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Art and the sacred in Aboriginal Society

Categories: Art, Culture, Environment

by: Bakchos
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While traditional and authentic Aboriginal culture in South-Eastern Australia went into terminal decline with the arrival of European settlers in 1788, the Aboriginal tribes of Arnhem Land in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory were able to maintain their traditional way of life until relatively recently. It is for this reason that I look to Arnhem Land as a source of authentic Aboriginal art; art that is not purely a means of documentation, but a spiritual connection with another plane.

The artists of Arnhem Land have had the longest running show in history, commencing at least 50,000 years ago and continuing uninterrupted until 1956. In June of that fateful year a young Czech artist by the name of Karel Kupka visited Arnhem Land, an arrival which heralded the end of traditional Aboriginal art in the region and the recognition by UNESCO of the significance of this art.[1]

The 1940’s and 1950’s witnessed an increase in the power of the missions in Arnhem Land which paralleled the demise of traditional Aboriginal culture as the government pursued its assimilation policies. While traditional culture may have changed, the rock art remains; the spirits may have left, but their footprints remain. These paintings are a symbol of the impact that time and Western Civilization is making on the age old religions and cultural life of Australia’s Aborigines.

On a journey north, I found myself in Arnhem Land in the company of a local elder, Mick Madden; a quietly spoken and knowledgeable “keeper of the sacred sites”, we were in search of Barramundi Dreaming. Having caught a glimpse of a large mimi (spirit) figure we decided to climb the face of the rugged escarpment forming the border between Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. The mimi was painted in white ochre on the ceiling of a cave. Inside we found totemic figures of kangaroos, fish and snakes. This was the first of a number of dramatic finds we were to make during the course of our adventure into Australia’s remote past, as we clambered over the seven hundred foot high escarpment. Virtually every overhang and cave boasted its own gallery. Even for Mick, many of our finds were new, which added significantly to his responsibilities as “keeper of the sacred sites”. For me, this adventure awakened my soul to my Aboriginal heritage with its rich mythology, art and song and to the interconnectedness of all humanity recorded in the countless rock galleries dotting our planet. As a result of my spiritual awakening, I sought and was granted initiation as a Wiradjuri man.

Many of the discoveries we made that day were obscured by trees and bushes. Some had faded with age, the intricacy of the original design lost. The paintings in red, tangerine and yellow, black and white depicted the totems and ceremonies (corroborees) of the authentic culture. In one large cave we found mimis, a red palm-tree, more corroboree scenes and a number of human figures engaged in sexual intercourse.[2] In other caves men were depicted spearing stingrays and kangaroos. A noteworthy feature were the numerous images of sea creatures such as dugong, stingrays, turtles and jelly-fish, despite being twenty kilometres from the sea. On the ceiling of a low overhang we found a barramundi outlined in yellow ochre, our first encounter with barramundi Dreaming.[3]

Due to the symbolic nature of Aboriginal art, many of the animals and fish were painted in “x-ray” style, with backbones and organs showing. This is typical of much of the art of west Arnhem Land which is linked to “increase ceremonies” held to ensure a plentiful supply food. The fur, scales and feathers were not edible and therefore not depicted. These ceremonies are particularly common in semi-desert regions, entailing rituals intended to ensure the abundance of various natural species. In this sense they are magical, since they have a definite aim in view; but they are also closely associated with the mythological and sacred background. The rituals are also part of an important fertility cult. Totemism as a feature of Aboriginal religion and law has been known for some time; it is an expression of the belief in the essential unity of all life, both animal and human, so that the fundamental life force may assume either human or animal shape. As Professor Elkin says, it is a “… philosophy which regards man and nature as one corporate whole for social, ceremonial and religious purpose.”[4]

Among the numerous mimis populating these galleries, we found an intriguing scene of what appeared to be a man with a wooden leg. Was this connected to an even more evocative scene we discovered a little further on of a man apparently wearing knee britches and carrying a telescope under his arm, together with flintlock pistols and muskets, a prophetic scene?

From the escarpment I caught a glimpse of the Adelaide River. Its sinuous twists over the broad landscape almost double back on itself … it is not surprising that Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, appears in so much Aboriginal mythology. A widely held belief among Arnhem Land Aborigines is that Ngalyod carved the rivers in his journeys across the land, his camps becoming billabongs.

The corroboree or ceremonial scenes painted on the walls of some of the galleries on the escarpment show the magico-religious aspects of Aboriginal dance. Though directed toward the achievement of sexual satisfaction, evidenced by the figures engaged in sexual intercourse, these ceremonies are also connected with religious mythology.

For many years, the basis for Aboriginal religion did not receive the attention it deserved, and it was not until the late 1940’s that the presence of a cult which has wide influence throughout the continent was identified. This cult is centered about the concept of an “old woman” (or sometimes a young woman), the essence of fertility, from whom mankind emerged in the eternal Dreamtime.[5] A similar cult is found throughout the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. While sadly it is now almost extinct in the south-eastern part of the continent, Mrs. Agnes Coe, a Wiradjuri elder from Cowra, New South Wales (NSW), relays stories of a similar cult in the Yass valley at the turn of the twentieth century. The Wiradjuri culture extended from central NSW to northern Victoria. Anecdotal evidence suggests that manifestations of this cult were prevalent throughout Wiradjuri and its neighboring cultures until European colonists arrived and disrupted the local Aboriginal Cultures.

In some areas of the Northern Territory, symbolic decorated images on a framework of brush and twigs with pearl-shell eyes, are used to represent ”the old woman” of the cult. The sacred dancing-places typify her uterus, from which mankind emerged. She is associated with Ngalyod, especially along the northern coast and the central western deserts. Ceremonial sexual intercourse, in some places, accompanies the theme of fertility, although the basic principles seem to be the same, the elaboration upon them varies according to locality.

There are a number of lengthy songlines associated with this cult. The dance and rituals which comprise the outward expression of the cult are equal in their execution and dramatic treatment to the best contemporary theatre. On the northern coast it is customary for one songman to perform solo in the sacred or non-sacred ceremonies, accompanied by the didjeridoo. In the north-eastern corner of Arnhem Land, due perhaps to Macassan influence[6], each song of a cycle is unusually long, composed in the ordinary clan dialect (or its esoteric variations) without condensation. Women know these songs, sung interspersed with comments of their own at such crises of life as birth, puberty, illness and death, but there are other versions of the songs sacred to initiated men.

An unusual feature of Arnhem Land, for which early Indonesian contact seems to have been responsible, is the carved wooden figures, male and female, that the men make for use in certain ceremonies.[7] They are painted, incised or both, carved to represent spirit beings, some with legs and arms, others of the earlier and more conventional “post” variety.

One of the keys to understanding the art of the Aborigines of Arnhem Land, is to recognise that Aborigines live on two inter-related planes – one physical the other metaphysical. So inter-related are these planes that they might be more exactly regarded as aspects of life. It is tempting to distinguish them as practical and symbolic respectively, but there is a sense in which both share elements of the other; they are not independent. The animals and plants are symbolic of the totemic bond between man and nature, between the present and the past; they are not only the source of sustenance, but the symbolic means by which man’s spirit moves on towards incarnation. Everything, including man, has its “shade” that remains when the shadow cast by sun or moon is no more. It is the inner shade, the soul, which leaves its mark on the land, the truest reflection more convincing than the corporeal substance that once left his legacy on a rock wall for others to find.

This universality of the shade implies the practical necessity of the symbolic and ritual approach to life. Unless the pre-existing souls became corporeal beings again, each in its own kind as animal, plant, man or landscape, there will be no physical existence. Hence, in order that all may live, Aborigines feel constrained, even while in the flesh, to cross into the spiritual plane. Nature herself presents the method for doing this. Just as the natural object, plant or body is the symbol and sacrament of the shade, so man’s approach must be in symbol. The rituals may be expressed in word, action, human decoration or art, engraved or painted objects. The rock faces of the escarpment record through the visual mediums of engraving and painting the sacred in Aboriginal society, through which the shade is re-born in outward form and remains present and potent as part of the eternal stream of the one life force and the Dreaming.

To fully appreciate these concepts it’s necessary to be present at a ceremony, to hear the songman chanting and tapping his sticks or boomerangs, setting the tempo and rhythm. Hear the didjeridoo or drone-pipe player in diapason tone giving depth and breadth to the rhythm, a base for the superstructure of song and stick-taps, of the accented exclamations, hisses, “breathings”, shouts and stamping of the dancers. See the drama, with stamping in time with the songman, arms and bodies expressing the theme of the chant in perfect time and representative movement. There indeed is the true chorus, bystanders included, clapping their hands or cupping their thighs to the beats. If it is not a men’s secret ceremony women may be seen on the edge of the dance-ground, bodies swaying, feet moving up and down, in and out, but always in the one place, their hands playing a string game, perhaps without string. All taking part are painted and adorned with patterns belonging to their various ceremonial groups symbolising their totems. Often the didjeridoo and tapping boomerangs may be painted. Secret rites also usually include painted or engraved symbolic objects of wood, stone or composite constitution which are used as a means of directing thoughts to the Dreamings, each pattern designed for a specific soul.

In the ritual dance we see the embodiment of the sacred art of Aboriginal Australia with its dance, singing and poetry as well as the visual arts of painting, engraving, molding, carving or sculpture. They are part of the symbolic Dreamtime, ensuring eternal life to nature and man. They are part of the mystic world, representing on the physical plane conceptions of this mystic world of shades and Dreamings, the virtue of which is expressed through symbol and sacrament. This dance with its connection to the art of the escarpment may yet bring the mimis back to reclaim their footprints.


A. P. Elkin, R. a. (1951). Art in Arnhem Land. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire.

Berndt, R. a. (1951). From Black to White in South Australia. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire.

Berndt, R. M. (1952). Kunapipi, a study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire.

Berndt, R. M. (Vol XVIII, No. 4). Sacred Figures of Ancestral beings of Arnhem Land. Oceania , 309 – 326.

Berndt, R. M. (1988). The Speaking Land, Myth And Story In Aboriginal Australia. Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia, Limited.

Berndt, R. M. (1976). Three Faces of Love. Sydney: Thomas Nelson (Australia) Limited.

Elkin, A. P. (No. 2). Studies in Australian Totemism. Ocaenia Monograph , 147.

Elkin, A. P. (1938). The Australian Aborigines. How to Understand Them. Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd.

Mountford, A. R. (1969). The Dawn Of Time, Australian Aboriginal Myth In Paintings. Sydney: Rigby Limited.

Mountford, A. R. (1965). The Dreamtime, Australian Aboriginal Myth In Paintings. Sydney: Rigby Limited.

Mountford, A. R. (1971). The First Sunrise, Australian Aboriginal Myths In Paintings. Sydney: Rigny Limited.

[1]“Aboriginal paintings – Arnhem land’ is the third volume in the UNESCO World Art Series.

[2] This scene is typical of other representations I have seen of the fertility cult of the “old woman” discussed later in this paper. This scene combined with the adjoining corroboree scenes suggests that this cave has a connection with the cult.

[3] The iconography of this painting is a clear reference to the Mangeri myth about how Barramundi found his Dreaming and made the East Alligator River, see for instance R. M. and C. H. Berndt, The Speaking Land, Penguin, Melbourne,  1995 p. 209

[4] A. P. Elkin, “Studies in Australian Totemism,” Oceania Monograph, No. 2, p. 147

[5] See A. P. Elkin op cit. this idea of time, which pervades aboriginal mythology and religion, supposes the past, the present and the future are at once simultaneous and eternal. See also R. M. Berndt, Kunapipi, a study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1951.

[6] R and C Berndt, From Black to White in South Australia, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1951. P 44.

[7] See, for instance, R. M. and C. H. Berndt, Sacred Figurers of Ancestral beings of Arnhem Land, Oceania, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, 309-326. A. P. Elkin, R and C. Berndt, Art in Arnhem Land, Cheshire, Melbourne, and University of Chicago Press, 1950.


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