Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

“Star Run About”

“It is the stars,

The stars above us, govern our conditions.”

SHAKESPEARE.

Primitive folk have ever looked up to the heavens for signs of good and ill. Celestial appearances have fought for them terrestrial battles, or have weakened their arms by prognostications of impending disaster.

Appeals have been made to passionless planets for justice against mundane decrees, and when coincidences have been favourable the devout student of the skies has loudly proclaimed them as proof of supernatural interest in trivial, transient occurrences. In accordance with the degree of poetry in the fibre of the people, so, in a certain degree, has the belief in stellar influence been manifest.

The blacks of North Queensland, being, possibly, the least of the races in a poetic sense, have but slight regard for the interference of the stars in their poor little affairs, and in this respect are saner than many a nation which has given abundant proof of wisdom. One of their beliefs is that meteors are baleful, though under given conditions they derive from such phenomena longed-for assurance. A meteor is described as “Star run about.” “That fella no good; him kill’em man!” Yet in circumstances to be mentioned they find in a meteor a sign that life has been restored to an individual whom they have done to death. It is the opinion of men who have studied the customs of the blacks that they — and to their honour be it said — were never among themselves premeditated, gluttonous cannibals. Human flesh was eaten, if not with solemnity, at least with ceremony, for the belief exists to this day that the moral and physical excellencies of the victim are assimilated by those who partake of his flesh.

Reincarnation is prompt and practical, and unaccompanied by wasteful and delusive hope. Herein lies the explanation of many a deliberate and confessed killing, while to the meteor have the perpetrators looked for absolution and remission of their sin. That which in the eyes of the white man is regarded as an atrocious murder has not been, in their semi-religious code, in any sense criminal, but a rite from which many if not all the camp must inevitably benefit.

In one respect the killing of a boy is the highest compliment which may be paid him, for it is proof that he has personal qualities which are the envy and admiration of others, and for general welfare should be shared by all. The boy who so dies is an unconscious patriot. This is proved sufficiently by the fact that only what are considered to be the more vitalising portions of the boy’s body are eaten, whereas if gluttony were the impulse of the deed the whole of the body would be consumed.

An illustrative incident has been told me by one who has gained the confidence of the blacks, and to whom other facts connected with it were personally known. Not many years ago a boy from from a distant locality visited a certain district in company with his master. He was tall, well favoured, a good rider, quite an athlete, an accomplished performer with the mouth-organ and concertina; ready and persuasive of tongue. These qualities provoked unaffected admiration; for the natives of the place are undersized, ill-looking, and deficient generally in the arts of pleasing. Before the master left, Caesar was persuaded by his envious fellow-countrymen to remain with them to be flattered and courted.

To evade trouble, the whole camp took to the hills for a while. In the meantime Caesar’s master departed, thinking, no doubt, that the boy would follow him to his own “more better country.” After several weeks the local blacks returned, but Caesar was not of the party, and it did not occur to any of the white residents to ask questions concerning him. In accordance with the love of notoriety which affects humanity irrespective of complexion, one of the boys began to boast of being as good as Caesar, and to prove his contentions by aping the manners of his absent friend. It was not long before he blurted out the secret by which he had become superfine — he had participated with others in a cannibal rite after Caesar had been good-naturedly killed.

Rumours of the tragedy came to the ears of the police. The ringleaders of the assassins were arrested, and one at least endured a term of imprisonment as punishment. Caesar had been lured away and killed because he was a good fellow and strong, and because his murderers wanted to be good and strong like him. Certain parts of his body were eaten, without relish, but with fervent hope. A remarkable circumstance in connection with the sacrifice and ceremonial rite for the general welfare is that the perpetrators console and comfort themselves with the belief that should a meteor appear it is a sign that the victim did not actually die, or if he died under their hands, that he has come to life again. Those who were concerned in the killing and who had partaken of the flesh sat together for several evenings gazing with expectation into the sky. A meteor flashed across it, and it was hailed as a sign that Caesar was alive and had gone to his own country. The contrary evidence of relics of the dead was waved away before the imperious and disinterested testimony of the falling star. “No matter. That fella him no dead — finish. Him walk about ‘nother country. Him good fella. That fella star run about bin tell ’em.”

They felt themselves to have benefited materially and spiritually by participation in the rite, and were calm in their belief that the victim was none the worse for the temporary misfortune from which he suffered.

In another locality a meteor signifies the death of an individual, and is referred to as “Tee-go-binah.” When a death cannot be directly attributed to it locally, the phenomenon is referred to with such rustic logic as this: “Some fella dead alonga ‘nother camp. Might be longa way.” The ancients felt “the sweet influences of the Pleiades.” One of the two intimacies of the blacks of North Queensland with stellar phenomena which has come to my knowledge is associated with reincarnation after a deed of blood. Their faith is as absolute, perhaps, as was that of the men of old.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32