Aboriginal - Lamilami - Magic

Information about the use of sorcery, or black magic, often relates to the past, and certainly it would be denied that it is practised at the present time. The threat of sorcery is, however, a powerful sanction. Where intimidation is intended, one line of approach is to have it made known that access to a practitioner is available and may be resorted to if necessary. In this situation, where a person feels guilty he may consider himself to be a possible victim.

A mixture of publicity and secrecy, therefore, surrounds the use of black magic. Rumour and gossip are necessary channels for the spread of suspicion. At the same time, a person who may actually pracise it does so in private, and does not reveal on whose behalf he is performing a series of procedures nor who the intended victim is.


The following text on this Web site is a verbatim account by Reverend Lamilami:

In the early times, people often lived in fear. Sometimes it might be fear of spirits and sometimes it might be fear that someone would work black magic on them. whenever someone got injured or sick, or if a person died, the relatives would try to find out how it came about. Then, if they thought this thing shouldn't have happened, they would know that someone had worked black magic. They wouldn't tell anyone that was what they thought, but they would wait for a while. Then they might decided to kill the person responsible, whether or not they did that openly. But first they would have to find out who had done it. That's why they wouldn't let other people know what they were thinking.

These days people understand more about such things, and when they are sick they can go to a hospital and get treatment. And if someone dies, someone who is young, the doctors can tell them why that person had died. In the past they would always blame someone, unless the dead person was a vey old man or a very old woman or just a young child. If someone dies it is not only father's relatives but his mother's relatives too, who want to know why. Sometimes the relatives on his mother's side might think that his other relatives have caused this sickness or caused him to die. It depends where he is when this thing happens. If a man has been away, travelling outside his own country, they think that some strangers might have done this to him. But if they believe that someone must have used black magic, then the next step is to try to discover who that person was. Sometimes this is very difficult, and it might take a long time. There is one way that our people had of going about it. This is an open thing that they used to do - a special ritual that they had, to find out who the person was and then to give him his punishment in front of all the people.

Reverend Lazarus Lamilami, OBE

The relatives collect all the dead person's belongings, and they keep them for some time. Then they send out letter-sticks to all the tribes inviting them to come for a ceremony, or ritual, that we call walalala. The others know that someone has died from black magic. We don't have that ritual now, but some of the people have told me about it. The mother of the dead person goes into a special shelter. She has all the belongings that they have got together. She cries and weeps for her dead son or daughter. She goes on and on, weeping, and they say that the spirit of the dead person can hear her. Every now and then she feels that the spirit is coming back to tell the people who has killed her child. The man who has done it, he knows that he is in trouble. He gets a womera and he goes to a creek, it still creek that is not running. He puts his womera down into the water, and if he sees it go to the bottom, someone will kill him. But if he sees the womera float, they won't kill him, he'll just get wounded.

So this old woman keeps on weeping. No-one is allowed in the shelter but her. She cries and she weeps all day and all night. she has something to eat. Special people are allowed to bring her food. They bring it up to the shelter and leave it for her. sometimes only one or two people are allowed to give her food. Then she tells them that the spirit had come back? "We would like you to call out the name of the one who has worked this black magic'. suddenly they hear a noise from the shade or the shelter, and from there they hear the person's name. They say  it is the sprit of the dead that is calling out. so the people get ready. The man who worked this black magic has to run out into a clear place and dodge the spears. All the people come at him. They throw their spears, and they try to hit him. But if the womera has floated, he won't be killed. In this case they spear him through the leg or crack him over the head with a stick or hit him somewhere to make him bleed. when they draw blood, that means he is forgiven. If the womera sinks to the bottom, he is sure to get killed.

Singers at a mourning ceremony at Goulburn Island
for the author's sister's husband who died in May 1971.

People throw their spears, they throw and throw until they hit him. They spear him and everybody rushes at him with clubs and stone axes, anything they have, and they try to kill him. They are determined to kill him. Afterward they burn the body, or they might let his relatives take it away. But they can't have a walalala for him, because it is an open thing that they have done. Everybody has seen what they did to him, and he died because he had done something to kill that other person, he had done it in secret, used black magic. This punishment is something like the orlorien, only this time they know that, if the womera sinks, the man must die. They have the ceremony called orlorien when someone has been killed or injured and everyone knows who the man is and everyone knows that if he wants to come back to them he must take his punishment. Then they decide about his punishment, whether he should be killed or just get speared.

After they have given the punishment, whichever it is, they have that dance that shows the trouble is all finished, the one called walalala. They don't have it now, because most of the people have forgotten how to do it. I know there are some people at Maningrida who know how to do it, but there are very new. When the dance isn't held, gradually the people forge the right way to do it and after a while there are no good dancers left. It wasn't only if someone died from the black magic that they used to have this dance before. They could have it any time. They have a ritual called lorgun, when they collect the bones of a dead man, but this is only for grown men and for the young men who are being initiated. Walalala is different, anyone can go to it. It is very funny, this walalala. There is some very clever dancing, and the dancers imitate the spirit of the dead man. some of them were especially clever at this dance, and the people liked watching the things that they did. They would go through all this dancing, and they say that this is the way that the spirit of the dead person acts. But the outstanding dancers foe this walalala are all dead now, and none of the young people have learnt how to do it.

The first Mission house at Goulburn Island

When someone dies and people think this shouldn't have happened, they shave off the hair of the dead person and they get some of his clothing. Then they prepare a little thing we call a maigug. It's a little bundle made up of the hair or the clothing, tied on with wax to a small string. The people keep this. sometimes when a person dies, people know that it is not black magic because they know that someone has done this thing in some other way. They might try to punish the person responsible by inuring him or killing him or they might decide to try another method. But they have this maigug, and they wait. There are a lot of things that they could thing of doing to this man, but they just wait for their chance. The wait sometimes for more than a year and others think that they have forgotten about it.

They watch the man who has caused the death of their relative. They are waiting for a time when they can get him on his own. They watch to see if he goes off into the bush by himself, of if he is sleeping by himself. Of course, he won't do this if he thinks people are after him; but if time goes by and nothing happens and no-one says anything, he thinks that they don't know. so he might think he is safe. They might to after him when he is alone and just kill him by sneaking up on him. There is another thing that they do, and they can do this to someone they wan t to harm or someone who has killed one of their relatives. It doesn't matter whether or not it was by black magic. They send someone after this man when h goes out on his own. The have a special spear - in the old days it used to be a very sharp flint that we call djumbilang or stones with a very sharp wooden tip that we call belmed. Two or three men go after him, they grab him, and they hold him and hit him until he is knocked out. They don 't kill him. He's knocked unconscious.

Croker Island Mission from the air

The men get some poles, and put one under his body and one under his head. Then they dig a trench, and when it is ready they get the spear and make a little hole in his body. It can be in the leg or some other part, but often they made two little holes, one on each side of the bottom of his neck. Then they turn the body over on the poles and let the blood drip into the trench. They keep him face down until the blood stops dripping. Then they turn him over and get some grass and put it into the little holes in his body, and they take a hot knife and seal them over. They close up the wounds. Then they say something - I don't know what the words are, but they are something like 'this man will get up'. They say the words and the man gets up. He is very dizzy, but he starts walking around, and then he sees these men. The men stand up and they call out, 'we've got him now. Now we've got him'. And then one of them holds up the maigug on a spear. When he sees this, he knows what has happened. He has been found out. The men call out, 'this is the payment for what you have done'. When he hears this and sees the maigug, he falls to the ground.

"Then other people come up. They see him lying there and they know what has happened. They go up to him, and they pull out his tongue and twist it. Then they say, 'don't tell anyone that we have done this to you'. They assure him that he will die on a certain day. Then they all leave him. The man goes back to has camp. He is too afraid to say anything . He just keeps quiet. But on the day when these men said he would die, be he begins to feel sick. His people don't know what is the matter with him. They try all sorts of things to make him better. They might try to get a margidjbu, a magic man, to come and see what is the matter with him.

The margidjbu comes and looks at him, and when he sees him, he knows. He tells the people that this man has been attacked by mangani, or the taking of his blood. Sometimes the margidjbu, although he might know what has happened, won't say anything. He knows what is wrong, but he can't help. People try to help this man, but they can't. When he dies, they do these things with his hair before they cut it off. They get a piece of it and twisted around with their fingers, then they say some words. When they let it go, the hair begins to unwind, and then stops. When it stops, they say it is pointing to the mangani man. Then they shave off the man's hair, and keep it. After a few months, they will ask whether someone worked this mangani on their relative. They pretend they don't know what happened, just to find out. Then those mangani men try to show that they only did this because of something the dead man himself had done. The people try to find out their true intentions; whether it was really to punish him, or just to harm him. If they are satisfied that the punishment was right for what he has done, then they think that they should not take any action against those men. But they go very carefully, looking into the reason for it. If they think that he did something he should be punished for, they would try to make peace.

Preparing a goanna for cooking in sand and coals, north Goulburn Island

To make peace, first they dig a small hole in the ground - just a small round hole about nine inches deep. All the people come together, and they break off the head of a womera. Then they make a little fire and burn the pieces of the womera. The people from both sides do this. When the fire goes down, one man from each side comes up and spit in the hole and they cover it up. Some men who were not involved in the trouble, who had nothing to do with the man who died or the mangani men, they are the ones who cover up the hole, that means the trouble is over and there is no more talking about it. It's finished.

There are other methods of working black magic. If a person wants to use it against someone he has to go to a man who knows the proper procedures. Such men know the right actions and the right words for this mangani, but other people had to take a simpler way, using clothing from their victim or some of his faeces, his gurag. It depends on what the person can do. A man who wanted to do this will watch this person he was after, and if that person left some of his clothes somewhere, he would take a bit of them. He has to get something that has been worn, and he cuts out a part so he can get some of the man's sweat. He keeps this piece and throws the rest away. Then he waits. If the man who owns the clothes finds his shirt or whatever it is and sees that it has a piece cut out of it, he knows someone is after him. If he hasn't done anything wrong, he brings the shirt out into the open and tell everyone that someone is going to "roast" it. So the man who has the piece of rag can't do anything, he throws the rag away. Otherwise, he will wait perhaps two months or even more. If nothing happens, he feels that he can go ahead.

He goes off into the bush with some men who are not friendly with the other man. They get an ironwood root and scrape off the skin and then beat it up until they make pitch, the pitch recall galanjung. They find the hollow tree and put the rag in the hollow and then put the pitch in on top. Then they light a fire in the hollow tree. The pitch helps to burn the rag and the big smoke comes out of the hollow. As it is burning, the men say, "it won't be long before you are dead. That's the way we want to see you die. Nothing will be said about us". They say some words like this, and then they go back to the camp. As they walk in, they pretend that they have  been out in the bush hunting.

Stingray speared in the shallows, North Goulburn Island

After a few weeks, the man whose clothing was taken begins to feel a bit sick. He gets worse and no one can do anything for him. He gets even wore and worse, and all the time he is getting thinner. When people see that he is going to die, they ask him to tell them who has got his rag and burnt it. If he tells them, they will keep quiet and decide what to do. They might make a maigug, or, if they don't know the one who did it, some of the relatives will have the walalala and try to find out. Some people are taught to do this, and we call this ganima burudjang. Other people know the right way to work on gurag, faeces.

A person waits until he has the chance and then he gets some of the man's gurag and takes it to an expert on this. It is something the same, but they say different words and they make the fire in the ground and not in the hollow tree. The men who doe it make this fire and put rocks all around and when the fire dies down a bit they throw in first the gurag and then some pitch. They keep on doing this and they say the right words. Then they cover it all over. They say they can here the spirit of the man talking of the place where they cook the gurag, and they talk to him. They tell the spirit, "it won't be long before you die. You will die soon". And that is what happens, the same as when they "roast" the clothes. The man gets sick, he gets weak, and then he dies. No one can do anything to help him.

I don't know anyone now who is an expert on these things, but if they did know the right way they wouldn't tell other people. I know that more of the inland people understood how to work this b lack magic and they knew about singing. The inland people could sing rain, what we call ira (jira) and they could sing someone to die. It's a long time since I heard this singing. A long time at Goulburn Island I saw some Neinggu men who said that they singing rain, but I couldn't say whether they really knew how to do it. It is a long time since I heard about anyone who had this black magic done to them. One man who died at Oenpelli sometime ago was killed by a buffalo, but the people said that this shouldn't have happened and they thought that someone had done this mangani to him. And that made him get killed. Even now, people sometimes wonder what has happened when someone dies suddenly. There was one old woman at Croker Island whose son neglected her. He wouldn't anything for her. I suppose he thought she was a nuisance. He went off to the forestry cam on the mainland to work, and the next minute the woman was dead. The people wondered about this. But those days most of the people knew, when sometime dies, that is caused by a sickness, and they can find out what the sickness is.

In the early days, there were margidjbu, and they used to help the people. They were very clever men who had a way of being able to tell the future. They would pass this power on to their sons, generations after generations. But when a man knows how to do these things he often keeps it to himself. If a margidjbu knows that someone will soon die, he doesn't always say. It can cause trouble and if it is through black magic and he can't do anything about it, he is clever and keep it to himself. But in other days, before people had hospitals and doctors to help them, the margidjbu could cure them. He will know a lot about sickness and people would go to him. There are not many of these men left now, they are all dead. None of the young men wanted to learn the things that their fathers knew, because they think these things are all past now.

One man that I knew, got very sick after he came back on that long journey overland after the mission boat Amethyst. I will tell you about the Amethyst later on. When he died, the people were not satisfied. some of his relatives from over near the Liverpool River heard about it and came to find out whether someone at Goulburn Island had worked black magic. This is something that people used to do. If they could, they would try to stop any big fight between the different tribes if they were friendly. But, of course, if they didn't like these other people, then they wouldn't trouble to find out how the man died. They would thing that this was a chance for them to make some trouble for these other people. It is a long time now since there had been tribal fights, but in the early days this happened many times because people used some black magic on a person who came from ano0ther area.    

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