The Sugarloaf Mountain Being who Bites
This work is conducted in memory and respectfully honours the First Australian People,
the Aboriginal People of this land.
Two descriptions of Puttikan exist; one as a creature in the appearance of a horse and the other as a human. He inhabits the Sugarloaf Mountain. There are also female forms, but they are rare.
All ages artistic challenge. We don’t know what Puttikan actually looked like. Read the descriptions below, and see what your imagination can create. Bring Puttikan to life in art.
From the Threlkeld’s first London Missionary Society Report for the Aboriginal Mission, December 1825 [Gunson p.194]:
“The Aborigine, who assists me in obtaining their language, informs me, that there is a being, in the Sugar-loaf Mountains, resembling a man but taller in stature; with arms, legs, face, and hair, very long on the head, but the feet are placed contrarily to the face being behind; and the body hairy, like an animal. The flesh is so hard in all parts of the body that it is impenetrable, except just between the legs, where a spear may penetrate, but at no other part. He is fierce, devouring men, and often pursuing the Aborigines in the mountains. There are females, but not many of the species. Their cry is often heard uttering Perrelorl-o, dwelling very long on the O, in the summer time. Enquiring whether any European had ever seen this Achilles of the Aborigines, the reply was, a soldier of the 46th heard him one night when he was hunting with the natives! Query – Do not the Aborigines of New South Wales stand on an equality with the Grecians, as it respects intellect, and is there not as great a sign of innate deficiency of reasoning faculty in the Greeks, believeing the story of Achilles, as in the Aborigines believing the story of Yarho Pattegarng, the name of their Achilles!”
From Threlkeld’s An Australian Grammar (1834) p. 49:
Puttikan, another imaginary being, like a horse, having a large mane and a tail sharp like a cutlass; whenever he meets the blacks, they go towards him and draw up their lips to show that the tooth is knocked out; then he will not injure them; but should the tooth be still there, he runs after them, and kills and eats them. He does not walk, but bounds like a kangaroo, and the noise of his leaps on the ground is as the report of a gun; he calls out as he advances, ‘Pirrolog, Pirrolog.’
From the Christian Herald, 19th August 1854, p. 220 [Gunson p.50]:
“It was in November 1825, when, just as the sun was sinking behind the Sugar-loaf Mountain near Newcastle, some natives came to guide me to the place where a ceremony was to be performed preparatory to the rapping out of a tooth from the mouth of certain youths, who by such a process were declared capable of marrying a wife. Besides this they were supposed to be protected from the anger of an imaginary being, that travelled the bush who whenever he meets a black, looks to see if the upper front tooth be removed if so, the person escapes unhurt, if the tooth has not been extracted the unfortunate man becomes victim to the anger of this terrible being. The name of this fancied supernatural person is “PUT-TI-KAN,” in shape he is like a horse, having a large mane, and a tail sharp like a cutlass: whenever he meets the blacks they go towards him and draw up their lips to shew that the tooth is rapped out, when he will not injure them; but should the tooth be left in, he runs after, kills, and eats them. He does not walk, but bounds like a kangaroo, the noise of which on the ground is as the report of a gun, calling out as he advances Pi-ro-long! Pi-ro-long!”
From the Christian Herald, 23rd December 1854, pp. 362-363 [Gunson p. 61]:
“It was in the month of November, 1825, some natives informed me of a certain imaginary being of whom they stood in great dread. The name of this demon is Puttikan literally, the being who bites, from Putti the root of to bite, and kan present tense of substantive form of the verb to be in existence. The favourite haunt of this supernatural person was said to be in the Sugar-loaf-mountain, West of Newcastle. In person he was described as a man of stature, having arms, feet, walking erect, but very tall, having long hair on the head, the body also covered with hair. The feet were reversed contrary way to his face, so that no one could trace him except they first saw his person, and were aware of this circumstance. His flesh was so hard that no bullet could penetrate any part of his body, save one particular spot betwixt his legs – He was said to be often heard in the mountains during the summer evenings uttering a loud cry, thus; – “Pirrilorl-o! Pirrilorl!” The Blacks say that a Soldier of the 46th, heard him as well as themselves, but that there are not as many of these sort of beings. Other aboriginal natives describe the appearance of this being as like unto a horse! having a large mane and tail sharp like a cutlass; whenever he meets the blacks they go towards him and draw up their upper lip to shew that the tooth is knocked out as a homage to him, when, it is affirmed by their wise men, he will not injure them, but should the tooth be left in the upper jaw, he will then run after the unsanctified individual, kill and eat him! This Being does not walk, but bounds like the kangaroo, the noise of which on the ground is as the report of a gun, he calling out as he advances Pirrolong! Pirrolong!”
Gunson in a series of footnotes provides information on similar beings from other areas as a comparison:
On the deities of the Kamilaroi [Gunson p.77 note 92]:
“Few accounts dealing with the subsidiary spirits of the New South Wales sky hero cults survive. However the scholarly Mrs Dunlop of Wollombi took down a list of ‘Gods and Goddesses’ in the ‘Murreegwalda’ language of the ‘Comileroi’ [Kamilaroi] which makes an interesting comparison with Threlkeld’s list. The spirits appear to have had the same characteristics:
‘Buggee – and Evil Spirit – an old fellow – bald headed with the exception of a few greyhairs, his stature short – ventre protuberant; He comes to the Camps and eats all the blacks meat without cooking. [Buggeen was the ‘Evil Spitiy’ of the Wiradgery tribe].
Yarree yarwoo, another Spirit with 4 eyes, he takes a large bag (Gooli) and gets into it when cold; all sickness is attributed to him.
Milegun, a Spirit destitute of hair, with immense nails which he meets in the bodies of the blacks.
Wabbooee. The greatest spirit of all; he commands the seasons and weather, his residence is in the North, and water springs up all round him of a blood color; when he wishes the rain to cease, he calls out Currea yalloo Colly yarrea, his stature is immense, and so great a veneration have the Blacks for him that if another tribe or black speaks irreverently of him, the punishment of death ensures, he changes his residence to the Skies, and whenever he dies the world will be destroyed by large rocks which fall from Heaven.
Mulla Mulla his wife lives in the South, a gin defaming her is punished as the blackman for his disrespect to her husband – she is punished at the hands of the other gins – when Mulla Mulla dies – darkness rests upon the earth till her husband removes it – She presides over the night. He over the day – She is very large of person – no – spirituality – yes.
Murree a Spirit residing in trees – emits fire.’
Kamilaroi Vocabulary, M.L., A1668. Harpur reported in 1825 that the ‘Supreme Being’ of the Bathurst tribes at Wellington Valley was Murrooberrai, a spirit of thunder and lightning. S.G., 29 September 1825.”
On the evil spirit Potoyan [Gunson, p.77 note 94]:
“Peter Cunningham only mentioned one evil spirit, Potoyan, who could have been either Puttikan or Koyorowen. Certainly his distinctive whistle suggests the latter. ‘Potoyan strolls about after dark seeking for his prey, but is afraid to appraoch a fire, which serves as a protection against him; therefore they are neither fond of travelling after dark, nor of sleeping without a fire beside them. The Sydney blacks make a large fire, and sleep around it; but in the interior they coil themselves singly round one which you might put in the crown of your hat. Potoyan is provoked, however, if you swing a fiery stick around! “Don’t don’t!” the timid ones will say, “Devil-devil come!” his usual mode of announcing his approach being by a low continuous whistle, like a gentle breeze singing through the branches of a tree, which Potoyan’s whistle doubtless is. A gentleman at Newcastle took advantage once of this circumstance to clear his veranda of a group of these believers in the powers of Potoyan, who had huddled together in it for the night, but were keeping both themselves and the proprietor in sleepless purgatory by the incessant and discordant clacking of their tongues. Seeing no likelihood of getting rid of this annoyance, he slipped gently to the window, opened it quietly, and quavered forth Potoyan’s portentous whistle. A confused low muttering was first heard, then followed a deadly silence, as if all ears were eagerly listening to make out the sound; – when again tuning his pipe, up they started and bolted nimbly off, never making a bed-chamber of the same veranda again!’ Two Years, Vol.II, 41-2.”
On the being Yaho as the name for Kurriwilban [Gunson p.77 note 95]:
“Given as Yaho, A.L., 48. Mrs Meredith, who was acquainted with the Bathurst tribes in 1839-1844, identified Yaho or Yahoo with a male spirit with reversed feet similar to Threlkeld’s Puttikan. She hinted that the spirit was the invention of the women ‘who often dislike the trouble of taking care of their babies, and destroy them immediately after birth, saying that “Yahoo”, or “Devil-devil”, took them.’ ‘I never could make out anything of their religious ideas, or even if they had a comprehension of a beneficient Supreme Being; but they have an evil spirit, which causes them great terror, whom they call “Yahoo”, or “Devil-devil”; he lives in the tops of the steepest and rockiest mountains, which are totally inaccessible to all human beings, and comes down at night to seize and run away with men, women, or children, whom he eats up, children being his favourite food; and this superstition is used doubtless as a cloak to many a horrid and revolting crime committed by the wretched and unnatural mothers, who nearly always, when their infants disappear, say “Yahoo” took them. They never can tell which way he goes by his tracks, because he has the power of turning his feet in any direction he pleases, but usually wears them heels first, or, as they express it, “Mundoey that-a-way, cobbra that-a-way” (feet going one way, and head or face going the other). The name Devil-devil is of course borrowed from our vocabulary, and the doubling of the phrase denotes how terrible or intense a devil he is; that of Yahoo, being used to express a bad spirit, or “Bugaboo”, was common also with the aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land, and is likely to be a coincidence with, as a loan from, Dean Swift; just as their word “coolar”, for anger, very nearly approaches in sound our word cholar, with a like meaning.’ Notes and Sketches, 95. Threlkeld, however suspected a borrowing.”
[From the Percy Haslam Papers A5410(i) leaves 9-11]
“Perhaps the best example of the Awabakals’ using a mystical being to enforce tribal tradition was Puttikan (Put-ee-karn) who was said to have his bush home in the Mount Sugarloaf area. Sugarloaf, of course, and its twin peak, Mount Vincent, were once the habitat of the clan of that name. Physical evidence of occupation still to be seen in that area confirms that this was a large clan indeed.
Threlkeld recorded two descriptions of Puttikan, one said the spirit was like a horse in appearance, having a mane and tail like a cutlass. Threlkeld wrote: ‘Whenever he meets blacks, they go toward him and draw their lips to show that the tooth has been knocked out, according to initiation requirement. These natives he does not hurt; but should the tooth still be there he uns after the black, kills and eats him. He does not walk but bounds like a kangaroo. The noise of his leaps on the ground is as a report of a gun. He calls out in advance, “pirroe-long, pirroe-lon”’’
Threlkeld’s second description, confirming that the spirit lived in the Sugarloaf Mountain and left his lofty lair to wend his way eastwards to Belmont and other foreshore localities, said he had arms, was covered in hair, and always kept his head erect. His feet were so formed that his toes were in a reverse direction to his face – this was a ploy so that he could not be traced by footprints. (Here is a rare reference to the remarkable skill of aborigines as trackers – a primitive and inherent ability that was in later years to be exploited by white police).
Legends had it that his flesh was so strong that neither the fleetest and hardest of spears nor the most explosive of bullets could penetrate it. He was mostly heard in the mountains in summer trilling “pirri-lorlo”. The Awabakal were expert in trilling, and this was probably associated with natural ability to mimic sounds of birds and animals. Trilling could be done individually or in harmony as was instanced when a group of aborigines at Newcastle welcomed Governor Bourke with a “trilling chorus”.
I questioned bushmen on this sound; they said it was difficult for a European to emulate it. They thought (a belief from oral tradition) that it was linked with the remarkable ability of the lyre bird to mimic. There was a time when the Watagan and Sugarloaf Mountains abounded with lyre birds. Shooters and trappers had until recent years almost exterminated the mountain colonies, but thanks to the watchful eye of the Forestry Commission and policing by the National Parks and Wildlife Service these birds are breeding in comparative safety again and their numbers are increasing. The lyre bird was given special mention in the Bora ritual, yet, as far as it can e ascertained, was never portrayed in wood cut (bark outlines for intiation rites), painting or carving. By contrast, the emu, pigeon, waterhen, hawk and parrot were freely depicted.
Threlkeld wrote that Awabakal natives had claimed that a soldier of the 46th Regiment had once heard Puttikan. More than likely this soldier would have been in the mountain area searching for escaped convicts.
The name could have had more than one meaning. The simple communication meaning was probably putti-kan (“biting is” from kakilliko, for to be). In another sense it could have meant “bite man”. In some parts of the Hunter Region the boy’s tooth was bitten out by a tribal elder.
In the absence of a full knowledge of the Bora language, a degree of conflict in the interpretation of some descriptive nouns must be expected. For example, the Kamilaroi word for horse is yaraman. Some say this means “fast legs” (swift beast); others assert it means big teeth. One of the greatest problems passed on by most pioneer linguists in aboriginal languages and dialects is that they accepted too much at face value and failed to recogise the need to challenge so that more elaboration could result.
In the absense of the full Bora ritual and language of their forebears, even mother-tongue speaking aborigines of today in NSW have a limited vocabulary of sacred words and their alternative meanings. As the older full blood die, so also must this source material correspondingly decrease.
It is very strange that Threlkeld did not seek clarification because of the two descriptions of Puttikan. It seems that he accepted the aboriginal versions of the basis that such beings could change their appearance, as was the character of the spirits (i.e., to change into a bird or animal for the purpose of disguise), and that the similarity of their warning call supported the one spirit belief.
But there is another aspect that demands examination of this physical conflict. Most of the coastal tribes had a “hairy terror man”. Did one Awabakal version of Puttikan fit this character?
From the Hawkesbury to almost the Queensland border a number of spirit beings flit, often fleetingly, in and out of the aboriginal spirit world. And most of them haunted lakes and rivers. These elusive figures are difficult to pin down. Only fragments of their history have survived, such as that mysterious figure of the small, one-legged man still remembered by old members of the Gumbangerie Tribe on the North Coast as Nymboi, now Anglicised to Nymboida.”
(Gunson 1974) 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.
Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist, & Chair, Hunter Living Histories.