Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Fertility Cults                                                                                                                                                            

The ubar

In western Arnhem Land, the ubar gong could be heard clearly across the plains near the East alligator River, it was said to be the Mother calling men to the sacred ground. The women dance in the main camp, each holding a cat's cradle, an endless piece of string like young girls use, calling 'Gaidbaa! Gaidbaa!' to the beat of the ubar, answering the beat of the ubar. As the ubar continues, its sound is joined by that of the didgeridoo, then the singing begins. When the dancing starts it is with men dancing separately, their arms either outstretched or raised holding a spear or spear thrower in each hand, other men surrounding them chanting 'ja, ja ja!' reaching a climax, 'Jei, Jei, gogjei, gogjei!' Meanwhile, the women in the camp continue their chant. After a period of silence a whistling begins that heralds the dancers being led in one at a time. Each is led by a ceremonial headman, taken to his position where he moves his head from side to side as the headman bends over him uttering the sacred words of the ubar. The whistling is believed to be to summon the wet season, the Rainbow Snake, the harbinger of rain and rejuvenator of the earth. When the wind of the wet season start blowing, the whistling of the wind is believed to be the wind blowing past the raised horns of the Rainbow Snake, and he arches his body, ascending the sky. The Rainbow Snake is the instrument through which nature is reborn, with the help of the Mother.

An unusual feature of the ubar that is not known from any other part of Aboriginal Australia is the inclusion of a clown, a jester, who moves about the ceremonial ground during the ritual and at some of the most serious parts of the Rainbow Snake ritual makes fun of the dancers, mimicking them, and even the ritual, laughing in the faces of the participants. He is the only one who carries on in this fashion, none of the others take any notice of him. Part of his role is to test the novices, who are required to prove that nothing can distract them from the serious business they are taking part in. They have to act as though he doesn't exist.

A feature of the ubar is that women with white hair, said to be 'almost ready to die' are allowed to watch the ceremony on the sacred ground, though take no part in it, but must be accompanied by a close male relative, such as a son, who introduces her to the ubar. The people said that because of her advanced age she would be unlikely to be harmed by the power of the ubar, and the accompanying sacred rites. Men are required to protect the younger women and children from the dangerous forces, that while basic to human life, are too strong for anyone other than initiated men to cope with directly, the men mediating between the forces and the women and children.

The Berndts reported that some women said that the ubar Mother and the Kunapipi Mother only dealt with men because they were jealous of the women, to the point at which she is almost as jealous as a co-wife, and also the way a mother may help and cherish her son more than her daughters and for longer, the daughters being expected to be independent at a younger age. The ubar woman is a Mother, is a rival, as well as being concerned for the welfare of her adherents. Men need to approach her carefully, using the appropriate rituals, and women need to be even more careful.


The rituals of the Djanggawul have been discussed in Warner (1937/1958 and Berndt (1952a). The preparations for the Djanggawul rites include the erection of a shelter on the sacred ground and preparation of the rangga emblems by leaders of the  dua moiety and linguistic groups. Among these is the Mawulan pole, said to be the pole used by the Djanggawul Brother as a 'walking-stick'. Spring water gushed when he plunged it into he ground, as happened when he did the same thing with the djenda goanna tail. His Two Sisters did the same with their ganinjari 'yam' stick or walking-stick. When he used the djuda, trees sprouted from the ground. These were the basic rangga forms, but they have been elaborated into a number of other forms. Ochre was used to decorate the objects with patterns the Djanggawul gave to the people. Most also have string decorated with red parakeet feathers attached to them, to symbolise the sun's rays, the red sky at sunset, or the Sisters' blood. The ngainmara mat is symbolised by the shelter made of branches. The shelter, and the whole of the sacred ground it is built upon, represent a uterus. Symbolically, the initiates are children of the Djanggawul, or rangga. The preliminary dances symbolise the rise and fall of the surf, and the sound of the sea, that is said to refer to the original journey when the Djanggawul travelled from Bralgu to Port Bradshaw by canoe. Throughout the dances and the Nara rituals, as well as when they return to the main camp, the men call out invocations. The women's role in the ceremonies is to provide the food, which is traditionally cycad palm bread and some meat and vegetables.

After a short break, people from other groups who have been summoned by special 'signed' message sticks, feathered string or miniatures of sacred objects moulded from the wax of wild bees, come in. Some men gather on the sacred ground to make sacred emblems, while others collect other sacred emblems from their storage places in water or mud. These are described as rangga taken from the Sisters' ngainmara, that is, children from the Sisters' wombs. They are dried and repainted with designs from water marks their original counterparts acquired during their journey. The sea dance is repeated while this is proceeding. The songs are about water from the sacred 'wells' the Djanggawul made with their rangga. This represents coitus between the Brother and the Two Sisters, the water symbolising the semen that fertilises humans and the earth. It also represents the coming of the wet season rains, also seen as a period of fertilisation.

When the main rites begin, the first of them relate to totemic species. These rites don't usually involve rangga. Neophytes are instructed and there is a ritual shaving of their facial hair. Older men leave short beards or tufts that are said to represent the fringe on a conical mat, to which they attach red parakeet feathers, like the pendent strings on the emblems. Women, children and uninitiated boys gather in a clearing in the main camp and are covered with ngainmara mats. They symbolise unborn children of the Djanggawul. The men dance from the sacred ground and surround them, carrying spears, spear throwers and sticks. The men call invocations that are mostly the names of places where the Djanggawul Sisters gave birth to the first people. The men poke the mats and the women and children beneath them respond by wriggling. The invocations called by the men then relate to sexual intercourse and childbirth, etc., leading to the 'birth', symbolised by the women and children emerging from beneath the mats. They sit watching the men as more invocations are called, then the ritual is over. The accent is again on fertility. The symbolic birth represents the desired goal, the replenishment of humans and the natural species they depend upon.

After several weeks of rituals the men come to the camp one night carrying flaming torches, symbolising the fire the Djanggawul sisters believed had destroyed their sacred bags that contained the rangga, only realising later that they had been stolen. The women dancing around the tree represent the Sisters dancing around the sacred djudaI of life-giving properties. The totemic dancing of the men at the tree represents the Brother and his companions dancing in their sacred shade, and this in turn refers to the first performance when the Sisters danced out of the sight of the men, as at that time they still had control of all the sacred emblems and rites.

Over the following few weeks the ngainmara ritual is repeated in the main camp, and there are more totemic dances in the sacred ground. Only the minor emblems are shown to the neophytes, who are painted with sacred patterns, as are corpses, for their symbolic death during the rituals. The next event is ritual bathing, in which men representing geese or diving ducks dance to the billabong or breach and plunge in, after which all the people, whatever age, follow them. They call invocations and when they leave the water the men dance various totemic fish. This symbolises the wetting of the rangga as they travelled from Balgu. The people are also the rangga that are returned to a sacred water hole at the completion of the nara. There are also a number of other symbolic meanings. This is the end of the nara proper, though it could be followed by other rites. As part of their instruction, some are shown to the neophytes. At others, only fully initiated men could attend, who are familiar with al the phases of the nara. Following this there is sacramental eating of cycad bread on the sacred ground, during which invocations are called as the feathered string is removed from the emblems.

Symbolically, the central theme is the human sequence that culminates in childbirth, and the cycle of growth and renewal in the natural environment. New plants grow, new foliage sprouts, and all the natural species are reborn.

Wawalag sisters

The Wawalag mythology is believed to be mostly indigenous to northeastern Arnhem Land. The Kunapipi mythology was brought to northeastern Arnhem Land from the south, it was also accepted in western Arnhem Land, having much in common with the belief of that area, such as Waramurungundju, the creative mother, Ngaljod, the female rainbow and her male rainbow counterpart, as were many assumptions connected with the ubar. Whether the local social structure emphasised patrilineal descent, eastern Arnhem Land, or matrilineal descent, western Arnhem Land, it was able to easily slot into the local mythology, with a small amount of name interchanging and identity shifting. The Kunapipi is very flexible, allowing a variety of interpretations around a central theme, and even some interpretation within this central theme. Certain modifications were made to the Kunapipi as it passed from one area to another, with the addition of new songs or old songs being translated in different ways by people unfamiliar with the language the songs were in when they reached the new area. In this case they have been told the meaning of the songs, allowing them to make their own interpretation.

The Wawalag mythology underlies 3 main sequences of ritual, the djunggawon, relating mainly to circumcision, the gunabibi or Kunapipi, with the same emphasis as the nara of the Djanggawul, and the ngurlmag, the most important, similar to the maraiin of western Arnhem Land, that is mainly revelatory.

The djunggawon rituals are linked to the same myths as those of the Kunapipi, boys are said to be swallowed by the python, as the Wawalag Sisters were. This is act of propitiation in some versions to protect the whole camp from being swallowed.  Eventually the boys are vomited, as if they had been reborn after dying temporarily.

The kunapipi

When the Kunapipi was brought to Oenpelli, western Arnhem Land, some time between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, songs were included with it that could magically protect people, men and women, experiencing the rites for the first time. As part of the rite the spirit of snake or small parrot was sung into the backs of their heads that would warn them if anyone tried to sneak up on them to perform sorcery or harm them. This particular complex of Kunapipi is occasionally identified with Ngaljod, the Rainbow. She is a woman, and a snake, and is capable of taking other shapes. The Berndts were unsure how literally the women of the part of Arnhem Land being studied took the conventional accounts of her appearance, as well as what happens on the men's' sacred grounds. They say it seemed many of the men believe such accounts are factually true, as well as symbolically true.

The Kunapipi  ranged over a wide region, throughout Arnhem Land, either side of the main road to Darwin as far as the outskirts of Darwin, west to the Daly  River, Katherine River and Victoria River, and coming in contact with the Galwadi-Gadjeri series of the central western deserts. As a result, the Kunapipi constellation is fluid in many respects. The core, however, is persistent. The objects used are all very similar, wherever the rituals take place, as are the rites, myths and songs. There is always a dominant emphasis on birth or rebirth. The men pass through the 'mother place' (the sacred ground) to be reborn.

The Kunapipi is usually held in the dry season when there is plentiful supply of food. The people believe that this food supply has resulted from the performances of the previous year, and are preparing for the arrival of the wet season with its renewed growth of food for the next dry season.. The rituals may last from as a littlie as 2 weeks to as long as several months, and before they begin messengers are sent out to notify other groups of the impending ceremonies. Before the invited people arrive the hosts go out into the bush and prepare the ritual ground, as well as making a bullroarer, anointing it with blood while singing. The first rites take place in the main camp a while later, in which the men sing 'outside', camp versions of the Wawalag and Kunapipi songs as the women dance, singing non-sacred garma or clan songs. These activities could continue for weeks.

Then one evening the voice of Julunggul, the rock python or Rainbow is heard, the bullroarer. The Kunapipi leader calls out an answer, as do all the women, the way the Wawalag sisters cried out when Julunggul came near them. At this point the young boys about to be initiated, who have been prepared, smeared with arm blood and red ochre, are led out of the main camp to meet Julunggul, to be swallowed by him. This is intended as an offering which persuades Julunggul to return to the sacred ground and avoid the main camp. Women wail for the initiates as though they were dead. This continues until the last of the boys has been taken to the sacred ground.  Singing and dancing continue intermittently throughout the night, the women some distance from the sacred ground, answering the calls of the men and the sound of the bullroarer. The dances performed are connected with the animals the Wawalag Sisters tried to cook, but when ordered to by Julunggul, escaped and plunged into the waters of Muruwul. The sacred ground was in the shape of an elongated triangle, and is intended to resemble the body of Julunggul. The nanggaru hole at its apex is Muruwul,

The men dance towards the main camp from sacred ground carrying lighted paperbark torches. Along the way women are crouched under conical mats and 2 old women walk up and down calling out the names of food items the women may not eat at this time, and reciting parts of the Wawalag story. Men of the jiridja moiety dance around the women concealed by the mats. They represent Julunggul smelling the blood of the Wawalag, but as there is none they go away, after being given food by the women.

By now the visitors are arriving. Women make more food gifts. The men begin digging the nanggaru on the sacred ground. In all the following dances the participants, who represent various totemic creatures, enter this hole., most being arranged in pairs of male and females, and simulate mating. The possum dancing is the most important series, in which the men have long bark penises protruding from their hair belts. These rituals continue until a large crescent-shaped trench is dug, over a period of several weeks. This represents the ganala, the uterus. In the western Arnhem land Kunapipi the walls are marked with a snake design. When completed, snake totem actors dance or writhe in the hole, which is followed by the 'mating dance', and some other dances.

As these rituals are proceeding 2 large jelmalandji emblems, each about 12-40 feet long, are being prepared.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, (1964) The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.
  2. Berndt, R.M, 1952a, Djanggawul, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
  3. Warner, W.L., 1937/58, A Black Civilisation, Harper, New York,
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 02/10/2011

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                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading