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DJAN'KAWU . The name Djan'kawu (also spelled as Djang'kawu or Djanggawul) refers to ancestral beings described in the mythology of the Dhuwa moiety, or descent group, of the Yolngu people, who live in northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Yolngu people divide themselves into two moieties called Dhuwa and Yirritja. People inherit their moiety identity from their father and paternal grandfather, and are required to marry someone from the other moiety. Land and water areas, totemic ancestors and ceremonies, natural species, and other phenomena are all assigned to one or the other moiety. Djan'kawu traditions are found in many patrilineal groups of the Dhuwa moiety, especially coastal groups.

The ancestral beings called Djan'kawu comprise an elder and younger sister in some groups' stories while others add a brother. Their names also vary from group to group. Dhuwa moiety myths describe the journey of the Djan'kawu "following the sun" from Burralku, an island across the sea to the east, to the eastern coast of northeast Arnhem Land, then along the coast and islands to the west towards the sunset. The Djan'kawu are said to have traveled on foot and by canoe or bark raft, each carrying two long sticks called Garninyirdi, one in each hand. The Garninyirdi were used as walking sticks on land and as paddles for the canoe.

The Djan'kawu also carried twined pandanus baskets, or dilly bags, decorated with the orange feathers of the red-collared lorikeet, and containing many strings of lorikeet feathers as well as rangga, which are sacred objects made of wood and other materials. The sisters had with them conical ngarnmarra mats of the kind that Dhuwa women use as aprons, bassinets, and mosquito nets, and which served as fishing nets in the myths and songs.

The Dhuwa stories relate how the Djan'kawu saw and named many fish, birds, reptiles, and animals on their journey. They gave birth to many children in the country of each Dhuwa moiety group, and left the powers of continuing reproduction in the water holes and springs they made with their sticks. The springs bubbled up on the beaches or in the saline mud of the mangroves, the fresh water mixing with salt water at high tide. The Djan'kawu placed sacred objects in the waters of each group and reserved some water holes for older men.

As in the doctrines of Aboriginal people from other regions of Australia, the Djan'kawu left traces of their journey, activities, and physical presence in the land and waters. In Yolngu terminology, the traces of the ancestors and the songs and other gifts that they left behind are their footprints, or-luku, the foundation (rom ) of ancestral law (mardayin ). A group may identify a specific locale in their country as the place where the ancestors pulled their canoe up to the mangroves. They planted one of their sticks and it became a tree. They heard men chanting from a ceremony ground in the forest. A certain causeway of shell was their path. The Djan'kawu endowed each group with the myths, songs, dances, designs (painted or made in the sand), and sacred objects that describe and "follow" their journey, actions, and presence.

Djan'kawu Songs

The songs of the Djan'kawu constitute a distinctive genre in the repertoire of Dhuwa moiety groups, and are called birlma, or clap stick songs. Male singers use heavy ironwood clap sticks to create a slow steady rhythm unaccompanied by a didgeridoo, or Aboriginal drone pipe. The songs have a chant-like sound with a low pitch and shallow melodic profile. They "follow" songs sung by the Djan'kawu themselves, and so are often sung in the first person as if the Djan'kawu themselves were singing. The songs do not have a direct narrative structure but rather evoke images related to the Djan'kawu and places associated with them.

The songs tell of the catfish the Djan'kawu caught with their ngarnmarra mats, of shellfish in the mangrove swamps, of flying foxes and black cockatoos (fruit bats) in the trees, of water monitor lizards in the creeks and water holes, and of monsoon rains and floods. A particularly interesting feature of the Djan'kawu songs is the way they manipulate time and space. On one level they represent the long journey of many days, during which the Djan'kawu gave birth to people from all the Dhuwa moiety groups and gave them their ancestral law. On another level the songs trace the passage of the sun through a single day, for singers often begin the song series early in the morning (for a purification ceremony, for example) and sing through the day until sunset, when the ceremony ends. On one level the songs represent the ancestral beings' journey from Burralku in the east through the lands and waters of many groups, to those belonging to people far to the west towards the sunset. On another level the songs follow the Djan'kawu around a particular group's country, through the sea to the mangroves, up to the saline mud flats and across to the swamps and lagoons, into the forest and patches of jungle. The song cycles may be construed as following the seasons of the year, ending with the monsoon rains. They also seem to recapitulate the human life cycle, beginning with conception (represented by the sisters catching fish with their conical mats and putting them in their dilly bags), and ending with the Djan'kawu, exhausted from their labors, walking or paddling toward the setting sun.

Djan'kawu Designs

Designs associated with the Djan'kawu belong to the Dhuwa groups who possess the myths. They are painted on the body for ceremonies and on sacred objects; drawn with ridges of sand or soil on the earth to mark ceremony grounds; or reproduced on bark paintings or prints for sale. The Djan'kawu designs have some features in common. One is the use of a circular form that radiates vertical and horizontal bands with diagonal divisions between the bands. This design may represent the sun, a waterhole made by the Djan'kawu, or other aspects of the Djan'kawu stories. It may be drawn as two circles joined by a band, representing springs and channels in the mangroves, or repeated several times to form a grid of circles, bands, and diagonal lines. These multivalent images have many meanings, including symbolic references to a group's country that function as a kind of map, as well as references to the group's sacred objects.

A second design associated with the Djan'kawu consists of horizontal stripes of white, red, and yellow ochre painted on the body for ceremonies or on a ritual digging stick or hollow-log coffin. This polysemous design has a rich array of meanings ranging from the red-collared lorikeet to the bands on a mangrove tree left by the tides. The adult males of the moiety keep the design's other meanings secret.

Djan'kawu Dances and Ceremonies

Adults and children follow the ancestors' journey in a sacred dance accompanied by male singers. The dancers move in a line or as a pair through the camp, each dancer provided with a pair of long sticks, and painted in horizontal stripes of red and yellow ochre and white clay. From time to time the dancers form a circle and spear the ground with their sticks, working them back and forth, representing the Djan'kawu making waterholes and giving birth to each group along their journey. Finally they surround the deceased (in a funeral) or the initiate (in a circumcision), or the sacred Riyawarra tree (in a Nga:rra ceremony), where the leader calls out the ancestral names of the Dhuwa moiety groups whose countries lie along the ancestral track.

The Nga:rra revelatory ceremony is an important ritual in which young men are gradually admitted to participate in secret dances and see the sacred objects. The young women learn the dances at the public ground. Each day during the ceremony, the men dance out from the men's ground to the public dance ground where the women represent the Djan'kawu sisters at the Riyawarra tree. The men then chase the women away and perform the dances of Salmon, Catfish, and other fish. The leader calls out the ancestral names of a Dhuwa moiety group, which changes on each day of the ceremony, and all the men and women participate in the Kingfisher dance.

These daily dances represent central episodes in the mythology of each Dhuwa group. According to one group's myths, the ancestral sisters leave their dilly bags full of sacred objects hanging in a tree by the swamp while they go to the mangroves to collect crabs and shellfish. The men then sneak out from a secret ceremony ground, steal the dilly bags, and take them back to the ceremony ground, where the sisters are not admitted because they are women. From that moment on, the teller of the myth remarks, the men possessed the ancestral sacred objects and the women became the "workers" at the hearth. Each group's story, however, varies in its details: in one version a fire destroyed the dilly bags, in another the men attempted to have intercourse with the women but failed, in still another the sisters were joined by a brother. But the dances are sufficiently abstract to accommodate each group's version of the storya necessary characteristic because many Dhuwa moiety groups participate jointly with their Yirritja moiety relatives.

On the final day of the Nga:rra ceremony, the men dance out from the secret ground through the camp to the Riyawarra tree. The participants are all painted with stripes and carry the long sticks required to reenact the creative journey of the Djan'kawu. At the tree the women are lying under conical ngarnmarra mats. As the men surround the women, working the long sticks back and forth, the women burst out of the mats to represent the birth of children to the moiety groups. Then all participants bathe in the sea, or a lagoon or river nearby, their body paints mixing together in the water.

The Djan'kawu songs, dances, and designs may be used in other ceremonies. The men may paint a Djan'kawu design on the initiate's chest during a circumcision ceremony or on the deceased during a funeral ceremony. The Djan'kawu rituals and designs are also incorporated in purification ceremonies following a death, in which the mourners wash themselves while standing in a sand sculpture representing the springs made by the Djan'kawu.

The Djan'kawu were credited with setting down precedents for such matters as kin relations and customary rights in the countries associated with them. A body of designs and ceremonies are the ancestral inheritance of each group and form part of its ancestral law (mardayin ). Each patrilineal group is differentiated from others by the particular constellation of sacra associated with its country (or countries), the specific details of its mythology, its particular sacred objects, and the form of its designs. The groups are linked by the common features described above.

The Djan'kawu mythology and associated sacra are but one of a vast array of Yolngu mythological traditions. A second major Dhuwa moiety tradition is that of the Wagilak sisters, whose long journey began in the south. Their story is associated with a cycle of ceremonies in a "desert" style, in which wild cotton is stuck to the body in patterns and ritual songs are accompanied by boomerangs used as clap sticks. Yirritja moiety mythology includes several long journeys as well, such as those of Lany'tjung. Yirritja patrilineal groups, however, recognize many beings, creators, and ancestors, including Shark, Honeybee, Saltwater Crocodile, Long-Necked Turtle, Whale, and Dingo. What distinguishes the Djan'kawu mythology is its association with the Nga:rra ceremony of the Dhuwa moiety.

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, articles on Mythic Themes; Gadjeri; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Indigenous Australian Religions; Iconography, article on Australian Aboriginal Iconography.


Berndt, Ronald M. Djanggawul. Melbourne, 1952.

Keen, Ian. Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion. Oxford, 1994.

Ronald M. Berndt (1987)

Ian Keen (2005)