Australian Folktales: How Fire Was Stolen

Image by James Whitley Sayer (1847 – 1914) Public Domain (cropped)

This is a retelling of a folktale from Australia. It gives an explanation of how humans gained the use of fire when Tatkanna, the Australasian robin, stole it from Mar, the red-crested cockatoo, also known as Leadbeater’s cockatoo (Plyctolophus leadbeateri). There is also an explanation as to how the robin got its red breast and why the kookaburra is found in trees. The source of this retelling is from a story called How Fire was Stolen from the Red-Crested Cockatoo from a collection by W. J. Thomas and begins in the Dreamtime.

The Dreamtime

The Dreamtime is sometimes referred to as “the Dreaming”.  In simple terms it is the period of time when the creator-beings made the land and the animals, birds and plants. In that time humans  lived in the shape of beautiful birds and wild animals. One day as sunset neared a family of people were returning to their camp after a day out hunting when they came across a stranger.  He was an ancient looking man and appeared tired and hungry and carried a long spear, a possum skin rug and a dilly bag that was used to carry food.  Laying his spear on the ground as a sign of peace he showed them the inside of his bag which was empty and said,

“Many, many moons ago I left the hunting grounds of my people and went on a great journey.  I traveled across the land until I reached the great waters whose voice is like the rumbling thunder.  I traveled into the grey mist far beyond the mountains to the red rolling plains. In that place there are no birds or animals and the sun is hidden behind dark clouds.  I passed beyond this into the land that is beyond dawn and experienced many strange adventures.

I am old now and my people are gone.  They are blown like dead leaves in the wind and I must seek them out, but before I do I would rest awhile and tell you the secret I have discovered of the fire of the sun.  When I have done this I will go and one of your people who is daring and bold may seek out and bring back this fire to your people.”

The headmen discussed the request from the stranger and agreed to provide him with food and hospitality  in exchange for the tale. They all loved tales so when they reached the camp they quickly prepared a fine communal meal and gave the stranger the best of the food they had.  When they had finished eating they made a semi-circle before him and eagerly waited for him to begin his tale. It should be said that these were the days before people had learnt how to make fire. Furthermore, at this time they had no idea of how to use it to cook with or to harden their spear heads but they could see the sun up in the sky beyond their reach and could  feel its warmth.. They often contemplated how they could get the fire out of the sky and on to Earth for the light, warmth and comfort it brought on cold, days and dark nights. The ancient man wrapped himself in his possum skin rug and began to tell the people if his tale

The Stranger’s Tale

He began,

“I traveled beyond the dawn far into the east and the mountains that blot out the sun.  In that place water had forsaken the creeks and the water holes were dry and animals lay dead in the river beds and death threw its shadow upon the land.  I hurried on without stopping to rest in case death should come upon me.

I traveled on without water and my tongue grew swollen in my mouth and my legs became weak and when I thought I could go no further I saw the gleam in the distance of a water hole.  I ran towards it but fell. I crawled until I reached it but as I drew near blackness like night fell upon me although the sun was still high in the sky and I slept. I was eventually awoken by a loud buzzing noise in my ears like the sound of thousands of flies.  I crawled forward to the water hole and bent my head to drink but my lips only touched hot, dry sand. What I thought had been cool gleaming water had been hot gleaming sand but now I was desperate and I used my hands to dig deep into the sand until they were grazed and bleeding.  Despite the pain, despite the blood I carried on digging and at last the sand grew damp and water began to fill the hole I had dug until at last I had enough to drink. I was exhausted so I rested up for a day and then continued on my way.


One day after many more moons had passed I came to a country of tall trees.  One morning just before before the sun has begun its journey across the sky I was surprised to see its fire gleaming through the mirk of the trees.  Carefully, quietly and with great stealth I crept nearer and then I saw Mar, the Cockatoo. As I watched he reached up into his crest and brought out fire which he used to light a stick to show him the way.  In my surprise and eagerness to see more I stood on a dry twig and he heard it crack and saw me. He was angry and hurled a spear at me so I decided to flee. From there I spent many weary days traveling back to the land of my people hoping to find them but they were gone. I followed their track until I came across you folk. If there is one along you hardy enough and bold enough to face and complete the long arduous journey and daring enough to steal the fire from under the crest of Mar the Cockatoo, then humans will sing their praises for evermore.”

Mar, the Cockatoo

The people sat listening intently to him enthralled by his tale and when he had finished they all became very excited at the possibility of gaining access to fire.  The headmen talked together and agreed on a plan. They would invite the cockatoo to a great dance ceremony and get together they called a corroboree. There would be singing, dancing and mock combat. and while he was relaxed, off his guard and enjoying himself one of them would steal his fire.  

The day came and Mar the Cockatoo came to the corroboree and was enjoying all the singing, dancing and mock fights.  He was very relaxed but gave no opportunity for them to steal the fire. They offered him kangaroo meat to eat but he refused this.  Instead, they offered him kangaroo skin to eat which he accepted but to their consternation left their camp with it and returned the great distance to home.  Despite their efforts Mar had given them no opportunities to steal his fire and now he was gone

Prite

One small fellow named Prite decided to follow the cockatoo. He followed him across the bush and over the mountains for a great distance and grew very tired and thought of turning back for home.  Just as he had made up his mind to return he saw Mar reach under his crest feathers and pull out the fire.

He could not think of a plan to steal the fire so he returned home and told his family that what the ancient stranger man had told them was true.   The headmen discussed the news all through the night ànd finally decided that Tatkanna, the Robin, should follow the directions of Prite to the camp of Mar the cockatoo and steal the fire.

Tatkanna, the Robin

The next morning Tatkanna set out bright and early following the directions Prite had given him to the camp of Mar the Cockatoo.   It was a long tiring journey and luckily he arrived at Mar’s camp just as the cockatoo was reaching under his crest to pull out the fire to light a fire stick.   He then began singeing off all the hair from the kangaroo skin that he had been given.

Tatkanna could not believe his luck in witnessing this and in his eagerness to steal the  fire he edged too close scorching his breast feathers. Ever since then he has had a red breast and known as Robin Redbreast.  However, scorching his feathers frightened him and Mar saw him. Realizing he had been discovered, Tatkanna decided he had to do something quick or fail in his quest, so boldly running forward he grabbed the fire stick from Mar and ran off into the bush.  

As he ran the fire stick caused everything it touched to burst into flames and soon all the dry grass and bushes were burning and even the trees caught light. The animals and birds were all bewildered and frightened and ran off trying to escape. The flames that swept over the dry grass and bush also the consumed trees leaving a smouldering charred black and gray waste land of ash behind

When Mar realized his fire had been stolen he grew very angry and went in search of the thief meaning to kill him.  Tatkanna made it back home and showed the fire stick to his family who were all tremendously pleased and heaped praise upon him.  Then Mar, who had tracked the robin, arrived in their camp and demanded to fight the thief who had stolen his fire.
Tatkanna although very bold and daring was terrified of fighting the cockatoo as he was only a small fellow and begged his friend Quartang the Kookaburra to be his champion. Quartang agreed but Mar quickly defeated him forcing him to escape by flying up into the tree and that is where kookaburras have been since that day

Tatkanna, the Hero

Mar did not get his fire back and sadly returned home but the family of people were all mighty pleased with Tatkanna, the Robin for his bravery and daring. His scorched red breast reminds us of the great deed he did for his family of people.  Now, when they see the red-crested cockatoo they remember how fire was stolen from him for their benefit by Tatkanna, the Robin

© 03/04/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans April 3rd, 2019

Australian Folklore: The Emu in the Sky

The Aboriginal people of Australia developed an astronomy where figures from their mythology were represented  by the dark patches, stars and other features of the night sky. These figures came from familiar animals and objects from their immediate environment that often had stories attached to them explaining their origin or function.

emu_public

In the night skies above Australia is the Southern Cross which has a dark patch or cloud next to it called the Coalsack Nebula.  This dark place is associated with the “Emu in the Sky” with the Coalsack representing the head and the body and legs formed by the dust trails that reach out across the Milky Way. Presented here is a brief description of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy followed by the folktale of The Blind Man and the Emu. Then follows  a look at the rock engraving of the Emu in the Sky and the celestial orientation in the night sky of the Emu before concluding with the importance of both of these to the Aboriginal people.

Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

In Australian Aboriginal astronomy, astronomical objects such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets and the Milky Way and their movements across the sky are often seen as being representative of objects, animals or aspects of the world they knew. They used these representations to help explain and give meaning to various things that in their minds needed explaining or in some cases as a calendar to keep track of the passing of time and the seasons. Quite often there are mythological or religious explanations given to celestial objects and phenomena and sometimes there are less profound associations given.  Different groups of Aboriginal people have different folktales featuring many different creatures such as stingrays, sharks and other fish, different kinds of birds and animals also different people groups such as men, women, boys, girls and hunters.

The Blind Man and the Emu

One folktale tells of a blind man who lived in a camp in the bush.  He had a wife who lived with him and every day he would send his wife out to look for emu eggs for them to eat. His wife would dutifully oblige but no matter how hard she tried she could not please him. She would find the emu eggs and bring them back to him but he would complain they were too small and become angry with her.   One day she went out looking for emu eggs and came across the tracks of a very large emu.  Thinking that such a large bird would lay large eggs she followed the tracks and found it sitting on its nest on the ground.   Thinking the eggs would be large and would please her husband for a change, she became determined to get them and so she threw stones at the bird hoping to scare it off.  Instead the bird stood up and attacked her and killed her.

Meanwhile the blind man was becoming hungry waiting for his wife and he also began to worry about her.   Unable to see he began to feel his way cautiously around the camp until his hands felt a bush and feeling the branches he found some berries upon it.  Eating the berries he was suddenly cured of his blindness and picking up his spears he went out looking for his wife.  He found her tracks and followed them and found her body by the emu’s nest.  Realizing the emu had killed her he speared the emu and sent its spirit into the Milky Way.  There it remains to this day and can be seen at certain times of the year and became known as the Emu in the Sky.

Rock engravings of the Emu in the Sky

In the Kuringai National Park, north of Sidney the Guringai people who live there created rock engravings, some of these are depicting Daramulan the sky god and his emu-wife. One engraving at the Elvina Track Engraving Site depicts an emu similarly posed similarly as the Emu in the Sky constellation.  During  evenings in the autumn, which is March to May in Australia, the celestial emu in the sky is directly over the engraved emu in the sky depicted in the rock corresponding to the time when the emu lays its eggs and are traditionally collected by the Aborigines.

The Emu in the Sky

During March the head and neck of the Emu appears in night sky and from April to May the full length is revealed in the sky from south toward south east. During this time the Emu is said to have legs by the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples and is seeming to be in a running pose.  This is said to be representative of the females who during the mating season run after the males.

During June and July the celestial emu appears to change its position with the disappearance of its legs and is said to be now male and sitting on its nest hatching the eggs.  It is the male emu on earth that incubates the eggs.  So the celestial Emu appears to reproduce the behavior of the earthly emu.

The Emu in the Sky is an example of how the Aboriginal Australians related to the natural world on earth and the heavens above them.  Their reliance and closeness to nature is seen in the use of the rock engraving that acts as a calendar reminding them of the important time of the year when the emu egg will be available to harvest.

© 08/06/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright June 8th, 2016 zteve t evans