The Aboriginal Memorial

Introduction | History | Artists & Clans | Arnhem land


The Memorial Poles

Gupapuyngu people

artists | clan stories


The Gupapuyngu clan are 'top of the river' people — gupa means neck, and is also a synonym for river. Jimmy Wululu's intricate images of totemic beings, such as Ginginy the Eel-tailed Catfish and Minhala the Long-necked Tortoise, reflect on life and death. Transparent, newborn catfish, their bones visible, are a ready target for cormorants diving for food. This action is repeated in a dance in the Djalumbu ceremony, as in life, the birds carry away the fish. The distinctive herringbone pattern on these poles represents the skeleton of the catfish. These symbols of new life and death appear simultaneously.

Wululu also depicts honey of the Yirritja moiety, visible in the diamond design representing the cells of a beehive.

The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists' clans live along the river and its tributaries. This map indicates Gupapuyngu land and position in the memorial poles.







Clan stories


Djalumbu — Hollow Log


In a ceremony close to the beginning of time, a spirit man called Murayana made the first Yirritja hollow log, known as Djalumbu. He also made the Diver Duck (cormorant) totemic sculpture known as Burala, and a Marradjiri Pole. When the ceremony finished, the people painted their bodies with a catfish design, then threw the log in to the sacred waterhole where it sank into the deepest part.

During the late wet season (March/April) in Arnhem Land, many fish travel inland with the huge incoming tides. When the tides meet the wet season run off from the high inland, the coastal plains are flooded. It is possible to wade across the flooded plains and spear fish.

Many fish, such as the ginginy (eel-tail catfish), spawn during this time. Conditions are good for the young fish, with abundant insect life and much debris in the run off water. The ginginy are translucent when young and their herringbone pattern is clearly visible. These fish, which are thought of as the souls of deceased and unborn people, inhabit fallen logs in watercourses and are caught and carried away by cormorants diving for food. It is thought that just as the birds carry away the fish, death removes the souls of dying persons.

Also during the wet season, long-necked tortoises hibernating in the ground pop up from the mud. They move from watercourse to watercourse, symbolising the journey from birth to death.










Murayana — Yirritja Honey


Wild honey, commonly known across Arnhem Land as 'sugarbag', is not only a delicacy but has ritual and spiritual significance. It becomes available in the dry season — Rrarrandharr — from August, when the gadayka or stringy-bark tree blossoms, to October. In Arnhem Land, species of bees are identified by the type of honey they produce and the location of their hives.

The bees, their honey and their hives are related to specific clans and sacred sites. Yolngu identify four main types of native bee: three are of the Yirritja moiety — Niwuda, Milnhiri, and Barnggitj — the fourth, Yarrpany, is Dhuwa.

The representation of honey varies according to moiety. Yirritja honey belongs to the Gupapuyngu, Gumatj, Manggalili, Birrkili, Balmbi and Dhalwangu people, whose artists depict the wax cells of the bee hive in a design of diamond shapes — cross-hatched shapes represent sealed cells, while tartan design shapes represent empty or half full cells.

Each type of honey has its own creation story. A spirit, in the form of a man called Murayana the happy spirit is associated with Yirritja honey. He wears the diamond honey design on his chest and thighs. Dancers in ceremonies today wear these body paintings. Murayana taught people how to sing and dance and be happy. Near Yathalamarra waterhole, in Balmbi country, Murayana left rock arrangements on the side of a hill; his mark, his spirit.