What the Warlpiri Aborigines believe about the origin of everything
The Warlpiri Aboriginal people are nomadic and have roamed the desert areas of Central Australia for centuries. Living in semi-isolation, their religious beliefs and customs have seen little outside influence until the present century. When we pioneered Christian missionary work amongst them in the 1940’s, we faced much the same situation that Apostle Paul did in Athens, when he spoke to the ancient Greeks of the UNKNOWN GOD, except we had no evidence the Warlpiri had an altar at which they worshipped.
But they did have ceremonials. They believed their ceremonials could influence things in such a way that they received help and benefit as a result. The rainmaker believed his rituals would induce rain; the kangaroo ceremony was supposed to increase the number of kangaroos, and so on. Their belief in the existence of the spirit world was evidenced by their fear of evil spirits. And it wasn’t outside of their thinking or cultural heritage for us to speak to them of the Great Spirit, the One above all other spirits.
As I got to know them and could talk with them, and as I studied their language and culture, I began to realise how near they lived to the realm of spirits. In European culture we draw a line of demarcation between that which is sacred or spiritual, and that which is material or physical. But these Aborigines had no such line of demarcation. To them the spiritual world and the physical world are one. Nothing is purely spiritual, or purely material; but they overlie each other, and are interwoven together. Everything has a sacred or spiritual value meaning as well as a material or physical value meaning.
It has been said that, ‘The vocabulary of a language reflects the way of life of the people who speak it.1 The Warlpiri use the word ‘tjukurrpa’ to mean ‘dream, dreaming, eternity, or the eternal spirit world.’ They add the suffix ‘-warnu’ to give a word its ultimate or superlative meaning; its highest or supreme characteristic. Adding this suffix indicates they are referring to the one above all others indicated by the word. Hence when they say ‘Tjukurrpawarnu’ they mean the highest or supreme one in the spirit world.
They referred to Tjukurrpawarnu as the One who originated or made all the other tjukurrpa, each of which was given the power to make a separate kind of animal or bird life. For example, Wanatjukurrpa was the one responsible for making and maintaining all snake life; or Wawirritjukurrpa was responsible for all kangaroo life. Thus Tjukurrpawarnu is the Supreme Being, the ultimate originator and creator of everything, for the physical features of the countryside also were formed by the actions of the various tjukurrpa.2
Tjukurrpawarnu has many similarities to the Creator spoken of in Genesis 1:1, who created the heavens and the earth. When we spoke to the Warlpiri of the Great Spirit, whom we called God, as the One who made everything, the Creator, we were talking of things they could understand, because it was not foreign to their cultural understanding. We were doing much the same as Paul did at Athens. To the Warlpiri, however, the Creator was not UNKNOWN, but little was known about Him. We were bringing to the Warlpiri the fuller revelation of the One whom they called Tjukurrpawarnu, the Most High God, the Creator Being, and saying that He was interested in them and had sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of the world.
And when did it all begin? When was the world created? They say, ‘Nyuruwi,’ meaning at the first, or ‘In the beginning.’ They lengthen the vowels to sound like ‘Nyuuuruuuwiii,’ much as we might say ‘Long ago,’ and draw out the words to give the idea of a very very long while ago. At times they say, ‘Tanga-tangangulu,’ meaning ‘From ever and ever,’ or as we might say, ‘From eternity.’ But one thing is for certain. They do not believe in evolution, for the Warlpiri the world had a definite start, a creation in the beginning.
Even the constellations of stars are involved. The Pleiades, which is often called The Seven Sisters, is called by the Warlpiri, Napaltjariwarnu. It is the dream stars of the Napaltjari, a women’s subsection of the tribe, and also referred to as one of the ‘skin groups.’ The almost universal association of the Pleiades with women is a good indication of the origin of the constellation names prior to the tower of Babel.
My informants explained how each person at birth inherits a totemic animal or bird dreaming (tjukurrpa). When our son Trevor was born at Yuendumu, we were informed that he belongs to the Yurrampitjukurrpa (sugar-bag ant dreaming). Each man is supposed to learn and teach the traditions of his own particular dreaming.
The Warlpiri law is called Tju-Tju, and comes from Tjukurrpawarnu, and is transmitted through the old men of the tribe, who are called Pulkapardu. Their white hair indicates wisdom and knowledge accumulated over the years. They are the custodians of the law, the ceremonials and the history of the tribe. It is for them to teach the coming generations, the law and the customs, which have guided the tribe over the past. To break the law, or in reality to take no notice of what is said, is called, ‘Wingki’ and is often followed by the death penalty, though this is often only ritually carried out, or satisfied by blood-letting. The offender must stand and be speared in such a way that blood flows, so that the letter of the law is appeased.
The wild dog or dingo is called Wingkiwarnu. He is the ultimate of those who take no notice of the law; the greatest of law-breakers. Hence when they say ‘I am treated like a dog,’ (or like a dingo), they mean that they are treated as the worst offenders. Another expression is ‘dingo-boss’, which is the very opposite to Tjukurrpawarnu.
We often read of the ‘Dreamtime’, when we pick up our papers and read something about the Aborigines, and immediately we think of the distant past. But to the Warlpiri the dreamtime is not something dim and shadowy in the distant past. It is real and often present. When they dream during sleep, they believe that their spirit leaves the body and is free to roam in the ‘tjukurrpa’ world, or ‘tjukurrpa’ time, or Dreamtime.
To them the happenings in this dreamtime are just as real as the happenings in the daytime activities. I was told that one should never wake up a sleeper suddenly as this could be dangerous, since the spirit may be at a distant place within tjukurrpa. Its sudden recall and re-entry into the body may be at such a speed that in stopping on re-entry some hurt may be caused to it. What they mean is that during the time of dreaming, the spirit is moving separate from the body in the spirit world, and it could be that the dreamer may receive instruction from tjukurrpa, or even from Tjukurrpawarnu, the Supreme Spirit. It reminds me that the Bible speaks of God speaking to man in a dream.3 From the above we begin to understand the connection between dreams and eternity, or the eternal world of the spirit, and that which is called the ‘Dreamtime.’
When a Warlpiri man sleeps at night his spirit enters the ‘Dreamtime’ world, and that Dreamtime world is part of the mighty spirit world which stretches from eternity past to eternity future. It is to him a real world in which he participates as his spirit roams around in it as he dreams at night while he sleeps. It is into that world his spirit will go when he dies. There his spirit will rest in one of the sacred artifacts in one of the sacred caves for about twenty years and then one day a woman will be nearby and feel the quickening movement of her unborn child. It will be his spirit taking up residence in that unborn child’s body and when eventually the child is born they will speak of him as being embodied.
They use the term ‘Palkatjari’ meaning ‘being a body,’ ‘becoming embodied.’ Some informants say that each time a person is reborn, the sex is alternated at each reincarnation. And so Tjukurrpa is that spirit world which runs parallel with the physical world, and it is between these two worlds the Warlpiri moves. He came from Tjukurrpa, and will go back to Tjukurrpa, later to emerge back into the physical world. But above all and beyond all is Tjukurrpawarnu. They probably don’t know the meaning of ‘Deist’ or ‘gods’ but to them there is one Supreme Being, the Tjukurrpawarnu, who is the ultimate, superlative, creator, originator of all that there is.
The Warlpiri believe that when they are in the realm of Tjukurrpa during sleep it is possible that Tjukurrpawarnu would reveal things to them. I was working amongst the Arabunna tribal people further south in South Australia, when a man and his wife came to me asking to be baptised, and he added the following remarks, ‘But I don’t want to be a water Christian.’ I asked what he meant, and he said that he knew of those who had been baptised as Christians, but who weren’t real.
I asked more about his Christian understanding, and he told me of his first pointer towards the Gospel. Long before he had any contact with the mission on Christianity, he had had a vision or a dream, in which he saw a lovely river of clear water, with green grassy banks, and trees with fruit on them growing beside the river. He saw people moving and resting on the banks of the river, and ‘shiny ones’ moving about amongst the people. He told me how he asked one of the ‘shining ones’ if he could stay beside the river in that lovely place.
The ‘shining one’ told him that he didn’t belong there, but would show him his place, and he led him down a cave and through a tunnel, to a wide open sandy plain, in which were many Aboriginal camps, and people in them. But it was burning hot and many of the camps were on fire, and the ‘shining one’ said to him,4 ‘This is your place, this is where you belong.’ He replied that he didn’t want to stay there, but wanted to go back to that lovely place beside the river. The ‘shining one’ replied, ‘Then listen to one who will come and tell you the way.’ As he finished his story, Finke Bob turned to me and said, ‘I’ve heard of Jesus and accepted Him as my Saviour, and want to follow Him and live for Him.’ His story resembled that of Cornelius and Peter and also fitted in with what I have learnt of the old time beliefs of the Warlpiri.
- “Before the Invasion,” page 39, by Colin Bourke, Colin Johnson and Isobel White. (Oxford University Press). Return to text.
Extract from the Weekend Australian, 26–27 October, 1985, page 1. Article entitled, “Are we giving the Rock to the right people?” “The members of Pitjantjatjara and the Yankuntjatjara tribes who call themselves Anangu. . .are now sharing with tourists many of the ancient stories. The Anangu culture revolves around Tjukurpa, which they describe as ‘existence itself, in the past, present and future. . .the explanation of existence’. During the early period of Tjukurpa beings travelled across the land in the form of humans, animals and plants, performing outstanding feats of creation and destruction. Because of the enduring nature of Tjukurpa however Uluru was used and remade by other creatures long after the creative ones had gone their way.”
Note by LR: The languages of the Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri have many similarities as they belong to the same family of languages, and at times have similar words for the same thing. I have spelt the word TJUKURRPA, whereas the paper report gives it in the Pitjantjatjara with a single R, as TJUKURPA, but they would be the same word with slight dialectical variation of sound. Return to text.
- Compare Numbers 12:6, Matthew 2:12,22. Return to text.
- Compare with Revelation 21:27–22:6. Return to text.