Anthropology Friday: Aboriginal Witchcraft

Another installment of Smith’s Aborigine:

“… it may be said that a rain-maker may neither have, nor profess to have, any skill outside of his own profession of rain-making. A medicine-man is generally one who uses the pointing-stick or the pointing-bone, the wirrie, the crystal, or the thumie, or the ngathungi. He professes to point the stick or bone at a person and to cause it to enter the body; and it is he who takes it or extracts it from the body, sometimes with the help of Puckowe [footnote: Known as the Grandmother Spirit. She is supposed to inhabit the dark spot, the Coal-sack, in the Milky Way.] …”

The author has very little respect for the rain making profession, which he believes is trickery practiced on the gullible:

“On some clear morning there may be no cloud in the sky, … But the rain-maker notes indications that a thunderstorm is coming, and that it will arrive, say, in three hours. He begins his incantation, and his wife advises all present that to warn their children that a storm is coming. … After a while black clouds appear in the distance, followed by a flash of lightning. … the storm is all around them. The rain-maker leaps out of his wurley, chanting his song of invocation to the spirits of the lightning, the thunder, the rain, and the wind, … ‘You have heard my call… you have come at my bidding.’ The children and youths and maidens are astounded at what they consider a wonderful performance.”

The Neilyeri … If, for instance, the Frilled Lizard totem tribe is desirous of doing an injury to the Carpet-snake totem tribe, one of its members would seek the aid of another person, say, a member of the Opossum totem tribe. The Frilled Lizard man would instruct the Opossum man to make the acquaintance of a Carpet-snake man. This he would do by asking a Tortoise totem tribe man to effect a meeting.”

The Opossum man goes and hangs out with the Carpet-snake guy for a week.

“… one night the Opossum man would whisper into the ear of the Carpet-snake man a word of warning, saying that the Frilled Lizard man was in possession of a great number of neilyeries, and was preparing them for use. Furthermore, he would say that he had heard that one of the neilyeries was to be used on a member of the Carpet-snake totem family…”

At that point, the Carpet-snake man looks across the fire and sees a Frilled Lizard man making weird hand motions with a pointing-bone, which causes the Carpet-snake man to become anxious and worried and have bad dreams, and the Opossum man keeps saying things to make him more paranoid.

“So the Carpet-snake man decides to consult the doctor, but the cunning Lizard man has already seen the doctor, and has retained his services with bribes.”

A big show is made, and the medicine-man says he has partially healed the man but cannot do it completely, because the spirits are hanging onto his sickness because they want him to die.

“The medicine-man … begins to cry softly, the tears flowing down his cheeks, and then he bid his patient good-bye. After his departure the relatives and friends congregate at the sick man’s wurley, and the latter tells them that the medicine-man is unable to cure him, and that he must submit to the wishes of his loved ones, who are standing beside him ready to welcome him to the Spirit World. So he turns his face toward the west, that mysterious land, and allows his spirit to take flight… Thus the soul passes away through the power of suggestion.”

I know that the “power of suggestion” is suspected to be the mechanism behind which many curses are supposed to work, but I still find the whole scenario rather over-complicated and far too prone to the intended victim deciding not to go along with it, especially compared with the rather fool-proof method of punching the guy you’re mad at.

“The wirrie is a charm stick of wood or bone … It is placed inside a dead human body, and is allowed to remain there until the corpse is decomposed. It is then removed and wrapped in emu-feathers, and surrounded by kangaroo or wallaby skin. Thus prepared, it is regarded as the most dangerous instrument of death. It requires very careful handling, as a prick from the point of it is capable of causing blood-poisoning and death. It may be, and usually is, thrust completely into the body of the victim while he is fast asleep.”

It’s amazing how many people think hunter-gatherers were all non-violent pacifists who never killed anyone or had any wars and, of course, were all nature-loving feminists.

The other amazing thing is that doctors in the 1800s couldn’t figure out that inadequate hand washing was behind the correlation between dissecting corpses in one’s spare time and one’s patients dying. Surely “dead things magically spread death” is just some dumb superstition.

Argh I a am still mad about that.

“The thumie is another death-dealing instrument. It consists of a rope or string made from human hair that has been taken from hundreds of people, alive or dead. It is believed that the minds of these people and their desires, loves, and hatreds are contained in the hair. …

“When one of the elders of the tribe is sick unto death the maker of this thumie asks a brother or a son of the sick one if he will take it to the sick man’s bed and place it under his body, and let him lie on it until he passes from this life into the Spirit Land. Thus his spirit will be absorbed by it. … he gives consent… the rope is wound about him, first at the hips, then round the trunk several times, and up under the arms, then loosely over the back of the neck and the head. One end is placed in the dying man’s hand, and the other is given to a person standing outside the wurley. …”

Australian Aborigines posing in front of their wurley.
Australian Aborigines posing in front of their wurley.

“The rope is left for several weeks twined about the corpse, and by this time the body is putrefied or decomposed. Meantime the thumie has absorbed into itself the strength of the spirit of the departed. The thumie is considered to be sensitive to a wish or a desire on the part of the person who makes use of it… ”

“When many persons communicate to the hair rope a wish that some one shall give himself up as a victim to the ceremony that will cause death the sacrifice is willingly made without any effort to resist the demand. So it is thought that not only does the spirit assist in capturing a victim, but that in the pursuit it guides the operators through the forest of scrub, over mountain-tops, into fern-covered valleys, and across rivers, until they reach their destination. They say they walk on air, and that the spits have made or caused the air for a foot above the earth to become solid and soft. The air is moving, and they are being carried along with it in a direct line toward there victim.”

Then there is also dancing around and ritual chanting and drawing of effigies and declarations that the guy to be murdered must die. There follows a very long and much more mundane description of the murderers tracking down their victim on foot, taking lots of care to be extremely quiet and sneaky.

“At about three or four o-clock in the morning all the others arrive separately, one after another, until the whole twelve are assembled. Then the medicine-man unrolls the hair-rope, and places it upon a null-nulla, and the person holding the nulla-nulla wind the hair several time round it, and then creeps along toward the victim in the wurley, who, of course, is sound asleep. They wind the hair rope round his arms and neck in such a manner that they themselves shall not be exposed to the danger of allowing the sleeper to hold the rope with his hand. … Those holding the rope are unanimous in their thought-suggestion. [The victim] arises from his bed as if awake, and comes toward the men who are sitting upon the ground. he walks forward of his own accord, and lays himself upon their knees, with his face turned toward the sky, as if about to rest upon his bed. He remains in this position, and the medicine-nan comes forward, holding in his hand a flint knife made expressly for an occasion like this. He draws the skin of the victim from the hip toward the small rib. He makes a small hole in the body, and thrusts his little finger through it, and scoops out a small portion of the kidney-fat. Then the skin is allowed to return to its original position. The wound is pressed with smooth pieces of wood made for the purpose of keeping the edges together. …”

Nulla-nulla, with thanks to
Nulla-nulla

“Puckowe comes and heals the wound so that o one might be able to see the cut, and she takes from the man all consciousness of what has happened a few hours before

“Puckowe also goes to the place whee the ceremony was performed and removes all signs of the enemy and blood, and make the grass or broken twigs appear undisturbed. Then she returns to her home int he dark spot in the Milky Way. The medicine0man and the other men return to their homes, happy that they have secured their revenge and taken a life for a life.”

Meanwhile, the victim feels awful,  and his tribe decides that clearly he has been bewitched with a thumie and had a piece of his kidney removed, so they call upon their medicine man to get their thumie and go take revenge on whichever tribe did it to them.

 

 

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