The Euahlayi Tribe/Chapter 2
THE ALL FATHER, BYAMEE
As throughout the chapters on the customary laws, mysteries, and legends of the Euahlayi, there occur frequent mentions of a superhuman though anthropomorphic being named Byamee (in Kamilaroi and Wirádjuri 'Baiame'), it is necessary to give a preliminary account of the beliefs entertained concerning him. The name Byamee (usually spelled Baiame) occurs in Euahlayi, Kamilaroi, and Wirádjuri; 'the Wirádjuri language is spoken over a greater extent of territory than any other tongue in New South Wales.' The word occurs in the Rev. Mr. Ridley's Gurre Kamilaroi, an illustrated manual of Biblical instruction for the education of the Kamilaroi: Mr. Ridley translated our 'God' by 'Baiame.' He supposed that native term, which he found and did not introduce, to be a derivative from the verb baia, or biai, 'to make.' Literally, however, at least in Euahlayi, the word byamee means 'great one.' In its sense as the name of the All Father it is not supposed to be used by women or by the uninitiated. If it is necessary to speak to them of Byamee, he is called Boyjerh, which means Father, just as in the Theddora tribe the women speak of Darramulun as Papang, 'Father.' Among the Euahlayi both women and the uninitiated use byamee, the adjective for 'great,' in ordinary talk, though the more usual adjective answering to 'great' is boorool, which occurs in Kamilaroi as well as in Euahlayi. The verb baia or biai, to make or shape, whence Mr. Ridley derived Baiame, is not known to me in Euahlayi. Wirádjuri has bai, a footmark, and Byamee left footmarks on the rocks, but that is probably a chance coincidence.
I was first told of Byamee, in whispers, by a very old native, Yudtha Dulleebah (Bald Head), said to have been already grey haired when Sir Thomas Mitchell discovered the Narran in 1846. My informant said that he was instructed as to Byamee in his first Boorah, or initiation. If he was early grey, say at thirty, in 1846, that takes his initiation back to 1830, when, as a matter of fact, we have contemporary evidence to the belief in Byamee, who is not of missionary importation, though after 1856 Christian ideas may, through Mr. Ridley's book, have been attached to his name by educated Kamilaroi. But he was a worshipful being, revealed in the mysteries, long before missionaries came, as all my informants aver.
There has, indeed, been much dispute as to whether the Aborigines of Australia have any idea, or germ of an idea, of a God; anything more than vague beliefs about unattached spirits, mainly mischievous, who might be propitiated or scared away. Mr. Huxley maintained this view, as did Mr. Herbert Spencer. Both of these authors, who have great influence on popular opinion, omitted to notice the contradictory statement of Waitz, published in 1872. He credited the natives, in some regions, with belief in, and dances performed in honour of, a 'Good Being,' and denied that the belief and rites were the result of European influence. Mr. Tylor, admitting to some extent that the belief now exists, attributed it in part to the influence of missionaries and of white settlers. 'Baiame,' he held, was a word of missionary manufacture, introduced about 1830-1840. This opinion was controverted by Mr. Lang, and by Mr. N. W. Thomas. Mr. Thomas has produced the evidence of Henderson, writing in 1829-1830, for the belief in 'Piame' or Byamee, or Baiame.
In 1904 Mr. Howitt gave a great mass of evidence for the belief in what he calls an 'All Father': in many dialects styled by various names meaning 'Our Father,' dwelling in or above the sky, and often receiving the souls of blacks who have been 'good.' These ideas are not derived, Mr. Howitt holds, from Europeans, or developed out of ancestor-worship, which does not exist in the tribes. The belief is concealed from women, but communicated to lads at their initiation. The belief, in favourable circumstances, might develop, Mr. Howitt thinks, into what he speaks of as a 'religion,' a 'recognised religion.' Without asking how 'a recognised religion' is to be defined, I shall merely tell what I have gathered as to the belief in Byamee among the Euahlayi.
It may seem strange that I should know anything about a belief carefully kept from women, but I have even been privileged to hear 'Byamee's Song,' which only the fully initiated may sing; an old black, as will later appear, did chant this old lay, now no longer understood, to myself and my husband. Moreover, the women of the Euahlayi have some knowledge of, and some means of, mystic access to Byamee, though they call him by another name.
Byamee, in the first place, is to the Euahlayi what the 'Alcheringa' or 'Dream time' is to the Arunta. Asked for the reason why of anything, the Arunta answer, 'It was so in the Alcheringa.' Our tribe have a subsidiary myth corresponding to that of the Alcheringa. There was an age, in their opinion, when only birds and beasts were on earth; but a colossal man and two women came from the remote north-cast, changed birds and beasts into men and women, made other folk of clay or stone, taught them everything, and left laws for their guidance, then returned whence they came. This is a kind of 'Alcheringa' myth, but whether this colossal man was Byamee or not, our tribe give, as the final answer to any question about the origin of customs, 'Because Byamee say so.' Byamee declared his will, and that was and is enough for his children. At the Boorah, or initiatory ceremonies, he is proclaimed as 'Father of All, whose laws the tribes are now obeying.' Byamee, at least in one myth (told also by the Wirádjuri), is the original source of all totems, and of the law that people of the same totem may not intermarry, 'however far apart their hunting-grounds.' I heard first in a legend, then received confirmation from all old blacks, that Byamee had a totem name for every part of his body, even to a different one for each finger and toe. And when he was passing on to fresh fields, he gave each kinship of the tribe he was leaving one of his totems. The usual version is, that to such as were metamorphosed from birds and animals he gave as totem the animal or whatever it was from which they were evolved. But no one dreams of claiming Byamee as a relation belonging to one clan; he is one apart and yet the father of all, even as Birrahgnooloo is mother of all and not related to any one clan; Cunnumbeillee, his other wife, had only one totem.
Certainly woman is given a high place in their sacred lore. The chief wife of Byamee, Birrahgnooloo, is claimed as the mother of all, for she, like him, had a totem for each part of her body; no one totem can claim her, but all do.
Mother of all, though mother of none in particular, she was not to be vulgarised by ordinary domestic relations, For those purposes Cunnumbeillee was at hand, as a bearer of children and a caterer. Yet it was Birrahgnooloo whom Byamee best loved and made his companion, giving her power and position which no other held. She too, like him, is partially crystallised in the sky-camp, where they are together; the upper parts of their bodies are as on earth; to her, those who want floods go, and when willing to grant their requests, she bids Cunnumbeillee start the flood-ball of blood rolling down the mountains. Cunnumbeillee, as has been said, had but one totem which her children derived from her.
Byamee is the originator of things less archaic and important than totemism. There is a large stone fish-trap at Brewarrina, on the Barwan River. It is said to have been made by Byamee and his gigantic sons, just as later Greece attributed the walls of Tiryns to the Cyclops, or as Glasgow Cathedral has been explained in legend as the work of the Picts. Byamee also established the rule that there should be a common camping-ground for the various tribes, where, during the fishing festival, peace should be strictly kept, all meeting to enjoy the fish, and do their share towards preserving the fisheries.
Byamee still exists. I have been told by an old native, as will be shown later, that prayers for the souls of the dead used to be addressed to Byamee at funerals; certainly not a practice derived from Protestant missionaries.
Byamee is supposed to listen to the cry of an orphan for rain. Such an one has but to run out when the clouds are overhead, and, looking at the sky, call aloud
'Gullee boorboor. Gullee boorboor.'
'Water come down. Water come down.'
Or should it be raining too much, the last possible child of a woman can stop it by burning Midjeer wood.
Bootha told me after one rain that she had sent one of her tutelary spirits to tell Boyjerh—Byamee is called by women and children Boyjerh—that the country wanted rain. In answer he had taken up a handful of crystal pebbles and thrown them from the sky down into the water in a stone basin on the top of the sacred mountain; as the pebbles fell in, the water splashed up into the clouds above, whence it descended as the desired rain.
It is told to me, that at some initiatory rites the oldest medicine man, or Wirreenun, present addresses a prayer to Byamee, asking him to give them long life, as they have kept his law.
The tribesmen do not profess to pray, or to have prayed, to Byamee on any occasions except at funerals, and at the conclusion of the Boorah.
As for Byamee's relation to ethics, it will be stated in the chapter on the tribal ceremonies, while the stories as to the rewards and punishments of the future life will be given in their place. Baiame's troubles with a kind of disobedient deputy, Darramulun, will also be narrated: the myth is current, too, among the Wirádjuri tribe.
Other particulars about Byamee will occur in the course of later chapters: here I have tried to give a general summary of the native beliefs. The reader may interpret them in his own fashion, and may decide as to whether the beliefs do or do not indicate a kind of 'religion,' whether 'a recognised religion' or not. There is necessarily, of course, an absence of temples and of priests, and I have found no trace or vestige of sacrifice. What may be said on the affirmative side as to the religious aspect of the belief, the reader can supply from the summary of facts. Other potent beings occur in native myth, as we shall show, but there appears to exist between them and mankind no relation of affection, reverence, or duty, as in the case of Byamee.
Here it seems necessary to advert to a remark of Mr. Howitt's which appears to be erroneous. He says 'that part of Australia which I have indicated as the habitat of that belief' (namely, in an All Father),' is also the area where there has been the advance from group marriage to individual marriage; from descent in the female line to that in the male line; where the primitive organisation under the class system has been more or less replaced by an organisation based on locality; in fact, where these advances have been made to which I have more than once drawn attention.'
Mr. Howitt forgets that he himself attributes the early system of descent through women, and also the belief in an All Father (Nurelli), to the Wiimbaio tribe, to the Wotjobaluk tribe,to the Kamilaroi, to the Ta-Ta-thi, while female descent and the belief in Baiame mark the Euahlayi and Wirádjuri.
These tribes cover an enormous area of country, and, though they have not advanced to male kinship, they all possess the belief in an All Father. That belief does not appear to be in any way associated with advance in social organisation, for Messrs. Spencer and Gillen cannot find a trace of it in more than one of the central and northern tribes, which have male kinship, and a kind of local self-government. On the other hand, it does occur among southern tribes, like the Kurnai, which have advanced almost altogether out of totemism.
In short, we have tribes with female descent, such as the Dieri and Urabunna, to whom all knowledge of an All Father is denied. We have many large and important tribes with female descent who certainly believe in an All Father. We have tribes of the highest social advancement who are said to show no vestige of the belief, and we have tribes also socially advanced who hold the belief with great vigour. In these circumstances, authenticated by Mr. Howitt himself, it is impossible to accept the theory that belief in an All Father is only reached in the course of such advance to a higher social organisation as is made by tribes who reckon descent in the male line.
- R. H. Mathews, J. A. I., vol. xxxiv. p. 284.
- Howitt, Native Tribes of South-East Australia, p. 493.
- Ecclesiastical Institutions, p. 674.
- Waitz, Anthropologie der Natur-Völker, vol. vi. pp. 796-798. Leipzig, 1872.
- Journal, Anthropological Institute, vol. xxi. p. 292 et seq.
- Magic and Religion, p. 25 sq. Myth, Ritual, and Religion, vol. ii. chap. xii., 1899.
- Man, 1905, No. 28.
- Observations on the Colonies of New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land, p. 147.
- Howitt, Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pp. 488-508.
- Howitt, Native Tribes of South-East Australia, p. 500.
- Ibid. p. 489
- Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pp. 120, 490.
- Ibid. p. 494
- Journal, Anthropological Institute, XXV., p. 297.