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The indigenous aboriginal people of Australia first occupied this country over 50,000 years ago. Their tribal groupings, scattered across this vast continent, include the  Patjantatjara, Wotjobaluk, Wikmunkan, Warramanga, Murinbata, Aranda, Mara, Kurnai, and Walbiri. Some examples of the rich tapestry of their tribal art, mythologies and legends are reproduced below on this Web site.


The fading image of the Spirit of the Long Grass, Morkui-kua-luan, can be seen on a rocky outcrop near the boundary of the Agricultural Research Station at Katherine, Northern Territory. He is shown with his eyelids half-closed to protect his eyes from the prickling grass-seeds as he moved through the wild grain. His beak-like nose resembles the sharp sheath of the seed.

The great mass of Ayers Rock. This was an important totemic site for the people of this
area of central Australia, who called it Uluru. They said that it rose out of a large flat sandhill.

Undoubtedly his presence there on the rock was intended to ensure a plentiful and recurring supply of the stands of native sorghum which grow in the area, for although the local aborigines made no attempt to cultivate this grain they gathered it and pounded it into a meal called morkul, to make a nourishing food.

Left: Banaidja was the son of Laindjung. These great ancestral beings gave the eastern Arnhem Landers of the jiridja moiety (division) their totemic designs and taught them the sacred ritual. Banaidja was killed by those who doubted him. this image of him was carved by Matarman of Yirrkalla. Carved and painted images of mythical beings are revealed to those newly initiated in the cult during he performance of ceremonial acts associated with the myth. National Gallery of South Australia.

Right: Tjurunga or sacred emblem of the Aranda. In the Dreamtime each tjurunga was associated with a particular totemic ancestor and it continued to be the abode of his spirit. These tjurunga were lodged in a sacred storehouse. When the spirit entered a woman it was reincarnated as a child. So each person had his own tjurunga and if it could not be found it had to be made. 

The most important witchetty grub totemic site of the Aranda tribe was at Underga or Emily's Gap, a gorge in the Macdonnell Ranges. Paintings on the rock face represent the spot where the women of the Dreamtime painted themselves and stood looking up at the witchetty grub men while they performed a sacred ceremony. In the Dreamtime women shared and sometimes controlled sacred knowledge. Near this site are also to be found a stone which represents the witchetty grub at the chrysalis state, and another which represents the egg stage. The many clefts in the rock served as storehouses for sacred tjurunga.

Morkul-kua-luan was rediscovered by W. Arndt, an officer of the research station, and this encounter between scientist and aboriginal guardian spirit contrasts the white Australian's attempts to master a harsh environment, by application of modern scientific methods, with the indigenous population's intimate and intricate adaptation over the centuries to nature's cycle. During some 20,000 years of the aborigines' relatively undisturbed occupation of the vast southern continent, most of the rest of mankind gradually ceased to be wanderers and food-gatherers and became settled cultivators and pastoralists. The aborigines did not take this step. They remained naked, semi-nomadic hunters and foragers who built no permanent shelters and used simple though efficient tools and weapons. even so, in the arid regions, the aborigines managed to support more people per square mile than the European occupants can.

Man of the cockatoo totem, wearing his elaborate headdress. He is about to take part in a  pukamuni ceremony, or funeral rite. From Melville Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land.

Where did these people come from? Theories about their origin remain speculative and they have been classified as a separate group, the Australoids. some say they are descendants of an early type of man, Wadjak Man of Java, others note their resemblance to other obviously ancient stock including the Ainu of Japan, the Dravidians of India, the Veddaha of Ceylon and the Papuans. The first migrants must have reached Australia after following the line of islands to the north and west and making the journey across the then shallow seas. Their points of entry seem to have been along the northern coast and down Cape York Peninsula.

Left: A thin bone, pointed at one end and with a tip of grass resin at the other to which a piece of human-hair string is attached, is used to bring about the death of a person by 'pointing' it. Usually the piece of string is slowly burnt in a fire to make the death of a victim certain. Over much of central Australia any man can point the bone, elsewhere it is usually performed by a sorcerer.

Right: A variety of sacred rangga emblems, some of which are decorated with red feathers bound with hair string. From Milingimbi in Arnhem Land.

Did the migrating peoples come in successive waves? And how long did they take to spread across the continent? These and other questions remain unanswered. but we do know that aboriginal man is not a 'stone-age survival'. After his arrival in Australia cultural change did occur within a limited frame of reference. His isolation was tempered by contact with outsiders from New Guinea and Indonesia and selected cultural traits filtered through the northern coastal areas and were passed along the maze of internal trade routes which followed the line of waterholes and the river systems inland. The incorporation into the east Arnhem Land mortuary rites of the mast-rising ceremony performed by departing Macassan praus is one piece of evidence of this continued intercourse which seems to have increased in the few centuries prior to European settlement. 

The great Wonjina lies on his side in the overhanging rock shelter at Wonalirra, near the Chapman River in the northern Kimberley district. Many Wondjina are painted in a horizontal position and the reason often given is that in the Dreamtime the beings entered the shelters to lie down to die; other wondjina fixed their images to the rock face. The legs are separated by a line and the feet are placed at right angles so that the soles are visible. Design traced from the rock face by Dr. K. Lommel.

However, the longest determinants of aboriginal culture were obviously the ecological features of the continent itself: the arid and semi-arid areas are extensive and even in those parts of the north where indigenous grains and plants like yams grow, it seems doubtful whether cultivation could have been properly established without modern techniques of soil improvement; nor were the marsupials suitable for domestication. The consequent close dependence of aboriginal man on nature, merely to subsist, meant that his desired objective was to achieve not change but predictable regularity; regularity of the seasons and of plant growth and animal increase. He particularly recognised the life-giving properties of rain though his fear of drought was matched by his fear of floods, storms and tornadoes.

He understood the bond between himself and nature to be a totemic one and believed that this relationship had been established in the mythical past of Eternal Dreamtime by the activities of creative beings. Some of these, like the Sky Heroes of eastern Australia, or the Fertility Mothers and their companions of the far north, established the totemic system; others, like the totemic beings of inland Australia, were themselves actually identified with a particular aspect of nature symbolised by an emblem or totem; for example, a cockatoo, a wind, or the honeysuckle. Each of these totemic ancestors was responsible for the laying down of spirit centres, not only for the particular animals and plants with which each was concerned, but also for spirit children. It is these pre-existent spirits which enter the bodies of the women of the group and are born. So a person's cult totem or dreaming is usually relaxed to his origin from a particular spirit centre laid down by a particular totemic ancestor.

A painting on bark of a funeral ceremony by the artist Bunia, of Groote Eylandt. Top left, a man lies dying on a funeral platform. Bottom left, the didjeridu player and the dancers perform until he dies. top right, the spirit man and his two wives also dance and play until he dies. After death the man's spirit leaves the platform and begins the long journey to the spirit world, crossing over the great snake. Bottom right, he kills a fish with a stone for food for the journey. Rex Rienits Collection. 

Although many of the creative beings of the Dreamtime took human form, they were cast in a gigantic mould and possessed supernormal powers. In this group belong the Sky Heroes of the south east and the Fertility Mothers of Arnhem Land, but the latter sometimes took snake form. The totemic ancestral beings seemed to be able to slip from human to animal form and back again, though sometimes this metamorphosis took place only once.

A painting on bark by the artist Bunia, of Groote Eylandt, illustrates a fight between a dingo and a wallaby. The dingo is the victor. The eagle watches from above, and waits for his share. Rex Rienits Collection

Like the aborigines many of these Dreamtime beings were wanderers. They made the landscape, established sacred sites and introduced the ceremonies to be performed there. Their ways led them across tribal and linguistic boundaries, so that each part of a tribe was knowledgeable about only that section of a myth which described events that took place in its territory. However these mythical paths also lined neighbouring groups and they came together for great ceremonial gatherings. One famous site was the honey-ant ceremonial ground at Ljaba in the territory of the northern Aranda in the Macdonnell Ranges of Central Australia.


Carved and painted wooden images of three of the great figures of aboriginal myth. The figure on the left is Laindjung, father of Banaidja and one of the great ancestral beings. His face is white with the foam of the sea from which he emerged. It was made by Langarang of the jiridja miety at Yirrkalla.

On the right are the Wawalag sister. The smaller, younger sister wears the crossed string bindings or breast girdle to make the breasts strong. These superb figures were executed by the artist Mauwalan, at Yirrkalla. Images like this are sometimes used as rangga emblems and revealed at performances of ceremonial acts associated with the myths. Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra.

Some totemic ancestors had dominant roles. For instance, the Tjilpa or native cat ancestors of the Aranda were responsible for establishing, in the proper order, the initiation rites of circumcision, sub-incision (the opening of a certain length of the meatus) and ordeal by fire. But fundamentally this totemic view of life meant that the totemic ancestors shared the labour of creation. This same principle of the division of labour also applies to man's approach to these creative forces. The guardianship of the myths, rites, sacred objects and sites associated with a particular totemic ancestor rests with the members of a particular religious unit who all share the same cult totem, and each of these groups takes its share of the responsibility for ritually ensuring that the life essence created during the Eternal Dreamtime is not only sustained but perpetuated.


Carved and painted wood image of Djanggawul, from Yirrkalla. The white dots on his face are sea foam and the sacred dilly-bag hangs round his neck. Also made by Mauwalan.

They do this in rites in which the actors become the beings and re-live their deeds. They also perform increase rites in which the multiplication of a particular natural species is brought about by actions such as the retouching of rock paintings, regrooving of rock engravings, or the disclosure of sacred objects such as the stories which represent the chrysalis stage of the witchetty grubs. These lie buried in the ground at a totemic site near Emily's Gap in the Macdonnell Ranges. The use of blood drawn from the arm or the genital organ is also believed to release the spiritual essence. It may be rubbed on a body or tot4emic object or used as a fixative for other decorations such as down. It may be scattered over, dripped on, or rubbed into an object. Red ochre may be used in the same way.

Yulunggul, the rainbow snake, lies coiled round some eggs at the bottom of the sacred waterhole. Painted on bark by Dowdi of Millingimbi in Arnhem Land. Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Throughout Australia the religious life of the group is controlled by the men but this does not mean that women have no part in it. The researches of C. H. And R. M. Berndt have made it clear that women's activities are not restricted to the profane sphere. Moreover there is a strong symbolic association between the women's life and much of the ritual performed by the men, for example the equation of sub-incision with menstruation. The degree of actual participation of the women in the sacred life varies from area to area. In some districts women have their own secret ceremonies such as the djarada or love-magic ceremonies of Northern Australia. They may also be involved in the men's ritual from a distance. For instance they may answer ritual calls made by the men on the ceremonial ground or they may be summoned to act as a chorus or to take a limited part in the ceremonies as they do in the Kunapipi fertility cult of the far north. In Arnhem Land the women see the sacred designs on the men's bodies when they return to camp after a ceremony and they hear and know the 'outside' or general camp versions of sacred songs and myths. Even the negative knowledge of knowing what to avoid must be taken into account, for over much of Australia the death penalty was enforced if women infringed the sacred precincts, or mythological paths, or saw the sacred cult objects. Amongst the Aranda many of the most beautiful waterhole sites were permanently forbidden to the women of the group. Yet an Aranda woman could be a reincarnation of a totemic being and a male relative acted as a proxy for her in the sacred ceremonies. 

The spirit beings called mimi who live in the rocks of western Arhhem Land are so thin they are afraid to venture on when it is windy for fear their necks will snap. they are said to eat men but yams are their staple food. It is in this context that the artist, old Naurungulngul of Coulburn Island, chose to paint on bark the flower, leaves and root of the yam plant.

The young boy also has 'outside' knowledge but his introduction into adult status and the secret life begins with his separation from the women, usually at puberty. His initiation usually extends over at least three or four years and each stage of his advance is frequently marked by a physical operation. The order and choice of these varies from group to group: there is the extraction of teeth, hair removal, cicatrization and in most of inland Australia - circumcision, subincision and ordeal by fire. He is also subjected to harsh discipline, food tabus, and periods of seclusion. His instruction includes passive witnessing of ceremonies, limited participation in ritual acts, the revelation to him of sacred objects such as the bullroarer (the sound of which has previously been described as the voice of the initiatory monster) visits to sacred stores  of objects like the tjurunga, and journeys along mythological paths. Throughout his life aboriginal man's degree of participation in the sacred life increases until he in turn becomes initiator and instructor. After his death he is entitled to expect that certain mortuary ceremonies will be performed to ensure the safe return of his spiritual essence to the spirit home from which it came. Very often this is a totemic water hole site but often this is a totemic water hole site but in central Australia it may be a sacred tjurunga and in south-east Australia it was the sky.

The designs on this hollow log coffin by an unknown
artist from Milingimbi represent animal tracks and a kangaroo.

The demands of this intense spiritual life are many, involving the memorising of many hundreds of verses as well as the details of myths; dance steps, ritual acts, and a knowledge of totemic emblems and designs. Ceremonial activities may occupy many months of the year and place an economic strain on the groups involved. In the old days it made irksome the lives of the young hunters who were subject to the authority of the older men who alone could reveal to them the inner truths which sustained all existence.

These myths are, and were, communicated with a variety and richness of artistic endeavour. There is the vigorous imitative totemic dancing, the compulsive rhythm of the clapping sticks, drone pipe (didjeridu) and chanting, and the beautiful imagery of the songs. There are fantastic headdresses like those of the emu 'men' of the Aranda or the strange ground paintings like those the Warramanga, made to re-live the journey of the great snake Wollunqua.

Through the eyes of the aborigine the Australian landscape becomes a myth evoking one. The broad sinuous reaches of the Ord and Victoria rivers of the north-west were made by the black-headed python who came out of the sea from the direction of Timor and pushed forward, making the ranges, until he reached the Barkly Tablelands where he passed underg4round. The meandering course of Coopers Creek was created by a great rock python, transformed into an indecent rainbow snake. He drew the flood water after him as he moved homeward. He chose his direction of travel by the wind, because he was blind, and when it dropped he paused and a large sheet of water formed. The broadening of the Murray river as it flows into the entrance lake in South Australia was caused by the swishing tail of the primal Murray God as he was pursued by the sky hero Ngurunderi. Wuraka's head appeared above the waves as he walked along the ocean floor towards the Coburg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. He was the companion of the mother creator, Imberombera, and his penis was so heavy he slung it round his neck. He grew tired and sat down at a spot marked by Tor Rock which rises conspicuously from the western plateau of Arnhem Land.

The huge monolithic dome of Ayers Rock in central Australia, which the Patjantatjara people call Uluru, is associated with ten different groups of totemic beings. The vertical gutters and potholes of the southern face are the scars of battle between the Kunia or carpet snake-men. The stands of desert oak to the south-west represent the young Liru warriors silently moving in to the attack. Across the western desert roamed the Wadi Gudjara (Wadi Kudjara), the Two Men; one was a white goanna, the other was a black one. Amongst the places they laid down was a solid hill of red ochre formed from the blood they drew from their veins.

Far away on the other side of the continent in the district at the Wikmunkan on the gulf side of Cape York there is a sub-tropical haven of plenty where women gather the many different edible shellfish along the shore and men spear fish, dugong and turtle. The sandbanks, reed-swamps and water-lily lagoons are breeding grounds for every kind of bird. Here the myths of the totemic ancestors who went down into their auwa or abodes builds up a detailed picture of bountiful nature which is a strong contrast to the harshness of nature revealed in the myths of the desert people. Even the most uninspiring of food plants are celebrated. Miss U. McConnel, who knows these people intimately, retells the story of the Hard Yam Woman and the Arrowroot Man.

A painting on bark by the artist Kneepad, of Groote Eylandt, illustrates a creation story. The east wind pushes up the morning star and so makes daylight. With the light comes the earth man, rocks and all other things. Rex Rieinits Collection.

They were a married couple who were always bickering about the best place to camp as they searched for food along the river banks. Finally they argued to separate. Wandering alone, the Hard Yam Woman became ill and dug a hole for herself in a dry place. She slept without moving and on waking she exclaimed: 'I'm hungry. Who will feed me? I must stay hungry!' She had not even the strength to leave the hole to fetch water, finally she sank down altogether saying, 'just in this way the root will sink down into its hole!'

Meanwhile the Arrowroot Man also grew old and helpless, and crawling along the water's edge to drink he sank down. Only his stick stood up like the stalk of the arrowroot as a sign to men that the arrowroot is to be found there.  

As in many other aboriginal myths the plot is based on a simple domestic situation and the elaborations of the theme serve to explain everyday tasks: in this case how to gather certain foods and how to treat them to make them soft and edible. For all this has been laid down in the Dreamtime.

Not all Wikmunkan myths are confined to the immediate locally. The journeys of Sivri, the Seagull and Nyungu, the Torres Straits Pigeon link the district with the islands to the north. Sivri showed his northern affiliations by his possession of a drum and bow and arrow, whereas on the island of Mabuiag in the Torres Straits where he was known as Kwoiam, he was famous for his seagull dances and his spear. Sivri stole Nyungu's daughter and carried her off to Mabuiag which is the destination of the migrating seagulls. Nyungu decided to give chase, but flew on to Papua. Before he left he turned to each of his children and declared:

You folk, conch shells shall be!
Bailer shells you shall become!
Pearlshells you shall become!
Ducks you shall become!
Native comparisons be!
I go! Better that I should go!
For white pigeons will come with me!

And so his children remained behind to become the ducks and native companions of the sandbanks and the shells of the sea.

Charming though these stories may be in their prose form they lack the meaningfulness which they possessed when performed in a ceremonial context designed to perpetuate endlessly the first act of creation with which each particular totemic being was concerned.

Today there are not many places left in Australia where the philosophy enshrined in myths like these is still a sustaining faith. Most of the 40,000 remaining pure-bred aborigines are still to be found in the desert regions and the far north; but even there their economic dependence on the white communities is increasing and organised ceremonial life becomes more and more difficult to maintain. In the new situation their view of life has lost its validity. Their absorption into modern Australian society is inevitable and what can survive of their own culture is doubtful.

The earlier years of contact do not have a happy history. A society as rigidly bound by tradition as the aborigines' had not the resources to withstand contact with intruders as alien and aggressive as the European settlers, few of whom seemed either able or prepared to see beyond th4e superficial image of the aborigines as nomads with a few meagre possessions. Far from being aware of the complexities of the aborigine's spiritual beliefs - which bound them to their land - they maintained that they were without religion and even without language, speaking only gibberish. And such ignorant opinions were used as the excuse for treatment which ranged from indifference to brutality. By the eighteen-fifties only a few aborigines remained in the vicinity of Sydney, and by the turn of the century outrageous suggestions were being put forward that the origin of the rock engravings of heroic figures and animals which are so numerous on the escarpments within an eighty-mile radius of Sydney were not the work of the aborigines - but of shipwrecked Peruvian slaves in the sixteenth century! On the other hand, from the eighteen-seventies onward, scholars like Howitt, Roth, Spencer and Gillen were working at the frontiers of settler expansion in an attempt to record every aspect of aboriginal life before it was lost. From their work and the work of later anthropologists we know that the many galleries of engravings of the south-east were sacred sites, which like those found elsewhere in Australia were associated with ceremonies of a revelationary and initiatory nature, but only fragments of the sanctioning myths about the great sky heroes they celebrated have survived.


Throughout most of the eastern third of Australia there was a belief in a sky world, the abode of spirit beings who dwelt on earth in the time of the founding drama. The Wotjobaluk of Victoria thought the the sky rested on the earth and prevented the sun from moving until a magpie with a long stick propped it up. Other tribes believed that the sky rested on mountains, or a pine tree, or eucalyptus trees. Some referred to the sky world as a 'gum tree land' or 'the bright bone of the cloud'. It was also thought to be full of quartz crystal, the stone associated with both the rainbow snake and the medicine men.

Some early investigators like Howitt maintained that in the south-east there was also a belief in a dominant spirit being who was revealed to initiates as All-Father. Although it seems unlikely that the idea of a supreme deity could have arisen independently, there is no doubt that the masculine principle of creation was the dominant one in eastern Australia because similar creative activities were attributed to a great sky hero whose name changed from tribe to tribe. In the eastern coastal strip he was known as Daramulun and west of the Dividing Range he was called Baiame. In some places Daramulun was described as the one-legged son of Baiame. Many Victorian tribes knew him by variations of the name Bunjil and towards the lower Murray river region he was known as Norrundere, or Ngurunderi.

 Aboriginal Chief, North Queensland, Australia,

These creators gave shape to a bare and featureless land. They made the rivers and the hills and added trees and other vegetation. At first there were only animals, birds and reptiles so they made humans - usually out of amorphous beings. Bunjil was believed to have made two men out of clay while his brother, the Bat, raised women up out of water. These creators also gave men tools and weapons. They laid down the rules and customs by which men should live and introduced initiation ceremonies. In the ceremonies of the Bora ground the sound of the swung bullroarer was the voice of Daramulun and initiates were shown a figure of him modelled in relief on the ground. The mouth was filled with quartz crystal and he had a large phallus.

These primal beings chose many different ways to journey to the sky world. One climbed a stretched kangaroo sinew, another was swept thither by a whirlwind. sometimes, together with other protagonists in the founding drama, they took their places in the heavens as the sun, moon, or stars, particularly the Pleiades or the Milky Way.

This belief in a sky world and sky beings was also important in the extreme north-west of the continent. It even occurred in inland Australia where it co-existed with the dominant themes of creative totemic ancestors who rose out of the ground. For instance the Aranda believed that two self-existent sky beings, the Numbakulla, came down and made men and women out of Inapatua or amorphous creatures in which the human form was faintly visible. Much farther north the Murinbata also believed in Spirits who Found Themselves without Fathers, though they did not celebrate them in their cult activities. One of these self-existent spirits who was called Nogamain was a giver of spirit children. Yet in spite of the obvious importance ideas about him were vague. W. E. H. Stanner suggests that there could be an historical explanation for this in that he may belong to an earlier strata of ideas; or he might well represent a persistent but undeveloped concept of a supreme or dominant being.


Certain personalized animals and phenomena seem to have been the protagonists in the founding dramas more often than others. For instance, Eaglehawk, Crow, Bat, Moon, Sun are familiar mythical characters in many parts of Australia. The Wotjobaluk believed that in the beginning there was only one sex and that Ngunung-ngunnut, the Bat, who determined to remedy the situation, turned his companion into a woman. This motif turns up again in a myth from the Bloomfield river of northern Queensland told to Miss U. McConnel. Mali the Bat was elder brother of Gidja the Moon and this explained why he flew before him, but it was Gidja who made the first woman. He did this by taking Yalungur the Eaglehawk and castrating him. Then he made a baby out of the bark of the bloodwood and milwood trees and inserted it into the woman. He was much feared by his fellows but his undoing was brought about by Kallin-kallin the Chickenhawk who decided that Gidja should be punished for choosing Yalungur who was of the same moiety or social grouping as himself. One day when Gidja was crossing a bridge of lawyer vine Kalling-kallin cut the vine and Gidja fell into the rapids and was swept away. Each time he came to the surface he cried out: 'I am not dead.' At length he reached the seashore and finally he passed into the sky to give men a light at night as the moon. Of course Kallin-kallin took Yalungur as his wife and all was well as they were of opposite moieties.


In eastern Australia some of the stories that explain how certain animals got their characteristic often share elements with similar tales from the islands, though the trickster motif is not so strong.

There is a story about a starfish, a koala and a bird, the native companion, who were envious of the whale's canoe. While the starfish deloused the whale's head the others made off in the canoe. When the whale discovered his loss he was very angry; he tore the starfish to sheds and flattened him so that he sank down to the ocean floor. But the starfish had cut the whale so badly that water spurted from his wounds as he gave chase. The koala used his strong arms to row hard and just as they reached the land the native companion trampled the canoe so that it sprang a leak and sank. Now it lies as a stone on the sea-floor at the mouth of Lake Illawarra, New South Wales.


In the Dreamtime the muramura wandered over the lands of the Dieri and the neighbouring territories. Their paths were found from Spencer's Gulf in the south, north to Lake Eyre and north again to south-west Queensland. Indeed two groups of muramura girls travelled as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria and were finally drawn up into the sky by a long hair cord. One lot became the Pleiades and the others became the stars of Orion's belt. These beliefs resemble those of eastern Australia but many stories about other muramura describe either how they turned to stone or how they changed into animal form and sank into the earth. These ideas are similar to those found amongst their neighbours to the west.

There are also different versions about the origin of man. Some said that the muramura creators made men by smoothing out the limbs of unformed creatures. Others claimed that the earth opened at Lake Perigundi and the totem animals came out unformed and without sense organs. They lay on the sandhills in the warm sun and gradually grew strong until they stood up as men and scattered over the country.

Australian aboriginal mystic bora ceremony

The muramura, like Dreamtime beings elsewhere, were responsible for introducing initiation rites. Two muramura came from the north and while they hunted one brother dived into the water after a boomerang which had gone astray. He accidentally circumcised himself on its sharp edge. The other brother also wanted to become a 'perfected man', so he did the same thing. Then they travelled about the country saving many initiates from death by introducing the use of the stone knife instead of the firestick for the operation of circumcision. Another myth with an almost identical plot told how two other young muramura were the first to sub-incise themselves. These two still wander the desert caring for lost children and returning them to camp.

It is not surprising to find that these desert people had an apocryphal myth about the possibility of world destruction by a dust storm. It involved a most important muramura, Darana the Rainmaker. On one occasion when he 'sang' the rain the water rose first to his knees then to his hips and neck. At last he placed his throwing stick in the ground and the water receded. The desert became carpeted with flowers and the wichetty grubs multiplied. He gathered them in, dried them and packed them into bags which he hung in the trees. Then he went on a journey. In his absence two youths, the dara-ulu, threw their boomerangs at the bags, breaking one of them. The dust of the grubs flew far and wide and obscured the sun while the other bags shone with a brightness that could be seen at a great distance. The muramura returned and strangled the Dara-ulu. Darana restored them to life again but the others again strangled them. They became two heart-shaped stones. The Dieri kept these carefully wrapped in feathers and fat and believed that if they were scratched perpetual hunger would result, no matter how much was eaten. If they were destroyed, they said, the red dust would cover the earth and all would die in terror. At rainmaking ceremonies these stones are reverently smeared with fat and their songs are sung.


Several of the Aranda totemic ancestors had more dominant roles than the rest. There were the two culture-bearing Euro brothers who invented the spear and the spear thrower and also taught the art of cooking on hot coals. Then there were the Lakabara or hawk-men who came from the north, and instituted the rite of circumcision and the four-section system of social grouping, and the Tjilpa or native cat-men who came from the south and introduced the further rite of sub-incision.

Most of these totemic ancestors were 'all-powerful fathers', especially amongst the strongly patrilineal northern Aranda, and in the analysis of Aranda myths T. G. H. Strehlow has revealed how strongly the masculine principle of creation is expressed in Aranda thought. In Aranda Tradition he retells how the primal ancestor of the wichetty grub totemic group is said to have rested, without moving, in a state between sleeping and waking for countless ages at the foot of a witchetty tree. While he lay there the grubs swarmed over his body. Occasionally he brushed some gently aside but they returned and crept about him, and bored into him. Time passed. Then one night something fell from his armpit, and taking human shape grew rapidly. The father woke - but only for a moment - to see his firs-born son. Then he slept again and produced many other sons in the same way. These young men dug the grubs out of the roots, roasted them and ate them. They also changed into grubs and back again into men. then one day a stranger came. He was a witchetty grub ancestor from another centre, and he wanted to exchange some of his thin grubs for the fat grubs of Lukara. When his request was refused he stole a bundle and ran off. The sleeping father instantly felt the loss as a sharp pain in his body. He rose and stumbled after the thief but after taking only a few steps he sank down. His body became a living tjurunga and so did the bodies of all his sons. It was these tjurunga that thenceforth contained the living essence of things classed as witchetty grub, whether animal or human. It is this life force which enters a woman as a spirit child and it is this life force which can be tapped by ritual handling of a tjurunga or any other sacred object which represents the totemic ancestor.

The attribution of the procreative act to man without the assistance of woman is a recurring theme in Aranda myths. In many of these the father-son relationship has strong Oedipal connotations for the father is frequently described as being physically handicapped, lame or blind, and very often his injury or death has been caused by his son. Strehlow has recorded the northern Aranda myth which tells how the native cat ancestors introduced the initiation rite of sub-incision. At the end of the ceremony the initiated sons danced round the old Namatjirea for the last time, then they stripped the ceremonial objects and destroyed the ground. The eldest son cast a spell which destroyed his father's sight, and they left him, a pitiful half-wit, alone on the ceremonial ground. The motive given for the young man's action was that the old man refused him equal status in the ceremonies. This is a particularly interesting reason when one considers that the admission of young Aranda men to the group's secret life depended on their willingness to submit to the harsh disciplines enforced by the older men.


The Walbiri inhabit a desert region which lies to the west of the north-south road in the central section of the Northern Territory. Their most important Dreamtime spirits are the two wanderers, the Mamandabari. They are either referred to as two brothers or as father and son. They rose out of the ground in the north and began to travel south across Walbiri country, sometimes flying above ground and sometimes travelling under it. They made bullroarers and instituted an important complex of revelationary ceremonies. These included sub-incision and a ritual involving the digging of pits, the erection of poles and the one of firebrands: all elements to be found in the fertility cults practised by the tribes to the north. 

As they journeyed they sang of other dreamings they encountered: the ibis, the rain, the whistling duck, the galah parrots and the stinging red ants. They passed the yellow ochre deposits formed by the falling feathers of the budgerigars of the dreaming, and they came to the red ochre deposits made by falling red galah feathers. When they passed into southern Walbiri country they ceased to perform their ritual, so it is not yet practised by the people of that district. At last they reached the spinifex country beyond Haast Bluff where their legs were so badly cut by the coarse desert grass that they decided to return home. They travelled mostly  underground until they neared their own territory and then, although they were almost exhausted, they resumed their ritual performances wherever they stopped. 'at last they saw distant campfires burning and thought friends were at hand. Alas, they were the fires of the wild dog-men who pursued and overtook the heroes and destroyed them. Their hearts fell as stones by a waterhole and the dingoes built a fire over their victims' torn bodies to hide the fearful evidence; then they silently loped away. The little budgerigar had been attracted by the terrible commotion and had witnessed the slaughter; he mourned his friends and travelled about the country telling others of their fate.

This myth, recorded by the anthropologist M. J. Meggitt, provides an example of the way in which ideas are diffused, and elements from different sources coalesce. For these male totemic ancestors, so typical of the desert region, are said to have introduced the ritual of the fertility cults like the Kunapipi practised farther north. Indeed, the name given to the cult they sanction is Gadjari, meaning Senior Woman, and the bullroarers which are swung are given the same name.


In the northern Kimberley district of north-western Australia the primal beings of the Ungud (Dreamtime) were called wondjiina. One such was Warana the Eaglehawk who left two eggs in a next and went kangaroo hunting. while he was away the eggs were stolen by Wodoi the Rock Pigeon. Warana guessed who the thief was and gave chase but the pigeon's friend, the owl Djunggun, killed him with his throwing stick and boomerang. Warana turned into a rock painting and the two eggs became two stones outside the cave. Another Wondjiina, Walangada, was a being of undefined form. His name means 'belonging to the sky' and he went up there and became the Milky Way. This was remarkable for a wondjiina because almost all of them became rock paintings and their spirits descended into a sacred waterhole nearby, where their life-giving energy was available for all time. The paintings were retouched at the end of the dry season to bring rains, and to stimulate the renewal of fertility in nature. In some galleries paintings of animals and plants were also retouched to bring about their increase. A dead person's bones were painted with red ochre and placed in the cave of his clan's wondjiina while his spirit descended into the nearby pool and returned to the Ungud to await reincarnation.

In spite of their individual careers the fundamental unity of all these wondjiina primal beings is illustrated by the nature of the paintings. although they range in size from a few feet to sixteen feet they share common characteristics: they are painted against a white ground and the head of each is delineated by a strong band of red or yellow, creating a halo effect. The eyes and nose are linked and there is no mouth, for apparently if the wondjiina had a mouth it would rain incessantly. When the wondjiina are depicted as full length figures their bodies are usually painted with white stripes to represent falling rain.

Sir George Grey, the first European to see the strange paintings in 1838, interpreted their strange appearance as that of haloed priests wearing robes. Later European explorers thought that they must have been the work of oriental visitors of long ago. The aborigines say that the wondjiina made the paintings themselves. Experts certainly regard the paintings as ancient but there is no reason to doubt that they were the work of the aborigines for they are completely bound up with aboriginal traditions. The style in which they are painted is also in accord with the way in which the aborigines generally represented personalised natural phenomena as anthropomorphs.

Australian aboriginal male

What then was the natural phenomena that supplied the inspiration for these figures? W. Arndt has noticed how massed heads of wondjiina resemble the banks of cumulo-nimbus clouds that herald the arrival of the rainy season. Backed by the sun or lightning each 'head' of the cloud seems to have a dark headband and a surrounding halo of light. He also draws attention to the Hopi Indian's use of the shape of the cumulo-0nimbus cloud as a rain symbol.

The wondjiina are frequently to be found near paintings of the Rainbow Snake, known in this area as Galeru (Kaleru, Galaru), Ungud or Ungur. Indeed they are often identified as one and the same and certainly share the same concern with the regularity of the rain and the production of spirit children. Designs and figures symbolising lightning, thunder and other storm phenomena are frequently to be found alongside the wondjiina. One gallery of wondjiina-like figures are called Garirinji and it was believed that if these were activated they had the power to unleash tornadoes.


For those who have seen the astonishing way a desert blossoms after rain, it is not surprising that of all the elemental forces of nature it is the rain that the aborigines most frequently associate with regeneration. Almost overnight, after the first rains have fallen in inland and northern Australia, the harsh ground is clothed with tender green. Before the rain the air is heavy and moisture-laden, the clouds bank up and the horizon is lit by distant lightning. But these signs do not always mean that relief is at hand. In this country the tension can build up over days, weeks, months, without rain actually falling, so it is again not surprising to find a proliferation of Dreamtime beings identified with rain-associated phenomena; the thunder, the lightning, the rainbow, the rain clouds and the rain itself, as well as frogs that will appear when the pools are full of water again. 

Aborigines at an outback mission station, 1924

At an important rain-dreaming centre of the Wardaman at Delamere on the Daily River in the Northern Territory, much of the ritual was apparently focused on the Lightning Brothers whose images look down from the walls of a rock shelter. The important initiation rite of sub-incision was said to have been introduced by them. The two brothers fought over the charms of Cananda, wife of the elder brother Tcabuinji. The younger brother Wagjadbulla was killed, some say by his brother's boomerang, others say by his stone axe. In the painting he twelve-foot figure of the young brother towers over the elder who carries a forked object beneath his left arm. One inquirer was told by his aboriginal informant that this was Cananda, but others claimed it was the axe used as the weapon and that Tcabunji could split whole trees with it when he struck as lightning.

The axe certainly seems to be a symbol commonly associated with lightning, not only in Australia but also in Europe and south-east Asia. At Oenpelli in the Northern Territory drawings of the Lightning Man, Mamaragan, show him with stone axes on his joints. He lived at the bottom of a waterhole in the dry season and in the wet season he rode on the tops of the thunderclouds. His voice was the thunder and he struck down with his stone axes at the trees and the people. In eastern Australia similar characteristics were sometimes attributed to Daramulun, whose voice was the thunder. Some rock galleries show him in conjunction with stone axes and other weapons.

Other design motifs which the painting of the Lightning Brothers shares with those of rain-associated beings are their body stripes representing rain, and their lack of a mouth. Attached to their heads are two objects which are more like horns or antennae than ears. Some say that these make them like the gecko, the small lizard that can walk on overhanging surfaces, as the lightning does when it crosses the sky. Curiously enough the Rainbow Snake, (the most important of all rain-associated beings, is sometimes described as having horns, and outside Australia mythical horned beasts are associated with lightning.


The iridescence of pearl shell, the glitter of quartz crystal, the phosphorescence of the sea at night, sunlight trapped in water droplets above a waterfall, these things are for the aborigines the signs and symbols of the Great Snake whose body arches across the sky as the rainbow. On the earth he makes his home in the deep rock pools and waterholes which are the reservoirs of the life-giving rain he has sent down. As his tracks cross the continent his name changes from the north-west and across into the Northern Territory he is known as Galeru, Ungar, Wonungur, Worombi, Wonambi, Wollunqua, Yurlunggur, Julungguf, Langal and Muit; in Queensland his names include Yero and Taipan and in the south-east he is Mindi and Karia, and so on.

In the dreamtine the Rainbow Snake co-existed with the other totemic ancestors; he shared with them the shaping of the landscape, particularly the great waterways, and he produced spirit children. Yet he stands out above the rest because of his particular concern with the regeneration of nature and human fertility. In the Mother cults of Arnhem Land the Great Snake is sometimes identified with the mother herself, sometimes with her male companion, sometimes with both. In many places 'his' sex is not clear and in Australia as in other parts of the world the snake symbolises the ambisexuality of the creator.

There is also a creation-destruction or good-evil polarity about the concept of the Rainbow Snake. His power is so awe inspiring that it must not be meddled with. Pregnant and menstruating women must take particular care not to defile his pools and in the north-east young men who have been recently sub-incised fear to drink from the river in case Keleru seizes them. This association between the Rainbow Snake and blood is a strong theme in the Wikmunkan myth about Taipan, as it was told to U. McConnel.

Taipan's son stole the wife of the blue-tongued lizard. The angry husband caught the pair and killed the boy. He tore his heart out and gave it to the father. Taipan made a gift of the blood to man and as a consequence he controls the physiological processes of men; the circulation of the blood and women's menstrual flow. Taipan was considered to be a great healer and sorcerer. His anger was roused particularly by the breaking of the rules which govern relationships between the sexes. If incest w2as committed or a woman withheld her promised daughter Taipan threw his blood-red knife, which he held by a long string, and the thunder roared and the lightning flashed.

Disease as well as flood is an expression of the Great Snake's wrath. When smallpox was introduced by the Europeans the aborigines near Melbourne called it the scale of Mindi. In the late eighteen-forties there was considerable excitement because it was believed that Mindi was coming and not even friendly settlers would be spared the horrors of the plague.

Rainmakers and medicine men can tap the destructive and the healing powers of the Great Snake by manipulating objects like quartz crystal and pearl shell from which emanate his power. In the north-west the medicine man's initiation into this art involved a journey to the sky on the back of the Rainbow Snake. Only medicine men would dare to venture into a pool sacred to the Rainbow Snake.

This fear of the Rainbow Snake gives rise to an element of propitiation in the aborigine's approach to him. In the initiation ceremonies of eastern Arnhem Land it is said that Julunggul swallows the young boys. The implication is that by letting her do so the rest of the camp is saved from destruction. But even in this role the duality of her character is evident because the great snake later vomits up the boys - a symbolic rebirth that marks their transition from childhood to manhood. 


In a myth told by the Murinbata of the north-west of the Northern Territory of W. Stanner, Kunmanggur the Rainbow Snake was cast as a powerful father figure whose authority and sexual supremacy was challenged by Tjinimin the Bat. The women he controlled were described as his daughters the green parrot women. One day the two girls sought their father's permission to go in search of food. No sooner had they left the camp than their brother who lusted after them also left on the pretext that he was going to visit his relatives, the4 flying fox-people. Instead he followed his sisters and forced his attentions on them, using them cruelly. The following day the girls det3rmined to have their revenge. They crossed the river bed ahead of him and then, turning, they 'sang' the hornets to come and sting him and the tide to sweep over him. Tjinimin was carried away but after a while he struggled out on to dry land. Seeing the girls' fire at the top of a cliff he again approached them. They agreed to throw down a rope to pull him up. He began to climb and just as he reached the top they cut the rope. He fell to the rocks below, breaking all his bones. But that was not the end of Tjinimin. His own magic songs restored his bones and he tested his power by cutting off his nose and restoring it again.

Assured of his power he next planned the murder of his father. For his part Kunmanggur must have been aware of Tjinimin's infamous conduct because the green parrot women had returned to the camp, but is not explicitly mentioned and the plot continues to unfold with primal inevitability.

Tjinimin's deception continued; he made a spear which he pretended belonged to his father. When he returned to camp he kept it hidden. On the way he invited all the people to a big ceremony and fired the hilltops to announce its commencement. The famous song-man, the Diver Bird, came and Kunmanggur played the drone pipe while Tjinimin led the dancing. He danced so as to arouse the women's desire and then, at the peak of his performance, he drew forth the spear and slew his father. Instantly all the dancers were transformed into flying foxes and birds and flew away crying with grief. Tjinimin fled - none dared to stop him.

The old man went from place to place seeking ways to staunch his blood and heal the wound. Wherever he rested life-giving water welled up. In one place he left the shape of his body and his footprints on the rock wall, in others he left his possessions; his stone axe, fishing net and forehead band. At last he came to the sea, and entering it he gathered the fire of the world and placed it on his head as a headdress. Slowly it dawned on the watchers that he intended to go down, carrying the fire with him. too late the last brand was snatched away; it had already gone out. Then Pilirin the Kestrel gave fire back to men by using two fire-sticks. This had never been done before.

This powerful vision of the founding drama as a primal tragedy is a compelling comment on the human condition as it appears to the Murinbata. W.Stanner, to whom this myth was told, defined the underlying theme as one of 'perennial goodness with suffering'. Furthermore he found that the more details he sought about Kunmanggur the more this powerful image conjured up by the myth receded into ambiguity. Sometimes Kunmanggur the Rainbow Snake appeared to be either bi-sexual, or a woman; even when he was described as male he had the breasts of a woman. There is also obvious phallic symbolism, in the belief that the rainbow was formed by the water he spat from his drone pipe and that this water also carried the spirit children and the young flying foxes he made.

Elsewhere in Arnhem Land the theme of the Rainbow Snake was frequently an important element in the myth which validated the ritual of the fertility cult. Amongst the Murinbata themselves it was unaccompanied by a rite, their most important revelationary ritual being sanctioned by the myth of Kalwadi, the Old Woman. Stanner suggests that there may be an historical explanation for htis shift in emphasis from the father figure to the 'Mother of us All', for it parallels an apparently recent change in the system of social organisation from a patrilineal to a matrilineal emphasis.


Along the coastal fringe of the Northern Territory the sub-tropical growth and the plentiful supply of fish, dugong, turtle and crocodile, as well as the great variety of wild fowl and small game makes nature appear more generous than she seems in many other parts of the continent. Yet the rhythm of life in this tropical region is bound to the endless cycle of dry and wet seasons which regulates the abundance of the food resources and inspires the deep concern with fertility that dominates the religious cults of the area.

In the days before European settlement, the north-west monsoons which bring the wet season also brought contacts with the outside world. The Malays and Macassans came down in their praus to trade and fish and retu4rnedd with the south-east winds laden with trepang and pearl shell. Before them had come the legendary golden-skinned Baijini who may have been sea gipsies of the Malay archipelago, and who were sometimes described by the aborigines as the contemporaries of their own ancestral beings who were also said to have come from across the sea.

In western Arnhem Land the Mother-Who Made Us All, called by some tribes Waramurungundju and others Imberombera, came out of the sea from the direction of Indonesia. She made the landscape and from her body she produced many children, animals and plants which she distributed. She assigned a language to each group of people. On the other side of Arnhem Land, R. M. Berndt recorded the songs the Alawa people sing of the coming of the Great Mother, Kunapipi, to the mouth of the Roper River:

Tidal water flowing, white foam on the waves.
Fresh water from the rains flows into the river.
There are the paperbark trees: their soft bark
falls into the water...
Rain falls from the clouds...
Waters of the river are swirling...
She, Kunappi, emerges, and walks on dry land.


North of Roper river, also on the eastern coast, Laindjung rose out of the sea, at Blue Mud Bay, his face foam-stained and his body patterned with salt water marks. These patterns and the accompanying ritual he gave to the jiridja moiety. For in this north-east corner of Arnhem Land the Wulamba people classify everything in the universe as belonging to either the dua or the jiridja moiety. This division was laid down in the wongar or Dreamtime by the Djanggawul beings, two sisters and a brother who crossed the sea from Bralgu in the east and landed where Port Bradshaw is now. Each moiety owns its own myths and ritual and is responsible for initiating the ceremonies and acting the principle roles, but members of both moieties participate in the cult activities so that the arrangement is a way of sharing ceremonial responsibilities rather than a division. Of the two myth complexes those that relate to the Djanggawul creative beings are certainly the most important. Their journey is celebrated in a great cycle of some 500 songs rich in cryptic and symbolic imagery to which the translations and annotations of R. M. Berndt in Djanggawul provide a key.

The eternally pregnant Djanggwul (Djanggau, Djunkgao) sisters are a dual manifestation of the Fertility Mother. The cycle begins with an evocative descriiption of the two women, their brother and a companion, Bralbral, paddling along, following the path of the morning star which guides them in their journey from Bralga, the dua island home of the dead. (The Wulamba believe that the morning star is really a ball of seagull feathers attached to a long string which is played out by the spirits.) With them they carry the conical plaited ngainmara mat, the sacred dilly bag and the rangga emblems to use in their sacred ritual. The words of the first song recreate the scene.

1. Djanggawul, look back; and see the rays
of light leading back to our island of
Shine that falls on the paddle as it's dipped
into and drawn from the sea:
Shine that spreads from the Star's rays,
from Bralgu.
The Morning Star skimming the sea's surface,
sent by the dancing spirits there,
Shine following us from Bralga, like a feathered
ball with string attached.
Foam and bubbles rise to the sea's surface:
a large wave carries us on the crest.
The roar of the sea, the sound of our paddling,
the spray of th4e waves, its salty smell!
We carry with us the sacred mat within which
like the sacred rangga objects.

In both the songs and the ritual the mat represents the womb; the rangga are sometimes phallic symbols and sometimes identified with the children the sisters produce. In some versions, the sisters are themselves identified with the sun.

As the sun came up and warmed their backs they likened its rays to the red parakeet-featherd string with which they decoratged the rangga. After they arrived at the Place of the Sun, the present Port Bradshaw, the party began to walk overland. Wherever Djanggawul thrust his mauwalan, or walking stick-rangga, into the ground water welled up. The same thing happened when the sisters thrust their yam stick-ranggas into the ground, and when they used the tree-rangga trees sprang up. but their most important activity was the removal of the children from the mat and the dilly bag and from the sisters' wombs, for they were constantly being made pregnant by the Djanggawul brother.

They left animals and plants for the people they made and they also left them sacred rangga emblems and taught them the nara ceremonies. They not only met other ancestral beings but also the Baijini whom they forced to move.

The women played the principal part in all these activities until one day they left their sacred objects in the main camp while they went to gather shellfish. The brother and his companions returned to camp and stole the sacred paraphernalia. The whistle of a mangrove bird warned the sisters that something was wrong and fearing a fire had burnt their possessions they hurried back. They discovered the men's tracks and followed them but as they drew near the men the latter began to beat the sticks and chant the sacred songs. The women drew back afraid. The power to perform the sacred ritual had bypassed from them to the men, who have retained it ever since. In Djanggawul, in the 140th song, the sisters sing:

Let us kneel down in the mud, crawling
We leave it for them, for our younger
We shall grand the cycad nut, preparing the
bread for them, for our Brother!
We shall whiten our hands with flour, for
it is better that way...
With our hands we shall hold the grinding
stone; we shall hang from our foreheads
our bags of 'coffee' tree fibre, collecting
We leave that ritual for them for they want
it that way.

At the beginning of the journey the women had elongated genitals so that, in a sense, they embodied the male and female principle in nature but in the course of the journey the brother shortened these and the pieces became sacred rangga. After the theft of the sacred objects the final symbolic transfer of their power occurred when he but them for the last time and made them like 'proper women'. As the Djanggawul journeyed along the northern Arnhem Land coast towards the setting sun they continu3ed their procreative activities and established the rules by which the people they made should live.

The idea that the women controlled the religious life until the sacred paraphernalia was stolen by the men or handed over to them, is a recurring theme in aboriginal myths.

In the nara ceremonies in which the Djanggawul story is re-lived the bough shade or hut on the sacred ground represents both the ngainmara mat and the womb of the mother. In it are stored the sacred rangga which men have made 'the same' as the originals. The ritual is revelationary in intent, designed to lead the fully initiated man deeper into the sacred life. But the women and the uninitiated are also involved, for in the ngainmara ceremony which is performed in the main camp, they are gathered together and hidden underneath mats. As the men dance round them poking at them with sticks and spears they wriggle in response like children in the womb. The climax comes with their emergence from under the mat re-living in their actions the primal birth of their ancestors from the wombs of the Djanggawul sisters.


The Wawalag or Wauwalak sisters whose story is told in north-eastern Arnhem Land are sometimes described as the daughters of the elder Djanggawul sister, but although their myth substantiates the fertility cult of the area and they are concerned with fertility they are not creators. The important incident in their story is their encounter with the great python or Rainbow Snake Yurlunggur, or Julunggul.

In the Milingimbi version of the story as told to L. Warner, the sisters were said to have come from the south after having had incestuous relations with their clansmen. One of them was carrying a baby boy. As they travelled they named the animals and plants and spoke different languages in each territory they passed through. After a while the younger sister gave birth to a girl. They continued on towards the sea until unwittingly they camped beside Yurlunggur's waterhole. They prepared their food but as soon as they placed each animal and plant on the fire it jumped out and dived into the waterhole because it had taken on the sacredness of the well. Then the elder sister went to fetch water and profaned the pool with her menstrual blood. The great snake rose up in anger and the water spilled from the well and flooded the countryside - the rain fell. At last the women realised their danger and tried to stop the rain and the advance of the great snake towards them by singing and dancing. Whenever they paused he moved forward. At last they fell asleep and he swallowed them. Again he raised himself to the sky and all the other great pythons of the other centres also raised themselves up. The great snakes talked together about the ritual they shared although they spoke different languages. Then they told each other what they had just eaten. When it came to Yurlunggur's turn he was ashamed and at first refused to say, but at last he admitted to having eaten the two sisters and their children. Then he fell down, splitting the ground, and spewed up the women and children. Green ants bit them revived and them. Again he swallowed them and again he regurgitated them, and each time he rose up and fell down he made a ceremonial ground for each of the great rituals with which this myth is associated. The most important of these ceremonies are the Djunggawon or Djungguan, the Kunapipi or Gunabibi, and the Ngurlmak, or Ulmark. All of them are both initiatory and revelationary in intent, although the Djunggawon is concerned particularly with circumcision.  In each the central theme of the myth, namely the swallowing and regurgitation of the sisters by the snake is ritually represented. In the Kunapipi the ceremonial ground stands for the body of the great snake and a hole is dug to represent the sacred well. Later a cresent-shaped trench is dug which is the hollow made by the great snake's fall, and also symbolises the womb of the Mother.

In some variants of the myth the great python is said to be the women's brother. In others it is female, Julunggul for example, and is therefore more easily identified with the image of the swallowing - regurgitating mother of the ritual and of other myths. In the Djunggawon the great snake is represented by the trumpet Yurlunggur (Julunggul). In the Kunapipi the great snake's name is Muit. In the same ceremony the voice of the snake is the sound of the bullroarer and is called Mumuna. This is an alternative name for Kunapipi, the Great Mother, and it is also one of the names given to the Lightning Snake. In the Ngurlmak the same great snake is called Uwar, represented by a hollow log drum.

One can take any one of these names and establish links with other myths and rites throughout the whole northern section of the Northern Territory, thus demonstrating not only the dynamic nature of the cults of the area but also the common concern with fertility which flows through them and finds expression in the interlocking images of the Great Mother and the Rainbow Snake.


In western Arnhem Land Urbar is the name of a cult, and the beating of the urbar drum summons the men to the ceremonial ground. A low whistling sound introduces the first dancers and this is said to be the wind whistling through the horns of the Rainbow Snake as he raises his body up and across the sky to announce the coming of the wet season.

One part of the ceremony re-enacts the killing of a mother and daughter by Jurawadbad because the daughter who was betrothed to him refused to sleep with him. He made a hollow urbar and hid inside it in snake form. The women came in search of small game and peered into the log. When the daughter looked the snake shut his eyes and she saw only darkness, when this mother looked he opened his eyes and as she saw right through the thought it was empty. The women placed their hands in the log and were bitten and died.

Because the Wawalag sisters came from the south they are sometimes identified with the Mungamunga girls, who in the south of Arnhem Land are described as the daughters of Kunapipi. this is the Kunapipi who lends her name to the Kunapipi-Kalwadi-Kadjari complex of ceremonies which are perhaps the most widespread of the mysteries or cults of the Great Mother. In recent years it has extended west from the Roper River in a wide sweep that encompasses almost all Arnhem Land and continues across the central-west of the Northern Territory into Western Australia.
In the myth told by the Mara of the roper River area to R. M. Berndt, Kunapipi exploited the charm of her daughters to ensnare young men whom she killed and ate. When she tried to vomit them up only the bones appeared and the ants weren't able to revive them. This state of affairs continued for some time until a very powerful man, Eaglehawk, decided to investigate the disappearance of so many men. He caught Kunapipi in the act and killed her. As she died she cried out, and her sound entered every tree. Eaglehawk cut a bullroarer from a tree, and  in swinging it gave back her cry as 'mumuna'. This became her secret name in the ritual. Now men enter the sacred ceremonial ground which represents her womb and later re-emerge as new men.

In the Murinbata myth of the Old Woman, Kalwadi, as told to W. Stanner, the rebirth of the children was made possible by her death. Mutjingga, for what was her name, was left in charge of the children. She tended them carefully and when the time came for them to rest she made a sleeping place  in the shade. She pretended to look for lice in one child's hair and swallowed her whole. Then she swallowed another nine children and left the camp. On their return, the parents were horrified to find their children missing and searched for the guardian-grandmother. Splitting into two parties they followed the river on opposite banks. At first the water was clear but then it became murky and they knew they were coming closer to her, so they hurried ahead and then turned back to face her. As they saw her big eyes appear above the surface Left Hand pierced her legs with his spear and Right Hand broke her neck with his club. To her cries of protest they replied: 'Yours was the fault.' For they truly regretted killing her. They cut her open and removed the children alive from her womb, because this was where they had gone when she swallowed them. They washed, painted, and adorned them and retu4rned them to their mothers who cried out: 'She swallowed you.'

This too is a tragic theme. It is the validating myth of the highest revelationary ceremony of the Murinbata called the Punj. The young neophytes approach this with fear and awe because they believe they are about to be swallowed and vomited up by the Old Woman. In these mysteries Kalwadi's voice is the sound of the swinging bullroarer and the blood of the mother, with which they are smeared, is supplied by their potential wife's brother. They are transformed by the experience and emerge from the sacred ground to a new adult role in the society.


Aboriginal man believes that after death at least some part of a man's spiritual essence is re-united with the Eternal Dreaming. Sometimes this implies a return to the site laid down by the totemic ancestor but over most of eastern Australia the spirit rejoined the heroes in the sky world. The people of the lower Murray river district believed that Ngurunderi established the route the soul should take when he journeyed to Kangaroo Island off 4he South Australian coast and then went up into the sky. Two ideas which are found elsewhere in Oceania also occurred along the east coast. They are the belief in the existence of a Leaping Place for souls and the belief that the land of the dead was reached by crossing a hazardous log or tree bridge. In parts of the north-west it was thought that the land of the dead lay over the sea to the west. In north-eastern Arnhem Land dual spirits are ferried to the island of Bralgu by Ngnug the paddle maker, while jiridja spirits journey to Badu, an island somewhere in the Torres Straits. There they are welcomed by the Kultana, or Guldana, whose duty it is to light fires to guide them to their destination.

In spite of this assurance that the spirit is eternal, death is still regarded as a crisis. Few deaths are thought to be from natural causes. An inquest is held and retribution sought. A part of a man's spirit may also linger round his old haunts and came trouble.

The Aranda affirmed that a primal murder was the explanation of the origin of death. When the curlews emerged in the Dreamtime the women came out first, followed by the men. The first man was thought to have followed too closely behind the women so the others killed him by pointing a magic bone at him. After they buried him the women began to dance round the grave and slowly he broke through the crust again. Seeing this the magpie flew down and speared him, then trampled him back into the ground again. The grief-stricken women flew away as curlews and mankind lost the chance of becoming immortal. Throughout Australia curlews are associated with death and mourning, no doubt because of their mournful cry.

Amongst the Murinbata it was Crow who robbed man of the chance to return to life. Crab showed how life could be renewed by changing one's shell but Crow said that it took too long and, after pecking out it took too long and, after pecking out Crab's eyes, fell down dead.

The Wonguri-Mandigai song cycle of the Moon-bone from Arnhem Bay tells how Moon, a man, lived with his sister, Dugong, by the side of the claypan which, in the rainy season, becomes a billabong. Dugong complained that the place was dangerous because the leeches bit her as she searched for edible roots. So one day she went into the sea and turned into a dugong. 'When I die', she said. 'I won't come back, but you may pick up my bones.'

Moon replied that he didn't want to die, that he would go into the sky. When he grew old he went down into the sea and threw his bones away, to be washed up as the nautilus shell. After three days he reappeared and gradually regained his size and strength by eating lotus and lily roots.

Once again it is R. M. Berndt who by his translation of this song-cycle has enabled us to share the beauty of the songs of the people who live beside the claypan and gather their foods and tell of the moon's death and renewal.

New the New Moon is hanging, having
cast away his bone:
Gradually he grows larger, taking on new
bone and flesh.
Over there, far away, he has shed his bone:
he shines on the place of the Lotus Root,
and the place of the Dugong,
On the place of the Evening Star, of the
Dugong's Tail, of the moonlit Claypan...
His old home gone, now the New Moon
grows larger;
Gradually growing, his new bone growing
as well.
Over there, the horns of the old reeding
moon bent down, sank into the place
of the Dugong:
His horns were pointing towards the place
of the Dugong.
Now the New Moon swells to fullness, his
bone grown larger.
He looks on the water, hanging above it,
at the place of the Lotus.
There he comes into sight, hanging above
the sea, growing larger and older...
There far away he has come back, hanging
over the clans near Milingimbi...
Hanging there in the sky above those clans...

These songs will probably not be sung beside the claypan for many more years for the link which binds aboriginal man to 'his country' is a fragile one, unlikely - even in northern Australia - to survive as he is absorbed into modern Australian society. But a people who can express their beliefs with such poetry and rich imagination can hardly be dismissed. They must be permitted to make their own contribution - indeed we cannot afford to reject the legacy of the timeless ideas expressed in their myths.

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