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WANDJINA . Australian Aborigines traditionally believed that a person's spirit existed before entering the human life-cycle and that it survived after bodily death. Life-spirits were identified as originating in a number of mythological beings, of which those called wandjina were important in central and northern Kimberley, with the mythical snake Ungud and other animal spirits playing less significant parts.

Identification of a person's life-spirit, or conception totem, was revealed to his or her father or to another senior male of the group during a dream. Dream communication with the mythological beings played a significant role in Aboriginal religion, for although the events of the creation period, or lalai, were generally known, the present state of the beings was of ongoing significance, and that could be revealed only through the dreaming process. The father-to-be was entitled to identify the origin of a life-spirit, but in other circumstances, a specialist, or banman ("dreamer"), could communicate with the mythological beings. Life-spirits of wandjina origin came from the clouds, (that is, the sky) to live in water. They entered the mother-to-be either directly or through food gotten from water: for example, fish. In his dream, the father would see the spirit and identify its place of origin, from which he could deduce the mythological being who then became the conception totem. One Aboriginal man summarized the sequence of events as follows: "Our fathers found us in the form of fish or turtles, but the Wandjina is our real father. He put us in the water from the sky. We came from heaven through the water by dreams." The life-spirit is regarded as a reincarnated wandjina, and a person whose spirit is so derived will speak in a way that indicates continuity of the (mythological) past and the present.

The wandjina are depicted in paintings on the walls of caves. On approaching these shrines, Aborigines call out to the wandjina to announce the arrival of visitors. If this is not done by a person with the correct status, the spirits become upset and take revenge on the Aborigines. Sometimes Aborigines perform a ritual in which smoke from green branches is held beneath the paintings. Similar gestures are made as placatory gestures at the end of mourning ceremonies.

Many of the paintings are spectacular. The wandjina are anthropomorphic in form and are usually larger than life size. Individual figures may be as large as six meters long. Against a whitened background, the figures are painted in red ochre and black charcoal. The faces and heads are emphasized, with large eyes (usually black, sometimes also engraved) and haloes around the heads. On these haloes, and projecting from them, may be radiating lines. A curious feature of each face is the absence of a mouth, although the nose is invariably present. The wandjina may be represented by a face only, but often the whole body is shown. The shoulders are always white, and there is a small shieldlike motif high on the chest. The body is filled-in with a dot or short-dash pattern, and body ornamentation is indicated by waist and arm bands.

In Aboriginal mythology, the wandjina are said to have lived during the creation period. They came from the sky or the sea, traveled a short distance (usually), and then transformed themselves into the paintings. For the most part, the wandjina set examples of disruptive behavior, seducing others' wives and quarreling among themselves. All myths about the wandjina share one central action, in which the wandjina round up the Aborigines and slaughter them with lightning and flood because two Aborigine boys have offended them by torturing an owl, their sacred bird. Other episodes are purely local in significance. The paintings, are the transformation of the living spirits into a new form. Their general human appearance is unmistakable, and Aborigines identify many of the features in the paintings as human characteristics. In these intepretations, the haloes are hair, the lines radiating from the heads are feathers, the dots on the bodies are body paint, and the bands around the waists and limbs are body ornaments. However, the human model is not the only one the Aborigines use in interpreting the paintings. Wandjina may take the form of clouds, and so the paintings may be interpreted as depicting the spirits in cloud form. In this case, the eyes are seen as dark patches of cloud, the haloes as the edges of clouds, the radiating lines as lightning, and the dot patterns as falling rain. Yet another model for interpretation is the owl, the bird sacred to the wandjina. Attention is then drawn to the round white faces, the large eyes, and the presence of beaks but the absence of separate mouths. In this interpretation, the body decoration represents the dappled markings of an owl's breast feathers.

The wandjina are often referred to as "the rainmakers." Toward the end of the dry season, when the heat has intensified, Aboriginal men who have wandjina as their conception totems may sing songs and perform rituals which are intended to entice the wandjina to send rain and alleviate their condition. Kimberley receives monsoonal rains starting in late December. Their arrival is a dramatic event. In the weeks preceding the arrival of the "wet," there are local showers and spectacular displays of lightning. With the rain come the banks of cumulonimbus clouds, which change shape rapidly and appear to have a life of their own. In them, the Aborigines see the wandjina. The call to the spirits, made in the songs and rituals, has been answered.

The rain that the wandjina bring is recognized by the Aborigines as a major factor in the fertility of the land. By the end of the dry season, when the Aborigines have burned off all the grass, the earth is parched and hot. Nothing grows, and animals hide from the heat. When the rains come, the earth, which is itself alive, drinks. Plants flourish. Animals emerge from their hiding places. To shelter from the rain the Aborigines build huts of bark or thatch or move into caves. Where the caves are painted, the figures on the walls appear brighter: In many cases, the painters have used huntite, a hydroscopic mineral, as the pigment for the white background, and so there is a noticeable change in the hue of the paintings when the humidity intensifies. As the wet season progresses, there may be flooding. The banman then must try to reduce the rain through further songs and rituals. These songs narrate episodes in the mythology of the wandjina.

Physical evidence implies that the wandjina have been repainted many times. Aborigines say that the original figures came into existence when the spirits transformed themselves into the paintings, and that the role of the Aborigines in the past has been restricted to maintenance. Some of the pigments are quite unstable in the presence of the high humidity that prevails during the wet season, and for this reason regular maintenance would always have been necessary. The custodian of a painting might invite a noted artist to carry out the restoration, in which case a payment of goods to the artist would have been required.

The wandjina are seen by the Aborigines as fertility gods. By sending rain, they ensure the survival of life on earth. More directly, by sending the life-spirits for humans, they ensure the continuity of human life. The enormous powers of the wandjina can be seen in the displays of thunder and lightning that precede the monsoon and in the rains themselves. If provoked, the wandjina could use their powers to destroy life as they did in the mythological past. Through the rituals performed at the caves, through the songs, and, especially, through the mechanism of dream-communication, Aborigines have traditionally sought to influence the wandjina and thus to gain for themselves some measure of control over the natural world.


Crawford, I. M. The Art of the Wandjina: Aboriginal Cave Paintings in Kimberley, Western Australia. Melbourne, 1968. An overall coverage of wandjina and other cave art of the Kimberleys, together with a discussion of their mythology and meaning. Illustrated.

Elkin, A. P. "Grey's Northern Kimberley Cave Paintings Refound." Oceania 19 (1948): 115. Discusses the rediscovery of the wandjina paintings, first reported to the outside world by the European explorer George Grey in his Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in Northwest and Western Australia (London, 1841).

Lommel, Andreas. Die Kunst des Fünften Erdteils. Munich, 1959. Contains, among other material, both illustrations and discussion of wandjina paintings.

Petri, Helmut. Sterbende Welt in Nordwest-Australien. Braunschweig, 1954. A detailed study of northwestern Australian Aboriginal society and culture, in which wandjina paintings and their significance are placed in context.

Schulz, Agnes S. "North-west Australian Rock Paintings." In Memoir of the National Museum of Victoria, pp. 757. Melbourne, 1957. Further discussion on the mythological relevance of the wandjina and their expression through art.

I. M. Crawford (1987)