TJURUNGAS . Originally an Aranda word referring to a particular type of secret-sacred object (a stone board bearing engraved designs), the term tjurunga has now become generic in anthropological literature and is used to identify a wide variety of Australian Aboriginal religious objects. (The term tjurunga also has by now generally replaced the term churinga in anthropological writing.) The term covers a wide variety of meanings and can refer not only to the stone and wooden objects to which it was originally restricted but also to bullroarers, ground paintings, ritual poles, headgear, and religious songs (Strehlow, 1947, pp. 84ff.).
Tjurunga s and tjurunga -type objects are widely distributed throughout central, southern, and western Australia, as well as the Northern Territory. They are usually secret-sacred and may be viewed only by initiated men, although in some cases women too possess religious boards. In all cases, tjurunga s are closely associated with the mythic and totemic beings of the Dreaming. In the beginning, these beings shaped the physiographic features of the Aboriginal countryside and were, ultimately, responsible for creating human beings, who are regarded as their spiritual descendants. They also established particular Aboriginal social orders and were especially responsible for instituting religious ritual. The Dreaming characters are believed to be as alive today, spiritually, as they were in the past, and their significance continues. It is through the sacred objects that they live on in spiritual form. Tjurunga s are often considered to represent particular mythic beings, and their engraved designs to represent specific localities and the activities associated with them; some tjurunga s, however, are undecorated.
Stone tjurunga s are flat oval platters that vary in size from nine to more than fifty centimeters in length and that, for the most part, are engraved on both sides. Smaller wooden objects are similarly decorated, but they are lenticular in cross section and elongated with rounded ends. Larger boards, between two and three meters in length, are made from tree-trunk sections; they are flat or slightly concave on the incised side and convex on the reverse. Traditionally, the lower incisor of a wallaby's jaw was used to engrave both stone and wooden tjurunga s, but today steel rasps are used to shape the basic form and chisels to make the design. The act of incising the tjurunga is accompanied by songs relevant to the mythological associations of the pattern being made and is itself a ritual act. The knowledge of such songs is held by members of particular local groups, which have the responsibility of maintaining and reproducing the range of emblems and the designs connected with their own territories. Cognate groups collaborate with them in a complex patterning of ritual information between members of a number of similarly constituted social groups.
Tjurungas have a profound religious significance in contemporary desert Aboriginal cultures. Decorated with incised meandering lines, concentric circles, cross-hatching, zigzags, and, more rarely, naturalistic designs of bird and animal footprints and stylized human figures, they represent a compact and conventionalized statement of land occupation, utilization, and ownership, seen in terms of specific areas of land associated with particular mythic beings who in turn have their living representatives today. Beliefs about the origin of tjurunga s vary according to culture (Davidson, 1953; Strehlow, 1964). Basically, though, it is believed that tjurunga s were either created by mythic beings or represent tangible aspects of their bodies or something directly associated with them. In virtually all cases a tjurunga served as a vehicle in which resided part of a mythic being's spiritual essence. Some stone tjurunga s, particularly those with well-worn designs or those having none, are regarded as the actual metamorphoses of mythic beings and may be ritually relevant to several sociodialectal groups. Usually, however, a tjurunga is personal; it is connected with both men and women and is symbolic of their mythic associations: men look after those belonging to the women of their own local group. As far as men are concerned, tjurunga s play an important part in conception, initiation, and death.
While the Aranda may manufacture stone tjurunga s, ensuring that male members of the oncoming generation possess such objects, they basically replicate the older ones according to their particular mythic and topographic type—that is, new tjurunga s must correspond with those concerning the place of a person's conception and/or local group. In the Western Desert, Aborigines believe that all stone tjurunga s are of supernatural origin, and these groups manufacture only wooden sacred boards. Small wooden boards or bull-roarers are made and presented to a novice during the final stages of his initiation; they signify his acceptance into the religious life of his people. It is only some years after a man's first initiation that he is introduced to the tjurunga s of his own group. Later, he may prepare and incise such examples, either alone or in the company of close kin who share the same mythological associations.
The designs that appear on these religious objects are similar to those on spear-throwers, some shields, pearl-shell pendants, and a variety of head ornaments (all of which are used or worn publicly in contrast to the actual ritual objects). Clearly the form of an object and its purpose, rather than the design, indicate whether or not the item is to be regarded as open-sacred or secret-sacred (Berndt, Berndt, and Stanton, 1982, pp. 114–116). The designs depict, through a repetitive but symbolic structure, a particular segment of territory linked to an artist, his mythological connection with it, and some of the physiographic features that characterize this area of land. Moreover, this is usually shown looking from above rather than horizontally from the ground level. This is because mythic beings saw the land in this way. Some Western Desert Aborigines believe that the spirits of men who live a far distance from their own country travel through the sky on their sacred boards during sleep, and they, too, see the country in that way.
The same designs that appear on tjurunga s are also reproduced in ochers on the bodies of participants in rituals. Depending on the area and the particular ritual being performed, ground structures of furrows and mounds have blood and red ocher superimposed on them and are decorated with feather down: these too represent stylized versions of territories within their mythic context. In such circumstances, tjurunga s are hung from pole emblems or are worn in the men's headdresses. Since these objects are considered to be ritually and mythologically alive, they signify that the mythic being is actually present in a spiritual form.
The major function of tjurunga s is to provide a tangible, visible representation of personal and social identity, but it is in fact much more than this. The tjurunga affirms and reaffirms a particular group's rights to a specific stretch of country through the land-based associations of mythic personages. These objects are always stored close to the places to which they belong, and such sites fall within different local group territories, the members of which are their custodians. When Aborigines moved away from their own countries as a result of European contact and eventually settled on government and mission stations, they brought some of their sacred objects with them, leaving others behind at their mythic sites. Smaller tjurunga s, however, are often carried from one place to another when groups gather to hold large rituals that involve both men and women. In the Western Desert, these meetings, in which expressions of hostility are forbidden, are also occasions for settling interpersonal and intragroup disputes and grievances.
Deep reverence and respect are displayed toward all tjurunga s, whether they are of stone or of wood. For example, fully initiated men may be specially invited to have revealed to them particular boards stored within a repository. This revelation must take place in the presence of a senior man who has the religious right to show them and explain their significance. In such cases, the boards have been prepared by a small group of elders who reanoint them with red ocher mixed with fat: they are treated as if they are living creatures. On approaching the place, the invited men use small branches of leaves to stroke the backs and heads of the sitting elders. This act is said to insulate the power that is believed to be inherent in the tjurunga s and that can be dangerous to the unprepared. Mythic songs are sung and explained, and the objects are pressed to the bodies of the men who are seeing them for the first time. This action indicates that the men share in their power, which is regarded as eternal and is symbolized by the tjurunga objects.
Berndt, Ronald M. Australian Aboriginal Religion. Leiden, 1974. Provides the first general view of Australian Aboriginal religion. It has iconographical references and is profusely illustrated.
Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt, with John E. Stanton. Aboriginal Australian Art: A Visual Perspective. Sydney, 1982. A comprehensive coverage of traditional and innovative Aboriginal art within its sociocultural context. Illus-trated.
Davidson, Daniel S. "The Possible Source and Antiquity of the Slate Churingas of Western Australia." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 97 (1953): 194–213. Although this article is based on limited materials, it continues to be the only significant study of Western Australian tjurunga s.
Spencer, Baldwin, and F. J. Gillen. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London, 1899. An early study of central Australian Aboriginal societies. Contains much material from traditions that are no longer extant and is especially rich in descriptions of Aranda ritual.
Strehlow, T. G. H. Aranda Traditions. Melbourne, 1947. This provides a discussion of the broad Aranda concept of the term tjurunga, with a number of ritual examples.
Strehlow, T. G. H. "The Art of the Circle, Line and Square." In Australian Aboriginal Art, edited by Ronald M. Berndt, pp. 44–59. Sydney, 1964. Provides an examination of the iconography of central Australian tjurunga s, especially those of the Aranda, and also makes comparisons with Western Desert sacred boards.
John E. Stanton (1987)
"Tjurungas." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tjurungas
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