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The First Bullroarer

Traditional Aboriginal Artifacts from Central Australia, Australia

Traditional Aboriginal Artifacts from Central Australia

John Banagan—Photographic Print
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While the Byama brothers were hunting they left their young sons, who had both been named Weerooimbrall, on a small plateau surrounded by large rocks. They thought the boys would be safe in this sheltered spot, but they had reckoned without Thoorkook and his dogs.

They had offended Thoorkook some time before, and at last the chance for revenge had arrived. He had seen the two brothers climbing up the hill behind their camp, accompanied by their sons, and had watched them leave the plateau without them. His dogs raced through the scrub and up the hillside, and by the time Thoorkook gained the rocky shelf, he found them fighting over the remains of the two mangled bodies.

All night long the dismal chanting went on in the Byama camp as the boys' relatives mourned their loss. At sunrise the father were intent on revenge, but nothing could assuage the grief of the two mothers. They went about the day's work quietly with the tears rolling down their cheeks and hissing into the cooking fire.

When night came their cries broke out again. They wandered away from the camp. The other members of the tribe shivered and went inside their wurleys, blocking their ears against the mournful sound. Night after night it continued until at last the women were changed into curlews, whose wailing will continue through the long nights until the end of time.

'We have lost our sons,' the elder Byama said, 'and now our wives have gone too. We are not men if we do not kill Thoorkook and his dogs.'

'It is true,' his brother agreed, 'but Thoorkook is a bad man and his dogs will tear us to pieces if we go into his camp.'

'Many dogs, much fear, brother. One dog, little fear.'

Byama the younger understood. 'But how?' he asked.

'I will show you.'

He tied a rolled up skin to his girdle and began the slow rhythm of the kangaroo dance. He shouted and muttered spells, and gradually his arms shrivelled, his legs grew thick and strong, and the skin roll changed into a tail. The man was gone and in his place stood a kangaroo. Byama the younger wondered what his brother was going to do, but he followed his example, and presently two large kangaroos hopped towards Thoorkook's encampment.

The dogs scented them and came towards them snarling, straining to reach them. The kangaroos bounded away with the dogs hot in pursuit. One, stronger and swifter than the others, got well ahead of the rest of the pack. When it was close to their heels the kangaroos stopped and swung their tails at it until its head was pounded to a pulp. The other dogs had nearly reached them by the time they had finished. Away they went once more until another dog took the lead.

All through the next day the kangaroo brothers bounded round the plain, waiting until a single dog came close enough for them to deal with it. By the end of the day every dog had been killed. The brothers changed back to human form, stalked into the camp of the killer of their sons, and slowly and deliberately put him to death. Thoorkook's spirit took flight and became a solitary mopoke.

The shame of the death of the Weerooimbralls was over, but the killing of Thoorkook could not restore the boys to life nor bring back the curlew wives, and the brothers were lonely men.

One day Byama the younger was using his axe to prise a grub from a crevice in a tree trunk when he dislodged a large piece of bark. It hurtled through the air, spinning so quickly that it made a peculiar sound. The elder brother turned round.

'It is the voice of my son!' he whispered. He concealed his excitement.

'There's no game here,' he said to his brother. 'You go over there and I will go in the opposite direction. We will meet in camp tonight.'

As soon as the younger Byama was out of sight he dropped to his knees and examined the chip, turning it over in his hands, wondering how he could make it spin through the air as it had done when it had sprung from the tree trunk. He threw it up many times, but it fell to the ground without a sound. He took out his knife, cut a small hole in one end of the chip, tied it to a long piece of string which he took from his bag, and whirled it round his head. Again the soft voice of the Weerooimbrall was heard.

Taking his stone axe with him, Byama went back to the tree and cut a much larger piece of thin wood. He fashioned it to the same shape as the piece of bark, bored a hole at the end, tied it to a strong cord, and whirled it round his head.

Byama the younger was on his way home, burdened with the day's catch. He rushed up to his brother. 'I have heard the voice of my son Weerooimbrall!' he shouted.

'He is not here. You know he is dead.'

'But I heard him. His voice was loud and clear.'

'Was it like this?' The elder Byama swung the thin piece of wood at the end of the cord. It whirled and twirled and cried like a human voice.

'What is it?' the younger Byama asked in a bewildered manner. 'What are you doing? It is my son speaking and calling to me!'

'No, brother, it is not your son. It is not my son. But their spirits live in this piece of wood, crying to us with their own voices.'

And so the first bullroarer was made. It was a sacred thing that preserved the spirits of the boys who had been killed by Thoorkook. It was never shown to women. It needed only to be swung on a string to bring the boys' voices to life.

As the years went by it entered into the initiation rites of young men, who were told that the spirits of the  Weerooimbralls were present, sharing the experiences of manhood with them, preserving them from evil, and strengthening them in their ordeal.

A.W. Reed, Aboriginal Fables & Legendary Tales (Aboriginal Library)


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