Great Australian Stories: Legends, Yarns and Tall Tales

Great Australian Stories: Legends, Yarns and Tall Tales

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From pioneer tales to urban myths, folklore expert Graham Seal has gathered some of the best Australian stories from around the country, and this new edition contains 10 extra stories. Australia has a rich tradition of story telling that reflects a unique history and experience. Great Australian Stories gathers some of the best of those stories from colonial times to the present, with bush yarns, tall stories, urban myths, and tales of the mysterious and downright weird. This is an Australia of down-to-earth realism, tragedy and heroism, dry humor, an unexpectedly wide supernatural streak, and a strong sense of place. Stories feature cocky farmers, numbskulls like the drongo, bunyips, famous tricksters like Jacky Bindi-I, and the world's greatest whinger, as well as larger than life real characters like the sad Eliza Donnithorne.With favorite yarns from around the country, Great Australian Stories is the most representative collection available of the stories Aussies tell about themselves. Graham Seal explains where the stories come from, and why even the outright lies reveal a truth of sorts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742374734
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Graham Seal is a professor of folklore and a leading expert on traditional Australian culture.

Read an Excerpt

Great Australian Stories

Legends, Yarns and Tall Tales

By Graham Seal

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2011 Graham Seal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-373-6


Stories in the heart

She's got her stories in the heart, not on the paper.

Emily Munyungka Austin, Kupa Piti (Coober Pedy) elder, speaking of her grandmother's Dreamtime traditions

THE CULTURES OF Australia's indigenous peoples, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, are rich in story. Together with song, dance and art, stories were a principal means of preserving and transmitting cultural knowledge from generation to generation. Much indigenous story is related to secret and sacred ritual and excluded from general circulation. But there is also an extensive repertoire of legends and stories that may be told freely. The very small selection of such stories given here demonstrates the powerful connections between the land and all the living things upon it that is the foundation of indigenous belief.

Wirreenun the rainmaker

Katherine Langloh-Parker (1856–1940) was the wife of a settler near Angledool, New South Wales. She developed a close relationship with the Noongahburrah, a branch of the Yularoi people. Her knowledge of their customs, beliefs and language helped her compile a unique record of the indigenous traditions of the Narran River region, even if filtered through the perceptions of an outsider and through various translations and retellings.

Wirreenun (meaning a priest or doctor) is a rainmaker who uses his magical abilities to help his people, despite the lapse of their belief in his powers. In this story, Wirreenun is also a name.

The country was stricken with a drought. The rivers were all dry except the deepest holes in them. The grass was dead, and even the trees were dying. The bark dardurr (humpy) of the blacks were all fallen to the ground and lay there rotting, so long was it since they had been used, for only in wet weather did they use the bark dardurr; at other times they used only whatdooral, or bough shades.

The young men of the Noongahburrah murmured among themselves, at first secretly, at last openly, saying: 'Did not our fathers always say that the wirreenun could make, as we wanted it, the rain to fall? Yet look at our country — the grass blown away, no doonburr seed to grind, the kangaroo are dying, and the emu, the duck, and the swan have flown to far countries. We shall have no food soon; then shall we die, and the Noongahburrah be no more seen on the Narran. Then why, if he is able, does not Wirreenun make rain?'

Soon these murmurs reached the ears of the old Wirreenun. He said nothing, but the young fellows noticed that for two or three days in succession he went to the waterhole in the creek and placed in it a willgoo willgoo — a long stick, ornamented at the top with white cockatoo feathers — and beside the stick he placed two big gubberah, that is, two big, clear pebbles which at other times he always secreted about him, in the folds of his waywah, or in the band or net on his head.

Especially was he careful to hide these stones from the women.

At the end of the third day Wirreenun said to the young men: 'Go you, take your comeboos and cut bark sufficient to make dardurr for all the tribe.'

The young men did as they were bade. When they had the bark cut and brought in, Wirreenun said: 'Go you now and raise with ant-bed a high place, and put thereon logs and wood for a fire, build the ant-bed about a foot from the ground. Then put you a floor of ant-bed a foot high wherever you are going to build a dardurr.'

And they did what he told them. When the dardurr were finished, having high floors of ant-bed and water-tight roofs of bark, Wirreenun commanded the whole camp to come with him to the waterhole; men, women, and children, all were to come. They all followed him down to the creek, to the waterhole where he had placed the willgoo willgoo and gubberah. Wirreenun jumped into the water and bade the tribe follow him, which they did. There in the water they all splashed and played about.

After a little time, Wirreenun went up first behind one black fellow and then behind another, until at length he had been round them all, and taken from the back of each one's head lumps of charcoal. When he went up to each he appeared to suck the back or top of their heads, and to draw out lumps of charcoal, which, as he sucked them out, he spat into the water. When he had gone the round of all, he went out of the water. But just as he got out, a young man caught him up in his arms and threw him back into the water.

This happened several times, until Wirreenun was shivering. That was the signal for all to leave the creek. Wirreenun sent all the young people into a big bough shed, and bade them all go to sleep. He and two old men and two old women stayed outside. They loaded themselves with all their belongings piled up on their backs, dayoorl (grinding) stones and all, as if ready for a flitting. These old people walked impatiently around the bough shed as if waiting a signal to start somewhere. Soon a big black cloud appeared on the horizon, first a single cloud, which, however, was soon followed by others rising all round. They rose quickly until they all met just overhead, forming a big black mass of clouds. As soon as this big, heavy, rain-laden looking cloud was stationary overhead, the old people went into the bough shed and bade the young people wake up and come out and look at the sky.

When they were all roused Wirreenun told them to lose no time, but to gather together all their possessions and hasten to gain the shelter of the bark dardurr. Scarcely were they all in the dardurrs and their spears well hidden when there sounded a terrific clap of thunder, which was quickly followed by a regular cannonade, lightning flashes shooting across the sky, followed by instantaneous claps of deafening thunder. A sudden flash of lightning, which lit a pathway from heaven to earth, was followed by such a terrific clash that the blacks thought their very camps were struck. But it was a tree a little distance off. The blacks huddled together in their dardurrs, frightened to move, the children crying with fear, and the dogs crouching towards their owners.

'We shall be killed,' shrieked the women. The men said nothing but looked as frightened.

Only Wirreenun was fearless. 'I will go out,' he said, 'and stop the storm from hurting us. The lightning shall come no nearer.'

So out in front of the dardurrs strode Wirreenun, and naked he stood there facing the storm, singing aloud, as the thunder roared and the lightning flashed, the chant which was to keep it away from the camp.

'Gurreemooray, mooray, durreemooray, mooray, mooray,' &c.

Soon came a lull in the cannonade, a slight breeze stirred the trees for a few moments, then an oppressive silence, and then the rain in real earnest began, and settled down to a steady downpour, which lasted for some days.

When the old people had been patrolling the bough shed as the clouds rose overhead, Wirreenun had gone to the waterhole and taken out the willgoo willgoo and the stones, for he saw by the cloud that their work was done.

When the rain was over and the country all green again, the blacks had a great corroboree and sang of the skill of Wirreenun, rainmaker to the Noongahburrah.

Wirreenun sat calm and heedless of their praise, as he had been of their murmurs. But he determined to show them that his powers were great, so he summoned the rainmaker of a neighbouring tribe, and after some consultation with him, he ordered the tribes to go to the Googoorewon, (a place of trees) which was then a dry plain with solemn, gaunt trees all round it, which had once been blackfellows.

When they were all camped round the edges of this plain, Wirreenun and his fellow rainmaker made a great rain to fall just over the plain and fill it with water.

When the plain was changed into a lake, Wirreenun said to the young men of his tribe: 'Now take your nets and fish.'

'What good?' said they. 'The lake is filled from the rain, not the flood water of rivers, filled but yesterday, how then shall there be fish?'

'Go,' said Wirreenun. 'Go as I bid you; fish. If your nets catch nothing then shall Wirreenun speak no more to the men of his tribe, he will seek only honey and yams with the women.'

More to please the man who had changed their country from a desert to a hunter's paradise, they did as he bade them, took their nets and went into the lake. And the first time they drew their nets, they were heavy with goodoo, murree, tucki, and bunmillah. And so many did they catch that all the tribes, and their dogs, had plenty.

Then the elders of the camp said now that there was plenty everywhere, they would have a borah that the boys should be made young men. On one of the ridges away from the camp, that the women should not know, they would prepare a ground.

And so was the big borah (ceremonial gathering) of the Googoorewon held, the borah which was famous as following on the triumph of Wirreenun the rainmaker.

* * *

Mau and Matang

Australia's northernmost extreme is the small island of Boigu, just six kilometres off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The six clans of the island began when a man named Kiba and his brothers settled there. Christian missionaries came to Boigu in 1871, an event commemorated today in the annual 'Coming of the Light' ceremony, which blends Boigu mythology with elements of Christian belief.

This important Boigu tale of impending doom, revenge and warrior honour highlights the importance of reciprocal relationships — even those of revenge and blood — and the high regard in which warrior skills were held by all the people of Torres Strait and beyond.

Long ago there were two warrior brothers of Boigu, Mau and Matang. Mau was the elder brother. They fought for the love of fighting and very often for no reason.

One day they received a message from their friend Mau of Arudaru, which is on the Papuan mainland just across from Boigu. Mau bade them come quickly for yams and taro, which would otherwise be eaten by pigs.

Mau and Matang made ready to go to Arudaru.

Their sister wove the sails for their canoes. At mid-afternoon, just as she had completed them, she noticed a big stain of blood on one mat. She hurried to her brothers to tell them about it and so try to prevent them from setting out on their voyage.

Mau and Matang would not heed the warning sign, and they set off with their wives and children. They reached Daudai and spent the first night at Kudin. During the night Mau's canoe drifted away. The brothers sent the crew to search for it, and they came upon it at Zunal, the sandbank of markai (spirits of the dead).

As they drew close, they saw the ghost of Mau appear in front of the canoe. In its hand was a dugong spear decorated with cassowary feathers. The ghost went through the motions of spearing a dugong, then placed the spear in the canoe and vanished.

Next they saw Matang's ghost pick up the spear from the canoe, just as Mau's had done. It too made as if to spear a dugong. Then it replaced the spear in the canoe and faded from sight.

On reaching the canoe, the crew members found the spear in it.

On their return to Kudin they told Mau and Matang what had happened. The brothers refused also to heed this warning. They ordered the party to set out for Arudaru, which they reached after a day's walk.

The head man of Arudaru, whose name also was Mau, greeted them, with his own people and many others, gave them food, and said that he would give them the yams and taro the following day. With that, the Boigu people slept.

In the morning they woke to a deserted village. Only Mau of Arudaru remained. He gave them breakfast and then presented Mau and Matang with a small bunch of green bananas. It was a declaration of war.

Despite the friendship between Mau of Arudaru and the brothers Mau and Matang, the brothers had lightly killed kinsmen and friends of his, and his first duty as Mau of Arudaru was to avenge them. The invitation to come across for yams and taro had been part of a considered plan.

For days past, fighting men from the neighbouring villages had been gathering at Arudaru. There had been endless talking until the whole plan had ripened. With rage in their hearts, Mau and Matang herded their party together and set out on the return journey.

Mau of Arudaru had hidden his fighting men in two rows in the long grass so as to form two rows of unseen men. He allowed the brothers to lead their people back until they were halfway through the lines of fighting men. Then he gave the signal to attack.

The Boigu people were trapped. The women and children and the crew members fled. Mau bade his brother break the first spear thrown at him. He himself with his bow warded off the first spear that was hurled at him, splitting the end and throwing it backward between his legs, thus giving himself good luck in battle.

Matang warded off the first spear received by him, but did not break it as Mau had commanded.

Before long Matang was struck in the ankle by an arrow with a poisoned tip. 'I have been bitten by a snake,' he cried, and fell dead.

Mau continued to fight and kept backing towards his brother's body until he stood astride it. He fought until nearly all his assailants lay dead. The rest would have fled, but Mau signalled to them to put an end to him, so that he might join his brother. And this they did.

Mau and Matang did not have their heads cut off as would have been done were they ordinary men. Their courage and skill in battle were honoured by their opponents. They sat the brothers against two trees. They tied their bodies to the tree trunks, facing them south towards Boigu. On their heads they placed the warrior's headdress of black cassowary feathers and eagles' wings, so that when the wind blew from the south the eagles' wings were fanned backward and when it dropped, they fell forward.

* * *

Ungulla Robunbun

The anthropologist Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) documented the complex oral traditions about ancestral beings and totemic relationships among the Kakadu people, publishing these in 1914 as The Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia. The female entity in this story from Spencer's book creates birds, insects and human beings, giving male and female their physical characteristics. She is also the bringer of language. Pundamunga and Maramma, mentioned at the end of the story, are descended from the one great female ancestor of the Kakadu, Imberombera. Imberombera travelled all over the region, leaving her spirit children wherever she went and eventually sending them forth to take the different languages to the countries of Pundamunga and Maramma. Ungalla's naming of Pundamunga and Maramma's children confirms that this is the country of these two beings and their descendants. Once again, the story highlights the spiritual connections between country, ancestors, totems and language that are the basis of indigenous culture. Spencer recounts the following tale, including a reference to the tale being told to him.

A woman named Ungulla Robunbun came from a place called Palientoi, which lies between two rivers that are now known as the McKinlay and the Mary. She spoke the language of the Noenmil people and had many children. She started off to walk to Kraigpan, a place at the head of the Wildman Creek. Some of her children she carried on her shoulders, others on her hips, and one or two of them walked. At Kraigpan she left one boy and one girl and told them to speak the Quiratari (or Quiradari) language. Then she walked on to Koarnbo Creek, near the salt water at Murungaraiyu, where she left a boy and a girl and told them to speak Koarnbut. Travelling on to Kupalu, she left the Koarnbut language behind her and crossed over what is now called the East Alligator River, to its west side. She came on to Nimbaku and left a boy and a girl there and told them to speak the Wijirk language. From here she journeyed on across the plains stretching between the Alligator rivers to Koreingen, the place to which Imberombera had previously sent out two individuals named Pundamunga and Maramma. Ungulla Robunbun saw them and said to her children, 'There are blackfellows here; they are talking Kakadu; that is very good talk; this is Kakadu country that we are now in.'

Ungulla went on until she came near enough for them to hear her speaking. She said, 'I am Kakadu like you; I will belong to this country; you and I will talk the same language.' Ungulla then told them to come close up, which they did, and then she saw that the young woman was quite naked. Ungulla herself was completely clothed in sheets of ranken, or paper bark, and she took one off, folded it up, and showed the lubra how to make an apron such as the Kakadu women always wear now. She told the lubra that she did not wish to see her going about naked. Then they all sat down. Ungulla said, 'Are you a lubra?' and she replied, 'Yes, I am ungordiwa.' Then Ungulla said, 'I have seen Koreingen a long way off; I am going there. Where is your camp?' The Kakadu woman said, 'I shall go back to my camp if you go to Munganillida.' Ungulla then rose and walked on with her children. On the road some of them began to cry, and she said, 'Bialilla waji kobali, many children are crying; ameina waji kobali, why are many children crying?' She was angry and killed two of them, a boy and a girl, and left them behind. Going on, she came near to Koreingung and saw a number of men and women in camp and made her own camp some little distance from theirs. She then walked on to Koreingung and said, 'Here is a blackfellows' camp; I will make mine here also.'

She set to work to make a shelter, saying 'Kunjerogabi ngoinbu kobonji, I build a grass shelter; mornia balgi, there is a big mob of mosquitoes.' As yet the natives had not seen Ungulla or her children. There were plenty of fires in the natives' camps but no mosquitoes. They did not have any of these before Ungulla came, bringing them with her. She went into her shelter with her children and slept. After a time she came out again and then the other natives caught sight of her. Some of the younger Numulakirri determined to go to her camp. When she saw them coming she went into her kobonji and armed herself with a strong stick. She was Markogo, that is, elder sister, to the men, and, as they came up, she shouted out from her bush wurley, saying, 'What are you all coming for? You are my illaberri (younger brothers). I am kumali to you.'


Excerpted from Great Australian Stories by Graham Seal. Copyright © 2011 Graham Seal. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Telling tales,
1 Stories in the heart,
2 Pioneer traditions,
3 Making monsters,
4 Legends on the land,
5 The haunted land,
6 Tales of wonder,
7 Bulldust,
8 Heroes,
9 Characters,
10 Hard cases,
11 Working people,
Picture credits,
Sources and selected references,

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