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The Euahlayi Tribe Part 6

To these are added in this miscellaneous collection medicinal herbs, nose-bones to put through the cartilage of his nose when going to a strange camp, so that he will not smell strangers easily. The blacks say the smell of white people makes them sick; we in our arrogance had thought it the other way on.

Swansdown, shells, and woven strands of opossum's hair are valuable, and guarded as such in the boondoorr, which is sometimes kept for safety in the wirreenun's Minggah.

Having dealt with the supernatural part of a wirreenun's training, which argues cunning in him and credulity in others, I must get to his more natural remedies.

Snakebite they cure by sucking the wound and cauterising it with a firestick. They say they suck out the young snakes which have been injected into the bitten person.

For headaches or pains which do not yield to the vegetable medicine, the wirreenuns tie a piece of opossum's hair string round the sore place, take one end in their mouths, and pull it round and round until it draws blood along the cord. For rheumatic pains in the head or in the small of the back and loins they often bind the places affected with coils of opossum hair cord, as people do sometimes with red knitting-silk.

The blacks have many herbal medicines, infusions of various barks, which they drink or wash themselves with, as the case may be.

Various leaves they grind on their dayoorl-stones, rubbing themselves with the pulp. Steam baths they make of pennyroyal, eucalyptus, pine, and others.

The bleeding of wounds they stanch with the down of birds.

For irritations of the skin they heat dwarf saltbush twigs and put the hot ends on the irritable parts.

After setting a broken limb they put grass and bark round it, then bind it up.

For swollen eyes they warm the leaves of certain trees and hold them to the affected parts, or make an infusion of Budtha leaves and bathe the eyes in it.

For rheumatic pains a fire is made, Budtha twigs laid on it, a little water thrown on them; the ashes raked out, a little more water thrown on, then the patient lies on top, his opossum rug spread over him, and thus his body is steamed. To induce perspiration, earth or sand is also often heated and placed in a hollowed-out space; on it the patient lies, and is covered with more heated earth.

Pennyroyal infused they consider a great blood purifier they also use a heap as a pillow if suffering from insomnia. It is hard to believe a black ever does suffer from insomnia, yet the cure argues the fact.

Beefwood gum is supposed to strengthen children. It is also used for reducing swollen joints. A hole is made in the ground, some coals put in, on them some beefwood leaves, on top of them the gum; over the hole is put enough bark to cover it with a piece cut out of it the size of the swollen joint to be steamed, which joint is held over this hole.

Various fats are also used as cures. Iguana fat for pains in the head and stiffness anywhere. Porcupine and opossum fats for preserving their hair, fish fat to gloss their skins, emu fat in cold weather to save their skins from chapping.

But what is supposed to strengthen them more than anything, both mentally and physically, is a small piece of the flesh of a dead person, or before a body is put in a bark coffin a few incisions were made in it; when it was coffined it was stood on end, and what drained from the incisions was caught in small wirrees and drunk by the mourners.

I fancy such cannibalism as has been in these tribes was not with a view to satisfaction of appetite but to the incorporation of additional strength. Either men or women are allowed to assist in this particularly nauseating funeral rite, but not the young people.

Nor must their shadows fall across any one who has partaken of this rite; should they do so some evil will befall them.

If the mother of a young child has not enough milk for its sustenance, she is steamed over 'old man' saltbush, and hot twigs of it laid on her breasts. To expedite the expulsion of the afterbirth, an old woman presses the patient round the waist, gives her frequent drinks of cold water, and sprinkles water over her. As soon as the afterbirth is removed a steam is prepared. Two logs are laid horizontally, some stones put in between them, then some fire, on top leaves of eucalyptus, and water is then sprinkled over them. The patient stands astride these logs, an opossum rug all over her, until she is well steamed. After this she is able to walk about as if nothing unusual had happened. Every night for about a month she has to lie on a steam bed made of damped eucalyptus leaves. She is not allowed to return to the general camp for about three months after the birth of her child.

Though perfectly well, she is considered unclean, and not allowed to touch anything belonging to any one. Her food is brought to her by some old woman. Were she to touch the food or food utensils of another they would be considered unclean and unfit for use. Her camp is gailie--that is, only for her; and she is goorerwon as soon as her child is born--a woman unclean and apart. Immediately a' baby is born it is washed in cold water.

Ghastly traditions the blacks have of the time when Dunnerh-Dunnerh, the smallpox, decimated their ancestors. Enemies sent it in the winds, which hung it on the trees, over the camps, whence it dropped on to its victims. So terror-stricken were the tribes that, with few exceptions, they did not stay to bury their dead; and because they did not do so, flying even from the dying, a curse was laid on them that some day the plague would return, brought back by the Wundah or white devils; and the blacks shudder still, though it was generations before them, at the thought that such a horror may come again.

Poison-stones are ground up finely and placed in the food of the person desired to be got rid of. These poison-stones are of two kinds, a yellowish-looking stone and a black one; they cause a lingering death.

The small bones of the wrist of a dead person are also pounded up and put into food, in honey or water, as a poison.

One cure struck me as quaint. The patient may be lying down, when up will come one of the tribe, most likely a wirreenun with a big piece of bark. He strikes the ground with this all round the patient, making a great row; this is to frighten the sickness away.

What seems to me a somewhat peculiar ceremony is the reception a coming baby holds before its birth.

The baby is presumably about to be born. Its grandmother is there naturally, but the black baby declines to appear at the request of its grandmother, and, moreover, declines to come if even the voice of its grandmother is heard; so grannie has to be a silent spectator while some other woman tempts the baby into the world by descanting on the glories of it. First, perhaps, she will say:

'Come now, here's your auntie waiting to see you.'

'Here's your sister.'

'Here's your father's sister,' and so on through a whole list. Then she will say, as the relatives and friends do not seem a draw:

'Make haste, the bumble fruit is ripe. The guiebet flowers are blooming. The grass is waving high. The birds are all talking. And it is a beautiful place, hurry up and see for yourself.'

But it generally happens that the baby is too cute to be tempted, and an old woman has to produce what she calls a wi-mouyan--a clever stick--which she waves over the expectant mother, crooning a charm which brings forth the baby.

If any one nurses a patient and the patient dies, the nurse wears an armlet of opossum's hair called goomil, and a sort of fur boa called gurroo.

If blacks go visiting, when they leave they make a smoke fire and smoke themselves, so that they may not carry home any disease.

As a rule blacks do not have small feet, but their hands are almost invariably small and well shaped, having tapering fingers.

CHAPTER VI

OUR WITCH WOMAN

Our witch woman was rather a remarkable old person. When she was, I suppose, considerably over sixty, her favourite granddaughter died.

Old Bootha was in a terrible state of grief, and chopped herself in a most merciless manner at the burial, especially about the head. She would speak to no one, used to spend her time about the grave, round which she fixed upright posts which she painted white, red, and black.

All round the grave she used to sweep continually.

More and more she isolated herself, and at last discarded all her clothes and roamed the bush A LA Eve before the Fall, as she had probably done as a young girl.

She dug herself an underground camp, roofed it over, and painted enormous posts which she erected in front of her 'Muddy wine,' as she called her camp. She never came near the house, though we had been great friends before.

She used to prowl round the outhouses and pick up all sorts of things, rubbish for the most part, but often good utensils too; all used to be secreted in the underground camp. She never talked to any one, but used to mutter continually to herself and her dogs in an unknown tongue which only her dogs seemed to understand.

We thought she was quite mad.

One day, while we were playing tennis, she suddenly, muttering her strange language and dancing new corroboree steps, clad only in her black skin, came up. Matah told her to go away, but she only corroboreed round him and said she wanted to see me. I have the most morbid horror of lunacy in any form. I was once induced to go over a lunatic asylum--the horror of it haunts me still. However, I thought it would never do to show the coward I was, so though I felt as if I had been scooped out and filled up with ice, I went to her. She danced round me for a little time, then sidled up to me and said:

'Wahl you frightened, wahl me hurt you. I only womba--mad--all yowee--spirits--in me tell me gubbah--good--I lib 'long a youee; bimeby I come back big feller wirreenun; wahl you frightened? I not hurt you.'

And after crooning an accompaniment to her steps off she went, a strange enough figure, dancing and crooning as she went towards her camp; and not until the spirits gave up possession of her did she come near the house again.

One day she gave us a start. We were schooling a new team of four horses. The off-side leader had only been in once before, and was a brumby (horse run in from a wild mob). We had to pass Bootha's camp. I looked about as we neared it but saw nothing of her. Suddenly from the ground, as it seemed, out dashed the weird old figure, arms full of things, jabbering away at a great rate. Whiz came a tin plate past the leaders' heads; the offside horse reared and plunged and took some holding. Whiz came an old bill; then, one after another, a regular fusilade of various utensils.

It did not take us long to get past, but for as long as we could see the attack was kept up. Coming back we saw nothing of Bootha, and all the utensils had been picked up.

I used to tell the other blacks to see that Bootha had plenty of food.

They said she was all right, the spirits were looking after her.

Chapter end

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