Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Djanggawul Cycle     

The rituals connected with this cycle belongs to the dua moiety, but jiridja take part in it. The Djanggawul sisters or Djanggau sisters, Bildjiwuraroju is the elder, Miralaidj, the younger, are the principal Fertility Mothers in northeastern Arnhem Land. The Dreamtime story of their arrival has them coming from across the sea to the northeast with their brother Djanggawul, stopping for a time on the island of Bralgu, which was said to be somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the island of the dead of the dua moiety, before continuing on to the mainland in a bark canoe, following the path of the rising sun, landing on the east coast. In some versions there was also a companion, Bralbral.

In this area the sun is regarded as female, and the 2 sisters are associated with it. At Milingimbi some versions of the story call them the 'Daughters of the Sun'. In this region the sun, which the sisters symbolise, is endowed with life giving properties, essential for the life of all living things, including humans. This attitude towards the sun was common in the north that was in the monsoon belt. In the harsh, arid interior, the sun was thought of as being not quite so benevolent.

The Djanggawul siblings brought with them a number of symbolic, sacred objects, the main emphasis being on fertility. One of these objects was a ngainmara, a symbolic uterus, a round, plaited mat, the centre of which rose to a peak, forming a shallow cone. These were probably the most sacred of the items brought by the Djanggawul, but they were not used in rituals, instead being used, mainly by women and children to shelter from rain, mosquitoes and midges while sleeping. They were also used to cover women and children during parts of the men's rituals they weren't allowed to see. "It was not unusual a few years ago to see dozens of them scattered here and there in a beach camp, each sheltering a woman or child". (Berndt & Berndt, 1964).

The ngainmara the Djanggawul brought with them contained a number of sacred rangga emblems, some of which related to animals, plants or trees that became totemic as a result of their association with the Djanggawul. One of the objects was a sacred dilly bag, a symbolic uterus. There were lengths of string to which were attached feathers of lindaridj parakeet. They represented rays of the sun, or in some contexts, an umbilical cord. There were also special patterns that were used ritually by different clans and linguistic units.

The principal role of the Djanggawul was as creators. The first human ancestors of the northeastern Arnhem Land people were said to be born from the Sisters, or taken from the ngainmara mat or sacred dilly bag, later applying the finishing touches such as separating the fingers. They started the practice of childbirth as it has been ever since. They put the animals and plants in the area for the people, special sites as reminders of their physical presence in the area. They also instituted the biggest rituals, the dua moiety nara. After many more adventures, they went towards the setting sun along the coast. (Warner, 1937, 1958; Berndt, 1952a).

In northeast Arnhem Land, a story tells how the Djanggawul sisters came to Marabai, built a shelter in which they hung their dilly bags, or long baskets, that were filled with the sacred emblems. While they were away collecting mangrove shells, their brother and his companions, men whom had been made by the sisters (in some versions of the story they were their brothers, 'fathers' and 'fathers' father'), stole the baskets. The sisters were warned that something was wrong by the whistle of the djunmal mangrove bird. They returned to their shelter to find the belongings were gone, and the tracks of the men who had stolen them on the ground. They followed the tracks but soon heard their Brother beating his singing sticks, and when they heard the men singing they fell to the ground and began to crawl. They were not frightened of the men, but were too afraid of the power of the sacred songs to go near that place. As well as the songs and sacred emblems, the men had stolen the power to perform the sacred ritual, a power that previously belonged only to the sisters. The men had nothing before they stole the ritual. The elder sister said...Men can do it now, they can look after it...We know everything. We have really lost nothing, because we remember it all, and we can let them have their small part. Aren't we still sacred, even if we have lost the baskets?...' (Berndt & Berndt, 1964).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 01/10/2013
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