The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 11
RELATING TO THEIR SPIRIT, AND THEIR UNBOUNDED FAITH THEREIN. ARORIGINAL RELIGION AS COMPARED WITH THAT PROFESSED BY CHRISTIANS FROM AN ABORIGINAL POINT OF VIEW. Bangals (doctors), and their powers of spiritual intercourse.
In matters of religion these aborigines are very, very destitute indeed, yet they admit that all their actions are overlooked by a good and by an evil spirit. These spirits are very prominent figures in all their traditions. The good spirit (Ngowdenout) has the credit of being the author of everything which has a favourable tendency towards his aboriginal children, and the bad spirit (Ngambacootchala) has to bear the blame of whatever untoward event circumstances may bring round.
These good and bad spirits never by any means clash; neither having any control or power of any kind over the other; therefore, it is a sort of let alone, for let alone, position, which they hold towards each other, each acting independently on all occasions.
If a native has been fairly successful whilst hunting, and has consequently bagged a satisfactory haul, he gives Ngowdenout all the credit of his luck, inasmuch as he in his great-heartedness had made the game less wary than usual, so that the hunter might have to display but very little cunning in circumventing them.
If, however, whilst trudging back to his camp, well laden with the result of his morning's sport, and full of rejoicings by reason of his successful endeavours, he should chance to stab his foot with a projecting stump, or dry branch with sharp point, Ngambacootchala gets the blame for guiding his erring footsteps that way, and is therefore heartily anathametised, in no measured terms either, the aborigines having a wonderful talent for the construction and launching of gross expletives, against who, or whatever may offend their dignity, or hurt their person.
Should it happen that a wild dog, in his foraging rambles, finds and scrapes out a lowna's nest (which had been marked down by an aborigine whilst the bird was building), and eats the eggs; or a known swan's nest has been robbed by a predatory crow, or if even a great codfish smashes many meshes of a net, and escapes, the ever evil-doing Ngambacootchala gets all the blame and consequent abuse. They carry their belief in this spirit to such an extent that they actually pretend to show his tracks or foot-marks on the ground when there is really nothing to show, unless it be perhaps some slight depressions altogether due to the action of water.
They cannot bear the least ridicule which tends to impugn in the slightest degree this absurd belief of theirs; indeed, they become very irate should anyone have the temerity to attempt such a thing.
The aborigines hold it a matter utterly impossible for a white man to understand things which are purely aboriginal; they do not fail to retaliate either when requested to produce their good and bad spirits by asking us to show them ours, of whom we tell them so much. This, of course, we cannot do, any more than they can show us theirs; thus, it is therefore a hopeless task endeavouring to discuss matters having the remotest theological tendency with them; and when (by chance more frequently than design) we have been drawn into arguments of the kind, we have mostly had to acknowledge to ourselves our signal failure, and if we could retreat gracefully from the wordy encounters, we esteemed it something to be particularly grateful for. The aborigines, however, are quite sharp enough to observe our discomfiture on such occasions, however much we may strive to disguise the humiliating fact.
When we endeavour to impress upon their savage minds that our Diety made the whole universe, and every animal on it, man included, they simply say: "Nothing of the kind; it is not so." The world was never made by any being; it was not made at all. But if, as you say, one Supreme Being did make it, from whence came the pimble from which it was formed? If we make a fire, we must have wood to do it, as nothing is not combustible. If we require a cloak, we must first find the trees containing the weelangies (opossums); we must then climb the trees, and cut out weelangies from their hollow branches, skin them, and dry the skins; after which we have to scrape them with mussel shells, until they are sufficiently pliant; then we have to sew them together. It is thus very evident that if we had not the weelangies, to begin with, we would be unable to perform all these operations, consequently we would not have any cloak, and should therefore sleep cold enough when the lenangin (frost) sines (bites) in the long,, clear, starry nights of winter.
The same thing obtains, too, in whatever we make—canoes, spears, boomerangs, nets, and waddies. Before we make any of them, we must have the material to work upon.
We observe also that you white men are placed in very similar circumstances before you make a house, stockyard, or paddock, or any other thing that you require, either on your stations or in your town. You must get the necessary substances to work upon, and we think that if you could communicate with your good Spirit who made the world, and all it contains, out of nothing (as you say you can), that you would get him to make your houses and every other thing you need, instead of having to give um cheque to bushmen and carpenters, as we see you doing invariably.
You tell us that our good and bad spirits are all gammon, but we do not believe you, because we know better. Your not being a blackfellow is the reason of your lack of knowledge on the subject, and your ignorance induces you to say what you do about it.
You do not like us to tell you that all your accounts of your good and bad spirits, and their various wonderful works, as described by you, are, in our opinions, just so many lyoors' stories, well fitted to be told to the wirtiwoos by the camp fires to keep them quiet; and we fail to see how you can be astonished at our disbelief either, inasmuch as you have never shown us the performance of any of the great wonders done by Ngondenout.
When we go on a hunting or fishing expedition, we usually invoke the aid of Ngondenout, not by playing music, singing, and much talk, as you do when you ask a favour from your good Spirit. We simply say: "Pray, let us be successful." And on most occasions we are so. When we chance not to have any luck, however, as will happen now and again, we know that the wicked Ngambacootchala has been disturbing the game, or making the water muddy, so that the blackfellows might labour all day, and return to the camp at night with tired limbs, and without anything to fill the bellies of their hungry lyoors and squalling wirtiwoos.
None of the us aborigines have seen either the good or bad spirits, unless the bangals of the tribes, and they can see and converse with them whenever they may have the inclination; and it is from them that we have gained all our knowledge on the subject.
In this we are not very unlike you whitefellows, as you tell us that the only whites who are able to hold converse with your good and bad spirits, and who have power over the bad one, are the missionaries.
When the nowie (sun) has been very angry in the summer time, parching the grass and drying up the yallums (wells), we have seen the whitefellows going to the house of your good Spirit, not on Sunday either, and on asking them for what purpose they were going on that day, were told it was to pray for rain to come, so that the grass might be refreshed, and spring up green and sweet, and the dried up yallums be filled, for the poor, starving sheep, cattle, and kangaroos to feed upon and drink, so that they might stop dying. But, after all that, we did not see the rain come, so all kinds of poor starved beasts continued to die, until one of our bangals spoke to Ngondenout about it, and cut off some of his own hair, and placed it in the river, after first having oiled it with the kidney fat of a wretched bukeen. Then, indeed, but not till then, the big black clouds came up from where the nowie goes to sleep, and covered all the face of tyrilly (sky) with much blackness, from whence in a short time the rain burst forth; and such a rain it was, all the pimble became so soft, that the poor starved kangaroos and cattle sank down to their bellies, and were unable to get up again, and so died in their tracks.
The cracked and dried-up yallums were filled to over flowing, and all the drooping trees and herbage, which had so nearly died from the effects of scorching rays of the angry sun, grew fresh once more, and all the land became green and beautiful. Thus what your missionaries with their music and talk altogether failed in, our bangals achieved at once through our good Ngondenout.
From the foregoing the reader can easily divine the difficulties and obstacles the missionaries and clergymen have to encounter in their endeavours to bring these poor savages to a sense of their utter heathenism. Their logic is simple even to childishness, but notwithstanding this fact it is most difficult to combat (baby logic and accompanying cross-questioning have posed most men some time or other in their lives); in fact, it is impossible in many instances to do so. It is only by giving them intellectual culture equal to that enjoyed by mediocre civilisation that they can be made to understand the utter fallaciousness of the faith which they place in their spirits and the truth and beauty of the Christian religion as accepted by so many thousands of earnest professors.
To endeavour to impart such mental culture as we here speak of, however, to the adult aboriginal would be a very hopeless task indeed; therefore it is only in the proper training of the children that anything like a good result can be looked for, and their inherent erratic nature will always be a sad stumbling block in the way even of these means.
They have implicit belief in another spirit called Konikatnie, whose habitat is in the profound depths of the lakes and waterholes, or else in the dark, deep eddies of the rivers, from whence he only occasionally rises, and then only when he has a mission of evil on hand. The mere fact of his crossing the vision of any blackfellow (not being a bangal) is sudden death, so that unless it be the bangals no one can speak of him from personal observation.
If a blackfellow suddenly disappear from his tribe through being assassinated by some lurking foe, and his end is never discovered, by reason of the murderers having successfully hidden the body, the fatal presence of Konikatnie is unhesitatingly credited with the disappearance. The matter is therefore not inquired into to any great extent, but is merely put down as a tribal loss, and so forgotten.
The bangals duly impress upon their people the folly of too closely criticising the actions of what are even only supposed to pertain to the water spirit, as he is most impatient as regards interference, and entirely unforgiving.
It does occasionally happen that some too curious member of the tribe is caught prying rather closer into the mysteries of bangalism than the professor thereof has any thought of allowing. This always gives mortal offence; in fact, the death of the offender is the only means by which it can be wiped out; therefore the bangal lies in wait for the offender, and slays him by strangulation, which to the aborigines tells no tales as to the manner of his death. Of course the sight of Konikatnie is the cause to which the death is assigned.
Every now and again a bangal will disappear from the camp, and remain absent for many days together, and when he returns his eyes will be bleared and bloodshot, and his opossum cloak rank and covered with the miry ooze of the river. On these occasions he is full of wondrous tales of his adventures at the bottom of the river whilst being hospitably entertained by his friend the Konikatnie, and no matter how highly coloured the stories may be, or how glaringly patent the falsehoods are with which he duly embellishes them, his wide-mouthed, greedy audiences give implicit credence to every marvel.
The province of Konikatnie is to keep guard during the hours of darkness, when sleep weighs heavy on the eyelids of those whose turn it is to keep a vigilant watch, lest the stealthy footsteps of a vile bukeen should steal into the slumbering camp and extract the kidney fat of some oblivious victim. The task thus assigned to this spirit is rather a singular one considering the fatal effects of even a chance meeting with him, but so it is nevertheless.
When a poor victim to the vile bukeen is found stark, with the fat excised from his kidneys as the morning sun wakes the sleeping camp to consciousness, whatever bangal chances to be in the camp immediately begins to vituperate the whole tribe for having done something to rouse the ire of the water spirit, who, in consequence thereof, allowed the bloody-minded bukeen to enter the camp unseen and successfully carry away the treasured kidney fat of their brother wherewith to lubricate himself, thereby adding the strength that was his victim's to his own vile person, besides depriving the tribe of one of its valuable members. Sometimes a bukeen wortongie (savage blackfellow) is found dead within a short distance of the camp, with no visible sign as to how he came by his end; therefore as a matter of course Konikatnie gets the credit of having slain him with one of his not-to-be-encountered glances. Great rejoicings ensue accordingly, accompanied by the usual quantum of tongue clucking when the aboriginal mind is in high glee. Besides that, many laudatory ejaculations are passed on the water spirit for his vigilant protection. In these cases the bangal present at the time takes very good care to confirm their belief in every possible manner, although more than likely it was he himself who had assassinated the wily bukeen. It is probable that whilst prowling about (as it is the custom of these medicine men to do) the bangal had opportunely caught sight of the stealthy bukeen lying perdue, awaiting an opportunity in all probability for the achievement of no very good purpose, becoming the victim, however, instead of the aggressor, as the discovering bangal crept from bush to bush, or wriggled himself like some hideous overgrown snake through the waving grass until within pouncing distance, when, with the fatal velocity of the reptile which we have used in illustration, he darted upon the fated bukeen, and had him strangled almost before he had time to struggle.
After one of these successful assassinations, when all the members of the tribe have returned to the camp for the night, the bangal carries the body of the dead bukeen to where it is certain to be discovered soon; in all probability, indeed, he feigns an excuse to send some one off in the direction of the dead bukeen, when, of course, discovery ensues.
The bangals are quite wise enough to be aware of the value of these legerdemain kind of tricks in keeping up their prestige in the tribes; therefore they never by any chance fail to put them in practice whenever a favourable opportunity occurs.
- Pimble—Earth, ground, soil, or land.
- The aborigines term all clergymen, and those also, whatever may be their status, who strive to impart religious instruction to them, missionaries.
- Yallum.—A small waterhole, or well. The term is usually applied to such as have been made or enlarged from natural crab-holes by the natives, a spot which has a good clay bottom, together with a fairish fall thereto, is the kind generally selected for aboriginal reservoirs. The natives puddle the bottoms and sides of these wells to prevent absorption, and as their positions are usually of a low-lying character, there is in most cases an abundant growth of polygonum, which, in a considerable measure, lessens the evaporation which the summer sun would induce.
- Prior to the advent of Europeans, and even for many years after that event, all the native tribes made a practice of keeping sentinels to guard the slumbering camps, and these watchmen frequently lacked the necessary vigilance they were expected to display, as many a bloody midnight slaughter has sorrowfully proved.
- Strangling, or garotting, is a favourite method of assassination with the aborigines, more especially if it should be possible for an outcry to bring aid.