Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Pole Structures                                                                                                                                                                       

The large jelmalandji that are constructed as part of the rituals of the Kunapipi, that occurred throughout the regions of Arnhem Land and the Roper River and the central west of the Northern Territory (R. Berndt, 1951a), are included in this category of art. They were about 15-25 ft high, the centre being about 2.5 ft wide. Wads of grass and paperbark were tied with twine to the solid pole, the outer surface being bark. Arm blood and red ochre are smeared on the bark to form a meandering pattern, with bird down or wild cotton stuck onto the designs. The Rock Python, Julunggul or the Rainbow, was the symbolic basis of this design. The swallowing of the Wawalag Sisters at Muruwul, the sacred site, by the Python is symbolised by a bunch of white cockatoo feathers on top of each pole.

There were usually 2 such structures (Berndt, 1651a: Plate VIII) beside the ganala, a crescent-shaped trench: the gulwiri (the wild coconut) palm is represented by the second. Gadjeri, the Fertility Mother, and Gadjiri or Kunapipi and the Rainbow Snake are said to be represented by the jelmalandji in the central western parts of the Northern Territory. Pearl shell eyes, as well as other decorations, have been reported being used on a jelmalandji structure from the latter area.

The northern Aranda used a tnatantja pole (nurtunja). The most common form comprises from 1 to 20 spears that have long bunches of grass bound to them with hair girdles, rings of downy feathers, in a design that varies, are stock onto the structure with blood, sometimes with a few tjurunga suspended from it, and eaglehawk feathers are used to decorate the apex. Some are described and illustrated, and some detail of the associated rituals, were provided by Spencer and Gillen (1938: 253-55, 298-300, 345-6, 360-4, 627, Figs. 63, 64, 68, 81, 82).

Poles were discussed, including one associated with the bandicoot totem, red and white down was stuck on with blood in alternating lines (Strehlow, 1947: 23-5 et passim). Experiences of the ancestral bandicoot are recorded in the associated myth. In this myth a great tnatantja sprung from amongst a bed of purple flowers growing over the Ilbalintja soak, it was a living creature with smooth skin like that of a man, and it was swaying above him (Strehlow, 1947: 7).

Others described had lines of down that symbolised the wattle tree roots that ancestral women were digging amongst in their search for ants (Spencer & Gillen, 1938: 325).

The kauaua ritual pole of the Aranda was required to be cut down and must not touch the ground as it was taken to the camp (Spencer & Gillen, 1938: 364, 370, 629; Strehlow, 1947: 77, 111). Human blood was smeared all over this pole, or it could be substituted by red ochre. The top of this pole was adorned in the same manner as the heads of the participants, as it represented it represented a human head.

Poles were used in many ceremonies and rituals, non-sacred as well as sacred, over most of northern Australia. Decorated sacred forked poles were  used in western Arnhem Land for usually men, but sometimes women, to climb and call invocations. One variety was the djebalmandji, associated with the Kunapipi. Along the north coast of the Northern Territory other poles, as well as hollow logs, were used in mortuary ceremonies. On Bathurst and Melville Islands the bugamani poles, grave posts, were large, heavy logs that could be up to 18 ft long (Basedow, 1913; Spencer, 1914: 230-9; Mountford, 1958: 60-121). According to Mountford these poles were regarded as gifts to the dead rather than a memorial. The shape of the designs painted on the trunks vary, and according to Mountford there is almost no reference to myths or totemic localities. The upper parts of the poles have been variously associated with forks or limbs of trees, women's breasts, rocks, windows and doors. Some take the shape of human figures. According to the Berndts, they were told that the shapes of the poles were highly conventionalised, and represent human beings, that the Berndts consider to be plausible when they are compared with Mountford's collection of figures (Mountford, 1958: Plates 36-41).

The banumbir, the Morning Star of the dua moity or the 'Macassan' mast of the jiridja moiety, decorated poles are used in eastern Arnhem Land (Warner, 1937/58: 412-49; Elkin, Berndt & Berndt, 1950: 92-100.) The 'Macassan' mast was intended to be a replica of the mast of a Malay prau, the symbolism being that the living were farewelling the dead as the Macassan praus raised their masts and spread their sails as they set out for home across the sea.

Bark coffins were painted with the clan designs of the dead person. In the final stage of some mortuary rites red ochre was rubbed on the collected, cleaned bones, after which they were placed in a hollow log resting on either 1 or 2 forked sticks. The mouth of the log was cut to shape and designs to symbolise an association with the mythology of a type of fish, animal, natural object or feature. Some dua moiety designs represent a whale, sawfish, porpoise, shark, wild honey, snake and stone. The jiridja moiety have a different range of designs, featuring such things as a ship's funnel, mast, cloud, a different kind of wild honey from that of the dua moiety, and various fish. Red ochre completely covers the log and it was painted with clan designs. As the log was between 12 and 20 ft long, the designs were painted by several artists. One term for the hollow log is a laragidi. It is left to stand in the main camp until it rots away once the bones are in it and the rituals are complete. Log coffins were reported in western Arnhem Land  (Elkin, 1954: Plate opposite p. 254, is of such as log coffin in use at South Goulburn Island).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.
Author: M. H. Monroe
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