What Made Tiddalik Laugh… A Dreamtime Story.

Geomythology is found in every culture, a way to explain either the geographic features of the land, or a way to explain natural phenomena, and to give the land a story. Growing up in northern Australia we used an aboriginal dreamtime story to explain the cycling of drought and flood that came each year with the wet and dry seasons, and every year when the deluge started and the flood came it would be because Tiddalik laughed.

Tiddalik the frog woke up one day with an unquenchable thirst. He went to the small pond where he lived and started to drink, he was so thirsty that he didn’t stop until the pond was empty. Still thirsty he went to a near-by billabong and drank that up too. His belly was bulging and sloshing around with all the water, but still Tiddalik was thirsty. He drank the creeks and the rivers until he was swollen and couldn’t move, and not a single drop of water was left. All the other animals came by the watering holes to drink, and found them empty. Eventually they all gathered by the dry riverbed and found Tiddalik sitting there swollen with water. “What do we do?” they cried “Tiddalik has drunk all the water”. The animals were all thirsty; the land had begun to brown and die, and the animals knew they needed to do something or they too might die.

“We must make him laugh” said a wise old owl, and the animals began to try. The Kookaburra told his funniest joke, the lizards made their funniest faces, but Tiddalik didn’t laugh. The kangaroos hopped around, and the emu started to dance. Still Tiddalik didn’t laugh. All the thumping of the dancing woke the platypus who was asleep in his burrow, unaware of what had been happening. He crawled out to see what all the noise was about, and sleepy, fell and rolled down the dry river bed. Tiddalik saw the platypus, with his furry body, duckbill, and webbed feet tumbling along and his mouth began to twitch upwards in a smile and a trickle of water escaped his lips. As the Platypus struggled to regain his feet Tiddalik’s smile grew wider until eventually he began to laugh. All the water gushed out of him and flooded the land, and Tiddalik never drank all the water again.

(Note: this version is a recollection of the one told to me as a child, and there are many variants of this tale. In many versions it is the eel who dances and ties himself in a knot that makes Tiddalik laugh).

The tale is believed to have originated in the central south of Australia, and reminds us how precious a resource water can be in Australia (and anywhere else) in times of drought. Some believe it is told to describe the water holding frog, a frog that comes out during the rainy seasons to fill its belly with water and to breed, and remains hidden underground in the drier seasons.  Aborigines would dig them up and use them as a water source when no others were available. There is also a version told in Eastern Australia near Wollombi where Tiddalik was turned to stone as punishment, and used to explain a local landmark which looks like a giant stone frog.

tiddalik-the-frog-wollombi
Tiddalik the Frog, Wollombi

(As an aside, a fact very few people know is that the Platypus is not just a goofy lovable ball of fur. The males have a poison spur on their hind legs which, while not deadly to humans, will deliver excruciating pain for days and is said to be impervious to painkillers).

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