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Crow (Waa Wahn)

Crow holds a very important place in the mythology of the Australian Aborigines. To many he is a moiety ancestor and those belonging to his moiety are called 'Crow people'. The area of Perth where I live was once the land of the Bibbulmum, who belong to this moiety, and the Crow is still held in respect to this day.

Crow often is a trickster character, in sharp contrast to his more sombre moiety counterpart, Bunjil the eaglehawk. A Koori myth from Victoria tells how Crow stole fire from the seven women guardians. In the Dreamtime only these seven women knew the secret of fire and refused to divulge how it was made. Crow decided that he would get their secret. He made friends with the women and found out that they carried fire at the ends of their digging sticks. He also found out that the women were fond of termites, but afraid of snakes. He buried a number of snakes in a termite mound, then told the women he had found a large nest of termites. They followed him to the spot and broke open the mound. The snakes attacked them and they defended themselves with their digging sticks. This caused fire to fall from the sticks. Quickly, Crow picked up the fire between two pieces of bark and ran away. Now Crow in his turn refused to share fire with anyone. Every time someone asked him, he mockingly called out, 'Waa, waa.' He caused so much strife that even he at last lost his temper and threw coals at some of the men who were pestering him for fire. The coals caused a bushfire in which he supposedly was burnt to death, but the eternal trickster came to life and the survivors heard his mocking 'Waa, waa' echoing from a large tree.

The Woiwurong Koori people's elders told a similar myth of how once there were seven young women called the Karatgurk who lived on the Yarra river where Melbourne now stands. They lived on yams which they dug out with their digging sticks, on the end of which they also carried live coals. They kept the fire to themselves. They cooked their own yams, but gave raw ones to Crow. One day Crow found one of the cooked yams and tasted it. He found it delicious and decided to cook his yams from then on. The women refused to give him fire and so he decided to trick them out of it. He caught and hid a lot of snakes in an ant mound, then called to the girls that he had found a large ant mound and that the ant larvae tasted much better than yams. The women ran to the mound and began digging into it with their sticks. The snakes came hissing out and chased them away, screaming. But them the women turned and began to hit out at the snakes with their digging sticks. They hit so hard that some of the live coals were knocked off. Crow was waiting for this. He pounced on the live coals and hid them in a kangaroo skin bag he had prepared. When the women had killed all the snakes, they came back to look for the coals. They could not find them and decided that Crow had taken them. They chased him, but he flew out of reach and perched on the top of a very high tree.

Bunjil saw what had happened and asked Crow for some of the coals, as he wanted to cook a possum. Crow offered to cook it for him and when he had done so, threw it down to Eaglehawk who saw that it was still smoking. He tried to blow it into flame, but failed. He ate the possum and while he did so, the Koori people gathered around and shouted at Crow to give them fire. The din scared him and at last he flung some live coals at the crowd. Kurok-goru the fire-tailed finch picked up some of the coals and hid them behind his back and that is why these finches have red tails. Eaglehawk's shaman helpers, Djurt-djurt the nankeen kestrel and Thara the quail hawk, grabbed the rest of the coals.

Then the coals made a bush fire which burnt Crow black. It also spread over his country and Bunjil had to gather all the Kooris to help put it out. He placed some rocks at the head of the Yarra river to stop the fire spreading that way, and they are there to this day. His two helpers were burnt and became two rocks at the foot of the Dandenong Range. The Karatgurk were swept up into the sky where they became the Pleiades, the stars representing their glowing firesticks.

Crow is perhaps one of the most attractive and entertaining of the ancestral beings. He lived and passed on in mirth. Towards the end of his stay on Earth, he was travelling down the Murray river when he came across Swamp Hawk. Crow decided to play a trick on the bird. He planted echidna quills in the deserted nest of a kangaroo rat and got Swamp Hawk to jump on them. One of the interesting things about many of Crow's tricks is that they benefit the person he plays them on, and in this case Swamp Hawk was pleased, for the quills grew into his feet and he found that he could catch kangaroo rats easily.

Crow continued on his journey and became caught in a storm. The rain lashed down and he felt cleansed by it. It was then that a voice was heard. It was Biame the All-Father. He took the old Crow up into the sky where he became the star Canopus.

Story courtesy of Aboriginal Mythology (1994) Mudrooroo, Thorsons, London, pp. 35-36