I WAS awakened one morning on the station by distant wailing.
A wailing that came in waves of sound, beginning slowly and lowly, to gain gradually in volume until it reached the full height or limit of the human voice, when gradually, as it had risen, it fell again. No shrieking, just a wailing inexpressibly saddening to hear.
I lay for some minutes not realising what the sound was, yet penetrated by its sorrow. Then came consciousness. It was from the blacks' camp, and must mean death. Beemunny, the oldest woman of the camp, who for weeks had been ill, must now be dead.
Poor old Beemunny, who was blind and used to get her great-granddaughter, little Buggaloo, to lead her up to the tree outside my window, under whose shade she had spent so many hours, telling me legends of the golden age when man, birds, beasts, trees, and elements spoke a common language. But the day before I had been to the camp to hear how she was. The old women were sitting round her; one of the younger ones told me her end had nearly come.
The Boolees, or whirlwinds, with the Mullee Mullees of her enemies in, had been playing round and through the camp for days, they said, watching to seize her fleeting spirit-a sure sign the end was near. That night surely would come Yowee, the skeleton spirit, with the big head and fiery eyes, whose coming meant death.
Last night more than one of the blacks had dreamt of an emu, which meant misfortune to one of that totem, which was Beemunny's.
As Yellen spoke in a hushed sad voice, suddenly, though no breath of wind was stirring, sprang up on the edge of the camp a boolee, rearing its head as if it were a living thing. Round it whirled, snatching the dead leaves of the Coolabahs, swirling them with the dust it gathered into a spiral column, which sped, as if indeed a spirit animated it, straight to the camp of the dying woman. Round and round it eddied, a dust-devil dancing a dance of death.
The watchers drew nearer to Beemunny, who was past heeding even the spirits of evil.
The women in other camps clutched their children to them, but spoke no word. All was silent but the swirling leaves as the column gathered them. Finding the deathbed guarded, the boolee turned sharply from the camp and sped away down the road, dissolving on the poligonum flat in the distance.
Yellen gave a sigh of relief.
But now her fears were verified; Beemunny was dead.
Poor old Beemunny! How the vanities of youth cling to one; how we are 'all sisters under the skin.'
She was ever so old, she was blind, her face was scarred with wrinkles, yet one of her beauties remained, and she absolutely joyed in its possession: it was her hair. Her hair was thick and fuzzy, when combed would stand nearly straight out, which is quite unusual with the native women's hair in that part. Beemunny one day asked one of the younger women if I had ever heard what a lot of lovers she had had in her youth, what fights there had been over her, and all because of her beautiful hair.
Poor old Beemunny! Something in my own woman nature went out to her in sympathy. She was old, she was ugly, her husband was dead, as were all men to her.
Poor old Beemunny! Having once learnt her vanity, I never passed her without saying 'Gubbah Tekkul!' 'Beautiful hair!' at which she would beam and toss her head.
At sunrise came again the wailing; the singing of the Goohnai, or dirge, wherein are enumerated all the multiplex totems of the deceased, crooned in a wailing way, and each fresh person who comes to the camp sings this dirge again. In olden times all would have been painted in full war paint, weapons in hand, to see the corpse.
I was given permission to go to the funeral, old Bootha was to take me.
I heard that Beemunny had died early in the night. Her daughter and nearest of kin had sat all night beside her body, with each a hand on it to guard her from the spirits. She was now in her bark coffin, round which were her own blankets to be buried with her. The coffin was made of bark cut off right round a tree, split on one side from end to end; the body was placed in this, then the bark lapped over it, the ends were blocked up with other pieces, the whole secured by ropes. All day until the burial some one of kin stayed beside the coffin, little fires of Budtha kept smoking all the while. In the afternoon old Bootha came for me, and we set out.
First in the procession marched two old men of the tribe, behind them some young men, then those in charge of the coffin and the two nearest women relations, immediately behind them the old women, then the young women. No women with babies were allowed to go, nor any children. I came last with old Bootha.
The procession moved along an old winding track on the top of a moorilla, or pebbly ridge, pine-trees overarching in places carving the sky into a dome-a natural temple through which we walked to the burial-ground.
Every now and then we heard a bird note, which made the women glance at each other and say, first, 'Guadgee,' then 'Bootha,' as it came again, and a third time 'Hippitha.' To my uneducated ear the note seemed the same each time. I asked Bootha what it was. She told me it was the note of a little bird, something like a wren, called Durrooee, in whose shape the spirits of dead women revisited the earth. It seems that Numbardee, the first woman, was, like Milton's Eve, a caterer; she acquired art in beating the roots of plants into flat cakes much esteemed; she was never to be met without some, carrying them always in a bag across her shoulders.
And Byamee was so pleased with her for always having food for the hungry that, when at length she died, he allowed her to revisit her old gahreemai, or camp, her spirit returning in the form of the little honey-eater bird, Durrooee; and all women after her had a like privilege if they had done their duty in life. These birds are sacred; no one must harm them, nor even imitate their cry. It would be hard to hurt them, for the spirit in them is so strong. If any one even takes up a stick or stone to throw at them, hardly is it raised from the ground when the would-be assailant is forcibly knocked over, though he sees nothing but the little bird he was about to attack. Then he knows the bird must be a spirit bird, and perhaps seeing him look at her, the bird calls a woman's name, then he knows whose spirit it is.
A black boy on the station was badly hurt by a fall from a tree. It had seemed strange that such a good climber should fall. The blacks said it was because there was a Durrooee's nest in that tree, the spirit had knocked him down, and for a time so paralysed the man with him that he could not move to his assistance. Needless to say, they have avoided that tree since.
In the distance we heard the sound of the grave being dug. None of the same totem as the dead person must dig the grave. The coffin was put down beside the grave, the daughter and other nearest women relations stayed with it, the other women went away into the bush in one direction, some of the men in another.
Old Hippi heaped up some Budtha twigs he had gathered, I noticed as we came along; these he set fire to, and made a dense smoke which hung low over the open grave and spread over the old graves.
Hippi smoked himself in this smoke. The women came back with arms full of small branches of the sacred Dheal tree, these they laid beside the grave, then sat down and broke them into small twigs; the old women had twigs put through the bored hole in their noses.
The men came back with some pine saplings; two of these they laid at the bottom of the grave, which was about five feet deep. On these pines they spread strips of bark, then a thick bed of Dheal twigs; then a woman handed a bag containing the belongings of the dead woman--boogurr they were called--to the oldest male relative, who was standing in the grave; he placed it as a pillow at one end. Then Hippi and the daughter's husband took each an end of the coffin and lowered it into the grave; the daughter cried loudly as they did so. Over the coffin they laid a rug, and on the rug they placed Beemunny's yam stick. Hippi signalled to the daughter, who then came with the other women close to the edge of the grave. She sat at one end, looked over into the grave, and called out: 'My mother! Oh, my mother! Come back to me, my mother! My mother that I have been with always, why did you leave me?' Then she wailed the death-wait, which the other women caught up. As the wail died away, Hippi said:
'She has gone from us; never as she was will she return.
Never more as she once did will she chop honey.
Never more with her gunnai dig yams.
She has gone from us; never as she was to return.'
As he finished all the women wailed again, and loudest of all the daughter. Then the old man in the grave said:
'Mussels there are in the creek and plenty,
But she who lies here will dig no more.
We shall fish as of old for cod-fish,
But she who lies here will beg no more oil,
Oil for her hair, she will want no more.'
Then again the women wailed.
Old Hippi said, as the other man, in a sort of recitative
'Never again will she use a fire.
Where she goes fires are not.
For she goes to the women, the dead women,
And women can make no fires.
Fruit is there in plenty and grass seed,
But no birds nor beasts in the heaven of woman.'
Again the women wailed, wail after wail. Then they handed the remaining twigs of Dheal to the men, who laid them on the top of the coffin, then bark again over the twigs, and pine saplings on them, on top some old rugs.
While this was being done the old, old gins danced slowly a corroboree step round the edge of the grave, crooning a Goohnai-wurrai or dirge.
Then the men began to throw in the earth, the oldest male relative of the deceased standing in the grave to guard the body until the earth covered the coffin. As thud after thud went the earth in, the daughter shrieked and swayed over as if to fall into the grave, but her friend drew her back. She called 'Mother! mother!' took a sharp stone which was beside her and hit it against her head until the blood gushed out. They took the stone from her. There she sat rocking her body to and fro, wailing all the time, the other women wailing too, until the grave was quite covered in.
When it was filled in Hippi made another big smoke, thoroughly smoked himself, calling to all the men to do the same.
An old woman made a big smoke behind where the women were sitting; she called them one by one and made them stand in the thick of it for a while.
Hippi said something to her. I caught the word 'Innerah'--they called me Innerah, which meant literally a woman with a camp of her own. The old woman gave the smoke fire a stir, and out at once came a thick column of smoke circling round my guest and myself.
They covered the grave with logs and boughs and then swept round it.
All was over, we turned homewards. As we did so a flock of screeching gilahs flew over, their bright rose colouring lighting up the sombre scene where the only colour was that of the dark pines silhouetted against a sky from which the blue had now faded. Going home Bootha told me that the smoking process was to keep the spirits away, and to disinfect us from any disease the dead might have; and she said had we not been smoked the spirits might have followed us back to the house.
They would at once change their camp; the old one would be gummarl--a tabooed place; but before they left it they would burn smoke fires there to scare away the spirits.
I asked her why they swept round the grave. She said, in case the dead person had been poisoned or killed by magic; and, indeed, so little do they allow the possibility of death from natural causes, they even said old Beemunny had been given poison in her honey by an old-time rejected lover. Well, by sweeping round the grave they would see what track was on the swept place next morning, and according to that they would know to what totem the murderer belonged. If the track should be an iguana's, then one of the Beewee, or iguana totem, was guilty; if an emu, then one of the Dinewan, or emu totem, and so on.
Old Hippi joined me a little further on. He explained that the service was not as it would have been some years ago. That I knew, because when I first went to the station I had seen them going to funerals all decorated as if for corroborees. Round their waists, wrists, knees and ankles had been twigs of Dheal, the sacred tree, and the rest of their bodies had been painted.
Hippi said a great deal more would have been spoken and sung at the grave if the dead person had been a man. His spirit would have in a short sort of prayer been commended to Byamee, who would have been intreated to let the dead enter Bullimah (heaven), as he had kept the Boorah laws-that is, of course, if he had been initiated: the spirits of the uninitiated wander until they are reincarnated, and never enter Bullimah. One curious coincidence occurred in connection with this burial.
Seeing the droughty desolation of the country, as we walked to the grave, I asked old Bootha when she thought it would rain again. Coming very close to me she half whispered:
'In three days I think it; old woman dead tell me when she dying that "'sposin" she can send 'em rain, she send 'im three days when her Yowee bulleerul--spirit breath--go long Oobi Oobi.'
Beemunny died on Wednesday night. On Saturday when we went to bed the skies were as cloudless as they had been for weeks. In the middle of the night we were awakened by the patter of rain-drops on the iron roof. All night it rained, and all the next day.
It is said that a dead person always sends rain within a week of his death to wash out his tracks on earth.
One little black girl told me she always felt sad when she saw thunderclouds, because she thought some dead person had sent them.
As a rule, there is a good deal more shedding of blood over a grave than I saw. This blood offering is said to please the dead, being a proof to them of the affection of the living. It is funeral etiquette to prepare yourself with a weapon with which to shed this blood, but likewise etiquette for a friend to intervene and stop your self-mutilation.
On emerging from the grave the spirit finds the spirits of his dead relations waiting to go with him to Oobi Oobi, that is, a sacred mountain whose top towers into the sky, nearly touching Bullimah. The new spirit recognises his relations at once; they had, many of them, been round the death-bed visible at the last to the dying, though not to any of the watchers with him, though these are said sometimes to hear the spirit voices.
The spirit from the grave carried with him the twigs of the sacred Dheal tree which were placed over and under his body; he follows his spirit relations, dropping these twigs as he goes along, leaving thus a trail that those who follow may see. At the top of Oobi Oobi he finds the spirits called Mooroobeaigunnil, whose business it is to bridge over the distance a spirit has to traverse between the top of the mountain and Bullimah, the great Byamee's sky-camp.
One of these Mooroobeaigunnil seizes him and hoists him on to his shoulders; then comes another and hoists the first; and so on, until the one holding the spirit can lift him into Bullimah. As the spirit is hoisted in, one of the Mooroobeaigunnil, knocks the lowest one in the ladder of spirits down; thud to the earth come the rest, making a sound like a thunderclap, which the far away tribes hear, and hearing say:
'A spirit has entered Bullimah.'
Should a big meteor fall followed by a thunderclap, it is a sign that a great man has died. Should a number of stars shoot off from a falling star, it is a sign that a man has died leaving a large family. When a star is seen falling in the day-time, it is a sign that one of the Noongahburrah tribe dies.
In the olden time some of the tribes would keep a body at least five days. Then they would rub the outside black skin off, make an opening in the side of the body, take out the internal parts, fill it up with Dheal leaves. They would place the rubbed-off skin and internals in bark and put it in hollow trees. They would then bury the body, which they said would come up white.
Sometimes they would keep their dead for weeks, that they might easily extract the small joint bones with which to make poison.
A baby's body they would sometimes carry for years before burying, but it would usually have been well smoke-dried first, though not, I believe, invariably so.
Sometimes a body was kept so that relations from a distance might come and see for themselves the death was not the result of foul play.
After the body was filled up with Dheal leaves it was put into its bark coffin and smoke fires made round it.
As each relation arrived he was blindfolded and led up to the corpse, which was held up standing by some of the men. When the blindfolded relation came near, the bandage was taken off him and before him he saw standing his relation, whom he examined to see if wounds were visible. If signs of violence were apparent, the murderer had to be discovered and stand his trial. He was given a shield to defend himself with. Every man had a right to throw a weapon at him; should he manage to defend himself successfully, as far as that crime was concerned he would be henceforth a free man, no stigma attaching to him whatever. In which, I fancy, the blacks show themselves a larger-minded people than their white supplanters, who make this world no place for repentance for wrong-doers, 'though they seek it with tears.' In the world's opinion there is no limit to a man's sentence. We read the letter of the Gospel, and leave the spirit of it to the blacks to apply.
Should there be a difficulty as to discovering the criminal, all the men of the tribes amongst whom the murderer could be stand round the coffin. A head man says to the corpse, 'Did such and such a man harm you?' naming, one after another, all the men. At the guilty one's name the corpse is said to knock a sort of rap, rap, rap.
That man has to stand his trial.
But as a rule the blacks like to bury their dead quickly, because the spirit haunts their neighbourhood or its late camp until the body is buried. Mysterious lights are said to be seen at night, and there is a general scare in camp-land until a corpse is safely buried.
There are variations in the funeral rites of nearly every tribe. Even in our district the dead were sometimes placed in hollow trees. I know of skeletons in trees on the edge of the ridge on which the home station was built. These are said to be for the most part the bodies of worthless women or babies.
In the coastal districts there are platforms in trees on which dead bodies were laid. In some places corpses are tied up in a sitting posture. The tying, they say, is to keep them secure when spirits come about, or body-snatchers for poison bones.
In some places the graves are covered with a sort of emu egg-shaped and sized lumps of copi; and also, when a widow's term of mourning was over, she would take the widow's cap-which was a sort of copi or gypsum covering put on wet to her head-and place it on the grave of her husband.
On the Narran the widows plaster their heads with copi or bidyi, as they call it, but so thinly that it cakes off. They renew it, and keep their heads covered with it for the allotted term of mourning, then just let it gradually all wear off.
Those widows' caps, having the imprint of nets inside them, are very old; for hair nets have been out of fashion for very many years in camp-land, so such rank as antique curios.
I don't think the small girl who thought when she grew up she'd choose to be a widow, would have thought so if she had been born black.
When a black woman's husband dies she has to cover herself with mud, and sleep beside a smouldering smoke all night. Three days afterwards, black fellows go and make a fire by the creek. They chase the widow and her sisters, who might have been her husband's wives, down to the creek. The widow catches hold of the smoking bush, puts it under her arm, and jumps into the middle of the creek; as the smoking bush is going out she drinks some of the smoky water. Then out she comes, is smoked at the fire; she then calls to those in the camp, and looks towards her husband's grave and calls again; his spirit answers, and the blacks call to her that they have heard him.
After that she is allowed to speak; she had been doomed to silence since his death, but for lamentations. She goes to the new camp, where another big smoke is made. She puts on her widow's cap, which, as it wears out, has to be renewed for many months; for some months, too, she keeps her face daubed with white.
Every time a stranger comes to the camp the widow has to make a smoke and smoke the camp again. The nearest of kin to her husband has a right to claim her as wife when her mourning is over.
Should a woman be left a widow two or three times there are sinister whisperings about her. She is spoken of as having a 'white heart'; and no man can live long, they say, with a woman having a 'white heart.'
The graves in some parts of Australia are marked by carved trees; only a few painted upright posts marked them on the Narran.
A tabooed camp has always a marked tree-just a piece of bark cut off and some red markings made on the wood, which indicate that the place is gummarl.
Any possessions of the dead not buried with them are burnt, except the sacred stones; they are left to the wirreenun nearest of kin to the dead person.
Lately a case came under my notice of the taboo extended to the possessions of dead people.
A black man having two horses died. Neither his widow nor her mother would use those horses, even when he had been dead over a year. They would walk ten or twelve miles for their rations and carry them back, rather than use those horses before the term of mourning was over.
The widow was one of my particular friends, but she would not come to see me because her husband had been at the house shortly before he died. She camped nearly a mile away, and I went to see her there. After he had been dead about a year, she came to see me; but before she did so her mother walked all round the out-buildings, garden, yards, etc., with a bunch of smoking Budtha, crooning little spirit songs.