The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.


TREATING OF THEIR GEOGRAPHICAL AND ASTRONOMICAL THEORIES. OF THE SEASONS. THEIR METHOD OF MARKING TIME. THEIR HAZINESS IN COMPUTING NUMBERS. THEIR UTTER WANT OF COMPARISON.


The ideas possessed by the aborigines are both crude and vague in the extreme.

They imagine the earth to be one vast plain without limit, covered with forests in certain localities, whilst others are destitute of timber; mountain ranges here and there, sometimes continuous, and in other places isolated, with solitary hills dotted about, showing former encampments of the Ngoudenout. These, together with occasional rivers, creeks, springs, and lakes, when all summed up together, is about the extent of aboriginal geographical knowledge.

They consider the Murray River the largest flowing volume of water in the world, and that it is without either beginning or end. They further deem the water of the Murray the sweetest, and the fish thereof the best and fattest in the universe. The sea is only considered by them to be an immense lake of cawie kayanie (salt water). They have not the remotest notion how or why it ebbs and flows; nor have they the faintest idea of its vastness, or that Australia is merely one of its countless islands.

Their total ignorance of these matters is most singular, as we would have imagined that their ngallawatows (postmen) would at least (in their continual intercourse with the various tribes with whom their bartering proclivities brought them in contact) have gained some notions on the subject less crude than those which they possess.

In astronomical subjects, however, their annals are less barren, but this fact does not offer much room for astonishment, as their continuous outdoor existence brings them daily, as well as nightly, face to face with the celestial luminaries, and as they are entirely dependent upon the sun for light, whilst foraging for their required sustenance and for guidance during their manifold wanderings, they note his motions and aspects with as much interest and anxiety as mariners do.

As a matter of course they imagine that it is the sun which travels from east to west, and so causes daylight and darkness as well as the changes of the season; they have not the least idea that it is the earth's motions which effect these changes, and when we have endeavoured to explain these phenomina to them they have gravely shaken their heads and fancied us more than a little given to stories of a Baron Munchausen character. This sceptical feeling is induced in a great measure, we imagine, by reason of the poetical licence which, as a rule, is generally indulged in by themselves, and they, knowing that they are highly endowed with the romancist furor, imagine that white men lack probity to an equal extent; therefore, it is that they take whatever we tell them of a wonderful nature, or in any way beyond aboriginal ken, with many grains of salt.

After having explained and discussed some such subject to them we have overheard them whilst seated round the fire at night talking the subjects over amongst themselves, and the fashion in which we, together with our elaborate theories were handled, was anything but flattering to our amour propre. Their powers of ridicule and their fine sense thereof are unmistakeably keen, and they use and enjoy them with infinite zest, and upon every favourable occasion which chance throws in their way.

They imagine the sun to be a large fire, kindled in the tyrrily (sky) by Nyoudenout daily, accounting for its origin in the following fashion:—

In the long past and forgotten times the only light which shone upon the world came from the moon and stars only. At that time there were not any aborigines on the earth, it being inhabited by beasts and birds alone. One day during this semi-dark period an emu and a native companion quarrelled very violently, and the latter, whilst in the very height of his passion, threw one of the simple-minded emu's eggs up to the vast tyrrily, where it broke on a large pile of firewood, which Ngoudenout had seemingly prepared to that end; the concussion of the egg when it came in contact with the heap of wood produced spontaneous fire, and the whole world was incontinently flooded with light, Ngoudenout immediately saw the great advantage that this light would be to the dwellers upon the earth, and he thereupon vowed that the earth would never more be left in a continual state of darkness as it had been up to that time, for he would light the fire that seemed so good every day, and the vow then made by the good spirit had never been broken, even to the present time, which is sufficient warrant to the whole aboriginal race for its continuing for evermore.

They prove this quaint theory of theirs by pointing out that in the morning, ere the fire is well kindled, the nowie (sun) diffuses but little warmth, as the day advances, however, the heat becomes greater and greater until noon, when its fervency culminates; from that time the warmth gradually lessens as the fire becomes more and more reduced, until evening, when the pile is completely burnt out; then darkness covers the face of the land; but during the darkness Ngoudenout has his attendant spirits employed preparing a fresh pile of wood for next day's consumption. The moon, they imagine to be composed of some shiny substance, such as a large slice of mica, or Muscovy glass, and in order to prove that in this matter they are also correct they hold that there is not the very slightest degree of warmth emanatting from the mitian (moon), that it merely glitters and shines coldly, and that a large piece of calkoo ban, blackfellows bones (which is the aboriginal for mica) would do the same; indeed, they illustrate this theory by holding a piece of mica in the rays of the sun or within the influence of fire light, and triumphantly ask whether better proof could be. It is only wasted time to make them understand that the mica possesses no light or glitter of its own, but merely has the property of reflecting the light which proceeds from some other body, as the sun or fire light. They sagely shake their heads at what they deem a very clumsy endeavour to shake the belief which has endured, amongst them, for generations beyond number, and wisely ejaculate—"Oh! too much you white fellow. Plenty bumhammn wirrimpoola (stupid ears), you!" According to their computation the moon lasts as many nights as three times the number of their fingers, or thirty days; they compare it to an opossum cloak after this fashion:—

When a native has a rug to make he does not wait until he has acquired a sufficient number of skins to complete it, for as soon as he has two or three skins he sews them together and wears them mantilla fashion across his shoulders' going on day by day adding thereto as he procures the skins, but wearing it all the time, until it becomes a finished cloak. Shortly after the completion (in fact frequently before that achievement) of the cloak, as a matter of course it generally begins to fray at the edges, until by use, like the moon, it is worn completely out, necessitating the commencement of a new one after the same manner.

According to the mythology of these people, panmarootoortie (pleiads) is composed of seven mooroongoors (young virgins), being sisters, who were translated to their proud position in their sky because the whole of them, from the eldest even to the youngest born, retained their virgi purity until the advent of grey hairs. When Nyoudencout with unqualified pleasure, saw that these virgins had attained the meridian of life and still remained chaste he deemed them far too good to associate longer wiih their dissolute tribe, therefore he forthwith translated them to the sky, where he fixed them, in order that they might ever after be enabled to see the actions of their heretofore sisterhood, and so be ever ready to guide them straight should temptation induce any of them to swerve from the path of rectitude; besides, they would be to the lyoors, as is a beacon on a rough coast to the hardy mariners who tempt the deep, as they could always see them by looking upwards, and could therefore be scarcely guilty of any gross indiscretion in the very faces of the panmarootoortie, whose lives whilst on earth were without stain or reproach.

Thus it comes that this group of stars is more revered by the aborigines than any other constellation in the heavens.

Boorongcortchal (Venus) is sent in the early morning by Ngoudenout to let the world know that he is about to light up the glowing nowie so that his black people may prepare for their daily avocations before the crimson emanations tinge the eastern horizon with, jinky (red). In the evening this planet is termed worka worka, at which time his forte is the well-being of gestation, whether of man or beast. Therefore, pregnant women when they observe him bright and unclouded, looking calmly down on the earth, like a miniature moon, imagine that their wishes (whatever they may be) with regard to the expected offspring will be granted them. On the other hand, however, should he be perceived when dimmed and diminished, by reason of the intervention of a hazy or murky atmosphere, the fate of the unborn will be a fitful one; therefore the prospective mothers are elated or depressed accordingly.

They do not possess any ceremony or incantations wherewith to propitiate this birth-governing worka worka, even although they deem his influence all-powerful in the making or marring the fortunes of the unborn.

The aborigines divide the year as Europeans do, viz., into four seasons.

Bakroothakootoo (spring) is defined by the advent of succulent herbage, upon which the Ngarrow (Bustard) loves to graze, by the pairing of birds and consequent egg harvest, and by the emergence of the young kangaroo from forth the parent pouch.

Kurtie (summer) is distinguished by a general display of flowers and by their gradually changing into seed vessels and fruit, and by the brown tints assumed by the ripening grasses, together with the flight of all fledgelings from their parents' nests, and the abandonment for good of the maternal pouch by the young kangaroo.

Weat (autumn) is known by the cottony gossamar substance which floots about in the atmosphere during that season in this colony, by the hybernating of snakes and other reptiles which then usually seek out their quarters for their winters repose.

Myangie (winter) begins with the first frosts and continues until the mild lengthening days of spring puts it to flight. There is little chance of this season passing unnoticed, as the cold, wet, dreary days thereof are frequently borne by the poor aborigines whilst in a state of semi-starvation as regards both food and warmth; therefore the first indication of spring makes them jubilant to a degree, as then the near approach of food in abundance and of all kinds seems tolerably tangible, and no longer mere visions of the brain, induced by taking infrequent as well as insufficient meals of very indigestable food.

They have no single term which includes all the seasons such as our year. Their method of computing time is by nowies (suns or days), mittians (moons), and kurties (summers), but having nothing save oral records their data, as may well be supposed, is oftentimes very far out in point of time, therefore the reliance to be placed on any dates which they may give with regard to occurrences, if even not more than a very few years back, can only be of the smallest.

After getting beyond twenty or, at the most, twenty-five in numbers, they become very hazy, and to get themselves out of the fog they say co co (many), which may mean ten; or five hundred, or, in fact, any other quantity, and their is "no means short of actual investigation whereby it is possible to know whether the greater or lesser number is meant when an aboriginal makes use of the term co co.

The entire absence of the organ of comparison in the native character tends very much to the creation of this difficulty, as, for example, ask a blackfellow which one of the two flocks of parrots is the largest, and his reply will be—"Two-fellow co co" This same reply will be given in every other matter of comparison which may come under observation, whether of numbers or quality, only in the latter talko (good) will be substituted for co co.