Levels of meaning in Aboriginal art

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

The descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia have a unique culture passed on through story telling, ceremonies and aboriginal art. Their art  has become very well known during the last decades, specially the iconic dot-paintings of the central desert people and the hatched line drawings of the people of Arnhem Land.

The past week I visited Darwin and the World Heritage listed Kakadu national park in the tropical North of Australia. On the way back from Kakadu we stopped at the Didgeridoo Hut, a great place to buy Aboriginal art in the quaintly named town of Humpty Doo. I bought a nice work with the title ‘Namarrgon’ by Arnhem Land artist Joshua Bangarr.

When I was ready to pay for the work of art, the person at the counter said: “This is not art” and continued to explain the deeper significance of this picture. To say that this is not art because the painting has deeper meaning is an confusing comment. I was tired from a long trip and did not want to argue the point with him, so I will do it now.

His comment is confusing and what he tried to say is that this is not ‘Art for art’s sake‘ (l’art pour l’art). There is, however, no such thing as art without meaning. Art divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function is not art, but decoration. The only difference between Aboriginal art or works from the university educated art establishment of the Western world is that in the former meaning is provided by the tradition the artist is embedded in, while in contemporary European art, meaning is provided by the individual artist. Australian aboriginal art can be analysed on four different levels.

On the first level all we see is the actual painting itself. For the Namarrgon painting this level of interpretation is the actual figure of the lightning spirit. Although the work is painted in acrylic, Bangarr only used the four traditional ochre colours: red, yellow white and black. The painting is not brushed, but created with the stem of a freshwater reed. The hatchings are used to communicate the clan, kinship (skin) and country of the artist. No only the design, but also the thickness of the line is used to differentiate patterns and express who owns this design. The composition of most works in this genre are straight forward two-dimensional representations, such as is the case in this work.

Depiction of namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

Depiction of Namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

The second level of meaning is the lightning spirit dreaming story, the mythological level. Ancient depictions of Namarrgon can be found on many rock escarpments around Kakadu and Arnham Land, such as the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, shown here. In the mythology of the Kunwinjjku people Namarrgon is responsible for the spectacular thunder storms in this region, between October and November at the start of the wet season. He has lightning rods emanating from his head through to his genitals. Stone hammers hang from his elbows and are attached to his knees which he uses to create thunder, akin to the Norse god Thor. His body shape represents the Leichhhardt grasshopper, which are considered the children of Namarrgon. The colours used in the work are also symbolic. Yellow is used to symbolise the sun, red for the blood of the earth and white is the colour of body paintings for ceremonies. The colour black has secret meanings.

As we move to the third level of meaning less is known publicly about these paintings because in Aboriginal art, the sacred is closely related to the secret. Dreaming stories are on the surface simple mythological stories of ancestral beings, but on a deeper level they provide clues on how the landscape is organised, the seasonal availability of food and other practical hints on how to survive in the sometimes harsh Australian climate. The appearance of the Leichhardt grasshopper signals to the Aboriginal people, who traditionally did not have a formal calendar, that the time of thunderstorms is about to arrive and that they need to seek shelter from the damaging lightning strikes.

At the deepest, fourth level of meaning, the dreaming stories depicted in the art contain metaphysical truths. Only the elder generation of the people that maintain this dreaming know these truths. Uninitiated balanda (white people) can only guess at the deeper meaning. A friend suggested that the fact that the head and genitals of Namarrgon are connected is a lesson about male psychology. While this seems certainly plausible, Joshua Bangarr did not provide any clues on the meaning of this painting.  This deep secrecy is what is so fascinating about Aboriginal art.

Larapinta Dreaming—Australian Aboriginal Art of the Central Desert

Larapinta Dreaming

Marylin Armstrong, Larapinta Dreaming, acryl on canvas (63 x 41 cm). Private collection.

Australian Aboriginal art is one of the oldest art traditions in existence. The Australian continent was populated about 50,000 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Aborigines. The culture of the Aborigines is in many respects unique in that until the nineteenth century they had  very limited contact with cultures outside Australia.1 One of the most striking manifestations of contemporary Aboriginal culture of the central desert area are the iconic dot-paintings, a distinctive style of painting in which an ancient art form is expressed with modern materials and in a modern context.

Aboriginal culture was, before colonial times, largely determined by the natural environment in which they lived. Material culture was limited to simple practical and ritual objects.; spears, baskets, shields, ritual and ceremonial poles were all adorned with culturally specific patterns. Aboriginal artists were strictly tied to the tradition in which they lived and their creativity was bound by conservative traditions and rules.2 The art was expressed using materials naturally available, such as rocks, sand, wood, bark, beeswax, reeds and the human body, including blood. The people of the central Australian deserts expressed their art predominantly in temporary sand drawings, body painting and more enduring rock paintings and engravings.3

The culture of the Aborigines traditionally revolves around what is commonly known as the Dreamtime. This is an primordial mythological period which is the source of all social, legal, practical and metaphysical knowledge. The Dreamtime is transferred from one generation to the next by using landscape related stories called Dreamings. These stories are passed from father to son and from mother to daughter and each story is managed by an individual or by clan groups. Most stories of the Dreamtime are strictly confidential and known only to initiates of the Dreaming. Dreamings are usually stories of mythical creatures, travelling across the land. Landscapes associated with these stories are allocated to family groups and individuals.4 Each location is managed, for example through fire stick farming, by a group of men or women and only they know the esoteric meaning of the place, as expressed in the Dreaming.5

Australian Aboriginal Art

Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)

Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)

The characteristic patterns of central desert Aboriginal art, such as the iconic dots and concentric circles, are a symbolic language used to propagate the stories of the Dreamtime. These symbols are related to the specific language groups and clans that create the art. The art from the central desert people is dominated by dots and geometric symbols while the art of the Arnhem Land people is more figurative enhanced with specific hatching patterns. These are not schools of artistic groups with common ideas, as is the case in Western art, but are culturally, geographically and genetically related groups of artists who draw inspiration from the same Dreamings.6

Aboriginal art is experienced in a very different way than Western painting. The biggest difference is that the traditional art is entirely utilitarian., there is no concept of art  for art’s sake in Aboriginal culture. The works are exclusively manufactured to express the stories of the Dreamtime to pass them on to future generations. Body painting is undertaken for rituals in which events from the Dreamtime are enacted. Sand Mosaics are experienced by a ritually singing and dancing through them, destroying them in the process. The painters of central Australia manufacture their contemporary works, which are  mostly derived from traditional sand mosaics, horizontally on the ground and not vertically on an easel.7 The works of Aboriginal artists in museums is, however, almost invariably displayed vertically, following the conventions of Western art. One exception is the Art Gallery of South Australia where a monumental work of Clifford Possum is exhibited horizontally.

Aboriginal art as we currently know it is fairly new and became appreciated by a wider audience in the nineteen seventies. Geoffrey Bardon, who worked as a teacher at Papunya Tula, brought this form of art to the attention of the Western world. Papunya Tula is one of many settlements for aboriginal people that were established by the Australian government in the middle of the last century. People were forcefully removed from their traditional territories and taken to the settlements. This caused tension and immense stress because the people were separated from their traditional way of life. Geoffrey Bardon observed the importance of drawings in their culture and provided the men in Papunya Tula with materials to express their traditional art with contemporary materials.8 The men painted a mural on a blank wall in the settlement which was the starting point of the now world renowned central and western desert art movement.

The use of new materials has opened up a whole new world for Aboriginal art and has become a distinctive style in the global contemporary art scene. Tradition and contemporary art are also separated in the exhibition space. Contemporary works are exhibited in art galleries while traditional works, such as baskets, boomerangs and painted objects, are exhibited in the anthropological museums. The inspiration for both is, however, the same: the stories of the Dreamtime.

A particular design can only be used by a  limited group of people, the owners of that  particular Dreaming. The designs of Aboriginal art from the Western desert are almost entirely abstract in nature and each painting has several layers of meaning.9 Aboriginal art can thus not exclusively be interpreted from an immanent perspective as the true meaning of the work lies outside the picture itself lies, i.e. is transcendent to the painting. The full meaning of the painting is always more than what can be seen on the surface. To come to the true meaning of the paintings, it must examined at different levels.

On the first level of meaning, the paintings in the western and central desert tradition are dominated by the many dots in both background and foreground. The paintings generally do not include figurative elements, but a culturally specific symbolic language of concentric circles, animal tracks and other shapes.10 The paintings from the early modern period are almost entirely abstract in nature and are close to the traditional sand mosaics  and paintings from which they are derived. The available colour range is traditionally determined by what exists in nature, mainly ochre based.11 The contemporary art of central Australia has more or less detached itself from the strict traditions and uses more colours and contains more figurative elements, as shown by the work discussed below.

Interpretation of Larapinta Dreaming

Interpretation of Larapinta Dreaming

At the second level, the paintings depict the natural landscape that is connected with stories from the Dreamtime. Geological structures are interpreted as affected by the activities of the Dreamtime ancestors that roamed the land in primordial times.12 Sand mosaics were traditionally used to illustrate stories from the Dreamtime and were a vehicle for knowledge about the landscape and communicated the places where water and food could be found.13 Because of the limitations of drawing in sand, a rich symbolic language is used to express the Dreamings. Concentric circles represent a stone or a place where water and food can be found and with two or four U-shaped lines around it, this symbol represents a camp fire with men (two lines) or women (four lines).14  Contemporary Aboriginal painting has lost this function of knowledge transfer because it is produced for an uninitiated audience, but the meaning is still contained within the traditional designs.

At the third level, the designs are seen as representations of ceremonies which are conducted to re-enact the epic journeys of the Dreamtime ancestors. These ceremonies are conducted as part of a cultural calendar throughout the year. At this level, the paintings are multi-dimensional and express a series of events in time in one image.15

On the fourth and deepest level the paintings contain a metaphysical knowledge that is known only to insiders of the Dreaming. Not much is publicly known about this deepest level of interpretation since this knowledge secret. In traditional Aboriginal culture, the sacred and the secret almost fully overlap. The emphasis on secrecy in Aboriginal culture can cause cultural tensions in the contemporary world.16 It is not only forbidden to share knowledge with outsiders, even within the Aboriginal culture there are strict rules on the distribution of knowledge. The website of The Art Gallery of South Australia warns for the esoteric content of the displayed works: “… this site may include images of a culturally sensitive nature. All efforts have been made to ensure that restricted works are not included.”17

There have been problems with the exhibition of works that depict secret stories. According to Bardon the curiosity of art enthusiasts to know the secret meaning of paintings has lead developing more complex and busy designs to obfuscate the deeper meaning of the paintings.18 Aboriginal Artist Tim Leura considers the patterns he paints on canvas to be mere toys. The serious work is painted on the bodies of people or on the ground when undertaking a ceremony.19

Larapinta Dreaming

I purchased Larapinta Dreaming in 2003 from one of the many galleries that are dotted around Alice Springs. Aboriginal art is terribly popular among tourists and it is therefore an important source of income for many Aborigines.

Larapinta Dreaming is painted in acrylic on canvas (63 x 41 cm) by Marilyn Armstrong from Hermansburg near Alice Springs. Marilyn was born in Jay Creek community, in the red heart of Australia. As a child she came into contact with famous Aboriginal painters such as Albert Namatjira and Clifford Possum and in 1986 she started to paint Dreamtime stories herself.20

The most striking element of Larapinta Dreaming is the oval ring of caterpillars, the ‘larapinta’, encircling a collection of emu and dingo tracks. The background of the painting is entirely made of dots in varying colours, except for the central part of the composition. The colour palette of this work contains many bright colours, a recent development in contemporary Aboriginal art.

The back of the painting illustrates the second level of meaning:21

This area got many sacred sites and there is one where the dogs vomit other side is where the women had been meetings, dances and also the caterpillar dreamings where the Aranda people camp is. Marilyn Armstrong, Mbilja Nampitjinpa (Skin Name).

On the second level of meaning, this painting refers to the Macdonnel Ranges, the geological formations around Alice Springs that are reminiscent of caterpillars. This painting is thus probably a reference to an unnamed ceremonial place in the Macdonnel Ranges.

Since I am not privy to the deeper meaning of the Larapinta Dreaming I can not comment on the ceremonial and metaphysical significance, which constitutes the third and fourth level of meaning. I could speculate that since this was painted by a woman, the vomiting might be related to morning sickness of pregnant women and that this painting refers to a place where pregnant women gather and share knowledge with the elders. However, this is pure speculation on my part.

  1. Prior to colonisation, the people of Arnhem Land had contact with people from current day New-Guinea and Indonesia. Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt, The world of the first Australians. Australian traditional life: Past and present (Fifth edition, Canberra 1996), p. 17. 

  2. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 411. 

  3. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 408. 

  4. Bardon, Geoffrey, Papunya Tula.Art of the western desert (Marlston 1999), pp. 2-3. 

  5. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 412. 

  6. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 409. 

  7. Jackson Pollock is an example of an American painter that produced his works horizontally. 

  8. Bardon (1999), p. 22. 

  9. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 413. 

  10. Stokes, Deidre, Desert Dreamings (Port Melbourne 1993), p. 9. 

  11. Bardon (1999), pp. 125-126. 

  12. Bardon (1999), p. 6.] 

  13. Cowan, James, Aborigine dreaming (London 1992), p.7; Bardon (1999), p.8. 

  14. Stokes, Deidre, p. 9. 

  15. Bardon (1999), p.8, pp. 132-133. 

  16. See my 1998 article: The Spirit of Uluru

  17. Art Gallery of South Australia, Copyright notice, www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/content-copyright.html (juli 2007). 

  18. Bardon (1999), p. 127. 

  19. Bardon (1999), p. 123. 

  20. ABC, Western Desert Art, (Accessed 5 March 2004). 

  21. The skin name refers to the aboriginal kinship system. 

The Spirit of Uluru: Culture Clash in the Desert

View from Uluru at the Imalung Lookout

View from Uluru at the Imalung Lookout.

Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is known to westerners, is a popular tourist attraction. Although the word Uluru itself does not mean anything, it is a place of deep spiritual and cultural significance to the local aboriginal people, the Anangu.

This article  outlines some of the cultural tensions between the original inhabitants and the visitors due to the popularity of Uluru as a tourist attraction.

The modern day tourist travels with a simple maxim: “leave only footprints, take only pictures”, which is is considered the foundation for ethical tourism. For the Anangu, however, this principle conflicts with their idea of respect for a place of prime spiritual significance, such as Uluru. Leaving footprints by climbing Uluru and taking photos of sacred spaces round Uluru is not acceptable in Anangu culture.

Anangu culture, which is codified in Tjukurpa, is based on exclusivity of knowledge. This knowledge is only available to those who are initiated. Because some of the knowledge is coded within Uluru—its geological features illustrate stories from Tjukurpa—even looking at certain parts of the rock is taboo for those who are not initiated. For this reason, the Anangu do not want certain parts of Uluru to be photographed or footprints left on the rock, in contradiction with the maxim of ethical tourism.

This is hard to understand for visitors from Western and Asian cultures as knowledge is generally not considered sacred nor secret (note the minor difference between these two words) by the visitors. The tension is increased by the fact that the tourist dollar is an important source of income for the Anangu. Uluru and Kata Tjuta area—‘Many Heads’, the Anangu name for The Olgas—are part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park which lies in the red heart of Australia, about 350 km from Alice Springs. The area is owned by the traditional custodians, the Anangu, and leased by the Commonwealth of Australia for tourism.

The Ayers Rock Resort, which is like a little Disney Land in the desert, is situated about 18km from Uluru. It is the only place where you can stay relatively near the park and that  caters for all budgets—from camp site to four star hotel. The park is one of the major tourist attractions in Australia with about 300,000 people a year staying in the resort to visit the National Park.

Most of the information presented in this article is sourced from brochures available at the cultural centre in the National Park. The cultural centre contains some are some interesting displays on the meaning of Uluru and Anangu culture. The image below is the 1998 version of the ticket to the National Park.

Park entrance ticket by Kunbry Peipei.

Park entrance ticket by Kunbry Peipei.

The artwork is from Kunbry Peipei, who has this to say about it:

They say that from their home country, all the Liru men came, headed for Mutitjulu. They came to spear Kuniya, all the holes from their spears are there, in the rock. That’s the Kuniya man, speared. This is important law belonging to all Anangu, to all traditional owners. On the ticket, that’s the poor pierced Kuniya man.

Visitors are asked not to throw away the ticket because it is significant to the Anangu who have allowed the Tjukurpa to be used in this way. Use of aboriginal symbols by people who are not initiated in Tjukurpa is a serious thing to the Australian aboriginal. Most symbols are considered sacred and can therefore not be reproduced as one likes.


Tjukurpa is the foundation of Anangu culture. It provides a spiritual basis of Anangu culture, rules for behaviour and knowledge of the environment. It is the law for caring for one another and for the land that supports people’s existence. Tjukurpa refers to the time of creation as well as the present time. Tjukurpa defines the relationship between people, plants, animals and physical features of the land. Knowledge of how these relationships came to be, what they mean and how they must be maintained, is explained in the Tjukurpa. Other Aboriginal people use different words for Tjukurpa. Throughout the Great Victoria Desert the term used is djuguba or djugurba; in the Rawlinson Range, duma; in the Balgo area, djumanggani; in the eastern Kimberleys, ngarunnganni and so on. It is usually translated as ‘Creative Period’, ‘Ancestral Times’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Dreamtime’, ‘Eternal Dreamtime’, and so on. Moon over Uluru Tjukurpa is more than a dream, it permeates the here and now and contains all the wisdom and knowledge of Aboriginal culture, which developed over tens of thousands of years. Dreamtime only refers to the spiritual level of Tjukurpa and the creation myths that are an important part of it. Dreamtime is only a small part of what Tjukurpa is. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are very important in Tjukurpa. They are visible evidence that the ancestral beings still exist. In the beginning the world was unformed and featureless. Ancestral beings emerged from this emptiness and travelled all over, creating all living things and landmarks in the desert landscape today such as Uluru. Tjukurpa is always surrounded by secrecy. The stories that are known to us are only the surface of the complex system that is Tjukurpa. Details of these stories are only to be known by initiated men or women. Initiation is a very important part of growing up in Australian aboriginal cultures. Knowledge is only shared with those who are ready. As I am not initiated to Tjukurpa, my story on this website is only my interpretation of what I do know about Anangu culture. Tjukurpa stories are depicted in the art of the first Australians. They use traditional symbols which can be read in many ways and because of this, even the secret, sacred parts of Tjukurpa can be painted, but remain hidden from the non initiated. The artist, and the ones who are initiated to the story, are the only people who fully understand the meaning of the work. Anangu teach Tjukurpa to their children and other people through story telling and art. The oldest still surviving examples are the pertographs, or rock carvings. Many places around Uluru there are rock paintings. The paintings are very sacred to the Aangu. There used to be a photo of some rock paintings on this page, but I was asked by the people who maintain the park to remove this, because they are considered too sacred to be displayed in this way. In Aboriginal languages there are no separate words for believing and knowing. In the languages of the western world there is a distinct difference between these two concepts. Religion and science are separated from each other and only what is accepted as scientific is accepted as truth.

Lonely Tree Near Uluru

Lonely Tree Near Uluru

This has been only the case since the 16th century, the beginning of the age of reason. It was René Descartes who was one of the first to clearly distinguish between knowing and believing. According to Descartes, knowledge can only be produced by using the right method, which according to him is mathematics. The problem with strictly separating knowing and believing is that one will always judge all experiences from one or the other viewpoint. Scientists will dispute all spiritual wisdom because they only look at it from their scientific perspective. Religious people, on the other hand, look at things from a spiritual perspective and sometimes dispute scientific knowledge. Both perspectives are equally valid and there is no gain in prevailing one over the other. The Anangu people have their own interpretation of the creation of Uluru, distinct from the geological story told by the Minga (ants), the Anangu name for tourists who crawl up an around Uluru like ants. In the mythological story Uluru was formed by two boys piling up mud and so forming the monolith. The geological story does not deviate that much from the mythological story. According to this story Uluru was formed by an ancient alluvial fan of a river, which is also a big pile of mud. The word myth is used in two contradictory ways. In one sense it refers to a narrative or story, or a series of songs, which is of religious significance. In the other it has the meaning of false belief. In this discussion myth is used in the first sense only, it is believed to be true. Both sides of the creation story are true. The geological story about alluvial fans is true on a material level. The story of the two boys piling up mud is true on a spiritual level. Both are complementary creation myths and both are just as true, whatever true means anyway …

To climb or not to climb?

Most people who visit Uluru only go there to do ‘the climb’ and look at the spectacular sunsets. But there is much more to Uluru than being the largest monolith in the world. Every precipia, cave, gutter and mark on Uluru commemorates the exploits and adventures of the creatures of the Tjukurpa. To the Anangu, Uluru can be read like a book. They do not have the need to build amazing temples for their spirits because all they need can be found in nature itself. Climbing Uluru shows disrespect for Anangu culture. It is like going to a church and sitting on the altar. The existing Uluru climb is the traditional route taken by ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru. Because this path is of great spiritual significance, Anangu rarely climb Uluru. In a brochure available at the Cultural Centre in the park Tjamiwa writes:

“That is a really important sacred thing that you are climbing … You shouldn’t climb. It is not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. Listening and understanding everything. Why are we going to tell you to go away (and ask you not to climb)? So that you understand this … so that you understand, we are informing you: Don’t climb. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But any way, that is what we have to say. We are obliged to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say: ‘Oh, I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that is right.’ This is the proper way: No climbing.”


Commemorating those who died climbing Uluru.

Commemorating those who died climbing Uluru.

Climbing the rock is also dangerous and many people have died doing so. The plaques on the base of the climb are silent witnesses of some of these deaths. One of the plaques says: ”… it was his lifetime dream to climb Ayers Rock”. The best way to experience Uluru is to walk around it. Passing by the sacred sites and learn about Tjukurpa.

Kata Tjuta

About forty-two kilometers away from Uluru lies Kata Tjuta or The Olgas. It is a vast area of more then 20 square km of enormous red domes. The area is extremely significant to Anangu. Much of the area of Kata Tjuta is associated with ritual information and activities which remain the exclusive knowledge of initiated men and is therefore restricted. Because of this, no details or performances of ceremonies associated with Kata Tjuta are known to the outside world. Therefore I have nothing much to say about Kata Tjuta, except for this picture.

Kata Tjuta.

Kata Tjuta.


Warning sign.

Warning sign.

A great deal of the Anangu Tjukurpa is related to Uluru. There are many sacred sites around Uluru and three of them have been fenced off because of their great significance to the Anangu. Sacred sites are distinct areas where, according to Tjukurpa, only initiated Anangu women and/or men are allowed to go. These places are very powerful and in Anangu law it is both unsafe and forbidden for men to enter or look intently at women’s sacred sites, and for women, children and uninitiated men to enter or look at men’s sacred sites. It is also not allowed to photograph these sites because of their spiritual significance. Judging by the signboards surrounding the sacred areas this is taken very seriously by the local authorities. There are many mythologies surrounding Uluru. The details of all these stories however, cannot be told to the uninitiated. For the Anangu this is one of the most crucial aspects of understanding the Tjukurpa. The knowledge is given to the right people as they grow and become ready to accept the responsibility that such knowledge bestows upon somebody. This is why there are only few stories known about the Tjukurpa surrounding Uluru. Several stories relating to Uluru that be told to the Minga. One of these is the Mala story. Many visible features on the northern face of Uluru are connected to this story. This story is copied from the booklet sold at the Cultural Centre in the National Park. In the Cultural Centre there is also a video display showing some of the inma (ceremonies) related to the Mala story. On the Mala walk, you will see some of the very places where the Mala prepare for ceremony. As you walk through this you will be surrounded by the Mala Tjukurpa.

In the beginning, Mala men, women and children must travel a long way from the west and the north to reach Uluru. When they arrive they camp at separate sites from one another in groups of young men; old men; young and single women; and old and married women. They do this because they are here for an inma. Some Mala men, who come from the west, carry the ceremonial pole, Ngaltawata. They scramble quickly to the top of Uluru and plant the pole in the ground at the most northern corner to begin the Inma. From this moment on, everything becomes a part of the ceremony. Even everyday jobs like hunting, gathering and preparing food, collecting water, talking to people or just waiting, are done now in a proper way for ceremony. This has become law for men, women and children ever since. The Mala are happy and busy. Suddenly people from the west come with an invitation to join another Inma. The Mala must refuse, as they have already started their own ceremony. The people from the west return in great anger at the insult. They plan to wreak vengeance upon the Mala in a terrible way. Across the land comes an evil, black dog-like creature: Kurpany. He has been created by these people in the west to destroy the Mala ceremony. Luunpa, the kingfisher bird, cries a warning to the Mala. It is ignored, and Kurpany attacks and kills many Mala men, women and children. In terror the remaining Mala flee to the south with Kurpany chasing them all the way. There are two signposted walks around Uluru. The Mutitjulu and the Mala walk. Both walks deal with a part of the Tjukurpa surrounding Uluru. The waterholes are considered sacred places because they give life to people, animals and plants. Walking around Uluru one sees all the different colours and textures of the rock which are stunningly beautiful. Sometimes the skin looks like the skin of a gigantic petrified reptile. I walked around Uluru twice and every time I saw new things. At times I was resting, admiring the beauty of the rock, thinking of the ancient stories that are contained in this monolith. For thousands of years people have worshipped this place as a bringer of life and a keeper of secrets.

Final thoughts

A culture can be described by three basic attitudes. First the attitude towards reality, second the attitude towards other humans and last the attitude towards the transcendent. There are major differences between Anangu and western culture in all three area’s.

Attitude towards reality

In the western world, manipulation is the norm for dealing with reality. Engineers – like myself – change the physical world around us. Australian aboriginal people, on the other hand, used to barely change the land around them. In the early days of anthropology, cultures were judged by the way they manipulate reality. Cultures who do not know permanent buildings etcetera were considered primitive. The Anangu do not need to manipulate the land around them too much. They clean the waterholes to prevent leaves from rotting inside them and they practice fire stick farming to control their surroundings, but there is no need for them to manipulate reality to the extent western culture does. They have no need to build elaborate temples because all they need is found in nature.

Attitude towards other humans

Australian aboriginal society is a tribal society. There are very strict rules inside and between the tribes. The key word is initiation. The older somebody becomes, the more they know about Tjukurpa and the more important they are. In western culture this attitude is dominated by self determination. But too much freedom can result in chaos. Knowledge is available to all, the heated discussions on the suitability of certain material for children is a good example of how the pre-modern attitude collides with the post-modern idea of freedom.

Attitude towards the transcendent

The attitude towards the transcendent in western culture is dominated by detachment. When Christianity came to Europe all the old gods and spirits who resided in trees, the land, rocks, water were abandoned. In their place came one God who resides in heaven, far away from the people. In Catholic churches rituals are performed by selected men and the people can only look at these rituals, without any participation.

Carlos Eduardo Hernández Castillo from Colombia wrote to me: “However, I also would like to tell you that I don’t agree with your sentence about the Catholic Church rituals. We participate in the rituals, although they are directed by the priest. Indeed, the most important part of the mass (receiving the Holy Communion) requires the direct participation of the community. Of course, you can decide to just look, but if you really want to enjoy the ceremony, you should participate as much as you can (in fact, you are encouraged to do this).”

In the world view of the first Australians, the spiritual and the material are one and always connected. Rituals are performed by everybody who has passed a certain initiation, men and women both have their own set of rituals or ceremonies. The material and the spiritual are one world in which we live.

Sunset over Kata Tjuta.

Sunset over Kata Tjuta.