Spencer & Gillen

A journey through Aboriginal Australia

Decorations During Sacred Ceremonies

Primary Comments

Four handwritten pages titled ‘decorations during sacred ceremonies’ found within photo album of annotated photographs.


Page 1

Decorations during Sacred Ceremonies
The peculiar feature of these is that bird's down called UNDATTHA is employed for decorative purposes, for which reason the ceremonies are called by the natives QUABANA UNDATTHA and these no woman or uninitiated men are allowed to see. In these ceremonies only a limited number of individuals take part as actual performers and instead of occupying a long time in their performance the latter usually only takes a very few minutes. Unlike the ALTHUTA the design always has a definite meaning and is supposed in many cases to have been handed down from the ALCHERINGA, in others the decorations have been shown to the owner of the QUABANA by the IRUNTURINIA (?) All the performers are concerned directly with the totems and except those derived from the IRUNTURINIA are associated with definite ALCHERINGA individuals who lived or rather died at particular spots. The various forms of design may be seen by reference to figures the illustrating ERYC ceremony. Almost always as in the ordinary ALTHUTA particular attention was paid to the head dress. The hair was always tied up and enclosed with twigs a grass stacks surrounded by human hair string. In the case of one of the or EMU performances it formed a slightly taperry column (PC ) about 5 long. The end being [indecipherable] with a bunch of emu feathers, owing to the flexibility of the column the end drooped somewhat and moved about as the performer walked imitating well the up and down

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movement of an emu's head while the bird walks aimlessly about. In these Emu ceremonies the lines of the bird down (undattha) ran along the length of the body, arms and legs, a design which perhaps may have been suggested in the beginning by the very distinct longitudinal markings on the body of the young emu. In or Frog ceremonies there are no very characteristic style of decoration, one consists of alternate circles of white and red down running round the head dress which sometimes forms a wide flat-disc like structure. The circles may be continued round the body and limbs broken by perhaps one or two longitudinal lines. Another form frequently met with consists of small patches of red each surrounded by a circle of white down. The headdress with the churinga which is fixed into it is also decorated with alternate circles of red and white representing a large tree. The longitudinal lines indicate roots and the circular design represent frogs. This is indicative of the fact, as is very characteristic of frog life in Central Australia, the animals spend the dry season or in some cases the day time burrowing in the sandy ground amongst the roots of the red gums which grow in the beds and along the banks of the creeks, which later it must be remembered only at rare intervals contain any water. Reference to the figures will give some idea of the elaborate nature of many of the decorations.

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In connection with the quabana connected with the sun totem one of the two performers wore as a 'headdress' a large flat-disc with alternate concentric circles of red and white down, the disc (PC . ) being supposed to represent the sun. Circles of white down enclosing a central bluish grey or black patch are used to represent the skulls of men who have been slain and eaten. An entirely different form of decoration is seen in the little tufts of the red-barred tail feathers of the black cockatoo which are fixed into shirt-sticks and have their ends ends decorated with white and red down. These tufts of feathers, some of which are placed in the ground where they are then supposed to be growing while others adorn the head of the performers represent the IRRIAKURA plant in flower (Cyperus rotundas). In a large number of ceremonies we meet with a very important ceremonial object which has already been referred to is called a NURTUNGA (P? ) In certain others we meet with an equally important-object which is called a WANNIGA (PC ). The Nutunga is typical of the Northern and the Wanninga of the Southern part of the Arunta tribe. There are various forms of the Nurtunga, they vary in size from 2 6� to 20�. They all agree in structure so far as they consist of one or more rounded elongate masses round which human hair string is tightly wound and then the whole is decorated usually with circles but sometimes with longitudinal lines of down. In the smaller ones a single long

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spear is taken, grass stalks are placed all around it and then the men who are making it take off their human hair bundles and bind the girdles and bind the string of which they are made round the whole structure. Then [?] of white and red down are fixed only means of human blood. The handle end of the spear is left uncovered and to this a large bunch of eagle hawks feathers is fixed. In some cases as many as 20 spears may be lashed together so as to increase both the length and diameter. Very frequently but by no means always a few
CHURINGA perhaps eight or ten will be attached. The various ways the Nurtunga is used during the ceremonies depends largely upon its size and shape. The larger one being too heavy to carry are fixed upright in the ground while the smaller ones are always grasped by both hands behind the back (PC ) so that

Rights: State Library of Victoria

Document Details

Date Made
Circa 1890s

Document Details

Number of Pages


Language Groups


State Library of Victoria


Ceremony Type
Primary Subject
Secondary Subject