Folktales and stories

Who is to say that the stories we know today as folktales were not just someone’s story long ago. We know that rhymes and stories were couched in particular ways for gossip, warning, learning and sharing. Stories travelled far. I have been thinking about this since someone asked me why I put my son’s story on a folktale discussion forum. I will keep thinking some more as it is an interesting question.

That led my thoughts to consider what was a folktale and the stories of this land where I live, Australia.

folk tale


1. a tale or legend originating and traditional among a people or folk, especially one forming part of the oral tradition of the common people.

2. any belief or story passed on traditionally, especially one considered to be false or based on superstition.

I tell a lot of folktales. I adapt a lot of traditional tales for current day. I have permission to adapt into popular story structure tales I have been given permission by First Australians to tell.

My heritage is Scottish, Irish and Australian Aboriginal. I don’t know a lot about my different heritages but feel a keen urge to tell Aboriginal stories. Dreaming stories are creation and teaching stories. They fit into current definition of folktales and they weave history, explanation and warning together. Of fascination to me is the spiral nature of these stories. Children will know the stories without the detail meant for adult ears. Detail is garnered through song, story and dance, family and community experiences and conversation depending on what stories your mob have responsibility for and how connected you are to your community. The understanding of a story is considerably more by adulthood, even though at heart it is the same tale.

Some of these are cautionary tales, some are explanations. They rarely conform to beginnings, middles and ends. The stories link in with others to weave songlines, depending again on Country and what element you have responsibility for strengthening. I do not yet know any stories from my own heritage but my youngest daughter knows hers. I worry for what she will not know that she does not know, if you know what I mean.

(Please note that these are my theories, my experiences and my way of viewing things. Please do not quote me!)

So much language, song, story, dance and culture in Australia has been lost due to a violent history from the first non-Aboriginal invasion. Determination to wipe out the “blacks” (who were considered part of the flora and fauna of Australia, I kid you not), assimilate or herd onto missions created a bloody and broken history that Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008 barely stroked the back of, let alone gave great comfort and certainly not recompense.

As an adopted child of a non-Aboriginal family and myself growing up an Aboriginal child in permanent care, I find myself in an odd spot. We are connected to local Aboriginal community and attend community events, in fact often help organise them. However, I do not know her stories and while she is a well-storied child, I do not know the stories of her Country. We know both sides of her birth families and share often. Still I know what it is like to grow up unclaimed, to not know the land where your spirit belongs and I would not wish that on anyone. My daughter is well claimed and loved and knows exactly where she belongs and who she ‘owns’ (she’s a little possessive). She will find her stories.

I have worked in Aboriginal community for years and only recently moved to work in broader community. The parallels and differences are fascinating. There is nothing a new migrant, refugee or asylum seeker has experienced in their settlement journey that has not been experienced by an Aboriginal person in their own country. I firmly believe culture is a place where we can meet.

So, let me tell you a story

Long long ago in the Dreaming, the Warrior spirits watched Biame’s creation and told Biame the calls of the Clever Men and Women. They saw that people and animals were not helping one another, there was no kindness or understanding of each other’s place in the world. When they reported this to Biame, he was furious. Before he did anything he resolved to come and see for himself.

He changed himself into an old blind wombat and sat on the path of a billabong to wait. It was an hot summer day and the bush was still. The heat drew the scent of the eucalyptus that hung above Wombat’s head. Old blind Wombat was so hot he began to pant.

Animals walked down the path to the billabong. Wombat placed himself in their way, and called out asking them to help him to the water. They hit Wombat and pushed him off the path and went on their way to the billabong.

Old blind Wombat sat and the day grew hotter and hotter. He heard people coming and again placed himself in their way, calling out asking for help to the billabong to drink. They laughed and jabbed him with the blunt ends of their spears, joking about rolling him into a fire for a feed. Pushing him out of their way, they went on down to the billabong.

The day got hotter. The air was parched with no hint of a breeze. The stillness was broken only by the low sound of the hover bees as they searched for nectar. The eucalyptus scent was stifling and the wombat desperately needed a drink of water. Along came Kangaroo, carrying her joey in her arms. Wombat again put himself in the way and called out. Kangaroo stopped and offered her tail to guide the wombat to the billabong. So they went, slowly down the path and when they got there, they both had a long long drink.

Kangaroo’s ears flicked! She stretched up, balancing on her tail to look. Hunters coming with spears! Pushing Wombat behind a log to hide him, she leapt high for the hunters to see. They did. They shouted and ran around the billabong after her. Kangaroo took off running as fast as she could with the hunters not far behind.

She looked over her shoulder and saw them gaining. She could not run fast enough with her baby in her arms. Quickly she hid him in the long grass and ran on again. Kangaroo ran until she was exhausted and the hunters were left far behind. She began to make her way back to her baby in the grasses. Kangaroo hunted everywhere but could not find her child. Distressed she made her way back to the billabong and told Wombat everything that had happen. Weeping, she fell into an exhausted sleep.

Now that old blind wombat who was really Biame was so proud of Kangaroo that he took a strip of bark from the paperbark tree and placed it across her belly. Then he found her baby and tucked it into the new pouch.

That is the end of the story.

(with permission of Elder M.Smith, Wiradjuri Tribe, NSW, Australia 1995)

This tale is far from the bare bones story I first heard and it is pared down from the story I told in kinders and schools. There is no need for a moral, it is understood. I had permission to create it for modern ears as the Elder wanted the story shared and I was in a position to do so.

And now, I have shared it with you.

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