts of feathers and kangaroo teeth are worn tied to the hair in front. One of the most singular circumstances connected with this ceremony, is that the natives who have officiated never afterwards mention the name of the young men, nor do the latter ever mention the names of the individuals who have operated upon them; should the name of either be accidentally mentioned in the presence of the other, they are greatly annoyed, and at once put the hand up to the mouth to signify that it must not be spoken. It is thus often very difficult to find out the names of particular natives, and strangers would make many mistakes, imagining that they were putting down the name, when in reality they were marking some phrase, signifying that his name could not be mentioned by the one applied to. They have no objection to meet each other after the ceremony, nor do they decline speaking, but there is this peculiarity in their conduct that if one gives food, or any thing else to the other, it is either laid on the ground for him to take, or is given through the intervention of a third person, in the gentlest and mildest manner possible, whereas to another native it would be jerked, perhaps much in the same way that a bone is thrown to a dog. There are other instances in which the names of natives are never allowed to be spoken, as those of a father or mother-in-law, of a son-in-law and some cases arising from a connection with each other’s wives. In speaking, therefore, of one another, or introducing persons to distant natives, a very round about way of describing them has often to be adopted, yet so intimately are neighbouring tribes acquainted with the peculiar relations subsisting between the members of each, that there is rarely any difficulty in comprehending who the individual is that is alluded to. Among the Adelaide tribes, there is no circumstance but death that makes them unwilling to mention the name of any of their acquaintances, and this cause of unwillingness I believe extends equally all over the continent.
The ceremony of tattooing is practised among the tribes of the Murray and its neighbourhood with great circumstantial variety. Some are tattooed all over the back or breast in rows, some only one half of each or of one, some are only dotted, others have rings or semicircles round the upper part of the arms and some are tattooed on the belly, etc.
Many tribes I have met with in different parts of Australia, have no tattooing at all, others are marked on the breast by singular looking scars, occupying a space of six or eight inches each way upon the chest, these are called “renditch” in the Murray dialect, and are made by fire; but I have never been able to obtain any satisfactory information respecting them. These scars are confined to particular tribes whom I have only met with occasionally, and for a period which did not allow me the opportunity of making much inquiry into their origin.
At Encounter Bay, instead of plucking out the hair of the pubes, the incipient beard is pulled out by the roots, and the youth, as at the Murray, is smeared from head to foot with red ochre and grease.
Among the females the only ceremony of importance that I am aware of is that of tattooing the back, a long and very painful operation. [Note 79 at end of para.] The method of performing the operation is as follows: the person whose back is to be tattooed is taken out early in the morning and squatted on the ground with her back towards the operator (always a male), and her head bent down between the knees of a strong old woman who is sitting on the ground for that purpose; the back is thus presented in the best position to the operator, and the girl, as long as her head is kept firmly in its position, cannot possibly arise until all is over. The man who performs the ceremony then commences by taking hold of a fold of the flesh on the girl’s right side, just above the breech, with his left hand, whilst with his right he holds a piece of flint or shell, and cuts perpendicular gashes an inch long, three-sixteenths of an inch deep, and about half an inch apart, in horizontal lines from right to left quite across the back, the rows being half an inch or three-quarters distant from each other.
[Note 79: Hoc plerumque menstruis jam primum venientibus factum est: saepe autem puellis propter timorem statum suam celantibus, aut aliqua alia ex causa, opus quod tempore menstruali fieri prorsus necessarium est, in proxima differtur.]
This is carried up the whole way from where he commences to the shoulders, and when freshly done, presents one of the most dreadful spectacles imaginable, the blood gushes out in torrents, and though frequently wiped away with grass by some of the women present, is scarcely removed before the crimson stream flows as profusely as ever. During the time of the ceremony the mother and other female relations lament and mourn, whilst they lacerate their bodies with shells. When the incisions are all made, grass or boughs are warmed at the fire, to wipe off the blood. The whole scene is most revolting and disgusting; the ground near where the poor creature sits is saturated with blood, and the whole back is one mass of coagulated gore. In one case, where I saw this operation performed upon a girl belonging to the Paritke tribe, she seemed to suffer much pain. At first, until nearly a row of scars had been made across the lower part of the back, she bore the operation well, but as it proceeded, her cries were piteous and unceasing, and before it was concluded, they became the most heart-rending screams of agony. From the position in which she was held, however, by the old woman on the ground (and who, by the way, was her mother,) it was impossible for her to stir or escape; indeed, had she attempted it, she would probably have been most cruelly beaten in addition.
The ceremony occupied three-quarters of an hour, but it was two hours before the wounds had ceased to bleed, and even then, the dried blood was not washed off. Two kangaroo teeth, and a tuft of emu feathers were tied to the girl’s hair, and she was smeared over with grease and red ochre, but was still forbidden to touch food until the morning.
Many weeks elapse before the wounds heal, and the inconveniences attending them are removed.
In another case that I saw, the girl bore the operation most stoically, until about two-thirds over, when she could stand it no longer, but screaming out in agony, applied her teeth and nails with such good effect to the thighs of the old lady who held her down, that the latter was compelled to release her grasp, and the poor girl got up, vowing she would not have another incision made. Of course all resistance would have been futile, or probably have only brought down a fearful chastisement upon her if she had been alone with her tribe in the bush; but she took advantage of my presence, and escaped with nearly one-third of the incisions deficient. At this ceremony many other natives of both sexes, and of all ages were standing looking on; but so little did they commiserate the poor creature’s sufferings, that the degree of her pain only seemed to be the measure of their laughter and merriment.
The girls, however, are always anxious to have this ceremony performed, as a well tattooed back is considered a great addition to their other charms, and whenever I have offered to protect them from the cruelty of their tribe for refusing to submit to it, they have invariably preferred submitting to the operation.
The only other ceremonies undergone by the females, are those of having the belly or arms tattooed, and of having the hair plucked from the pubes after the death of a child, and sometimes from other causes.
In the mode of disposing of the dead, and the ceremonials attending it, there is a difference in almost every tribe. Among the Adelaide natives as soon as a person dies, a loud wailing cry is raised by the relations and friends. The body is immediately wrapped up in the skin or clothing worn during life, and in the course of a day or two, it is placed upon the wirkatti or bier, which is made of branches crossed so as to form the radii of a circle, an examination is then entered upon as to the cause of death, in the following manner. The bier is carried upon the shoulders of five or six persons, over places where the deceased had been living; whilst this is going on, a person is placed under the bier, professedly in conversation with the deceased. He asks, what person killed you? If the corpse say no one, the inquest ceases; but if it states that some person has, the bier moves round, the corpse is said to produce the motion, influenced by kuingo (a fabulous personification of death). If the alleged murderer be present, the bier is carried round by this influence, and one of the branches made to touch him. Upon this a battle is sure to ensue either immediately, or in the course of a day or two.
At the time of burial the body is removed from the bier, and deposited, with the head to the west, in a grave from four to six feet deep. Children under four years are not buried for some months after death. They are carefully wrapped up, carried upon the back of the mother by day, and used as a pillow by night, until they become quite dry and mummy-like, after which they are buried, but the ceremony is not known to Mr. Moorhouse.
In the Encounter Bay neighbourhood, four modes of disposing of the dead obtain, according to Mr. Meyer:— old persons are buried; middle-aged persons are placed in a tree, the hands and knees being brought nearly to the chin, all the openings of the body, as mouth, nose, ears, etc. being previously sewn up, and the corpse covered with mats, pieces of old cloth, nets, etc. The corpse being placed in the tree, a fire is made underneath, around which the friends and relatives of the deceased sit, and make lamentations. In this situation the body remains, unless removed by some hostile tribe, until the flesh is completely wasted away, after which the skull is taken by the nearest relative for a drinking cup.
The third mode is to place the corpse in a sitting posture, without any covering, the face being turned to the eastward, until dried by the sun, after which it is placed in a tree. This mode is adopted with those to whose memory it is intended to shew some respect. The fourth method is to burn the body; but this is only practised in the case of still-born children, or such as die shortly after birth.
Another method practised upon Lake Alexandrina, is to construct a platform [Note 80 at end of para.], or bier upon high poles of pine, put upright in the ground upon which the body is placed, bandages being first put round the forehead, and over the eyes, and tied behind. A bone is stuck through the nose, the fingers are folded in the palm of the hand, and the fist is tied with nets, the ends of which are fastened about a yard from the hands; the legs are put crossing each other.
[Note 80: “They often deposit their dead on trees and on scaffolds.” — Catlin’s AMERICAN INDIANS, vol. ii. p. 10 — vide also vol. i. p. 89]
Mode of disposing of the Dead of the Lower Murray
The lamentations are raised by the natives around, fires are made below, so that the smoke may ascend over the corpse, and the mourners usually remain encamped about the place for a great length of time, or until the body is thoroughly dry, after which they leave it. Mr. Schurman says, “At Port Lincoln, after the body is put in a grave, and a little earth is thrown on it; the natives place a number of sticks across its mouth, over which they spread grass or bushes to prevent the remaining earth from falling down, so that an empty space of about three feet in depth is left between the body and the top earth.”
At the Flinders river (Gulf of Carpentaria), Captain Stokes observes, “At the upper part of Flinders river, a corpse was found lodged in the branches of a tree, some twenty feet high from the ground; it had three coverings, first, one of bark, then a net, and outside of all a layer of sticks.”
On the Murray river, and among the contiguous tribes, many differences occur in the forms of burial adopted by the various tribes. Still-born children are buried immediately. Infants not weaned are carried about by the mother for some months, well wrapped up, and when thoroughly dry, are put into nets or bags, and deposited in the hollows of trees, or buried. Children and young people are buried as soon as practicable after death, and a spearing match generally ensues.
Old people are also buried without unnecessary delay. I have even seen a man in the prime of life all ready placed upon the bier before he was dead, and the mourners and others waiting to convey him to his long home, as soon as the breath departed.
In the case of a middle-aged, or an old man, the spearing and fighting contingent upon a death is always greater than for younger natives. The burial rites in some tribes assimilate to those practised near Adelaide; in others I have witnessed the following ceremony:— The grave being dug, the body was laid out near it, on a triangular bier (birri), stretched straight on the back, enveloped in cloths and skins, rolled round and corded close, and with the head to the eastward; around the bier were many women, relations of the deceased, wailing and lamenting bitterly, and lacerating their thighs, backs, and breasts, with shells or flint, until the blood flowed copiously from the gashes. The males of the tribe were standing around in a circle, with their weapons in their hands, and the stranger tribes near them, in a similar position, imparting to the whole a solemn and military kind of appearance. After this had continued for some time, the male relatives closed in around the bier, the mourning women renewed their lamentations in a louder tone, and two male relatives stepped up to the bier, and stood across the body, one at the head, and one at the foot, facing each other.
Having cut above the abdomen the strings binding the cloths which were wound round the body, they proceeded to cut a slit of about ten inches long, through the swathing cloths above the belly; through this opening, they removed the arms, which appeared to have been crossed there, laying them down by the sides, inside the wrappings (for no part was unwound); having warmed a handful of green boughs over a fire, they thrust them in through the opening in the cloths, upon the naked belly of the corpse; after a little while these were removed, and one of their sorcerers made an incision of about eight inches long in the abdomen. Having pulled out the entrails and peritoneum, they were turned over, and carefully examined, whilst the women kept wailing and cutting [Note 81 at end of para.] themselves more violently than before, and even the men themselves lamented aloud. When this had been continued for some time, a portion of the omentum was cut off, wrapped in green leaves, and then put carefully away in a bag. The entrails were now replaced, a handful or two of green leaves thrust in above them, the cloths replaced, and the body again bound up ready for interment.
[Note 81: Also an American custom.— Catlin, vol. i. p. 90. Lacerating the flesh at death was expressly forbidden in the Jewish dispensation. It is practised also in New Zealand.— Vide Dieffenbach.]
A relative of the deceased now jumped up, with his weapons, violently excited, and apparently with the intention of spearing some one; but he was at once restrained by his friends, who informed me that the investigation had satisfied them that the man had not died through the agency of sorcery; if he had, it is imagined that a cicatrice would have been found upon the omentum. Two men now got into the grave, spread a cloth in the bottom, and over that green boughs. Other natives turned the bier round, and lifting up the body, gave it to the two in the grave to lay in its proper position, which was quite horizontal, and with the head to the west [Note 82 at end of para.], the grave being dug east and west: green boughs were now thrown thickly into it, and earth was pushed in by the bystanders with their feet, until a mound had been raised some height above the ground. All was now over, and the natives began to disperse, upon which the wild and piercing wail of the mourners became redoubled.
[Note 82: This appears to be a very general custom, and to be of Eastern origin. Catlin describes it as always being attended to at the disposal of the dead by the American Indians. In South Africa, however, Moffat states (p. 307), “that the corpse is put exactly facing the north.”]
Upon the mounds, or tumuli, over the graves, huts of bark, or boughs, are generally erected to shelter the dead from the rain; they are also frequently wound round with netting. Many graves being usually in one vicinity, and an elevated dry place being selected, the cemeteries often present a picturesque appearance. Graves are frequently visited by the women at intervals, for some months, and at such times the wail is renewed, and their bodies lacerated as at the interment. At Boga Lake, I saw a grave with a very neat hut of reeds made over it, surmounted by netting, and having a long curious serpentine double trench, of a few inches deep, surrounding it; possibly it might have been the burial place of the native mentioned by Major Mitchell, as having been shot by his black, Piper, at that lake.
Nets, but not implements, are sometimes buried with the natives; nor do the survivors ever like to use a net that has belonged to a man who is dead.
There are not any ceremonies attending the burial of young children; and the male relatives often neglect to attend at all, leaving it altogether to the women.
The natives have not much dread of going near to graves, and care little for keeping them in order, or preventing the bones of their friends from being scattered on the surface of the earth.
I have frequently seen them handling them, or kicking them with the foot with great indifference. On one occasion when out with an old native looking for horses before it was daylight, I came to a grave of no very old date, and where the boughs and bushes built over in the form of a hut were still remaining undisturbed; the weather was extremely cold, and the old man did not hesitate to ask me to pull down the boughs to make a fire, but would not do it himself.
On another occasion when a poor old woman had been deserted by the natives of Moorunde, and died a few days after being brought up to the station, I had great difficulty in getting the other natives to bury her, they would on no account touch the body; but after digging a hole, they got a long wiry branch of a tree, and one man taking hold of each end they bent the middle round the old woman’s neck, and thus dragged her along the ground and threw her into the pit like a dog, all the time violently and continually spitting out in every direction to ward off, as they said, the infection.
[Note 83: “He tied a thong to her leg, avoiding the touch of that form which gave him birth, dragged the corpse to some bushes, and left the thong because it had been in contact with the body of his mother.” — Moffat’s South Africa, p. 306.]
Sometimes it happens that when a death occurs, the nearest grown up male relative, whose duty it would be to take the principal part in the ceremonies, or inflict punishment if evil agency is suspected to have caused the death, may be absent. In this case he would have to discharge these duties upon the first occasion of his meeting with the supposed aggressors. The following is an instance which I witnessed.
A relative of Tenberry, one of the principal natives of the Murray, had died when he was absent, and the son of the deceased was too young to revenge the sorcery which it was imagined had caused his father’s death, it therefore became Tenberry’s duty to do this upon the first occasion that offered. I was with him when the parties first came into the neighbourhood, and I witnessed the proceedings. Notice having been sent by Tenberry the evening before, to warn them to be ready, I accompanied him early in the morning towards the encampment of the natives, situated in a hollow near the water; when within about a hundred yards we saw from the rise all the natives seated below us in the valley. Tenberry now halted, and having taken a hasty survey of the group hung down his head upon his breast and raised a low mournful lamentation; after a time it ceased, and the wail was at once replied to and continued by women’s voices in the camp: he now hastily went down to the camp still uttering his lamentations, and the whole body rose at his approach, and formed a large open circle around him. The natives who were supposed to have caused the death of his friend, formed a part of the circle and were armed with spears; behind them stood the orphan son of the deceased, probably in the light of an accuser; and behind the son were the widows, wailing and lamenting bitterly.
After taking the centre of the circle, Tenberry called for a spear, but no one offered one, he therefore took a long one from a native in the ring, who had evidently brought it for that purpose and yielded it unresistingly. Pacing with this weapon furiously up and down the circle, he advanced and retreated before the accused, brandishing the spear at them, and alternately threatening and wailing. No one replied, but the melancholy dirge was still kept up by the widows in the rear.
After sufficiently exciting himself in this manner for some time, he advanced with uplifted spear, and successively repeating his blows speared four or five persons among the accused natives in the left arm, each of them pushing forward his arm unflinchingly for the blow as he advanced upon them. Tenberry now again hung down his head and took up his lamentation for a short time, after which he paced about rapidly, vehemently haranguing, and violently gesticulating, and concluded by ordering all the natives present to separate their camps, and each tribe to make their own apart.
Mourning is performed by the men by cutting their beards [Note 84 at end of para.] and hair, and daubing the head and breast with a white pigment; among the women, by cutting and burning the hair close off [Note 85 at end of para.] to the head and plastering themselves with pipe-clay. In some cases, hot ashes are put upon the head to singe the hair to its very roots, and they then literally weep “in dust and ashes.” Among some of the Murray tribes, a mourning cap is worn by the women, made two or three inches thick of carbonate of lime. It is moulded to the head when moist around a piece of net work; the weight is eight pounds and a half. (Pl. 1, fig. 17.)
[Note 84: The custom among the Australians of putting dust or ashes on the head, of shaving the head, of clipping the beard, and of lacerating the body at death or in sign of mourning, appears very similar to the practices among the Israelites in the time of Moses. Vide Leviticus xix. 27, 28; Leviticus xxi. 5; Jeremiah xiviii. 30, 31, 32; Revelations xviii. 19, etc.]
[Note 85: The women among the American Indians also cut off the hair close to the head as a sign of mourning.— Vide Catlin, vol. i.]
The lamentations for the dead do not terminate with the burial; frequently they are renewed at intervals by the women, during late hours of the night, or some hours before day-break in the morning. Piercingly as those cries strike upon the traveller in the lonely woods, if raised suddenly, or very near him, yet mellowed by distance they are soothing and pleasing, awakening a train of thoughts and feelings, which, though sad and solemn, are yet such as the mind sometimes delights to indulge in. The names of the dead are never repeated by the natives among themselves, and it is a very difficult matter for a European to get them to break through this custom, nor will they do it in the presence of other natives. In cases where the name of a native has been that of some bird or animal of almost daily recurrence, a new name is given to the object, and adopted in the language of the tribe. Thus at Moorunde, a favourite son of the native Tenberry was called Torpool, or the Teal; upon the child’s death the appellation of tilquaitch was given to the teal, and that of torpool altogether dropped among the Moorunde tribe.
The natives of New Holland, as far as yet can be ascertained, have no religious belief or ceremonies. A Deity, or great First Cause, can hardly be said to be acknowledged, and certainly is not worshipped by this people, who ascribe the creation to very inefficient causes. They state that some things called themselves into existence, and had the property of creating others. But upon all subjects of this nature their ideas are indistinct and indefinite, as they are not naturally a reasoning people, and by no means given to the investigation of causes or their effects; hence, if you inquire why they use such and such ceremonies, they reply, our fathers did so, and we do it; or why they believe so and so, our fathers told us it was so. [Note 86 at end of para.] They are not fond of entering upon abstruse subjects, and when they are induced to do it, it is more than possible, from our imperfect acquaintance with their language, and total ignorance of the character and bent of their thoughts upon such points, that we are very likely to misunderstand and misrepresent their real opinions. It appears to me that different tribes give a different account of their belief, but all generally so absurd, so vague, unsatisfactory, and contradictory, that it is impossible at present to say with any certainty what they really believe, or whether they have any independent belief at all. Mr. Moorhouse, who has taken great pains in his inquiries among the natives around Adelaide upon questions of this nature, states that they believe in a Soul or Spirit (itpitukutya), separate and distinct altogether from the body, which at death goes to the west, to a large pit, where the souls of all men go. When all are dead, the souls will return to their former place of residence, go to the graves of their forsaken bodies, and inquire, are these the bodies that we formerly inhabited? The bodies will reply, “we are not dead, but still living.” The souls and bodies will not be re-united; the former will live in trees during the day, and at night alight on the ground, and eat grubs, lizards, frogs, and kangaroo rats, but not vegetable food of any description. The souls are never again to die, but will remain about the size of a boy eight years old.
[Note 86: “For that practice, they are, as far as I could learn, unable to give any other reason than that of its being the custom of their forefathers which they are therefore bound to follow.”— Burchell’s Bichuana tribes, vol. ii. p. 531.]
The account given me by some of the natives of the Murray of the origin of the creation, is, that there are four individuals living up among the clouds, called Nooreele, a father and his three male children, but there is no mother. The father is all-powerful, and of benevolent character. He made the earth, trees, waters, etc., gave names to every thing and place, placed the natives in their different districts, telling each tribe that they were to inhabit such and such localities, and were to speak such and such a language. It is said that he brought the natives originally from some place over the waters to the eastward. The Nooreele never die, and the souls (ludko, literally a shadow) of dead natives will go up and join them in the skies, and will never die again. Other tribes of natives give an account of a serpent of immense size, and inhabiting high rocky mountains, which, they say, produced creation by a blow of his tail. But their ideas and descriptions are too incongruous and unintelligible to deduce any definite or connected story from them.
All tribes of natives appear to dread evil spirits, having the appearance of Blacks (called in the Murray dialect Tou, in that of Adelaide Kuinyo). They fly about at nights through the air, break down branches of trees, pass simultaneously from one place to another, and attack all natives that come in their way, dragging such as they can catch after them. Fire [Note 87 at end of para.] appears to have considerable effect in keeping these monsters away, and a native will rarely stir a yard by night, except in moonlight, without carrying a fire-stick. Under any circumstances they do not like moving about in the dark, and it is with the greatest difficulty that they are ever induced to go singly from one station to another, a mile or two distant, after night-fall. Notwithstanding this dread of they don’t know exactly what, the natives do not let their fears prevent them moving about after dark, if any object is to be gained, or if several of them are together. By moonlight they are in the habit of travelling from one place to another, as well as of going out to hunt opossums.
[Note 87: Fire is produced by the friction of two pieces of wood or stick — generally the dry flower-stem of the Xanthorrea. The natives, however, usually carry a lighted piece of wood about with them, and do not often let it go out.]
Anything that is extraordinary or unusual, is a subject of great dread to the natives: of this I had a singular instance at Moorunde. In March, 1843, I had a little boy living with me by his father’s permission, whilst the old man went up the river with the other natives to hunt and fish. On the evening of the 2nd of March a large comet was visible to the westward, and became brighter and more distinct every succeeding night. On the 5th I had a visit from the father of the little boy who was living with me, to demand his son; he had come down the river post haste for that purpose, as soon as he saw the comet, which he assured me was the harbinger of all kinds of calamities, and more especially to the white people. It was to overthrow Adelaide, destroy all Europeans and their houses, and then taking a course up the Murray, and past the Rufus, do irreparable damage to whatever or whoever came in its way. It was sent, he said, by the northern natives, who were powerful sorcerers, and to revenge the confinement of one of the principal men of their tribe, who was then in Adelaide gaol, charged with assaulting a shepherd; and he urged me by all means to hurry off to town as quickly as I could, to procure the man’s release, so that if possible the evil might be averted. No explanation gave him the least satisfaction, he was in such a state of apprehension and excitement, and he finally marched off with the little boy, saying, that although by no means safe even with him, yet he would be in less danger than if left with me.
All natives of Australia believe in sorcery and witchcraft on the part of certain of their own tribe, or of others. To enable them to become sorcerers, certain rites must be undergone, which vary among the different tribes. Around Adelaide they have at one period to eat the flesh of young children, and at another that of an old man, but it does not appear that they partake more than once in their life of each kind. When initiated, these men possess extensive powers, they can cure or cause diseases, can produce or dissipate rain [Note 88 at end of para.], wind, hail, thunder, etc. They have many sacred implements or relics, which are for the most part carefully kept concealed from the eyes of all, but especially from the women, such as, pieces of rock crystal, said to have been extracted by them from individuals who were suffering under the withering influence of some hostile sorcerers; the pringurru, a sacred piece of bone (used sometimes for bleeding), etc. The latter, if burned to ashes in the fire, possesses mortiferous influence over enemies. If two tribes are at war, and one of either happens to fall sick, it is believed that the sickness has been produced by a sorcerer of the opposite tribe, and should the pringurru have been burnt, death must necessarily follow.
[Note 88: Also an American superstition.— Vide Catlin, vol.i.p. 134. “Sorcerers or rain makers, for both offices are generally assumed by one individual.”— Moffat’s South Africa, p. 305.]
As all internal pains are attributed to witchcraft, sorcerers possess the power of relieving or curing them. Sometimes the mouth is applied to the surface where the pain is seated, the blood is sucked out, and a bunch of green leaves applied to the part; besides the blood, which is derived from the gums of the sorcerer, a bone is sometimes put out of the mouth, and declared to have been procured from the diseased part; on other occasions the disease is drawn out in an invisible form, and burnt in the fire, or thrown into the water; at others the patient is stretched upon the ground, whilst another person presses with his feet or hands upon the diseased part, or cold water is sprinkled over, and green leaves used as before. There are few complaints that the natives do not attempt to cure, either by charms or by specific applications: of the latter a very singular one is the appliance personally of the urine from a female — a very general remedy, and considered a sovereign one for most disorders. Bandages are often applied round the ankles, legs, arms, wrists, etc. sufficiently tight to impede circulation; suction is applied to the bites of snakes, and is also made use of by their doctors in drawing out blood from the diseased part, a string being tied to the hair, if it be the head that ails, or to any other part, and the opposite end is put into the sorcerer’s mouth, who then commences sucking and spitting out blood, which he declares comes from the patient. Blood letting is practised occasionally to relieve pains in the head, or oppression of the system. The operation is performed by opening a vein in the arm, with a piece of rock crystal in the same way as Europeans bleed.
Fractures of the extremities are treated with splints and bandages, as in Europe. Venereal ulcers are sprinkled with alkaline wood ashes, the astringent liquid of the nettle bark, or a macerated preparation from a particular kind of broad-leaved grass. Superficial wounds are left to themselves, and usually heal without much trouble. Malformations of the body are attributed to the influence of the stars, caused by the mother eating forbidden food during pregnancy, or if occurring after birth it is still caused by the stars, in consequence of forbidden food being eaten. The teeth of the native are generally regular and very beautiful, indeed, in their natural state, I have never seen a single instance of decayed teeth, among them. Among those, however, who have been living near Europeans for some years past, and whose habits and diet have been changed from simple to more artificial ones, a great alteration is taking place in this respect, and symptoms of decaying teeth are beginning to make their appearance among many.
Among other superstitions of the natives, they believe in the existence of an individual called in the Murrumbidgee Biam, or the Murray Biam-baitch-y, who has the form and figure of a black, but is deformed in the lower extremities, and is always either sitting cross-legged on the ground, or ferrying about in a canoe.
From him the natives say they derive many of the songs sung at their dances; he also causes diseases sometimes, and especially one which indents the face like the effects of small pox. Another evil agency, dreaded by the natives, is a spirit of the waters, called ngook-wonga, it causes many diseases to those who go into the waters in unauthorised places, or at improper times, hence a native is very loth to go into water he is not accustomed to for the first time.
To counteract the evil effects produced by this spirit, there are persons particularly devoted to this branch of sorcery, the following is a case where I saw them exercise their powers. A boy of about fourteen had at the Murray river been seized with a severe attack of erysipelas in the lower part of one of his legs, from bathing and remaining in the water when heated. As this did not get better, it was ascribed to the evil agency of the Spirit of the Waters; and the Pachwonga or Pachwin were called in to cure him. They arrived late at night, three in number, and at once proceeded to the exercise of their duties. As soon as it was seen that the magicians were coming, the friends of the boy lifted him up, and carrying him some distance away from the camp, placed him on the ground by himself, and then ranged themselves in two rows upon either side, in a sitting posture, but at some distance behind the patient. The three magi now advanced in the form of a triangle, one leading and the other two behind, equidistantly apart. They were all painted, carried bunches of green reeds in their hands, which they kept shaking, and danced [Note 89 at end of para.] with a measured tread, keeping the right foot always in advance of the other as in a galopade, and singing a low solemn dirge, which was vehemently beat time to, by the natives behind thumping on the ground. Upon arriving at the boy, the leading native fell down on his knees close to him, and took hold of the diseased leg, the other two still dancing and singing around the patient. In a little time, one of the two fell down also on his knees on another side of the boy, leaving the third still dancing and singing around them. At last he fell down also on his knees in a triangular position with the others, the boy being in the centre. All three now commenced blowing, spitting, making curious gurgling kinds of noises, waving their green bunches of reeds, and pressing forcibly upon the diseased leg to make the patient give audible indications of the evil spirit leaving him. After some time, two of the three doctors got up again, danced and sung around the boy, and then once more assuming their kneeling positions, recommenced spitting and blowing, waving their bunches of reeds, and making the same curious noises, but louder than ever. Their exorcism at last was effectual, the evil spirit, in the shape of a sharp stone, was extracted from the limb, and driven into the ground; but it was too dark they said to see it. As soon as this agreeable news was announced, the friends of the boy came up and hastily removed him back to the camp, whilst the three doctors assuming the triangular position, sung and danced round the place where the boy had been laid, and then advancing in the same form towards the river, keeping the right foot always in advance, they at last fairly drove the spirit into the water and relieved the neighbourhood from so troublesome a visitor.
[Note 89: “Dancing over him, shaking his frightful rattles, and singing songs of incantation, in the hopes to cure him by a charm.”— Catlin’s North American Indians, vol. i.p. 39.]
It was a long time before I lost a vivid impression of this ceremony; the still hour of the night, the naked savages, with their fancifully painted forms, their wild but solemn dirge, their uncouth gestures, and unnatural noises, all tended to keep up an illusion of an unearthly character, and contributed to produce a thrilling and imposing effect upon the mind.
At the Murray River, singular looking places are found sometimes, made by the natives by piling small stones close together, upon their ends in the ground, in a shape resembling the accompanying diagram, and projecting four or five inches above the ground. The whole length of the place thus inclosed, by one which I examined, was eleven yards; at the broad end it was two yards wide, at the narrow end one. The position of this singular looking place, was a clear space on the slope of a hill, the narrow end being the lowest, on in the direction of the river. Inside the line of stones, the ground was smoothed, and somewhat hollowed. The natives called it Mooyumbuck, and said it was a place for disenchanting an individual afflicted with boils. In other places, large heaps of small loose stones are piled up like small haycocks, but for what purpose I could never understand. This is done by the young men, and has some connection probably with their ceremonies or amusements.
In others, singular shaped spaces are inclosed, by serpentine trenches, a few inches deep, but for what purpose I know not, unless graves have formerly existed there.
Another practice of the natives, when travelling from one place to another, is to put stones up in the trees they pass, at different heights from the ground, to indicate the height of the sun when they passed. Other natives following, are thus made aware of the hour of the day when their friends passed particular points. Captain Grey found the same custom in Western Australia; vol. i. p. 113, he says:—
“I this day again remarked a circumstance, which had before this period elicited my attention, which was, that we occasionally found fixed on the boughs of trees, at a considerable height from the ground, pieces of sandstone, nearly circular in form, about an inch and a half in thickness, and from four to five in diameter, so that they resembled small mill-stones. What was the object of thus fashioning, and placing these stones, I never could conceive, for they are generally in the least remarkable spots. They cannot point out burial places, for I have made such minute searches, that in such case I must have found some of the bones; neither can they indicate any peculiar route through the country, for two never occur near one another.”
The power of sorcery appears always to belong, in a degree, to the aged, but it is assumed often by the middle aged men. It is no protection to the possessor, from attack, or injury, on the part of other natives. On the contrary, the greater the skill of the sorcerer, and the more extensive his reputation, the more likely is he to be charged with offences he is unconscious of, and made to pay their penalty. Sorcerers are not ubiquitous, but have the power of becoming invisible, and can transport themselves instantaneously to any place they please. Women are never sorcerers. It is a general belief among almost all the Aborigines, that Europeans, or white people, are resuscitated natives, who have changed their colour, and who are supposed to return to the same localities they had inhabited as black people. The most puzzling point, however, with this theory, appears to be that they cannot make out how it is that the returned natives do not know their former friends or relatives. I have myself often been asked, with seriousness and earnestness, who, among the Europeans, were their fathers, their mothers, and their other relatives, and how it is that the dead were so ignorant, or so forgetful, as not to know their friends when they again returned to the earth.
One old native informed me, that all blacks, when dead, go up to the clouds, where they have plenty to eat and drink; fish, birds, and game of all kinds, with weapons and implements to take them. He then told me, that occasionally individuals had been up to the clouds, and had come back, but that such instances were very rare; his own mother, he said, had been one of the favoured few. Some one from above had let down a rope, and hauled her up by it; she remained one night, and on her return, gave a description of what she had seen in a chaunt, or song, which he sung for me, but of the meaning of which I could make out nothing.
- Category: Edward John Eyre - Aborigines Ch 5
- Written by Edward John Eyre
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The ceremonies and superstitions of the natives are both numerous and involved in much obscurity; indeed it is very questionable if any of them are understood even by themselves. Almost all the tribes impose initiatory rites upon the young, through which they must pass from one stage of life to another, until admitted to the privileges and rights of manhood. These observances differ greatly in different parts of the continent, independently of local or distinctive variations indicative of the tribe to which a native may belong.