Quoting Ian Keen: himself quoting a Yolŋu man talking about waŋarr

SugarBag, Dula Ngurruwuthun


This passage was translated from a mixture of Dhuwala tongue and English by Ian Keen, and included in his 1994 ethnography, Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion, published by Oxford University Press (pp. 44-45).

T’was spoken by a Yolŋu man, explaining to Ian here, the nature of the relationship between waŋarr (‘ancestral forms or figures’), associated madayin (sacra including songs, proper names, ceremonial forms, painted designs etc.) and associated living people. I love this passage – it captures a significant ‘something’ about the poetic obliquity in Yolŋu talk.


‘Here am I at the beginning, a man; a man; and at the beginning I am an animal. I ‘turned’ from being Honeybee: here am I am man-that is my madayin now. I am a Possum too, in the beginning a long time ago, a Possum. Later I turned, and I am a man. Here I sit, a man, like this. I turned each time: Honeybee, Possum, Catfish. I turned and I man a man who speaks Dhuwala tongue. That is the story: here I am a man, just the same. Here I sit, a man. That is all. From this animal, that animal, that animal, that fish, that animal, whatever animal- I am a man. I have Emu, perhaps I have Catfish, Possum, Darter: there is the design, and here is the waterhole. From there-from the Catfish, Possum, Honeybee-I have the madayin now, everything; I am a man. I have a song there, I have a song there, a song there and a song there because we come from there. I am from there. I am a man. That is all.”


If you haven’t read Knowledge and Secrecy I suggest you do (and that you’re likely to love it). It is a rich and memorable ethnography, which is also somehow very generous (as in ‘kind’, insightful and thoughtful).



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Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology

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