Establishing a Cultural Framework in Reading Aboriginal Folktales

Somewhere deep in the Australian bush, a small campfire burns brightly through the night. Within the halo of light surrounding the fire can be seen the transfixed faces of several young Aborigine boys, imaginations burning hot as the flame before them as they listen to one of the many folktales of their tribe. Perhaps it is the tale of “How the Tortoise Got His Shell,” in which Tortoise outsmarts his adversary by strapping hard pieces of bark to his chest and back (Unaipon 70) that captures them so. On the other hand, they may very well be listening intently to the story of “How Animals Came to Australia,” in which all the animals native to the continent steal Whale’s canoe and race across the ocean to their new home (Reed 99).

This particular night, however, the story that holds the boys’ attention is “The Beginning of the Narran Lake.” As the boys faces gleam in the firelight and the storyteller spins his tale, Baiame, the hunter, saves his two wives, Birra-nulu and Kunnan-belli, from the bellies of two Kurrias, or crocodiles. Baiame tracks the Kurrias and cuts open their stomachs, his wives spilling out from the crocodiles. As a result of the fatal wounds inflicted upon them by the great hunter, the crocodiles “writhed with pain and lashed their tails furiously, making great hollows in the ground, which the water they brought with them quickly filled” (Yolen 232). After reviving his wives, Baiame instructs them to beware of swimming in places where the Kurrias might lurk.

At face value, “The Beginning of the Narran Lake” describes the creation of Australia’s Narran Lake. Certainly, the boys listening at the campfire carry away with them an exciting, adventure-filled story of how the lake came to exist. Despite initial interpretations, when this tale is examined against the background of the culture from which it springs, the tale reveals many accepted elements of aboriginal customs regarding marriage and wives, elements of the tale that non-aboriginal listeners would react to with horror or shock.

Ideas regarding marriage in primitive Australian culture extend to the very language of the people. In the language of the Aranda aborigines, “Mbanja” means not only marriage, but also “rape, elopement, and forced coitus” (Geza 266). The concepts of marriage and force are related more than just linguistically; indeed, the entire process of marriage in Aboriginal culture centers not around love or mutual attraction, but pre-arranged bargains of marriage, usually between a man and the parents of his potential bride. Almost without exception, this process occurs without any input from the bride-to-be (Chewings 99). A man may even request a female daughter “as soon as it is born; in some cases the request is made in advance, being conditional on the expected child being a girl” (99). When the day of the marriage arrives, the man approaches his new wife’s parents, “seizes her by the arm,” and instructs her parents, “Give me the woman; she belongs to me” (100). Through the entire process, the woman participates not through her own will, but is instead forced from one form of ownership to the next, literally bought from her parents by her husband.

Continuing even past the act of marriage itself, the typical husband-wife relationship is one of complete dictatorship on the part of the husband. Common practice dictates that a man may beat his wife as much as he sees fits if she fails to obey his commands. Such a punishment would often be seen as extreme by an outside observer, but are taken as a matter of course not only by the husbands of the culture, but by the wives as well. One man was seen arguing with his wife, until he finally grew so impatient that he ordered her to stop talking immediately. When she refused, he speared his wife in the leg without any further hesitation. Rather than being shocked by such treatment, the wife took responsibility for the action, claiming, “It was all my fault; I wouldn’t shut up when he told me to, so he speared me in the leg” (Chewings 90).

This idea of wives suffering as a result of disobeying their husband’s directions surfaces in “The Beginning of the Narran Lake.” Baiame carefully instructs his wives, “whatever you do, don’t bathe in the spring” (Reed 42). Ignoring this advice, the two young, foolish women enter the water anyway, and are quickly eaten by the Kurrias. To an American listening to this story, this plot twist may seem horrific, but viewed from the perspective of the Aboriginal culture, the women brought their fate upon themselves. In much the same way as the wife claimed responsibility for the spear-wound in her leg, Baiame’s wives would claim that in being devoured by the crocodiles, they merely got what was coming to them.

The concept of what the culture of the United States might call “spousal abuse” shows up in another way in the tale as well. Almost in passing, it is mentioned that Baiame “wooed his wives with a nulla-nulla [and] kept them obedient by fear of the same weapon” (Yolen 231). Again, to an American listener, the discipline of a man’s wives through the use of a nulla-nulla, basically a heavy-headed hunting weapon (“Hunting”) would produce a look of offense or revulsion. The intended aboriginal audience, however, would be take this fact almost for granted. Once again, the customs of the culture that created the tale show through not only the story itself, but in the very way it is told. An aboriginal storyteller and his audience would have no trouble dealing with the fact that Baiame beat his wives, and would not pause for a moment over such a detail.

At the same time as the listeners would understand this dynamic between husband and wife, Baiame’s reaction to the crocodile’s theft of his wives would also be seen as very much in keeping with Aboriginal culture. The practice of stealing another man’s wife was not unheard of; in fact it was a relatively common practice, even a “favorite pastime with the natives” (Chewings 78). If the thief is caught by the husband, the wronged man would demand satisfaction from the perpetrator, who could “elect to be cut about to [the rightful husband’s] satisfaction” (78). This punishment, the cutting of another man until he bled, sometimes profusely, was not considered cruel or harsh, simply the proper retribution for the husband to enact on a man who has stolen his wife. An act that an American observer would see as barbaric is seen, in the Aranda culture, as the only way to establish justice.

Aborigines listening to “The Beginning of the Narran Lake” would immediately see that, from Baiame’s point of view, the crocodiles stole his wives. When Baiame thrusts his spear into the bodies of the Kurrias, he takes not simply vicious revenge, but acts within his rights as a wronged husband, and uses proper methods of admonishing the animals for their crime against him. An action that an American audience would most likely view as revenge-based is, in reality, a simple illustration of a common and accepted cultural mechanism. The story, when taken in the context of the aboriginal culture, fits very neatly into the traditions and customs of the Aranda involving marriage, a fact which would not be immediately appreciated by an audience unfamiliar with such customs. The young aboriginal boys huddled around the campfire, having lived their whole lives with the customs the story takes for granted, would immediately see what an outside audience could not. They would not only accept Baiame to stab the Kurrias, they would expect it; demand it.

As the fire burns dimmer and the night begins to close in more tightly around the young boys, Birra-nulu and Kunnan-belli agree to be more obedient to Baiame, and the story comes to an end. The audience sits back, realizing somewhat sheepishly that they had all been leaning in towards the storyteller with anticipation. After a few moments of silence, someone stokes the fire with a fallen tree limb, the cracking and popping of the smoldering cinders sounding like a gentle applause in honor of the storyteller. Through the inky black night sky, a lightly whistling wind picks up and breathes new life into the fire. Glancing into the darkness outside the circle of light from the fire, the boys seem to catch glimpses of Baiame wrestling the mighty Kurrias. Behind a tree they spot Warreen the Wombat hurling a spear at his former friend Mirram the Kangeroo; the spear sticks into the spine of Kangeroo, giving him a tail (Reed 120). All around them dance the characters and heros of the tales. As the fire spits at the night in brave defiance, the storyteller draws a deep breath, and another story begins.

Works Cited
Chewings, Charles. Back in the Stone Age: the Natives of Central Australia. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, Australia: 1936.
Geza, Roheim. Women and Their Life in Central Australia. The Institute, London: 1933.
“Hunting.” Indigenous Australia. .
Reed, A.W. Myths and Legends of Australia. Taplinger, New York, NY: 1973.
Unaipon, David. Legendary Tales of the Aborigines. Melbourne University, Victoria, Australia: 2001.
Yolen, Jane. Favorite Folktales From Around the World. Pantheon, New York: 1986.

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