The Theft of the Tjilpa Tnatantja
at Kerenbennga

(Northern Aranda)

[NOTE: Tjilpa is the name of the native Australian (marsupial) cat in the Northern Aranda language, and the “tjilpa men” were a very important mythical ancestral people belonging to the tjilpa totem. In Central Australian Aboriginal mythology, it frequently happened that wandering hordes of legendary ancestors travelled over long distances, their trails linking a great number of local totemic centres. Sometimes they paid visits to the group territories of several successive Central Australian tribes. The most important of these travelling ‘armies’ were the various tjilpa hordes, which passed through the lands of all Aranda, Unmatjera, Kaititja, Ilpara, Ngalia, and Kukatja groups. In Central Australia it is impossible to find out where they first originated.

Unmatjera men, for instance, know that the tjilpa hosts came into their territory after crossing the Burt Plain; the Northern Aranda, whose homes occupy the Burt Plain, declare that the invaders arrived from the Southern Aranda area; the Southern men, in turn, have heard from their forefathers that the tjilpa hosts came from the lands of distant southern tribes, perhaps from the shores of the great salt sea. To Central Australian tribesmen the beginnings of their tjilpa legends are lost in the haze of distance. After crossing the South Australian border, the tjilpa hosts began to split up into a number of smaller hosts. These traversed in more or less parallel lines the territories of most Central Australian tribes and tribal sub-groups from south to north. Only vague rumours of the location of their last resting places have reached the members of the most northerly Aranda groups.

It is a basic doctrine in Northern Aranda mythology that an ancestor can be slain or harmed only by magic weapons, which were loosely called tjurunga. In many myths the ancestors themselves are said to have used tjurunga and stored them away; they were indeed their only and most treasured possessions. Such myths emphasize the life-holding magical properties of these tjurunga in very forceful terms. The ancestor regards the tjurunga which he owns as a portion of his own being; and he is ever anxious lest strangers should come and rob him of these symbols of the very essence of his being. Accordingly the legends abound with stories of theft and robbery, and the fierce vengeance which is taken by the victims consequent upon discovery of their loss.

The most formidable of all tjurunga was the tnatantja, and in tjilpa myths a common theme is the theft of the high tnatantja pole from the ceremonial ground by a stranger. Thus, for example, at Kerenbennga there was a large tjilpa horde under the leadership of Ntjipurara. They had all originated at Kerenbennga, where—as at Ilbalintja—a great tnatantja had been standing ever from the very beginning; it had stood towering up till it almost touched the vault of the sky. These tjilpa men went south on a murder expedition; and during their absence a stranger, called Ilbumeraka, came from the far north and broke off their living tnatantja and carried it away, dragging it along the ground held in his toes. On their return, the enraged tjilpa men slew their aunt whom they had left behind to guard the tnatantja, and then set out in pursuit of Ilbumeraka. But they were unsuccessful in their hunt for the thief.

Similarly, the theft of a magic bundle of grubs from Lukara stirred the sleeping tnjimeta [witchetty grub, found in the roots of tnjima bushes] totemic ancestor into action for the first time and the last. The native, of course, immediately identifies these grubs with the life-containing tjurunga, and hence their loss is the greatest calamity that could befall anyone. The wronged victim in the legend can be satisfied only with the death of the thief; and if an innocent person happens to be near by, he is liable to be blamed for the crime and to be slaughtered without compunction, without any formality of questioning to establish his guilt. And so even today, the stealing of ritual tjurunga from a cave is always avenged by the murder of the thief, or of his nearest kin, as well as of any innocent persons who might happen to be suspected of the offence.]

At Kerenbennga a great tnatantja had been standing ever from the beginning. It was long and slender and reached to the sky. It towered up loftily, its black form broken by rings of white down, which the wind kept on scattering abroad, and from this life-containing down men were to arise at a later time. Every evening and every morning the tjilpa men gathered at its base for a sacred ceremony; and every night they slept at its foot, and the tnatantja swayed over them gently.

But a messenger came one day from the distant south, and summoned the men of Kerenbennga to join a different tjilpa group on a revenge expedition. And the Kerenbennga men entrusted their tnatantja to the safe keeping of their aunt, a termite woman; they decorated it with red down: they held her responsible for the guarding of their deserted home.

The tnatantja, struck by a gust of wind from the north, fell heavily towards Rubitjera, where the Kerenbennga men were passing at the moment; and they leapt aside, narrowly avoiding the blow. It once more stood upright; but the east wind came and laid it low, and it cleft a deep valley reaching as far west as Rutjibma. Then the west wind blew, and it smote down upon the mountains as far as Urumuna. And now the south wind began to blow, and the red down was borne northwards from the tnatantja. And Ilbumeraka, who was coming from the north, saw all the ground flecked with red down. He wished to know whence it had come. He followed the trail left by the scattered feathers. While he was still looking at the ground, the great tnatantja suddenly struck down heavily towards him. He narrowly escaped by leaping to one side. He rushed towards it; he acted quickly; he had caught sight of the tnatantja. He grasped its trunk and shook it: the great tjurunga gave no move, it was rooted too firmly. Then Ilbumeraka snapped it off in the middle, and fixed the broken beam between two of his toes; he carried away the stolen prize, the great red tnatantja. It grew again; soon it had grown too long to be dragged along the ground. He again broke it in halves: one part he set up on that spot, and the other he carried along with him. He rested at Rantjalanana. In the morning he broke off another part from the tnatantja, which had grown again; he left it there. It is still standing in the form of a blood-wood tree. The other portion he bore away to the north.

[Note: Since, as we learn from other Northern Aranda myths, the tnatantja is the great symbol of masculine fertility, its importance in the stories of such a strongly patrilineal society as we find in the Northern Aranda group can hardly be overestimated. Indeed, the Northern man (1947) prides himself on the fact that he and his forefathers have all ‘come into being from the primal tnatantja;’ and he looks down with pitying contempt on the Western and Southern Aranda, who, according to his belief, are merely the ‘offspring of waninga’ (ceremonial headgear).]

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