A Giant in a Cave—An Australian Legend
by R. H. Mathews
American Antiquarian, vol. 29
1907, pp. 29-31
Among the remote ancestors of the Girriwurru tribe there was a man of great stature, whose body was covered with hair. He dwelt in a cave in a rock on the bank of the Hopkins river, in the vicinity of Maroona. The natives aver that, in the olden days, if any person went to this place, during Murkupang’s absence, the water in the river would surge up into the cave’s mouth, and prevent intruders from going inside. During the day he used to go out hunting around about Mount William, Moorabool, Kirk’s Mountain, and Mount Ararat.

Murkupang’s mother-in-law resided near him, and one day she sent her two grandchildren to see him and ask him for some food, because in accordance with tribal custom she could not herself approach her son-in-law. As he had not been successful in the chase for the past day or two, he killed the children and devoured them. Fearing the retribution of his mother-in-law’s friends, Murkupang left his habitation at daybreak next morning and journeyed down the Hopkins river to a place near Wickliffe, where he tried to make a cave in a rock by pulling loose pieces off with his hands, but did not succeed.

He next went on to Hexham, where the country opens out into plains, which enabled him to see in the distance Mount Shadwell, with its rocky sides. He accordingly bent his steps in that direction and on approaching the mountain he saw a suitable cave in one side of it, but it was up near the top where the ascent was difficult. Being a great conjuror or sorcerer, he commenced ‘bouncing’ or scolding the mountain, and commanded the portion containing the cave to come down nearer to the plain on which he was standing. He stamped his feet and made passes or signs with his hands, while he sang a magical song. Presently, in obedience to his incantations, a large portion, containing the cave, parted from the rest of the hill.

Murkupang turned around and ran away across the plain, shouting to the fragment of mountain to roll after him. After a while, when he thought he had reached a good camping place, he faced round again, stamping his feet and using other menaces, which caused the mountain fragment to stop. It then settled down and became what is now known throughout that part of the country as ‘Flat-top Hill’. At the present day the aborigines point out a depression in one side of Mount Shadwell from which Flat-top Hill was disrupted. Markupang then selected a part of it which was sheltered from the weather by an overhanging rock—a sort of cave—and made his camp there.

In a few days’ time his mother-in-law tracked him to his retreat. She had with her two young warriors, who were clever ‘doctors’ and had some knowledge of magic. When Murkupang went out hunting, these fighting men hid themselves a little distance from the cave’s entrance—one on each side. Before taking up their positions they were smoked by the wily old mother-in-law, to repress or overpower the smell of their bodies. The men moreover covered themselves with stringy bark, softened by beating, so that they could roll it round and round their bodies to make them resemble the boles of trees. These precautions were taken to prevent Murkupang’s dogs from scenting them.

While these treacherous proceedings were going on, Murkupang was away hunting as far as Ngurit or Black’s mountain, where he filled his bag, muka-muka, with kangaroos which he caught, and started homeward. On nearing his cave, he dragged a dry tree after him to provide wood for cooking the game. On coming within sight, he observed the smoke of someone else’s fire not far from his own, from which he concluded that his mother-in-law had found him out. He advanced cautiously, and ‘sooled’ his dogs to search around. He had eight dogs, comprising the soldier-bird or maina, magpie, black jay, crow, white cockatoo, eagle-hawk, and quail-hawk; some being very watchful and noisy, whilst others were very swift and voracious.

These dogs ran smelling everywhere about the camp, baying and uttering their various calls. Murkupang was so alarmed at this that he concluded he had better be generous to his mother-in-law, so he took one of the kangaroos out of his bag, and laying it on the ground, he called out to her to come and get it. He then continued his careful search about the camp, expecting to find some enemy, but his old mother-in-law had planned everything so well that he discovered nothing.

He now broke up the tree which he had carried home and made a good fire, with which he cooked a large kangaroo, and he and his dogs had a hearty evening meal. By and by he again went all round the camp, in the light of the blazing fire, jumping and assuming very obscene postures in the hope of making any hidden onlookers laugh, and so discover themselves, but there was not a sound audible in any direction. Feeling quite satisfied, he went into his cave and soon fell fast asleep, and so did all his dogs, being weary after a long day’s hunting.

As before stated, the two warriors who were assisting the mother-in-law, had coiled stringy-bark around their bodies from head to foot, and being somewhat of magicians, they had then given themselves the appearance of real boles or high stumps of stringy-bark trees. There being plenty of other trees of that species growing in the locality, they were not noticed by Murkupang. After a while, upon receiving a sign from the old woman that all was quiet, the men divested themselves of their covering, and walking to the cave, stopped up the entrance with the stringy-bark. A fire was then applied to this inflammable material, which made a great flame and suffocated Murkupang and his dogs. His spirit flew out through the blaze and became a mopoke, called by the natives mumgatch, a bird which goes about at night. His dogs also emerged from the cave and assumed the forms of the birds whose names have been already mentioned.
Australian Folk-Tales
by R. H. Mathews
Folk-Lore, vol. 20
1909, pp. 485-87
The first of the following tales was told to me by an old blackfellow whom the white people called ‘Jerry’. He spoke the Jirringań language, a grammar of which I published in 1902, with the habitat of the Jirringań tribe. The story of the Wahwee is current among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Wailwan, and other tribes of New South Wales. It was related to me by an old Kamilaroi black-fellow, named ‘Jimmy Nerang’, whom I met at the Bora ceremony held at Tallwood in 1895. The Rev. Wm. Ridley mentions the Wawi (my Wahwee) as a monster living in deep waterholes. I gave a drawing of the Wahwee represented on the ground at the Burbung ceremonies of the Wiradjuri tribe in 1893. (The two tales have, since their dispatch to Folk-Lore, been printed in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales.)

1. The Yarroma.—Yar’-ro-mas are men of gigantic stature, with their body covered with hair, and having a large mouth which enables them to swallow a blackfellow alive. There are always two of these creatures together, and they stand back to back so that they can see in every direction. Their means of locomotion is by a series of long jumps, and every time their feet strike the ground they make a loud noise like the report of a gun or the cracking of a stock whip.

These men have large feet, shaped differently to those of a human being. When a Yarroma is heard in the vicinity, the people must keep silent, and rub their hands on their genitals. Some of the head-men or ‘doctors’ call out the name of some place a long way off, with the object of inducing the Yarroma to start away to that locality. If this ruse does not succeed, the head-men get sticks which have been lighted in the fire,—a fiery stick in each hand,—and strike them together so as to emit sparks, and the Yarroma then disappears into the ground, making a flash of light as he does so.

If a man is out in the bush alone, and is pursued by Yarromas, his only means of escape is to jump into a large waterhole, and swim about, because the monsters cannot wet their feet. They sharpen their teeth on the rocks in high mountains, and the natives aver that they know of rocks where marks of this grinding can still be seen.

On one occasion a blackfellow went under a fig-tree to pick up ripe figs which had fallen to the ground, when a Yarroma, who was hidden in a hollow at the base of the tree, rushed out and caught him and swallowed him head first. It happened that the victim was a man of unusual length, measuring more than a foot taller than the majority of his countrymen. Owing to this circumstance, the Yarroma was not able to gulp him down farther than the calves of his legs, leaving his ankles and feet protruding from the monster’s mouth, which kept it open, and thus allowed a passage for the air to descend to the man’s nostrils, which saved him from suffocation. The Yarroma, feeling a nausea something like what occurs when a fish bone or other substance gets stuck in one’s throat, went to the bank of the river close by, and had a drink of water to moisten his oesophagus, thinking by this means to suck down the remainder of his prey and complete his repast. This was all to no purpose, however, and, becoming sick, the Yarroma vomited the man out on the dry land. The man was still alive, but he feigned to be dead, so that he might possibly get a chance of running into the water. The Yarroma then started off to get his comrade to come and help him to carry the dead man to their camp, so that they might cook and eat him. He wished, however, to make quite sure that the man was dead before he left him, so he walked a little distance and returned, but the man lay perfectly still. The Yarroma got a stalk of grass and tickled the man’s feet, but the latter remained quiet; then the Yarroma tickled the man’s nose with the grass, but the man did not move a muscle. Finally the Yarroma took a bull-dog ant, and made it sting him, but still the man never flinched. The Yarroma then, thinking the man was certainly dead, started off for help, and when he got a sufficient distance away, the man, seeing his opportunity, got up and ran into the water close by, and swam to the opposite side. His friends, who happened to come there just at that time, waved burning sticks in the air, and the Yarroma dived into the ground and vanished from their sight.

2. The Wahwee.—The Wahwee, a serpent-like monster, lives in deep waterholes, and burrows into the bank beneath the level of the water, where he makes his den. He has a wife and a son, but they camp in a different place. A ‘doctor’ or clever blackfellow can sometimes go and see a Wahwee, but on such occasions he must paint himself all over with red ochre. He then follows after the rainbow some day when there is a slight shower of rain, and the end of the rainbow rests over the waterhole in which is the Wahwee’s abode. On reaching this waterhole, the man dives in under the bank, where he finds the Wahwee, who conducts him into the den, and sings him a song which he never heard before. He repeats this song many times in the presence of the Wahwee, until he has learnt it by heart, and then starts back to his own people. When they see him coming, painted and singing a new song, they know he has been with the Wahwee, and a few of the other head-men and clever fellows take him into the adjacent bush, where they strip pieces of bark off trees, on which they paint different devices in coloured clays. All the people of the tribe are then mustered, and these ornamented pieces of bark are taken to the corroboree ground, where everyone sings and dances. This is how new songs and corroborees are obtained.

Robert Hamilton Mathews

Surveyor and anthropologist


Mathews was one of many enthusiasts, mostly with little or no formal training in anthropology, concerned with recording Aboriginal culture.

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