22 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Superstitions

One of the most powerful superstitions among the indigenous people of Australia is the concept of ‘pointing the bone’, often called ‘singing a person to death’. To grasp this concept requires an understanding of the traditional aboriginal mindset. This is most important because of its isolation from that of modern Western thought. We need to realise that religion and the Dreamtime myths are at the core of traditional aboriginal society.

The fact that tribes interacted for trading or ceremonial purposes meant that a common set of religious beliefs about the Dreamtime came into being. The aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 60 000 years, that huge time span allowing the uninterrupted belief in an essential harmony between human beings, the land and the Dreamtime. Ellis (1984), Flood (1983) and Stanner (1979), in important studies explain that the Dreamtime is a number of things unified in one. It is a sacred, heroic time long ago when spirit beings began all phenomena. They set the stars in their courses, created the earth, and all material and spiritual life. They created laws (or rituals) to provide meaning to, and to perpetuate this way of living. They stored spirit power in animals, plants and sacred sites. The Dreaming refers to an aborigine’s awareness and knowledge of the Dreamtime, and is a metaphor suggesting that this awareness is enhanced by dreamy, quiet, vague and visionary fantasy or trance states. The land and rituals serve as reminders.

There is “a oneness of person, body, spirit, ghost, shadow, name, spirit site and totem” (Stanner) in aboriginal beliefs. The Dreamtime is not an historic event but corresponds to the whole of reality. It is eternal. It is “a vertical line in which the past underlies and is within the present” (Elkin, 93). Corroborees are the most common means by which an aborigine acts as, and becomes, a spiritual being or totem.

It is clear that the power of belief is much more deeply rooted in the traditional aboriginal mind than it is in that of Westerners. Messing with that mind is a serious dislocation of traditional beliefs. Rituals involving fear, isolation and suggestion are the province of senior men like the medicine man or sorcerer. (One term is distinguished from the other by his attitude to evil; the medicine man heals, the sorcerer destroys). His power is drawn from faith, ritual and special knowledge of the Dreaming. He is the individual who can examine the mind of the dead to determine whether foul play was involved in a death, and he is the one who can cast spells.

Where a society’s understanding of itself relies pretty much on belief and the mysterious knowledge of a medicine man there is only a small step to accepting that a man can be cursed through the casting of spells by a sorcerer or healed through the powers accepted as the province of the medicine man. Just how this change – from sickness to health or from a state of fitness and joie de vivre to depression and death – can be brought about is not important. What is the central focus here is that a mind that believes that some other man has the power to heal or destroy will respond according to that belief system. One that does not believe is perfectly safe. (In 2004 Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, upset some aboriginal elders to the point that a ‘bone’ was pointed at him. He is still very much alive in 2014).

So what is the process? John Godwin (163 – 76) and Ronald Rose (30 – 36) describe, in separate publications, one case that they have researched. What is detailed here varies little from other accounts. The gist of what they have to say is repeated here in my words. "Bone pointing" is a method of execution that, if prepared carefully, never fails to kill its victim. It consists of a powerful curse and a method of application. The so-called ‘bone’ may be human, kangaroo, emu or even wood. The shape of the killing-bone, or kundela, varies from tribe to tribe. It can be anything from six to nine inches in length and looks like a long needle. At the rounded end, a piece of hair is attached through the hole, and glued into place with a gummy resin from the spinifex bush. Before it can be used, the kundela is charged with a powerful psychic energy in a ritual that is kept secret from women and from those who are not tribe members. To be effective, the ritual must be performed faultlessly, the victim must know he has been boned - gossip, rumour or just a whisper can start the sometimes fatal process of autosuggestion, and he must be born into aboriginal culture and believe absolutely the lore and consequences of being boned.

The bone is then given to the kurdaitcha, who are the tribe's ritual killers.

The name, kurdaitcha, has been used by Europeans to mean the slippers the killers wear while on the hunt. The indigenous name for the slippers in Northern Australia is interlinia, while in Southern Australia the term is intathurta. The slippers are made of cockatoo (or emu) feathers and human hair—they leave no footprints. The killers’ bodies are coated in human blood and kangaroo fur, which is stuck to their bodies. Masks of emu feathers complete the ritualised costume. Kurdaitcha hunt in pairs or threes and are relentless in the pursuit of their quarry.

Once the man is caught, one of the kurdaitcha goes down onto one knee and points the kundela. The victim is said to be frozen with fear and stays to hear the curse, which takes the form of a brief piercing chant. Then, task completed, the kurdaitcha return to their home village and the kundela is ritually burned.

The condemned man may live for several days or even weeks. But, he believes so strongly in the curse, that he will surely die. It is said that the ritual loading of the kundela creates a "spear of thought" which pierces the victim when the bone is pointed at him. It is as if an actual spear has been thrust at him.

The ‘enlightened’ Westerner may have some sympathy for another point of view. From 1969 to 1980, H.D. Eastwell, a psychiatrist, studied aboriginal men in Arnhem Land. Sorcery syndrome (gross fear of death) was common. Symptoms were agitation, sleeplessness, visions, and protruding eyeballs. Fear was precipitated by trauma, for example, death or serious illness of a close relative, or a dispute over wives. A few victims died. Eastwell (1982) concluded that since the victim was outcast and deprived of water, dehydration rather than fright may have caused death (5 – 18).

A sorceror’s curse can be a deadly weapon. It works because a deeply-entrenched belief system is violated by an inimical intruder. Making and using the bone is said to be dangerous knowledge and unless the incantations and movements are precise according to ritual the curse can rebound with devastating results. The only ways to effect a cure are the retraction of the curse by the sorcerer who laid it, or the effects nullified by one at least equally well versed in the lore. Without this intervention, the victim’s future is grim.


Eastwell, H.D. (1982). Voodoo death and the mechanism for dispatch of the dying in East Arnhem. American Anthropologist, 84, 5-18.

Elkin, A P (1969). Elements of Australian Aboriginal philosophy. Oceania, 40, 85-98.

Ellis, R (1984). Aboriginal Australia; Past and present. Sydney: Shakespeare Head/Golden Press.

Flood, J. (1983). Archeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney: Collins.

Godwin, John. Unsolved: The World of the Unknown, pp. 163–76 Rose, Ronald. Living Magic, pp. 30–36

Stanner, W (1979). The Dreaming. In, White man go no dreaming, 23-40. Canberra: ANU Press.

Ian Lipke became a teacher of primary children in 1958, transferring to secondary schools in 1964. He has taught in schools in remote and metropolitan areas of Queensland, Australia. He left school teaching in 1977 to lecture at the University of Queensland and at Queensland University of Technology. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a deputy principal at several high schools, before retiring to manage his own tutoring business. In 2006, he returned to postgraduate studies through research at the University of Queensland. His whole life has been devoted to academic studies, which he very much enjoys. He is the author of NARGUN.                       

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