The Dreaming

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The Fly's Spirit

Aboriginal Burial Rites


As David Mowaljarli has explained in
Death of the Tribes, a man's spirit exists before birth, in its totemic birthplace, and this spirit will leave him and continue to exist after his death. When a man dies, his true spirit must therefore be hastened to its proper resting place, the place of its totemic origin. If the spirit remains around the camp, it will harass and frighten his relations, and therefore all precautions are taken to keep this wayward spirit out in the bush with the other spirits of the dead. In northern Australia, and even as far south as northern New South Wales, the patches of rainforest jungle which sporadically occur amongst the drier, more open eucalypt forests are much feared and avoided as haunts of spirits. On Bathurst Island, for example, such dense patches of rainforest are only entered by many people together and at the brightest time of day, and even then only to dig a particularly favoured yam. In order to diminish the attraction of his familiar surroundings to the dead man, his body may be treated with bitter-smelling smoke and the limbs broken and tied to prevent his spirit re-animating his body. In some areas the widow or mother of the dead person may become ceremonially dumb for several years, never uttering a word during the whole time of mourning, or the spirit might be encouraged to return. The tracks of the dead person are swept away and his camp abandoned and avoided. Favourite places where he sat down are marked and avoided also. His name is never mentioned, and even words with a similar sound are not used.

Once a man dies his mourning relatives are placed in a dilemma, wanting him back, but fearful of his spirit remaining amongst them. Every effort is made to persuade the spirit that it is best for him to leave the camp.

This conflict is expressed in a myth from the Kandyu who inhabited the head of the Archer River in north Queensland. The story describes the desperation of a grieving man trying to make his dead brother return to the grave. In the dance-dramatization of the myth a man imitates Polpol the Hero-Ancestor of the House-fly clan as he sits up in his grave, his eyes outlined with circles of white clay to emphasize their size, just like the fly's protuberant eyes. The story is told by Jimmy Corporal.

The Fly's Spirit

Polpol the house-fly and Wauwudyumo 'the fly that sits down in a wet place', were once brothers, going about as men. One day, Polpol the house-fly grew sick and died. In preparation for burial, Wauwudyumo dug a hole in the ground and at the bottom of the hole he laid bark. He laid bark on top of the body and buried his brother facing west. Then Wauwudyumo cried for the dead man and stamped his feet on the ground. He beat his hands together, holding them up in front of his face, beating out the rhythm, as flies do when they rub their forefeet together on their legs. He cried and sang for the dead:

Alas! Alas! For me, the younger brother!
Me, the younger brother!
Alas! Alas! Alas! Alas!
Alas! For me, the younger brother!
My older brother has left me all alone!
Alas! Alas! Alas! Alas!
Me, the younger brother!
He has left me all alone!

Suddenly, Polpol the house-fly spirit left the dead and came out from the grave. Polpol came up to the ground where his younger brother was crying for the dead. Then Wauwudyumo, sensing something was wrong, stopped and listened—he heard a stick snap! Then he admonished Polpol: 'Go back! You must not come up! You must go back! This ground is forbidden!' Polpol the house-fly's ghost reluctantly went back. He sat down with his back against a tree, turning his back on Wauwudyumo, and sang a mournful song:

I shall be hungry by and by!
A man am I!
I don't want to go back to the grave!

Wauwudyumo remained firm and he again told his brother's spirit:

Back you must go! This place is forbidden!

As Polpol slowly retreated he put his head out of the ground and cried, singing one more time:

By and by I shall be hungry!
A man am I!

Then he went into the grave, never to return.

from Jennifer Isaacs, ed, 
Australian Dreaming : 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History


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