Australia and New Zealand Monthly Magazine

February, 1842

Page 92

 

 

SUPERSTITIONS OF THE AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES: THE YAHOO

 

 

 

The natives of Australia have, properly speaking, no ide of any supernatural being; at the same time, they believe in the imaginary imaginary existence of a class which, in the singular number, they call YAHOO, or, when they wish to be anglified, Devil-Devil.

 

This being they describe as resembling a man, of nearly the same height, but more slender, with long white straight hair hanging down from the head over the features, so as almost entirely to conceal them; the arms as extraordinarily long, furnished at the extremities with great talons, and the feet turned backwards, so that, on flying from man, the imprint of the foot appears as if the being had travelled in the opposite direction.

 

Altogether, they describe it as a hideous monster, of unearthly character and ape-like appearance.

 

The dread of this spectre deters them from venturing abroad after sunset, unless in numbers, and having fire with them, which they conceive intimidates the fiend; and it is probable that from this circumstance arises the fact, that settlers and travellers are seldom disturbed at night by even the most daring tribes.

 

Of the many evil endowments which the natives attribute as belonging to this fanciful creature, that of carrying off children and females, no traces of whom are afterwards found, appears to be most prominent and dreaded.

 

They also affirm, but with less apprehension, that it occasionally attacks men when single-handed and in the dark ; but they do not consider it as equal to one of themselves in an encounter by day, and say that it flies from them, only gaining a victory over the enfeebled by cunning and stratagem.

 

 

 

 

The supernatural agency of the YAHOO is very limited, and confined chiefly to such occurrences as follows: Appearing suddenly and unaccountably, pouncing upon and destroying the defenceless, and maintaining certain baneful influences over human life.

 

The latter is considered the most prominent of its attributes, regarding it in some measure to be intended as the destroyer of man. Beyond this the YAHOO has no sort of prevalence, nor, indeed, has any other demon, spectre, or deity, for here ends there idea of the supernatural agency, without a thought or fear of future existence. Indeed, excepting this bugbear in some few powers, they neither know of nor can conceive any being more exalted than man.

 

The following narrative will afford some notion of their ignorance or apprehension of a future state.

 

In 1839 two natives were sentenced to be hanged for murder at Adelaide, and the interpreter was requested by the clergy to endeavour to make them acquainted with a future state of existence; but so utterly incapable were they of comprehending immortality, that they could only conceive it as a change from one country to another, and were very curious to learn from the interpreter what kind of place it was, if it contained plenty sheepy, plenty bullocky, plenty kangaroo, plenty pishy (fish), plenty whale, plenty flour, plenty bickety (biscuit), plenty bacca, plenty grog, etc; but what appeared very extraordinary was, that they made no enquiry after Lubra (females), although every other sensual gratification within their limited range of knowledge was alluded to.

 

 

This anecdote serves in some measure as an illustration of the bluntness of their susceptibility, and preponderance of their sensual appetites, and likewise helps us, by comparison with the notions of the American Indians, Africans, and aborigines of most other parts of the world, to estimate the mean and limited capacity of their ideas.

 

The Indian delights in the prospect of boundless plains stocked with an infinitude of game of every description, with the pleasures of the chase, and the never-tiring delight afforded by his bow and arrow; while the Negro revels in the idea of joining his fathers and his kindred, and of welcoming those who will follow him, of continued sunshine, of endless palm groves and crystal streams.

 

On the contrary, the New Hollander feels no pleasure in the chase, and follows it only to satisfy his appetite. His numerous Lubras (females) have no place in his affections, and society is only of account to him while it yields him protection or profit. Hence, he passes on through life actuated solely by selfishness and individual enjoyment, and dies unregarded and uncared for.

 

Reverting to our subject, the following is a story related by Mungaroke, a native of a tribe near Adelaide, of a YAHOO. A gentleman, who required to travel from Encounter Bay to Adelaide at the first settling of the colony, took with him some natives for guides.

 

The party continued onwards very satisfactorily, and passed the Onkaparinga, when it rested for a short period in a strangely formed hollow among the sand hills at the mouth of the river. Listless and inactive from fatigue, the whole of them remained, with the exception of Koteragee, who, upon being questioned as the cause of his restlessness, with evident circumspection informed them that he once had a very serious adventure upon the spot on which they were with a Yahoo.

 

Curiosity being awakened by his statement, he was requested to detail the circumstances, which he did to the following report. He, Koteragee, accompanied by two males and one female, were returning from a visit to the tribe resident near Adelaide, when they arrived at the banks of the Onkaparinga, when Munchee Munchee, one of the party, proposed that they should halt and kindle a fire, by which they could cook their lizards and refresh themselves, as they would meet with no more water on their journey for a long distance.

 

This being agreed to, the males proceeded accordingly to the bottom of the dell for water, when, to their great surprise and dismay, they espied something lying beside the spring apparently in a sound sleep, which they immediately recognised to be a Yahoo, or one of the natives’ arch enemies.

 

 

After a little deliberation the trio wound up their courage, and determined at least to rid the world of one monster. Accordingly, stepping up to the object of their hate and fear as noiselessly as shadows, they simultaneously discharged a shower of blows on the head of the intended victim, notwithstanding which, the semi-incarnate being sprang upon its feet and attempted resolutely to escape ; but finding itself hemmed in on every side, it darted at Bidjoke (one of the trio) with its fiendish talons, who, however, eluded the monster by a backward leap; upon which Munchee Munchee flew at the demon, and with a terrible stroke on the temple brought it to the ground ; and then, with Bidjoke, fell upon and held the Yahoo fast, while Koteragee drove his waddie through the skull from ear to ear.

 

Being determined to leave no chance of reanimation, they threw the carcase into the river, and stood a few moments to observe the issue. The body, although apparently motionless, by some unaccountable means floated to the opposite side of the stream, and to their utter consternation and amazement started at once into life, and bounded off into the furze that grew on the opposite bank.

 

This story, which was subsequently confirmed by Bidjoke, Munchee Munchee, and Koteragee, evidently cost poor Mungaroke a great deal of pain; for while he doled it out, the furtive glances that he occasionally cast over his shoulder too plainly told the apprehension he felt of the Yahoo’s reappearance, although the native superstition teaches that it will not approach the presence of the white man.

 

The preceding narrative, although no doubt an exaggerated statement, suggests the possibility that this object of terror to the natives might possibly have been either a man or an animal of lower grade.

 

It would certainly by no means appear improbable that the unfortunate object just alluded to, against which the vengeance of the natives was so fearfully directed, might have been some unfortunate castaway sailor, runaway convict or sealer from Kangaroo Island, unshaven and unshorn for weeks, months, or years.

 

In favour of this suggestion, it should be known that Old Bon, a native near Adelaide, tells his white friends that when captain Sturt first visited Lake Alexandrina, he and his party were taken by the natives for Yahoos.

 

On the other hand, a contested point has long existed among Australian naturalists whether or no such an animal as the Yahoo existed, one party contending that it does, and from its scarceness, slyness, and solitary habits, man has not succeeded in obtaining a specimen, and that it is most likely one of the monkey tribe. In favour of this assertion they bring the united testimony of the natives and settlers to support their opinion; from the latter the two following instances of its appearance have been obtained, by the first of which it appears that a few years ago a Yahoo exhibited itself in the government domains of Sydney before several persons, but quickly effected its escape upon their approach.

 

 

The second account is from a man named Thompson, who for many years lived upon Kangaroo Island ; he being questioned upon the subject, gave the following anecdote.

 

Being out one day in a boat along with two or three others he landed at a creek (which he still points out), and to his astonishment observed a being, exactly corresponding to the description given by the natives of the Yahoo, sitting upon a point of a high isolated rock, viewing him very unconcernedly.

 

Levelling his musket he fired, when the being, shrieking wildly, disappeared among the contiguous recess. The appearance of this creature, and the peals of agony that burst on his ear after firing, have left such an impression upon this man’s mind that at times both are conjured into existence by the bare recital, and not unfrequently by the moaning breeze.

 

These statements created a great deal of public discussion on the subject, but only tended the more to divide public opinion. The opposite party maintain very firmly that the existence of such a being is purely an imaginary fabrication, and is no more connected with reality than ghosts, goblins, fairies, or such like at home.

 

It is sincerely to be hoped that this latter opinion in the correct one, and that the onslaught made on the Yahoo, whether man or monkey, is of an equally imaginary character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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