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Ubar Ceremony

In the Dreamtime a man called Yirrwadbad took a young girl from a neighbouring camp as his wife, but she refused to sleep with him and ran home to her mother. Instead of sending her back to her husband, in accordance with traditional law, her mother protected her and allowed her to stay. Angry and frustrated, Yirrwadbad vowed vengeance and followed the two women each time when they went out hunting. One day he changed into a snake and slid ahead of them into a hollow log, where he made scratching noises to imitate a goanna or bandicoot. The women ran to each end of the log and inserted a hand. The snake turned around and bit each one in turn, killing them instantly.

Emerging from the log and once more changing back into his human form, he realised that he would soon be in deep trouble with the women’s tribespeople. He met a kangaroo called Nadulmi, who had once been a human Ancestral Being, and discussed the matter with him. They both agreed that a big ceremony in honour of the two women would be the best thing to do, and Yirrwadbad appointed Nadulmi as the Keeper of the ceremony, which was to be called Ubar. He was to beat a hollow log, called the Ubar Drum, with a long heavy stick to announce the commencement of the ceremony. Novices were told by initiated men that this was the voice of the Rainbow Serpent calling to them to participate in the Ubar rites.

They discussed their choices for other important performers in the ceremony and eventually decided that Karurrken, a female kangaroo, should be the lead caller and dancer of the ceremony, whilst her husband Kolobbarr, the male kangaroo, would be in charge of a camp well away from the main ceremonial ground. He was told to hunt for food for all the performers, and that he and his helpers were to cook and look after the young initiates waiting for their call to join in the latter part of the ceremony.

This arrangement did not suit some of the birds who were an important song and dance cycle in the ceremony. Djik the owl and Koddorl the mopoke, who had made the huge didjeridu to be used in the ceremony, were the most vociferous in protesting against the arrangement, while a group of bustards, or bush turkeys (benuk) who were feeding on a nearby pandanus tree offered their support. Kolobbarr was given the unenviable task of telling his wife that her voice was not strong enough to make the loud ritual calls, and that her helpers were not satisfactory as dancers and singers, so henceforth men would take over and the women would be relegated to cooking and looking after the young initiates. He did try to have his wife included in some of the dancing and singing, but the birds overruled him, saying that there were to be no women performers in the secret and sacred ceremony.

Karurrken, whilst upset at this transfer of power to the men, consoled herself and her helpers by saying that although they were no longer able to be in charge of the ritual, they had one important power which men could not usurp, namely the gift of bearing children. She also taught the women several song and dance cycles, which they could perform in their own camp.

The help of dingo dogs was enlisted to go as messengers to all the outlying camps and tell the people about the forthcoming mourning rites. The deeds of Yirrwadbad and the disobedience of the two women would be subjects of song and dance cycles, so that future generations would know about traditional law, and the rights of a husband to punish both his wife for refusing him his proper marital rights, and his mother-in-law for condoning her daughter’s actions.

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