Tony’s Notes From The Bony Novels (Part 17)

Posted on Sat 04/23/2011 by



Upfield deals on many occasions with the secrets that each tribe has, and he also often mentions that they have secret places. These days these special areas have been recognised for their significance.They are referred to as Aboriginal Sacred Sites. These areas are indeed significant, and in the main, the general population has little, if any, understanding of what that really means.

These areas are where the tribe kept its secret things. As I have mentioned in earlier Posts, a large tribe will have designated borders, and could possibly cover a very large area, some as large as many thousands of square miles. Within that area are smaller sub groups of the one tribe, as those smaller groups were more easily managed.

The main group, mainly of senior elders and large family groups would be in the one large encampment, and this is where the head man for the whole tribe would live. Also here would be the senior elders, and also the most senior ‘medicine man’, Shaman.

Close to that area would be the most secret of places where these Senior elders would venture, but they would only do this on very special occasions. It was a men only place, and in the main, only those very senior elders would come here. This area would have the most strict of designated boundaries, and it was absolute law that no one was allowed to enter here unless specifically in the Company of the head man, the Shaman, and the senior elders.

Some of those special occasions would be for the initiation of new young men into the tribe. This would be akin to a special education period of time when the young man would be removed from his family for a period of time. Having already been mentored for most of his life, he would then be ‘inducted’ wholly into the tribe as a full ‘man’, so to speak. The cicatrices would be carved into his body, he would be given further very intensive tutoring from the senior elders, and introduced to some of the tribal secrets. This would probably be one of the very few times any of those young men would be allowed into this area, until they too, reached the rank of respected elder, as they aged. Also, as the carving of those cicatrices into the skin involved very careful skill, then the Shaman, skilled in how best to treat what we perceive as horrendous wounds would be constantly on hand to look after this very trying time for the initiate, hence it might be weeks that he is in this area under the total guidance of the Shaman, the young man not emerging until fully recovered, During this time, the Head man and the senior elders would have gone back to the tribe, only the initiate and the Shaman remaining here. During this time, the Shaman would impress upon the young man intensive schooling in all matters concerning the tribe, the law, management, and the ways things are done.

That Shaman would be the man responsible most for those tribal secrets, and an analogy might be that he had the ‘key to the safe’ of their most important ‘stuff’. Even the Tribal Head Man would have to accede to the Shaman at times like these.

Hence, when the white man came along, this mysterious character of the Shaman was looked upon as something other than what he really was, perceived as an almost malevolent person, and the real power behind the throne, to use a common analogy here.

Upfield was very careful in the way he spoke of this person.

So, how would a person like this come into being?

We’ve mentioned the men of the tribe and the women of the tribe. We’ve mentioned how the boys had their mentors who kept their eyes on them as they grew into men, and how the most able probably received special tutoring, possibly being singled out as one to take over leadership of the tribe, when the old chief went back to his totem.

What about the medicine man?

There have been shamans throughout history, and the Australian aboriginal medicine man is just another of these. A shaman. This is not just a man who, when the old one goes back to his totem, the tribal elders look around and point to a man and say, ‘well, you’re it now’.

The youths of the tribe had their own mentors, so, it only stands to reason that the same goes for the shaman.

Just because you were the son of the chief, that didn’t automatically mean you were going to be the next chief. It might have been a bit of a help, but it was no lay down misere. The same applied for the shaman. His son was not necessarily the next one to take over after him, and in fact, it would probably have been a wise thing to look outside direct family members for a position such as this.

As each youth had a mentor, so did the boy who hung out with the shaman. He showed an interest in those things, so the medicine man took him under his wing, so to speak, and this would have happened at a much earlier age than when the other boys of his age were even thinking of getting their own mentor. The young boy was then allowed to hang out with the medicine man for a specific reason. He started to learn the tricks of the trade at a very early age, and here you must realise that these things that we call tricks of the trade are secret things that only the medicine man would have any knowledge of.

The medicine man always seems to be looked upon as a bit of a shyster, jealously guarding his secrets, making him look a little more sinister than he really was. This possibly came with old age, and here you also have to realise that in the main, the medicine man was immune from having to be a hunter gatherer, as he was an important person to the tribe, so it was in the tribe’s interest that he not be sent out on foraging trips, chasing down food, or possibly fighting with other tribes. (This fighting with other tribes is something that probably happened a lot less than we might believe to have been the case, and was probably as rare and foreign to them at the time as that sort of crime is in this day and age.)

So, the medicine man was a protected species in the tribal scheme of things, and as such, possibly lived to an older age than most of the men of the tribe, and as he got older, he guarded more religiously his little secrets, and because there was so much mystique surrounding this man, he probably took on a more sinister aspect, in the eyes of the white man.

In most cases, he was probably, and more accurately, a benevolent old man, one of the more respected elders, and the chief’s right hand man, perceived as being the ‘power behind the throne’, with all the connotations that we place upon that position. The youth that he took under his wing was tutored from a very young age about how to be a good medicine man, so had much more intensive training than the other youths of the tribe.

He probably even started to use psychology before we even invented the word.

He was the tribal doctor, the translator of portentous happenings, the seer, and the invoker of the tribes magic. He knew what all the magic implements were for, and how to use them to the best advantage.

He was also probably a good weather forecaster.

So, how could you possibly say that?

Consider this.

It’s been a long dry season of drought. Their lands are dry, because there hasn’t been rain for a long spell.

So what?

If there’s not much grass cover, then there’s no food for the animals. If there’s no animals, the tribe goes short of food.

The chief comes to the medicine man and says, ‘Hey, we need some rain, real bad. How ‘bout you go and dig up our rain stones and make some rain for us.’

The medicine man says, ‘right. Let’s go.’

Off they go. They dig up the stones, conduct the rain ceremony, bury the stones and off they go. If there’s no ensuing rain, the medicine man looks to be a bit of a goose really.

So, he has to be good at being able to tell how close rain really is. Then he goes to the chief and says to him, ‘we need some rain pretty bad, so how about we go and dig up the stones, and have a rain ceremony.’

They then go off to the place of ‘magic’, dig up the stones, have their ceremony, bury the stones, and go back to the camping ground. Rain comes in due course, and lo and behold, everyone says, ‘wow! How does he do that time after time? We’re really lucky to have such a clever guy as our medicine man.’

So, his reputation is further enhanced. This is only one isolated case.

The same can be said for all the things that ‘seem’ to be magic when it comes to aboriginal cultural things. They mostly stem from the medicine man, and they seem to be magic in our eyes, and stemming from this perceived magic is a false sense of the way we look at him, as a bit of a shyster.

Nothing could be further from the truth. These are skills, and are skills he has learned from years of practising his craft. Hence, he must take into hand a youth at a very young age, and tutor him in these ways, so that when he goes back to his totem, there is someone who can step straight into his shoes.

Again, this is out of necessity. This youth who has the medicine man as his mentor, goes through the initiation process like all the other youths, but he is marked differently, signifying that he is the medicine man’s replacement.

Again, when you relate this back to the Posts I have regarding Language, this is even a further method of communication. So something as barbarous as we perceive is really a complex form of communication, pure and simple.

With respect to where I mention secret ‘things’, each tribe would have had its own little cache of things that they would use to invoke some of these things that we attribute to having magic qualities, and here we use the word magic to describe something that we do not fully understand.

The elders of the tribe would have been the only ones who knew where this cache was hidden, mostly because they would be the only ones who would ever gather together to invoke the full meaning of what these things meant, and mostly it was the shaman who had the most knowledge of what each little implement did mean.

Because these things were of supreme importance to the tribe, the hiding place was looked upon as being of great importance.

So that the other members of the tribe, and other tribes, for that fact, would not treat this place as just another part of the country that they could just wander through, this place was given distinct boundaries, and it was laid down that only the elders of that particular tribe were allowed to enter its confines, and then only on special occasions.

The elders then invoked the law of the tribe, and said that this area was not to be entered by any member of the tribe under the threat of death. This gave this plot of land even further significance, and the area was then held in awe by all members of the tribe, who had some sort of inkling that the elders went in there on special occasions, and after they returned, something portentous happened, giving the area its own mystique.

In one of Upfield’s earlier novels, Bony is wounded with a serious snake bite, and has to rescue a young woman, and to then outrun aborigines who are pursuing both him and the girl. Considerably weakened, and unable to move as quickly as he could on his own, in an act of absolute desperation, he enters this tribal secret place of the tribe whose land he is on. The pursuing aborigines, from a tribe from another area, pursue him right up to the border of this site. Bony and the girl are inside that special tribal ground. The pursuing aborigines, barely yards away and with both groups in full sight of each other, the aborigines ‘know’ that here is a place they just cannot enter, so strong has this been bred into them. Even with the knowledge that this is another tribe’s place, they just cannot go there. They withdraw, as they have the knowledge that now having entered this place, both Bony and the girl are now condemned to certain death, as are the rules of entering an area such as this. Bony and the girl escape, and Bony then has to explain his way out of it with the local Head Man whose land this is. Luckily, Bony is on very good terms with this tribe, and the rules are relaxed for this one occasion, after it was explained to the head man. This however, is some license taken by Upfield the author, as even this is something that would not even be allowed.

These areas have come to be known in today’s terminology as aboriginal sacred sites, and even though they are called that, the white man still has less than zero understanding of what this really might mean.

Respected men of the tribe, usually elders by now, were placed in this area after they died, so that their spirit would go back to it’s totem, and the man’s name was never spoken again, because only men were ever allowed into this area. This gave the area even further importance, and the members of the tribe who were not entitled to would not even think of entering this area.

Secret rites were also carried out in this area, and here is where the medicine man came into his element.

To put it today’s terminology, it would be a bit like a Company Board meeting, held in the board room with the Company’s books on the table. The goings on of the Company were discussed, strategies were planned, decisions were made, and then these decisions were implemented with a vote, the Company’s CEO being the one in charge, effectively being the one who knew most of what was supposed to be going on within that Company.

When the elders of the tribe gathered for these special rites, the chief was like the Managing Director, but he always handed proceedings over to his CEO, the medicine man, because he was the one who had the most knowledge when it came to matters of these special rites.

All the tribes special and treasured things were wrapped in skin and buried, only to be brought up at times of special moment.

Some of those special moments I will mention in the next Post on this subject of the Shaman.