More Australian Legendary Tales/Introduction

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Mrs. Langloh Parker has requested me to write a little "fore-word" to her new collection of Australian popular tales. "Good wine," like these stories, "needs no bush," and Mrs. Parker's intimate knowledge of the bush and its wild native lords cannot be improved by any merely literary information. Yet one would not willingly disoblige a lady to whom children owe so much for her legends, and who has so remarkably vindicated the thoroughly human and amiable character of an unfortunate people.

These dark backward friends of hers, "the blacks," are, we find, "very much like you and me," as Mr. Kipling says, or rather they are our superiors in poetical fancy. Without our savage ancestors we should certainly have had no poetry. Conceive the human race born into the world in its present advanced condition, weighing, analysing, examining everything, except a few phenomena which happen not to chime in with the general ideas of science. Such a race would have been destitute of poetry and flattened by common sense. The world would never have been "dispeopled of its dreams," because there would have been no dreamers. Barbarians did the dreaming for the world, poetry arose in their fancies, and poetry, in spite of facts and science, resolutely refuses to "follow darkness like a dream." Mrs. Parker's collection demonstrates that, among the world's dreamers, the Australians, just escaping from the Palaeolithic age, were among the most distinguished.

On many points we need further information. It is commonly said that the Biraarks, or native necromants, have disappeared. But Mrs. Parker has seen one, a woman, whose call the spirits obey, and who, like D. D. Home, works her marvels in open day. We have had no account of an Australian, though we have several accounts of Maori, Guiana and Red Indian séances. One hopes that Mrs. Parker will fill up the lacuna with a detailed report of her own observations, to which she briefly refers. Anthropology has no reason for neglecting these affairs any more than the countless other things in which savage practice tallies with the mysticisms of civilisation.

Many of the myths are ætiological—they account for origins. The tales of the "West Wind," of "The Mirage Maker," of "The Blood Flowers," and others, are highly poetical. Ovid would have found in them excellent material for more Metamorphoses. The girl who "sang new songs, which she said the spirits taught her," merely gave the animistic explanation of her own genius. "Their voices come to me on every breeze," as to the girl of Domremi. The stories are tender with human affection.

These are interesting traits for the student of animism, as when Piggiebillah sleeps on his face that his doowee, or dream spirit, may not leave him as he slumbers. Wurrunnah is eager to know "where Byamee (Baiame) is," the Good Being who made and instructed mankind; who has withdrawn to heaven which is His home, leaving laws not to be broken. We see the black seeking after God, if perhaps he may find Him, dreaming the great dream of the universal Father, the friend of righteousness (as it is understood by the tribes), who receives His children into everlasting habitations. Byamee is at once the god and the culture hero in these myths. He made the "stone fisheries," which Mr. Gideon Scott Lang, many years ago, described to me as the only material evidence of a time of more organisation and enterprise among the blacks than now exist.

The "Legend of the Flowers" is the most important example of the Byamee creed in this volume. The flowers all followed Byamee, when he retired from earth and went to Bullimah, the land of rest. I cannot persuade myself that Byamee and Bullimah are echoes of Christian teaching. Waitz has rejected that idea, and I see no evidence that we "white devils" have largely influenced native belief. These stories reflect human hopes and the world's desire, things natural, untaught, inevitable. The All Seeing Spirit is here distinguished from Byamee; but in Mr. Howitt's accounts; Durumulun (another name for the same conception) can himself see and hear everything. Byamee has spirits who do his bidding, such as Wallahgooroonbooan, whose voice is heard through the gayandy (the Tundan or Rule Roarer?). Byamee is now (like the Fijian Ndegei) "fixed and frozen to permanence" on his crystal rock in the land of rest. The souls of those who keep his law go to him, the wicked go to Eleanbah Wundah, the native Inferno. All this is in direct contradiction to the odd theory that morals, among low savages, have no religious sanction. That theory cannot long resist the impact of accumulating evidence. We are, in truth, all alike, and from an unknown antiquity the Maker of men has also been their Judge.

I have elsewhere argued (in "The Making of Religion") that such beings as Byamee are not the ghosts of an ancestor carried to the highest power. Ancestor worship I do not discover in Australia. Mr. Dawson reports that the habit of ghost-feeding (the supposed origin of religion) is "recent," and that the blacks call it "white fellows' gammon."[1]

Mr. Dawson found a deity called Pirnmeheal, a good being. "The aborigines say that the missionaries and government protectors have given them a dread of Pirnmeheal; and they are sorry that the young people, and many of the old, are now afraid of a being who never did any harm to their forefathers." Mr. Dawson received his information in the native languages, and sifted it carefully. We have seen what he regards as the result of the teaching of the white devils, missionaries and others.

If he is right, if "providing food for it" (the corpse or ghost) is a recent custom, what becomes of Mr. Herbert Spencer's theory?

If Mr. Dawson is right in Australia we surprise religion already possessed of a God on his way to be otiose. Byamee sits like Keats's

"Grey-hair'd Saturn quiet as a stone;"

and Pirnmeheal is seldom mentioned. Elsewhere Durumulun is served in the secret rites of the mysteries; none of these gods receive food or sacrifice. Religion is at this point, and is' only just beginning to turn towards animism. Corpse-feeding is recent. In Mrs. Parker's book Byamee is implored to receive the soul of Eerin. "For Eerin was faithful on earth, faithful to the laws you left us." The mourners "let their blood drop into his grave," but such a sacrifice is not necessarily more than a tribute of affectionate regret. It need not imply feeding, while of later sacrifices to spirits I have vainly looked for a trace. Now, by a mythical inconsistency, the spirit of Eerin (or one of his spirits, perhaps his doowee) dwells in a grey owl.

Here, then, is a kind of theism, and beside it only the germs of an animism which is not yet a religion of service and propitiation of ancestors.

This helps my argument (that theism is not the latest flower of animism) very well, and Mr. Dawson (as far as his evidence attests) has no theory to prove or disprove.

Mrs. Parker has, in MS., a considerable body of evidence as to both the religion and the mythology of Byamee. I have maintained, in this case, on the evidence of Mr. Howitt, an initiate, that religion and mythology represent quite different moods of men. In religion, the Australian is serious, and will not mention "The Master" except at the solemn mysteries. In mythology, he is either curious, when making fanciful explanations of facts, or he is romantic and humorous, telling stories for pleasure about Byamee or Durumulun, whom he now envisages, not as Father and Judge, but very much as a black fellow like himself. Grant such a black fellow unlimited power, and he will frolic as in the Australian and other mythologies. Consider him as the maker and lawgiver, the all-seeing witness and rewarder of conduct, and Byamee or Durumulun is no longer the wanton, gigantic wirreenun; rather is he God. I am unable to see any inconsistency between my notion of a kind of early theism, and my belief that many of the absurdities of mythology are the result, and (in civilisation) the survival, of the savage intellectual condition. Odd stories enough about Our Lord, the Virgin, and the Saints occur in our European folk-lore. These are mythical popular accretions, like the similar tales about Byamee. But neither our creed nor that of the Australians began in buffoonery. To these themes, and to a wider and more minute examination of Australian religion, I hope some day to return. Meanwhile the literary merit of the tales collected by Mrs. Parker may teach us not to be surprised by traces of elevated thought and morality in the religious traditions of this people, so low in the scale of culture that no remains of the rudest pottery have been discovered in the soil of the continent.

  1. "Australian Aborigines,'" pp. 50, 51. Melbourne. 1881