Laying it down, impressing it in place: the separation and/or authority of morality and ‘law’


Repatriated image from The Mulka Project

Repatriated image from The Mulka Project.


Yolŋu people share a well articulated local theory of morality and value, comprised of local shared understandings, of local terms and concepts. This local theory is not radically marked by the distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ social fields and social relations. The foundation of rom (‘proper manner of doing things, custom, law’) is that of both morality and law.


Moral: mid-14c., ‘pertaining to character or temperament’ (good or bad), from Old French moral (14c.) and directly from Latin moralis ‘proper behavior of a person in society,’ literally, ‘pertaining to manners,’ coined by Cicero (‘De Fato,’ II.i) to translate Greek ethikos (see ethics) from Latin mos (gen. moris) ‘one’s disposition’ – in plural, ‘mores, customs, manners, morals,’ of uncertain origin.


Law: Old English lagu (plural laga, comb. form lah-) ‘law, ordinance, rule, regulation; district governed by the same laws,’ from Old Norse *lagu ‘law,’ collective plural of lag ‘layer, measure, stroke,’ literally ‘something laid down or fixed,’ from Proto Germanic. *lagan ‘put, lay’ (see lay). (Replaced Old English æ and gesetnes, which had the same sense development as law. Cf. also statute, from Latin statuere; German Gesetz ‘law,’ from Old High German gisatzida; Lithuanian istatymas, from istatyti ‘set up, establish.’)


Lay (verb): Old English lecgan ‘to place on the ground (or other surface),’ also ‘put down (often by striking),’ from Proto Germanic. *lagjanan (cf. Old Saxon leggian, Old Norse leggja, Old Frisian ledza, Middle Dutch legghan, Dutch leggen, Old High German lecken, German legen, Gothic lagjan ‘to lay, put, place’).


When people talk of the ‘proper manner of doing things’ they talk of ‘following’ [in] the footprints of previous generations of their respective family groups, lineages, and ancestors. When people talk of the specifics of rom (‘proper manner of doing things, custom, law’) they refer to particular ancestral footprints, which were ‘put down, laid down,’ impressed or ‘imprinted’ in place.

The more important, focused points of rom are those that are ‘pierced into place.’ These many and various aspects of rom are collectively reenacted and thus reinforced every time a ceremony takes place as people – literally and performatively – reenact and/or retrace these footprints, tracks, trajectories and traces. The mali’ (‘image, picture, impression’) –  the stylised impression or ‘design’ of such footprints – are collective forms of title to Country and other forms of property to which the imprint refers/from whence it derives (see suffix -buy/-puy/-wuy). Relevant terms or expressions include:


Luku, ‘foot, footprint, anchor, root [of a tree].’


Nheeran is a transitive verb that refers to the act (or action) of ‘placing, emplacing, putting down.’ It carries a sense of ‘impress, imprint.’


Nhirrpan also refers to ‘placing, emplacing, putting down,’ but has a sense of ‘piercing’ – as in with a spear – into the ground, in place, in, or ‘as’ the foundation of rom.


I generally think of morals as evaluative shared (i.e. cultural) understandings about normal, good, ‘proper,’ right behaviour – shared understandings and expectations about how one should be treated and how one should treat others. Morals become laws when they are not only shared but enforced in some way – when they are ‘laid down’ or ’emplaced’, so to speak.

It makes sense that there exists a strong socio-spatial dimension to concepts of morality in the absence of centralised authority, given the fact that the further the socio-spatial distance, the more difficult it is to enforce one’s ideas about how one should be treated and how one should treat others.

As for the separation of morality and law, as I remarked in a previous post, this takes a special kind of fetish and a special kind of tyranny – the fetish of djorra (‘paper’) and the tyranny of centralised authority.
















Filed under Anthropology, Indigenous Australia, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

3 responses to “Laying it down, impressing it in place: the separation and/or authority of morality and ‘law’

  1. That’s a pretty educational post!

    Does/could ethics appear in this sketch?

  2. Thank you 🙂 Yolngu approaches to these kinds of issues/questions always provide interesting food for thought, I find.

    I’m not certain how/where ethics would fit in, to be honest. My very general understanding is that ethics are associated with ‘rights’ which makes me think of institutionalised forms of morality, but I’m really not very sure. I do know there is a huge body of anthropological literature that deals with ‘ethics.’ I might have a quite search this afternoon and see if I can glean where they are generally understood to fit in.

  3. Dave.

    umm, I like these thoughts.

    I was thinking of “baldhurr’yun” which I learned to mean “to borrow”. Then when I was using it in conversation, one old man got confused with my meaning. He was saying it meant to “show the way” like if someone goes off ahead of the group through the bush, they should stamp their foot every so often to make a clear mark for the rest to follow..that foot stamp (laying down of a followable path) is to baldhurr’yun.

    Then I thought I had mixed up my words again, but he understood what I was trying to say, but that maybe the context wasn’t right..
    Anyway, I have since thought a lot about the relationship between borrowing/owing/(exchange?) and marking/showing/leading/laying down.. not really any research, but this post reminded me of my ongoing thoughts.

    Rom is ongoing and is found in the solid, immovable djalkiri foot/foundations of yolngu life and is followed through the ancestral tracks laid down over and over.. Maybe borrowing (as an occasional relationship that needs to be negotiated each time) requires a different/new legal arrangement that needs to be marked out to set precedent and maintain accountability.. so in borrowing/owing, there needs to be a clear foundational principle laid down for the specific case to maintain and make clear their moral obligations in an unfamiliar scenario..


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