WHY THE SUN SETS (Australian Legends) by C. W. Peck
Out on the Murrumbidgee there is a tale about the setting sun. The country there is very different from what it is where the aborigines had a story of the Escapees.
It is flat.
It seems to be below, far below, the level of the sea.
And the sun can be seen setting.
The land which contains the great, dreary salt lakes-Frome, Eyre, Gardiner, Amadeus, Torrens, and a lot of others named and unnamed, is really below the sea’s level, and if ever a canal is cut from the head of Spencer Gulf to the bed of those lakes a vast extent of territory will become an ultra-salt inland sea.
But though the country through which the greater part of the Murrumbidgee and the Lachlan and the Darling flow seems very low, it is still above the level of the great oceans.
It seems to be a disc, like a huge plate.
Turn which way one will, the horizon is sharp and level and lies all around. In the summer (and summer sets in in October and lasts until the end of March) the sun rises a huge fiery red ball. Before he appears he sends his torrid shafts, and the earth is dried and heated. With his horrible advance agents of wilting beams the flies are a wracking buzz and a stinging poison as they wing their nauseous way about, and all the other insect life starts into pestering being.
The smell of baked earth rises, and the dried grasses stand stiffly and starkly.
The level east lightens; and slowly, surely, and relentlessly the great red disc ascends and throws long shadows across the ground.
The dwarfed and gnarled gums seem to beg for some respite. The sombre Murray Pines cluster in masses as if seeking the solace and protection of one another’s company.
By the advent of the first month of summer the few orchids that bloomed in the short spring have gone, and the glowing grasses have seeded and died.
It is now a bare and browned and sere world.
The sun changes from red to grey, and as he wends his solemn way up to the zenith he pours out molten light.
Lazy clouds of dust rise up from the new-formed roads, stirred by waggoned teams, and flatten and float out over the trees.
Shadows grow less and less until they are only patches directly below the bushes.
Life is a dreary and painful process.
Horses stand mutely, head to tail, close to any tree stumps that may be there; sheep huddle, panting, out in the glaring sun; birds sit on the boughs with wings opened and mouths agape; nothing lives in the wilting day-everything crouches in whatever of shade can be found.
Over and above passes the molten ball, and as he slowly descends towards the horizon of the west, and the east begins to blacken, life stirs again, and all beings long for the cool of night.
Many nights are but little cooler than the day.
The gay, glowing flowers of the sandstone elevations are not here. No epacrids, no boronias, no waratahs!
The deep restful greens of the laurels, and the glowing browns of the turpentines and woollybutts and ironbarks and lilly-pillies do not show. The banksias are stunted. Only the hardiest trees grow, and the most transient of the grasses, and they are poor and bare-all except the annual grasses. They are the saving of the land.
It was not always so.
The aborigines have a legend-born of their stricken condition, and of that wonderful and unexplainable knowledge of their past history as is revealed to us by our geologists and scientists-which tells of a time when the earth was not parched by such a sun; when it was ever day, but the daylight was the radiance of a human ancestor, and when the trees and shrubs and flowers were as bright and plentiful as they are now in the regions that are not wilted by our sun.
The sun, they say, is an ancestor-a human that was not understood, and he retired in sorrow and became a god and thus came light-so came the setting sun.
A family which claimed the sleeping lizard as its totem was camped in a scrub of Murray Pine (a callitris); and, with wurleys built against a number of seared logs, lived, not far away, a family of which the brown-banded snake was the totem.
During the winter months good rains had fallen, and the ground was clothed with many beautiful grasses and much wild parsley, and rearing its pretty pink three-leaved and fringed flowers amongst the grasses was the Thysanotus tuberosus, or Fringed Violet.
The Kennedya and the Hardenbergia clambered over the old time-worn stumps, and the acacias poisoned the air with their pollen.
Down on the ground were the purple and white wild violets. The sleeping lizards fraternised good-naturedly with the snake-people, and all “was merry as a marriage bell.”
There was a plethora of foods-birds, animals, roots, and berries.
Amongst the snake people two young men strove for the one maiden, and there had been many quarrels because no one seemed to know to which she had been promised.
Meeting after meeting had been called, and the clamour at every one was great.
At last it was decided that he who made the finest stone spear-head for presentation to the father of the girl should have her.
She often spent many hours running from one to the other and she was not innocent of jeering and jibing at both the anxious workmen.
When the proofs of their handicraft were brought to the wurley of the father he pretended to fly into a great rage. He denounced the young men and scoffed at the spearheads-all of them. He rushed to the King and implored him to condemn the lot. He spat on them and flung them amongst the women, who picked them up and flew into as big a pretence of anger as the man.
The contest was renewed and it continued until the pleasant weather had gone, and the light that came from whatever member of the priesthood held the power to so propitiate the light-giver as to vouchsafe day to the world, began to wane, and it was nearly time for another magician to be appointed to carry on.
To the surprise of everyone, one of the contestants proclaimed himself to be the proper magician.
Now the duties pertaining to such an office were many and arduous.
The priest had to spend long periods in prayer and meditation out on the plain by himself. He had to submit to much indignity-even flagellation, and he had to ostracise himself in other ways.
There were not many natives who cared to be considered the special emissary to the ancestor of the light.
And in this young man’s case it meant giving up the girl.
But the dispute was not to be settled.
Withdrawing from the contest did not give the other man the right to his claim.
If winning in the set competition could not happen, then some other way must be chosen by the priest.
And he was not in any hurry to give a pronouncement.
In the meantime the girl did not cease her teasing.
She still jeered at both the newly-announced magician and the other contestant.
This became distasteful to the old women, whose charge she was, and they set her to perform many tasks that otherwise would not have fallen to her lot.
Perhaps never before did so young a girl have to grind the grass seeds. She had to find out for herself how to hold the stone between the calves of her legs and how to use the grinder.
She became a wife without being married, for it was a wife’s duty to make most of the cakes.
One day she found her suitor to be busy making a shield.
He was drawing the circles and the radiating lines that represented the light of day.
But in it he drew the sleeping lizard.
It was meant as sarcasm, and it was hoped that this piece of portrayed scorn would bring some evil to his rival. He would much have preferred to go on with the competition until one or the other had won. He was becoming anxious to secure the wife, and this delay was beginning to annoy him.
The newly recognised magician was out somewhere in communion with the saints or the spirits or whatever it is that such people have found when they come back with tales of supernatural visitations while they are either figuratively or really eating locusts and wild honey.
Now the artistry of the young man was good.
The girl was really interested.
She sat beside him watching intently every mark.
And as they sat thus the old lightmaker died, and the new one emerged from his solitude and commenced the ceremony of light making so that it would continue.
As he was so young the light nearly went out. The semi-darkness that ensued was bewildering and it struck terror into everyone.
The tribe implored the young magician to put forth every endeavour, and his answer was that without the girl he could not make more light than there was then.
The people looked all around, but they could not see the wanted girl. No one knew where she had gone.
Then they saw that the young lover was missing also.
The light maker grew very angry.
All the gesticulations, all the genuflexions, all the grotesque dancing that were resorted to in anger, he indulged in.
His anger grew very real and it communicated itself to his people. Even the King himself became as the rest.
That feeling gave way to despair. Women sat in groups and beat themselves and one another and inflicted severe wounds. Priests hurriedly drew sacred totemic marks on the ground and drew similar designs on the bodies of those whose right it was to bear them. Mitres were fashioned and put on the heads of the higher clergy. Fires were lit to augment the lessened light of the day.
After a while a hunting party was organised to hunt up the missing people, and upon being blessed they seized their spears and shields and bounded off.
The light maker forgot his mission. He yearned for the girl, and without saying a word he betook himself off to search.
After a very long time he found her.
She was living in a slight depression–a crabhole–that is pointed out to-day by all who know this story.
The man with whom she was living was away at the time, and the light maker appealed to her to come to him.
So together they ran, and all the light of day went with them. The further they went the less the light grew until they were right on the edge of the world.
There a son was born to them, and because of the wrong, the father and mother died.
Never since the beginning of the trouble had the daylight been so clear or so strong as before it, and now it was leaving the earth for ever. No one else could ever receive the instructions that would make him a light maker. The great ancestor needed a mediator between himself and the world, and it had to be a lizard man, and now no lizard man knew what to do.
The daylight faded right away.
In its going it was much more beautiful than ever before. Long streaks of gold spread over the sky, and as that faded everything became awestricken, and the world was hushed.
Even now there is that period “while the air ‘twixt dark and daylight’s standing still.”
But the baby that was born away over there grew and became at once a light man. He held direct communion with the great ancestor and he gathered great quantities of light in his hands.
So he set out to find his way back to where he knew his people dwelt. There was one thing he did not do.
He was born with his back to his people, and he did not turn round. He just walked on and on.
He had great waters to travel over, and great beds of sand to travel through, and great forests to find his way in, and great mires to wade across, but he kept going.
He was determined to find his people and to bring them light. So a time came when the tribe saw light breaking away over in the east. It had disappeared on the one hand and it reappeared on the other.
They were overjoyed.
But the priests counselled great caution.
No one knew what to say or do.
The priests and the King said that if they made the wrong ceremony they would lose the light.
So they waited mutely and watched it. There was no welcoming shout. The birds sang to it. The trees nodded to it. Flowers bowed to it. Dewdrops left the earth and flew to it. But men and women were mute because they were afraid that they may do the wrong thing and it would leave them for ever and all their days would be dark and they could not live.
Therefore the light maker sailed over their heads. He went on to the edge of the world where he was born.
The priests said that when they had found out how to worship him he would come down out of the sky and remain with them for ever, but while in ignorance in that respect he would continue to go over their heads and disappear.
They are still in ignorance. That is why there is no sun worship.
The new sun man became more beloved than any had been before, and so the ancestor made him a god like himself, even if the father and mother did do wrong.
And the ancestor sometimes gives him huge quantities of light, and as it is thrown down to the earth it burns and sears and scorches.
So we have summer. If we could only find out how to carry out the proper ceremony of sun worship then there would be no more great heat waves.
This is the tale of the aborigines who live in those parts where the summer is scorching. It accounts for more things than will be seen at first reading.
When the light is not being thrown in large quantities the days are not scorching and the grass is green and the trees are not so dry and the great cracks in the ground are closed up and the little flowers are blooming and all is gay.