Aboriginal Tales Retold

By I. M. Oderberg

When I was a youngster attending elementary school in Victoria, Australia, the monthly School Paper issued by the Education Department from time to time carried stories written by Mrs. Daisy Bates. These accounts were drawn from the store of Aboriginal myths and legends told to her or in her presence when she lived among Australia's native peoples. Memory of this was stirred by a recent reprinting of 34 of these tales collected and retold by Barbara Ker Wilson for children ten years and older, and illustrated by Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas (Tales Told to Kabbarli: Aboriginal Legends collected by Daisy Bates, 1977).

Daisy Bates was named Kabbarli -- "Wise Woman" -- by the people she had befriended and amongst whom she had lived for more than 40 years between 1899 and 1945. They called her also the "white grandmother" and she regarded them as her "black children. . . . In her special care were the old, the blind, and the orphaned." She was known as a "kallower," a magic woman, and so was allowed to join the tribesmen around their campfires at the storytelling time that followed the evening meal. She graphically described the atmosphere as she listened to the old men telling their tales, with the desert stars shining above, and as she watched the narrators act out in detail the behavior of the creatures in each story.

It is impossible to convey the dramatic gesture, the significant "flick" of fingers or features which accompanied the narration . . . the flash of eye as the spear is driven home, the tracks made in the sand of the hand or footprint of the bird or animal of the story . . . only those who have watched the storyteller can fully appreciate the dramatic recital. -- p. 8

Because the myths and legends had been handed down orally for countless generations, she wrote them down, as well as other folklore, customs, and dialects of the Aborigines, as she felt they would prove to be an important introduction to the thought-life of these people. Her accounts are word for word as she heard them, and what has been published amounts to a fraction of what must be a very large collection of material.

Daisy Bates was born Daisy May O'Dwyer in Ireland in 1861, and she sailed for Australia in the 1880s, where she married a cattle drover named John Bates. Cattle drovers used to drive herds on foot for great distances seeking pasture lands, and also took them to the sale yards. She returned to England in 1894 and became a journalist. Five years later, The Times of London sent her to Australia to report on cruelties alleged to have been perpetrated upon the Aborigines, and she remained in the country. From 1919 until 1935, she lived alone in her tent on the Nullarbor Plain, a vast, arid tract of land stretching east and west halfway across the continent. There, in her old-fashioned clothes, she must have presented an odd sight as she waited on the platform to converse with the passengers on the Trans-Continental express train that stopped briefly to refuel at the nearby Ooldea Siding (Ooldea is the European's version of Yooldil Gabbi, the Aboriginal name for an underground lake of fresh water, and an Aboriginal meeting place; Mrs. Bates used to walk a mile and a half daily with buckets yoked over her shoulders, to fetch water for her needs). At Ooldea, she met many tribesmen who came to the watering place as their ancestors had done for thousands of years, not only to have their fill of water, but also to gather together, even from distances of hundreds of miles, to take part in the initiation ceremonies of their young men.

As Barbara Wilson states in her introductory remarks, the present narratives drawn from the total collection are rooted in the "Dreamtime" -- the various tribal terms being Yamminga, Dhoogoorr, or Nyitting -- which she describes as "a long-ago period when men first began to inhabit the earth, and when the totem ancestors of the Aboriginal tribes, the spirit snake, eaglehawk, kangaroo, and other creatures, roamed the land. Often, in the legends, people, birds, animals and reptiles seem interchangeable" (p. 9). She points out that the tales she has chosen have much more depth than mere stories told for entertainment, because they represent "the oral culture of a people, the beliefs, traditions and history of the Aboriginal race. The legends spring from many different parts of Australia" (p. 8). The totemic animals are described in the stories as having been men before they became the creatures named. This is reminiscent of theosophic traditions that in the darkly remote periods of time past, the human stock preceded other animals of which the modern descendants do indeed show greater physical specialization than the corresponding features of man's frame; and that at an early stage, instead of increasing physical efficiency, man's evolution proceeded on inner lines, developing inherent potentials such as mind, intuition, and so forth.

The Aborigines' feeling of affinity with nature is characteristic of the very old peoples who viewed earth life as an interlocking relationship of all kinds of creatures. The present-day Western scientists call this linkage of all the inhabitants of our planet a biosphere or ecosystem. We need to enter into the spirit of the Aboriginal stories to partake of their cultural outlook. And for that to be successful we ought to call upon our creative imagination and empathy. The ability of the imagination to enter into the inner experience of the most varied peoples cannot be overestimated, and something of this quality, intrinsic in all of us to some extent, was indicated in the last speech made by the novelist Rider Haggard on November 24, 1924:

Imagination is power which comes from we know not where. Perhaps it is existent but ungrasped truth, a gap in the curtain of the unseen which sometimes presses so nearly upon us. It means suffering, but it also means vision, and is not light better than darkness? Who knows its object? No man: but it may be that those who possess it are gates through which the forces of good and evil flow down in strength upon the world: instruments innocent of their destiny.
For it seems to me as I grow old that the spirit of man is like those great icebergs which float in Arctic seas -- towering masses of glittering blue-green ice, which yet hide four fifths of their bulk beneath the water. It is the hidden power of the spirit which connects the visible and the invisible: which hears the still small voice calling from the infinite . . . . -- Reported in The Times, London, November 26, 1924

With the key of imagination, then, we may unlock some of the meanings of the Aboriginal narratives. For example, in the story "Meeka, Ballagar and Yonggar," translated as Moon, Native Cat, and Kangaroo, we find an interesting discussion of death. Moon tells Native Cat: "When I die, I always come back again, and when the yoongar die, they will come back again, too." (Yoongar are the people "living about the countryside," and the word should not be confused with yonggar, kangaroo.) But Native Cat did not believe him; and later, when Moon meets Kangaroo, he too does not believe him. But Moon said: "I die, I die, I sit up again; I die, I die, I sit up again; I die and come alive again and go home to Barramurning, my own country" (pp. 16-17).

The narrative following this one retells the myth of the bringing of fire to mankind. Moon possesses it, but is reluctant to share it. It is taken from him by Pigeon and Sparrowhawk. The myth of the bringing of fire is very ancient and is found all over the world. The Greeks associated it with Prometheus, and the Hindus with the "Sons of Mind," thereby giving us a clue to the inherent meaning. For the Sons of Mind, described as coming from the sun, awakened self-consciousness in the young mankind then living a simply automatic existence somewhat resembling that of the animals of the time. This event was the great humanizing experience immortalized in so many of the old myths of various races. It is interesting that in line with the Aboriginal tale, other traditions have also associated the moon with contributing to the composition of early humanity, for example in the Egyptian and Hindu, wherein certain elements are linked with the moon, others with the sun, earth supplying the materials for the physical body. However, the Aboriginal version has its own distinctive flavor:

In Nyitting time, the cold, cold time of long ago, no one had fire but Meeka the Moon. All the inhabitants of the earth had to eat their meat and vegetable food raw, because they had no cooking fires; they shivered and shivered because they had no fire to warm them. Meeka kept the fire for himself and would not give it to anyone else. He kept it hidden in his tail. -- p. 18

By a stratagem, the fire was stolen from Meeka's tail, and as Pigeon ran off with it, chased by Meeka, he set fire to trees and shrubs "so that they stood burning like torches." Then the yoongar, the people living round about, ran to the flaming trees "with glad hearts." Incidentally, Coyote in the Amerindian tradition carried the fire on his tail, and in India Hanuman's tail also was the bearer of the flame. Hanuman was the monkey companion of the avatar Rama, and his people had a language and communal organization somewhat similar to man's. In the Egyptian mythology, the hawk was a symbol connected with the sun, and represented the higher self in man, as well as in the cosmos.

This has a bearing on a later story in the book, "Chicken Hawk Brings Fire." Unlike the case of the reluctant Meeka the Moon, Chicken Hawk is only too eager to share the fire with mankind, and he makes many attempts to do so until he achieves his goal. Joongabilbil, as his Aboriginal name is given, finally succeeds when he sets a tree alight. Then "he put fire in the sandalwood tree, in the paperbark tree, the mangrove, the blackboy, and many others as well, and he showed the people how to get fire by taking branches from these trees and twirling fire-sticks to kindle a blaze" (p. 27).

There is also the reference to the idea that Chicken Hawk was a seacoast man, and he was able to make fire by flapping his wings" (p. 25). Of course, "seacoast man" literally means an Aboriginal of a tribe living by the sea; but is it stretching interpretation too far to suggest that there is another layer of meaning in the phrase? For in olden times, many cultures used the word "sea," or "waters," or "ocean," as a synonym for space, as for example in Genesis where the Elohim are said to have "moved on the face of the waters." So Chicken Hawk, a bird familiar to the Aborigines, could have been chosen to point to a solar myth similar to that of other peoples, relating that the enflaming of man's consciousness into self-consciousness was catalyzed by beings embodying a solar essence.

"The Great Totem Board" tells that at first there was no death and the earth people frequently traveled across space, between their dwellings on our globe and the sky country. But the passageway was burnt by a fire lit by women who had taken a rest upon this bridge and had sought to warm themselves and their children against the cold of the dark night sky. Perhaps this means that once the fires of mind had been lit in the first humans, they became limited to earth for the learning experiences needed to bring out their potential qualities. The Aboriginal name for the totem board is kalligooroo, described in a footnote as a "decorated sheet of bark, a symbolic painting used in tribal ceremonies." The text begins:

In the Dhoogoorr, or Dreamtime of long ago, there was once a kalligooroo, or totem board, so big that it stretched from the earth to the sky. The womba. and jandu, the men and women of those far-off days, used this big kalligooroo as a track between the earth country and the sky country. For in that long-ago time, men and women lived for ever, and if they grew tired of being on the earth, they simply walked along the kalligooroo track to live in Kalbu, the sky country, for a while. . . . Every day the kalligooroo track was thronged with travellers between earth and sky. -- p. 21

A bell of reminiscence rings "Jacob's ladder" in at least one pair of ears!

In a story given in Aboriginal language as "Irdibilyi, Wommainya, and Karder," translated as "Altair, Vega and Delphinus," there is an obvious connection with stars. Delphinus -- Karder -- in the Aboriginal lore is the Lizard, but in our Western tradition it is the Dolphin, a northern constellation between Pegasus and Aquila the Eagle. The story says that in the Dreamtime, a woman named Irdibilyi and her husband Wommainya lived with two sons "at a place called Ngaiyenup, beside the Southern Sea." The woman's brother was "a lazy, slow-moving man" who never hunted, preferring to "lie by the fire."

From the cosmic standpoint of time, one minute being like many years of ours, it is possible that the trait of laziness applied to the Lizard may allude to what appears from observations on earth to be a slow movement but is actually a fraction of a much longer time cycle than we experience on earth. In any event, the story says that Wommainya provided Karder with food because of the tribal law that "brothers-in-law must always feed each other and never quarrel between themselves."

The central theme itself revolves around the two sons, who used to accompany their mother when she went food-gathering, her special search being for a delicacy she liked to provide her husband. The boys also liked this item: bardi, a "large, delicate-tasting grub" that lived among tree roots. One day after a long and successful search for it, she decided to return home, and all the way the young boys pestered her for some of the bardi, which she refused to share because she intended it for her husband. After they reached home, in vexation with the boys' demands, she told them to go out and search for their own bardi. When they had not returned after some time, she became anxious and sent her brother to find them. But he was lazy and did not go far, returning with the advice not to worry, that the boys would come home eventually. But the mother was very concerned, especially because she had infringed the rule never to send out young children alone.

The boys' search for bardi developed into a long journey, and eventually they reached a lake, "Ngai-yenup water." On his return, their father became angry when he found that his sons had been allowed to go out alone without adult supervision, and he went out to try to find them. Following the tracks, he soon learned that Karder had not gone far in his search for them, and this made him angry. But because "brothers-in-law must never quarrel with each other," he refrained from spearing Karder. Following the tracks of the boys he reached the lake, to find them immersed in it with only their heads above water. He stretched out his beard and called to his sons to "catch hold, and I will pull you out! " But he failed, the boys being sucked under the water.

Wommainya returned to his home in anger and sorrow, and his wife seeing that he was alone knew she would have to forfeit her life because of her infringement of the tribal law about not letting young children stray from camp alone. Her husband pierced her heart, and she died. He could not punish Karder similarly, because of the rule governing behavior between brothers-in-law, but he banned him from his presence, saying: "Lazy men should sit with women and not with other men." In a short time Wommainya died of grief for his sons.

And now they are all up in the sky: Wommainya, Irdibilyi, Karder, and the two boys. On starry nights Wommainya, known otherwise as Vega, stands holding out his long beard to his two sons -- the two stars south of Vega in Lyra. Away to the south-east, Irdibilyi, known as Altair, sits with her death spear sticking out at either side of her heart. Karder is there, too, and because he was lazy and would not hunt for meat, and could not be bothered to search properly for his two nephews, he has to sit in the sky near Irdibilyi. He is thin and small and weak. pp. 30-31

The constellation of Lyra was named by the classical Greeks for the lyre of Orpheus or Hermes. If it seems odd to associate a beard with trailing filaments of starry substance, let us remember that the ancient Romans named Coma Berenices -- "Berenice's Hair" -- after Titus' mistress, Princess Berenice of Judea, her hair being a beautiful feature. (An Egyptian version claims the constellation was named for the hair of Berenice II, wife of Ptolemy III.) The stories in Tales Told to Kabbarli are couched in the language of the Aborigines' daily experience -- the tribal hunting and gathering of food, rejoicing, suffering, greed, justice, and so forth. They are of commonplace things but are told vividly, and they transmit the Aboriginal customs as well as their hunting methods, the description of weapons or tools such as boomerangs, throwing-sticks to propel spears, etc. At least some of the stories in this collection are parables, different in color and tone from those in the New Testament, yet similar in the employment of daily events as analogies for deeply spiritual ones. Most of the tales have a "moral" in the sense of indicating a principle of right or wrong action or conduct, and of an individual's communal responsibility -- in a word, ethics. Even the hunting for meat can be symbolic, as in some "advanced" cultures where man is described as providing food for the gods -- obviously alluding to our capacity and potential to aspire nobly and develop spiritually, humanely.

It is worth noting that in her extraordinary life, Daisy Bates was in 1912 made an "Honorary Protector of Aborigines for the Eucla District," and it was at Eucla that she was

instructed in the mysteries of the Aboriginal zodiac and heard the legends of the stars. She put up a telescope and studied the stars for herself, but what she enjoyed most was to "wander over these great distances in company with the Aborigines and hear the wonderful legends of this and that star," watching as they pointed out the Yaggin or moon road "that was made when the moon was human." At Eucla, too, she was made guardian of the sacred Aboriginal totem boards, a unique honour to be given to a woman. -- p. 5

Daisy Bates died in 1951, in Adelaide, South Australia, her copious notes on Aboriginal lore and on anthropology left largely unpublished and neglected. She was disappointed that in her lifetime the scientific value of her work was not recognized, yet there is still the memory of those early school years when her stories opened the mind's eye of a child to the different world of the Aborigine. And something of the magic of her total legacy remains in her accounts of which the Tales are but a small sampling. Her own words best sum up her quality: "My greatest and best love goes to children."

(Sunrise, May 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)

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