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The opal that turned into fire

How the Wongaibon obtained fire

In the faraway past there was no fire and the people had to cook their meat in the sun. It was noticed that two old women always had more tender meat than the others. They were Gimma the rat kangaroo, and Yummar the bronzewing pigeon. Their secret fire was shut in the nut from a needlebush and then stowed in a dilly bag. The two women went into the bush by themselves and cooked their meat, then hid the fire again. Everyone tried to find out what they did to their food, but the two old women were too vigilant.

Eventually, Bullur the night owl volunteered to watch them. His coat was the colour of bark and he could sit motionless while staring with his big eyes. He left the camp early and made a detour so that his tracks were hidden. Then he climbed a tree in a place that the women were known to frequent. They arrived soon afterwards and settled under the tree where the owl-man was watching. He saw them gather dead grass and sticks before they drew the needle-nut out of their bag. It only took a moment for the fire to come out of the nut and ignite their firewood. They placed a fat goanna on the hot ashes and one of the women waved her hands over the fire. This prevented the smoke rising and being seen by others. During the process she sang a quiet little song to encourage the fire to continue burning.

When the goanna was cooked, the fire was put back in the nut and both women ate a hearty meal. Bullur's mouth watered and his pangs of hunger were hard to bear in silence. Later in the day they returned to the camp and Bullur did the same by another route. He reported what he had seen to the elders, who decided to hold a special corroboree and invite the two fire-women. They hoped that the women would become so absorbed by the performance that some smart fellow would have the chance to snatch the fire-bag.

All performers were on the corroboree ground and the leading figures were trying to create great amusement, but it did not work. Gimma and Yummar sat stolidly with the precious bag held between them. It seemed to draw their attention more than all the display and hilarity that was happening in front of them. Famous dancers from a neighbouring group tried to amuse the two old women without success. The pelican, Wirraia, and the magpie, Kurruwur, did some farcical acts but were equally useless.

The elders considered this project was important and they asked another group to send their most laughter inducing players. Two very comical characters arrived: Billir the black cockatoo, and Kulu the shingleback lizard. Eventually Kulu danced along on the point of his tail, defecating as he did so. This made some impression on the women, but they still remained self-possessed. Then Billir jumped amongst the performers with his lower bowel protruding and excreta mixed with blood ran down his tail. The two women found this sight irresistible and broke into uncontrolled laughter.

This was the perfect moment for Girriki, the sparrow-hawk, to grab the bag and he ran a short distance before upsetting the contents on to the ground. Fire was released and spread in all directions with Girriki urging the flames to travel faster. By his special power, he produced a whirlwind which increased the spread of the flashing flames. As it blazed along, he put some into every tree in the forest, both soft and hardwood. That is why the people were able to obtain fire by rubbing the two kinds of wood together. Ever since that corroboree, the black cockatoo has reddish stains on the feathers underneath the tail, evidence of the glare from the flames. This also appears on the back and head of the sparrow-hawk.

There are several species of rat kangaroos in Australia. Girriki, the sparrow-hawk, is also known as collared-sparrow-hawk; Yummar, the bronzewing pigeon, is Phaps chalcoptera; and a needlebush is Hakea acicularis.

Miranen would have heard about the arrival of fire towards the end of the last century, from the Wongaibon, their territory was south of the Darling River (Mathews, 1906). Cobar, which was in their country, contained many historic relics.

The origin of fire

Bandicoot had the monopoly of fire, enclosed in a nut, always carried and hidden from others. People envied him because his meat looked better than theirs, which only gained warmth after lying on a rock in the mid-day sun. They also noticed that his spear barbs were neatly attached with gum and his weapons were extremely well finished. Pigeon and Sparrow-hawk were told to follow him when he was hunting and noticed smoke rising from his camp. This was a strange sight, so they approached him silently and unexpectedly. Bandicoot rushed to stow his fire in the nut, but Sparrow-hawk was a fast moving fellow and grabbed some of it. He set fire to every tree in the vicinity, and the people have had their share since that day.

Miranen did not mention who told him this story, but it came from Western Australia, a long way from Wongaibon country in New South Wales (Mathews, 1906). The similarity of storage in a nut and quick action of the sparrow-hawk suggests some common origin with the Wongaibon story. Gum, one of the best adhesives, had to be warmed in a fire before being used and warmth made wood more pliable for constructing tools or weapons.

How the Kamilaroi acquired fire

Crow was the first person to know the value of fire and his people wondered why blood was not visible around his mouth after eating meat. They could not avoid these dribbles themselves and became very suspicious. His only reply to their questions was that he kept clean because he cut up his meat finely with a stone knife. They did not believe him and invited him to a corroboree where some humorous men were going to perform. Although there were a lot of excellent dancers, Crow did not seem very interested.

Shingleback and a partner danced while singing rather a rude song, and their behaviour was bad enough to attract a bored or sleepy person. While the lizards were performing, excreta was trickling down their legs and if they gave a special jump there was an additional discharge. Crow was engrossed, so Sparrow-hawk quickly grabbed the bag containing the fire and ran away with it. Crow rushed after him and the fire was jerked out of the bag during the scuffle between the two men. The dry grass and leaves were ignited while Crow tried to put out the fire by stamping on the flames. This did not succeed, so he rolled on the burning grass, but all attempts to regain possession of his fire were hopeless. It spread over the country, and all people had their share for cooking and other purposes since that day in the past.

Crow's gleaming white feathers were saturated with blackness and that colour has always remained. The slight white rings under a crow's eyes show where severe scorching had occurred. Severe burns to a dark skin often cause a permanent white patch or scar, a result known all too well by Aborigines, for whom burns were probably the most common accident. One of the best cures was liberal application of pelican oil which was in plentiful supply in the body of each bird.

Story courtesy of The Opal that turned into Fire (1994) Janet Mathews (comp), Isobel White (ed.), Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia, pp. 36-38