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GADJERI . The name Gadjeri (Gadjari, Kadjeri) is known over a wide area of northern Australia. It means "old woman," implying status and not necessarily age. Gadjeri is also the "sacred mother," or "mother of us all," and the theme of birth, death, and rebirth is pervasive throughout all of the myths concerning her. She symbolizes the productive qualities of the earthof all natural resources, including human beings. But it is people, and not natural species, who came from her uterus in the creative era of the Dreaming. Among a number of language groups from the Roper River westward, she is called Kunapipi (or Gunabibi), which means "uterus," "penis incision" (and, by extension, "vagina"), and "emergence" (referring to rebirth). In that same area she is also called Mumuna or Mumunga, a bull-roarer that, when swung, is her voice. In the northwest, on the Daly River and at Port Keats, as in the central-west part of the Northern Territory, she is also a bull-roarer named Kalwadi, although the term Gadjeri is more generally used; at Port Keats her local name is Mutjingga ("old woman"). In the southeastern Kimberley and southward into the Western Desert, she is known as Ganabuda. Mostly the Mother is a single mythic being, but in some cultural areas she may be identified with two females of equivalent characteristics, while the term Ganabuda may refer to a mythic group of women.

Gadjeri is often associated with two or more of her daughters, the Munga-munga, or Manga-manga, who play an important role in the mythic constellations of men and women in both secret-sacred and open-sacred ritual activities. The Munga-munga are sometimes referred to as the Kaleri-kalering, a name also used for a group of mythic men. The Mother's husband is Lightning or Rainbow Snake.

Baldwin Spencer (1914, pp. 162, 164, 213218) first mentioned the term Kunapipi as the name of a bull-roarer used by people living in the areas of the Katherine and Roper rivers. The myth he recorded relates to a "big man" named Kunapipi who carries about with him woven bags containing spirit children. At one place he removes male children and places them on grass in an enclosed area surrounded by a raised mound. After decorating them as circumcision novices, he divides the children into two groups (moieties) and into subsection categories and gives them "totemic" affiliationsinstituting present-day social organization. He also carries out circumcision and subincision rituals that attract visitors from outlying areas. When the rituals are over he kills and eats some of the visitors, then vomits their bonesnot whole bodies, as he had expected. Two men who escape from him go in search of their relatives, and together they all return to kill Kunapipi. When they cut open his belly, they find two of his "own children," who are recovered alive. Spencer recounts an additional myth relating to a woman whose Dreaming is Kunapipi and who possesses a Kunapipi bull-roarer: She too is responsible for leaving spirit children at particular places. Together with a number of other women of the same mythic affiliation, she performs rituals. These are observed by a mythic man who sees that the women have a bull-roarer and takes it from them. As a result, the women lose their power to carry out this form of secret-sacred ritual.

Actually, Spencer seems not to have been referring to Kunapipi as a male at all, but as a female. In the Alawa language group, Gadjeri is said to have emerged from the sea to rest on a sandbank at the mouth of the Roper River (Berndt, 1951, p. 188) and then to have proceeded upstream. In one Mara version, Gadjeri, as Mumuna, eats men who were enticed to her camp by her daughters, the Munga-munga. She swallows them whole but vomits their bones; she had expected them to emerge whole and to be revived. This happens on a number of occasions with different men, each time without success. Eventually, she is killed by relatives of the men she has eaten (Berndt, 1951, pp. 148152). A crucial point here is the one made by the Aborigines who told this myth: "They didn't come out like we do, they came out half and half." That is, in Kunapipi ritual men enter the sacred ground, which is the Mother's uterus, and leave it reborn. The myth here emphasizes not cannibalism but the dangerous nature of this ritual experience.

When the Kunapipi cycle entered eastern Arnhem Land, it was adapted to local mythology (see Warner, 1958, pp. 290311; Berndt, 1951, pp. 1832ff.). In western Arnhem Land, two mythic Nagugur men, smeared with blood and grease, are credited with bringing the Kunapipi ritual complex. As they travel about the country they carry with them a Rainbow Snake (Ngalyod, in female form) wrapped in paper bark. In the rituals carried out in this area, a trench (ganala ) symbolizes the Mother's uterus and is identified with Ngalyod; snake designs are incised on its inner walls (Berndt and Berndt, 1970, pp. 122123, 138142).

W. E. H. Stanner (1960, pp. 249, 260266) gives a Murinbata (Port Keats) version of the Old Woman, or Mutjingga, myth. She swallows children whose mothers have left them for her to look after. Once the mothers return, they find the children missing and search without success; two men, Left Hand and Right Hand, eventually find Mutjingga hidden under the water. When she emerges, they kill her, open her belly, and remove the children, still alive, from her womb. They clean them, rub them with red ocher, and give them headbands, which signify that an initiation ritual has taken place. Although the myth differs from the Mara account in content, it is symbolically the same. Stanner, however, interpreted it as pointing to a "wrongful turning of life"; to him, the killing of Mutjingga was a kind of "immemorial misdirection" which applied to human affairs, and living men were committed to its consequences (see Berndt and Berndt, 1970, pp. 229, 233234). Evidence from other cultures does not support the contention that "a primordial tragedy" took place in the myth. On the contrary, its format is consistent with that of other Kunapipi versions: It concerns the symbolism of ritual death and rebirth. Mutjingga is also linked in myth, but not in ritual, with Kunmanggur (Rainbow Snake), whom Stanner (1961, pp. 240258) regarded as "the Father," complementing Mutjingga as "the Mother." In Port Keats, Kunmanggur dies in order to ensure that fire is available to human beings.

This pervasive theme of birth, death, and rebirth receives constant emphasis in the central-western Northern Territory Gadjeri. In drawings, for instance, the Mother is depicted with men and women "flowing from" her into a "ring place" (the sacred ground). She may also be shown as a composite structure of poles and bushes, decorated with meandering designs of feather down and ocher and wearing a pearl-shell pubic covering suspended from a hair waistband (see Berndt and Berndt, 1946, pp. 7173). Furthermore, unlike many other deities or mythic beings, she does not change shape: She is not manifested directly through a natural species. Human birth is transferred to the nonhuman dimension through divine intervention, made possible through human ritual; that is, human ritual releases the Mother's power to make species-renewal possible. The central-western Gadjeri complex is quite close to the mainstream Kunapipi cultic perspective of the Roper River, except that the Mother's death is mentioned only obliquely in the central-western interpretation. For example, in regard to subincision, which is an integral part of her ritual, it is said that the blood which results from the regular opening of the penis incision is symbolic of that shed by the Mother when she was killed. But blood is also life-giving, and through this the Mother lives on spiritually and physically in her daughters, the Munga-munga.

In the northern and central-west areas of the Northern Territory, Gadjeri is ritually dominant, with or without the presence of the Rainbow Snake. In the fringes of the Western Desert her rituals focus mainly on other mythic beings. The Walbiri are a case in point. Their major mythic beings are the male Mamandabari pair. While this mythic constellation is classified under a Gadjeri heading and called "Big Sunday" (Meggitt, 1966, pp. 3ff.), and its ritual paraphernalia and symbolism are specific to Gadjeri, there is no reference either to the Mother or to her daughters. She is treated almost as a presiding deity who stands some distance away from ritual performance. The Mamandabari are similar to the two mythic Nagugur (of western Arnhem Land) who act as intermediaries. But what the Nagugur do is carried out in the name of Kunapipi, and this is not the case with the Mamandabari. Nevertheless, an important clue to the relationship between the Walbiri and Mara Kunapipi versions is to be found in a number of songs they hold in common (Meggitt, 1966, pp. 2627).

In the southeastern Kimberley, Gadjeri is represented by the Ganabuda group of women, who are included in several of the mythic and ritual Dingari cycles. These Dingari are made up of an accretion of myths that are not necessarily woven into an integrated pattern. In them, the Ganabuda move from one site to another, either following or preceding a group of Dingari men who are concerned with initiating novices (see Berndt, 1970, pp. 216247). In one excerpt, the Munga-munga walk ahead of the Ganabuda women, who are burdened with sacred daragu boards. During the course of their travels, they encounter a mythic man, who is astonished to see not only what they are carrying but also that they are swinging bull-roarersbecause the men had none of these things. At night he sneaks up and steals their power, which resides under the armpits of the Ganabuda. In that way, men obtained ritual power.

In another excerpt, Dingari men sit within their ring place while the Ganabuda remain some distance away in their own camp. The women discover that some young men (novices) are among the older men. They meet some of the young men and have intercourse with them. When the older men find out about this, they become angry. They light a bush fire, which sweeps across the countryside, burning many of the young men to death. The Ganabuda escape the fire by submerging themselves in a lake. When the fire has passed by, they discover what has happened. Overwhelmed by grief and anger, they go in search of the older men and kill some of them in revenge.

Again, this last mythic incident represents, symbolically, a typical initiatory sequence: removal of novices from the authority of their "mothers," their seclusion from women (that is, their ritual death, expressed in their mythic death by fire), and the grief of the women at the loss of the young men (the women take revenge on the older men). In short, the Mara myth provides a glimpse of the Kunapipi Mother who has not perfected the ritual process of death and rebirth. She must therefore die in order to live spiritually in the form of her emblematic representation. In the Mutjingga myth the process is taken a step further, with the removal of the children alive from her womb. The central-western Northern Territory example gives assurance that Gadjeri has perfected the ritual process of death and rebirth: She is the epitome of all physical and spiritual renewal.

The Ganabuda mythology, on the other hand, poses a paradox which is not so easily explained. The answer lies in the nature of Western Desert mythology and ritual, which, although it emphasizes seasonal renewal and the growth of all species, also underlines the essential unpredictability of natural phenomena and the vulnerability of human beings. Gadjeri's womb is still fertile, but there are still many dangers associated with the ritual (and human) implementation of her life-giving power.

See Also

Djan'kawu; Rainbow Snake.


Berndt, Ronald M. Kunapipi: A Study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult. Melbourne, 1951. A study of the Kunapipi cult and ritual, focusing especially on northeastern Arnhem Land; includes songs of some of the major cycles, with interpretations, and dreams reported by participants.

Berndt, Ronald M. "Traditional Morality as Expressed through the Medium of an Australian Aboriginal Religion." In Australian Aboriginal Anthropology, edited by Ronald M. Berndt, pp. 216247. Nedlands, Australia, 1970. This article contains an analysis and interpretation of the Ganabuda mythology and ritual relating to the southeastern Kimberley.

Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt. Review of The Eternal Ones of the Dream, by Géza Róheim. Oceania 17 (1946): 6778. Includes material on Gadjeri, with some illustrations.

Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt. Man, Land and Myth in North Australia: The Gunwinggu People. Sydney, 1970. A study of Gunwinggu society and culture, which covers material on religious myth and ritual, including the western Arnhem Land Kunapipi.

Meggitt, M. J. Gadjari among the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia. Sydney, 1966. A detailed study of the Gadjeri cult that has been adapted to a fringe desert sociocultural perspective.

Stanner, W. E. H. "On Aboriginal Religion." Oceania 30 (1960): 245278 and 31 (1961): 233258. Focuses on the Port Keats area, but in general terms is analytic and interpretative.

Spencer, Baldwin. Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia. London, 1914. A classic sourcebook that, although unsystematic in the recording of Aboriginal material, provides clues to a number of features of religious belief.

Warner, William Lloyd. A Black Civilization: A Study of an Australian Tribe (1937). New York, 1958. This important study of north-central coastal Arnhem Land society and culture contains empirical material on the Kunapipi (Gunabibi) in that area, and an analysis in relation to other local religious constellations.

Ronald M. Berndt (1987)