Custom and Myth

Page: 14

Let us next observe a remarkable peculiarity of the turndun, or Australian bull-roarer. The bull-roarer in England is a toy. In Australia, according to Howitt and Fison, {34} the bull-roarer is regarded with religious awe. ‘When, on lately meeting with two of the surviving Kurnai, I spoke to them of the turndun, they first looked cautiously round them to see that no one else was looking, and then answered me in undertones.’ The chief peculiarity in connection with the turndun is that women may never look upon it. The Chepara tribe, who call it bribbun, have a custom that, ‘if seen by a woman, or shown by a man to a woman, the punishment to both is death.’

Among the Kurnai, the sacred mystery of the turndun is preserved by a legend, which gives a supernatural sanction to secrecy. When boys go through the mystic ceremony of initiation they are shown turnduns, or bull-roarers, and made to listen to their hideous din. They are then told that, if ever a woman is allowed to see a turndun, the earth will open, and water will cover the globe. The old men point spears at the boy’s eyes, saying: ‘If you tell this to any woman you will die, you will see the ground broken up and like the sea; if you tell this to any woman, or to any child, you will be killed!’ As in Athens, in Syria, and among the Mandans, the deluge-tradition of Australia is connected with the mysteries. In Gippsland there is a tradition of the deluge. ‘Some children of the Kurnai in playing about found a turndun, which they took home to the camp and showed the women. Immediately the earth crumbled away, and it was all water, and the Kurnai were drowned.’

In consequence of all this mummery the Australian women attach great sacredness to the very name of the turndun. They are much less instructed in their own theology than the men of the tribe. One woman believed she had heard Pundjel, the chief supernatural being, descend in a mighty rushing noise, that is, in the sound of the turndun, when boys were being ‘made men,’ or initiated. {35} On turnduns the Australian sorcerers can fly up to heaven. Turnduns carved with imitations of water-flowers are used by medicine-men in rain-making. New Zealand also has her bull-roarers; some of them, carved in relief, are in the Christy Museum, and one is engraved here. I have no direct evidence as to the use of these Maori bull-roarers in the Maori mysteries. Their employment, however, may perhaps be provisionally inferred.

One can readily believe that the New Zealand bull-roarer may be whirled by any man who is repeating a Karakia, or ‘charm to raise the wind’:—

Loud wind,
Lasting wind,
Violent whistling wind,
Dig up the calm reposing sky,
Come, come.

In New Zealand {36a} ‘the natives regarded the wind as an indication of the presence of their god,’ a superstition not peculiar to Maori religion. The ‘cold wind’ felt blowing over the hands at spiritualistic séances is also regarded (by psychical researchers) as an indication of the presence of supernatural beings. The windy roaring noise made by the bull-roarer might readily be considered by savages, either as an invitation to a god who should present himself in storm, or as a proof of his being at hand. We have seen that this view was actually taken by an Australian woman. The hymn called ‘breath,’ or