Aboriginal people have had a close association with the Murray and Darling Rivers for tens of thousands of years, and it is widely accepted that the Murray Cod was, and continues to be, an important and central part of these relationships.
The traditional, historic and contemporary associations and significance of the iconic Murray Cod for Aboriginal people across the Murray-Darling Basin has been poorly documented to date. A research project was undertaken to record the oral history and contemporary significance of Murray Cod for a number of Aboriginal communities.
The project adopted a very broad approach to identifying cultural significance. It was considered that cultural significance involved any, or all, of the following elements: social; spiritual/religious; historic and inter-generational; utilitarian; environmental; and aesthetic. The researchers pointed out that ultimately, and appropriately, assessment of the Murray Cod’s cultural significance for Aboriginal people or communities must be determined by the community members. As the project progressed, it became apparent that no overall ‘statement of significance’ describing the Murray Cod’s cultural importance for the Basin’s Aboriginal peoples was practical or realistic. Different Aboriginal groups across the Basin did, and still do, view and relate to this species in distinct ways and at differing levels of meaning and significance.
The Lower Murray area, in Ngarrindjeri Country, is clearly the stronghold of the Cod’s cultural significance. The creation stories and traditional cultural associations of the Murray Cod have also been better documented for this area compared to other parts of the Basin. Dominating the greater majority of these works is the creation of the Murray River by Ponde, or Pondi, a giant ancestral Murray Cod. Several regional and sub-regional variations of this creation story occur. However, the two most frequent and most thoroughly attributed accounts are presented here.
The first of these Murray River creation stories involves Ponde, the Murray Cod, and the ancestral hero Ngurunderi, with the essential elements as follows:
a huge Murray cod [Ponde] … chased by a great hunter [Ngurunderi], thrashed along the channel, forming the bends, reaches and billabongs of the river. When the great fish was speared at Lake Alexandrina, the hunter threw pieces of the cod back into the water, naming them for the fish they would become; golden perch, bony bream, silver perch and so on. When he finished he threw the remainder back and said, ‘You keep on being ponde’. (Wahlquist 2005, p. 40)
Some versions include the mythic ancestor Nepeli, Ngurunderi’s brother-in-law, assisting in the final capture and killing of the Cod.
The other more widely recognised account gives less emphasis to the pursuit, with the ancestral Murray Cod (spelt Pondi in these versions) emerging ‘at the source of the Murray’ after ‘a great earth shock or earth tremor’, to create the Murray River from a small stream:
‘by digging with its head, making the river deep and swinging its powerful tail, causing all the bends in the river’
In this version the totemic human ancestors are only involved when the giant mythic fish reaches Lake Alexandrina where they catch, kill and cut-up the fish (as in the other account) to create all the fish of the river, lakes and sea. Both these creation stories identify the Murray Cod as the creator, or creative agent/force, for the Murray River.
There are also the accounts of the Murray River’s creation that were, in the 1960s and 1970s, included in a range of seminal mainstream publications that ‘popularised’ Aboriginal ‘dreamtime’ stories (notably the books by Roberts and Mountford and A. W. Reed). This had the effect of taking the Ponde creation story well beyond its traditional/cultural origins and stronghold in the Lower Murray, and giving it a far wider profile and recognition in the general community as the definitive Aboriginal creation story for the Murray River. This story has now effectively become, for the non-Aboriginal community, entrenched as the principal creation story for the Murray River as a whole.
It will probably never be known precisely how far upstream the Ponde-Ngurunderi or Pondi accounts were traditionally predominant. There is also evidence of other creation beings figuring prominently in Aboriginal peoples’ mythology surrounding the Murray River around the Murray-Darling junction and the Central Murray.
The ‘winding of a very large serpent’, acting under direction from the ancestral hero Norallie (believed to be a regional variation of Ngurunderi), is described in some accounts from the vicinity of the Murray-Darling junction as creating the Murray River. In the Upper Murray around Echuca (in Yorta Yorta/Bangerang Country) the great ancestor figure Baiame becomes far more prominent in Aboriginal cosmology. This includes accounts of the Murray River’s creation, which Baiame’s ‘old lubra’ and ‘giant snake’ created.
The Murray Cod also starts to appear as a ‘supporting character’ in other traditional beliefs in this part of the Basin. There is also a creation story from this area in which an ancestral Murray Cod, called Otchout, creates the Murray while being pursued by the mythic hunter Totyerguil. This account explains the origin of the Murray Cod’s dorsal spines, which are Totyerguil’s spears, as well as several traditional fishing implements. This story closely parallels the Ponde-Ngurunderi belief and is perhaps indicative of the connectivity and overlap in beliefs along the River.
Baiame is also the dominant ancestral figure across the Murrumbidgee-Lachlan area (in Wiradjuri Country) and the North-east Rivers (in Kamilaroi/Gamilaroi Country) with the Murray Cod ancestor, again, in very minor roles (according to available information).
The Darling River has been suggested as the boundary and meeting place between the traditional Aboriginal cultures of central and eastern Australia. This diversity and meeting of differing cultures may be one possible explanation for the comparatively rapid relegation of the Murray Cod as a central element in Aboriginal peoples’ creation stores and the decline in its cultural prominence upstream on the Darling River. It may also give an insight as to why the Lower Darling, in particular, is an area where many differing creation stories and mythic accounts exist, and connect to related stories/beliefs both higher and lower in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The larger Ngurunderi story, in particular, connects into western New South Wales. Some accounts also place the (Lower) Darling River as the origin of the great ancestral Murray Cod and starting point for Ngurunderi’s pursuit. However, generally the Murray Cod appears to be a part of, but not central to, traditional beliefs along the Darling River, especially so on the Upper Darling where Baiame again becomes pre-eminent (including being responsible for the River’s creation in most of the available records).
From the comparatively fewer and more fragmented accounts available for the Basin’s far north, it appears the Murray Cod was not a central creation figure or traditionally significant being in this area.
The Murray Cod’s cultural significance as a creation being or major figure in traditional belief systems is, therefore, strongly centred on the Lower Murray area. It extends, in conjunction with other stories and beliefs, upstream into the Central and Upper Murray as well as possibly the Lower Darling. Elsewhere across the Basin the Murray Cod most usually features, when it occurs at all, in a subordinate or supporting role in the creation stories dominated by other deities or occurs sporadically in less well-documented individual accounts.
This broad model is generally consistent with, and supported by, the information provided by those Aboriginal people interviewed for this project. These creation stories and traditional beliefs remain of significance to the Basin’s Aboriginal people today, both as knowledge passed down through generations or as ‘rediscovered’ knowledge from early anthropological accounts and other sources.
Excerpt from a report prepared for the Murray Darling Basin Authority by Gondwana Consulting Pty Ltd.