Kon, Koun or Koin – Supreme Invisible and Unknown Being of the Aboriginal Peoples of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie

Detail from Lycett’s Corroborree at Newcastle

KON or KOUN (pronounced ‘cone’) – The Great Unknown Being and his wife TIPPAKALLEEN

Threlkeld, L.E. Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L.E.Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859. 2 vols, ed. Niel Gunson. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974. References: see pp. 3, 5, 41, 62-63, 77-78 and pp. 192 – 193.


1825
KOEN

Threlkeld mentions the deity and the related ritual in his first report from the Aboriginal Mission in Newcastle to the London Missionary Society December 1825: [Gunson (1974) pp. 192-193]:

“On Monday night, November 7th – The natives came to me just as the sun had changed the shadows blue, to see a ceremony preparatory to the knocking out of the tooth of the young men, who, by that operation are rendered fit to enter the married state. They pointed out to me the doctor or priest, perhaps more properly the conjuror, as he completely deceives, pretending that he has long bones inside him which Koen gives him, and which bones are used as punches to punch out the teeth. Koen is the name of the being who made the first man, but what is their precise idea of this spirit, is not as yet ascertained. This mystical bone would have made its appearance out of the conjuror this evening, but the party from Port Stevens not having arrived, it condescended to remain where it was. After the ceremony had been performed, an Aborigine informed me very gravely, that the korarje had many bones within him, that he came from the mountains, had been up with the fire in the sky (the comet), in fact, was a most wonderful man. It was asked, did you ever see a bone come out of him? No, was the reply, he goes into the bush, and Koen gives it to him. No person is ever allowed to see the bone make its appearance.”

 

And later after the bone had been produced:

“Enquiring how they came first there? the reply was, Devil, devil gave it to them; but since have ascertained that Koen who made the first man, gave them the bones – devil, devil, being only an English phrase.”

 

1834
KOIN, TIPPAKAL, PORRAG

From Threlkeld’s An Australian Grammar (1834) p.47:

“Koin, Tippakal, Porrag are names of an imaginary male being, who has now, and has always had, the appearance of a black; he resides in thick brushes or jungles; he is seen occasionally by day, but mostly at night. In general, he precedes the coming of natives from distant parts, when they assemble to celebrate certain of their ceremonies, as the knocking out of the tooth in the mystic ring, or when they are performing some dance. He appears painted with pipe-clay, and carries a fire-stick in his hand; but generally it is the doctors, a kind of magicians, who alone perceive him, and to whom he says, – ‘Fear not; come and talk.’ At other times he comes when the blacks are asleep, and takes them up, as an eagle his prey, and carries them away for a time. The shout of the surrounding party often causes him to drop his burden; otherwise, he conveys them to his fire-place in the bush, where, close to the fire, he deposits his load. The person carried off tries to cry out, but cannot, feeling almost choked: at daylight, Koin disappears, and the black finds himself conveyed safely to his own fire-side.”

 

Threlkeld’s entry on Tippakalin (wife of Koin) from An Australian Grammar (1834) p.49:

“Tippakalin, Mailkun, and Bimpoin, are names of the wife of Koin, q.v. She is a much more terrific being than her husband; him the blacks do not dread, because he does not kill them, but this female being not only carries off the natives in a large bag-net and drags them beneath the earth, but she spears the children through the temples; she thus kill them, and one ever sees again those whom she obtains.”

 

Descriptions of Koin, Tippakal, Porrag from the 1892 edition of Threlkeld’s works edited by John Fraser including Threlkeld’s 1834 work An Australian Grammar p. 47

 

1835
KON

 

From Threlkeld’s Reminiscences of the Aborigines of New South Wales published in the Christian Keepsake, London 1835 pp.301-306 [Gunson p.41]:

“The most hardy and daring of these deluded men, as well as the most timid, dread some invisible being, whom, in this part of the colony, they call Kon (pronounced Cone), but called by different names in other districts. One of their old men, the chief of a tribe, when conversing on the subject, observed that no one had ever seen Kon, although he could always see them; that he was more swift than a horse, and glided like the rainbow; that he made everything; that he was a man; that he is a spirit. The people attach a great regard to the efficacy of fire as a propitiatory offering; and when travelling, frequently place a firebrand in a tree adjacent to the spot selected for their resting-place during the night, with a view to excite the attention and propitiate the favour of Kon.”

On 27th April 1836 G. W. Walker made this observation [Gunson p.125]:

“I observed when the sun went down McGill collected some bark from the trees, with which he soon made a torch, and carried it lighted the remainder of the journey, – which I have reason to suppose originated in their superstitious dread of travelling, or being alone, in the dark. The presence of fire seems to relieve them from some measure of this apprehension. It was the more striking in this case, because he must have known that at the period the sunset we had but two or three miles further to go, arriving there in fact, before daylight had quite disappeared.”

 

1855
KOUN

From an instalment of the Christian Herald 6th January 1855, p.379 [Gunson pp. 62-63]:

“Nevertheless, they are not left without some instinctive feeling of dependence on the great “Unknown Being” on whom they call when in danger. This I ascertained, by accident, one day when crossing the Lake in a gale of wind, and the sea was running very high so that we made little progress in our boat, and a canoe could not have lived in the storm. Speaking to M’Gill, the aborigine who was with me in the boat, on the subject, and supposing that he were in a canoe and overtaken with such a gale of wind as was then blowing, and if he were sinking, on enquiring of him was there any being to whom he would cry? He said. “yes, there was Koun.” On asking him what he would say, his reply was, “Koun tia;” – literally, “Koun,” the name of the Being, tia “to me”, meaning look to me, or save me, just whenever the mind intended in the understood ellipsis. This led to further enquiry and the description given to me was that he had three names; – Koun, Tippakall, and Por-rang, that he was a male being, who was always as he is now; in appearance like a Black, that he resides in the thick bushes or jungles, occasionally appearing by day, but mostly by night. In general he precedes the coming of the natives from distant parts, when they assemble to celebrate certain mysteries, as knocking out the tooth in the mystic ring, or when performing some dance. He appears painted with pipe clay, and carries a fire-stick in his hand; but, generally it is the Doctors, a kind of Magicians, who alone perceive him, and to whom he says, – “fear not, come and talk.” At other times he comes when the blacks are asleep, takes them up, as an eagle does his prey, and carries them away! The shout of the surrounding party often causes him to drop his burden; otherwise, he conveys them to his fireplace in the bush, where close to the fire he deposits carefully his load. The person carried tries to cry out, but cannot, feeling almost choaked: at daylight, Koun disappears, and the black finds himself conveyed safely to his own fireside. This mysterious being has a wife and she likewise has three names:- Mailkan, Tippakalleen, and Bimpoin. It appears that a second name is but the feminine form of the second name of Koun: – Tippakal, the masculine form of the name, Tippa, the root whence the name is derived, Tippakal the name of the male being, kal the mascuine terminiation. Tippa-kalleen the name of the female being, kaleen the feminine termination of the name. Koun is a name remarkable from its singular construction, the word is pronounced so as to rhyme with the English word cone. According to the structure of the language K denotes being; O, purpose; U, power; N, presentiality, which combined forms, the name of the mysterious unknown Being, KOUN. His wife Tippakalleen is a much more terrific being than her husband whom the blacks do not dread because he does not kill them; but this female being, not only carries off the natives in a large bag-net underneath the earth, but she spears the children through the temple dead, and no one ever sees again those whom she obtains. It is not improbable that Koun has much to do with the mystic ring named Porrobung, in which the aborigines dance and fall down at certain periods; the third name of Koun being Porrang taken from Porr, the root of to fall down, to drop, to be born, and no doubt has reference to his drop[p]ing his prey by the fire-side unhurt. Something like the felling of nightmare, as it is termed by us, has no doubt caused the imagination of the blacks to suppose it a reality caused by the power of the great and powerful unknown being. But no stretch of imagination or diligent enquiry can shew any act of adoration to this supreme unknown being.”

 

On this account Gunson says [pp. 77-78 n.100]:

“This account is substantially the same as given under Koin in A.L., 47. Cunningham’s version of Koin suggests a much more manichaean role. ‘They believe in a good spirit, which they call Koyan, and in an evil spirit named Potoyan. The former is held to watch over and protect them from the machinations of the latter, and to assist in restoring the children which the other decoys, to devour. They first propitiate Koyan by an offering of spears, then set out in quest of the lost child; which, if they discover, Koyan of course obtains the credit, but if it is not to be found; they infer that something has been done to incur his displeasure.’ Two Years, Vol.II, 34-5.

In his paper, “How did the Natives of Australia become acquainted with the Demigods and Daemonia, and with the Superstitions of the Ancient Races?”, W.A. Miles attempted to prove that Aboriginal religion was a degenerate form of sun worship (the ‘Baal mysteries’) pointing to ‘a Cushite visitation’ in remote times. His claims as to the wide knowledge of Koin are not documented. ‘There is another mysterious being held in dread and terror by the natives, namely, the “Koen”. He is known north-west of Moreton Bay, also at Adelaide and Swan River; but he is also known to the Chinese as the deity “Kuan-Yi[n]” and, I believe, to the Bedas or Vedahs, the aboriginal race at Ceylon. Among the eastern tribes of Australia “Koen” is one of the names of the sun’. He then proceeded to trace Koin’s ancestry to an Egyptian deity. Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 1854, Vol. III, 15. For a MS account see M.L., A857, Pamphlets mainly collected by Mr Justice Wise, 137ff.

 

1986
KOUN, KOIN, KOEEN, COOIN

From the Percy Haslam Papers A5410(i) leaves 14-15:

“And who and what was the great spirit variously called Koun, Koin, Koeen and Coo-in? Threlkeld spelt the Awabakal version two ways. First, he wrote Koun and said it was pronounced Kone. In later works he wrote Koin consistently. At Swansea I heard the word pronounced Koe-in, as given by Queen Margaret, ‘Black’ Ned and the remaining remnants of the Awabakal who died at ot near this Lake Macquarie village up to the turn of the century.

According to William Scott, who as a youth lived at Port Stephens when the Gringhai were tribal, the spirit was called Coo-in and was regarded as that region’s aboriginal ‘debbil debbil’ – always on the alert to seize unsuspecting natives at night and was capable of exercising a maleficient influence over their lives. This mighty unknown was not associated with such natural phenomena as thunder and lightning, nor did he seem to have a particular dwelling place. But he was abroad everywhere – intangible and dread-conveying. The natives would say nothing definite about him; it was clear he was associated with the spirits of the departed.

This account suggests that the Gringhai held Coo-in in such superstitious fear that they refused to divulge too much about him, even to friendly whites, one of whom had been admitted to the tribe and given a tribal name. Scott’s father was a member of the tribe in the 1840s and was given the native name of ‘Murritan’, and was held in high esteem.

In some strange manner Coo-in was supposed to permit his spirit to become associated with the dead and manifest itself at the grace. The same spirit was also associated with the ‘putten bone’ rite. This had equal application to the ‘putten stone’ mystery of the tribe. As was the practice of natives to point and transmit a bone to cause the death of a foe, so also it seemed that in this part of NSW a stone could be used for the same purpose. It was not made clear whether such a stone was made to enter the victim’s body by magical means or was thrown by an unseen force.

Threlkeld lists Ko-in as having two other names: Tippakarl and Por-rang. His mysterious wife had three names: Tippakarleen, Bimpoin and Mailkan. It is so obvious all are bora names for far as their actual meaning is concerned. Here we meet another example of that very significant root word ‘por’ in Por-rang.

Natives told Threlkeld that Koin resided in thick bushland and occasionally made himself seen, mostly at night, and generally preceding the coming of natives from distant parts to attend ceremonial gatherings. He used pipe clay adornment and carried a ight stick, but rarely did anyone except of high degree – the karakals and the like – were able to perceive him. He was friendly to such men and invited them not to be afraid but to come to him and talk.

On other occasions he emulated the giant eaglehawk and carried sleeping natives to his mountain fireplace, the shocked natives being too terrified to speak. Sometimes a shout by waking natives would cause Koin to drop his burden and disappear. But if his foray were successful, Koin would vanish at daylight and his victim find himself alongside his own fire – unharmed.

While natives had a fear, as well as a respect in times in need, they did not dread him as they did Tippakarleen, who not only carried men in a huge bag net to her underground lair deep under the earth but also speared children through the temple to kill them. Her victims were never seen again.

This prompts the question whether in tribal days the aborigines knew deep hole sites in isolated areas, particularly in the mountains, that had developed from strata faults. The structure of coal seams in Lake Macquarie district give evidence of tremendous geological upheavals, probably in the period of volcanic activity and subsequent subsidence.

It may well be asked why Koin should have three names. It suggests a trinity of some kind. Threlkeld provides no explanationfor this and the trio of wifely names. Threlkeld correctly says that Awabakal women were not allowed to take a direct part in the male initiation ceremonies, except for one isolated presence of mothers, but obviously he was not told (or failed to record) that women of the region held at least two ceremonies at Murray’s Run. It is reasonable to suggest an inconsistency if women were denied their rights to ritualism, particularly if the spirit were to have wifely names. The part of Mailkan and Bimpoin in this spirit set-up will probably remain a mystery. The exception would apply to those who took part in the Bora, but they have long since disappeared from the scene. Threlkeld, notable chronicler he was, steered away from some aspects of ‘heathen mystery’.

Koin, according to settler versions, was still remembered around Lake Macquarie until the 1870s by the dwindling pockets of Awabakal at Swansea and the southern part of the tribal area, such as Martinsville and Cooranbong. During this research project only once was another name mentioned – a distortion of Tippakarleen. On the other hand, Coo-in was still remembered and spoken of by natives in the Port Stephens area after the turn of the century. It must be accepted that Threlkeld was privy to more aboriginal sacred history than was usual. Biraban was an excellent aid in this regard; himself a karakal (sorcerer) and then a periwal (chief), and was able to speak English so well.”

 

Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories


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