Earth pigments on Stringybark hollow pole
In ancestral times, the leaders of Yirritja moiety clans used fire for the first time during a ceremony at Ŋalarrwuy in Gumatj country. This came about as fire brought to the Madarrpa clan country by Bäru the ancestral crocodile, spread North and swept through the ceremonial ground. From this ceremonial ground the fire spread further to other sites. Various ancestral animals were affected and reacted in different ways. These animals became sacred totems of the Gumatj people and the areas associated with these events became important sites.
The fire spread inland from the ceremonial ground and burnt the nest of Waṉkurra (Bandicoot) forcing him to hide in a hollow log ḻarrakitj to save himself. Waṉkurra is thus danced and sung at mortuary ceremony as he is associated with the burial log used to contain the bones of the deceased.
Djirikitj, the quail (sometimes called the’ fire making bird’), picked up a burning twig from this fire and flew away with it, dropping it at Maṯamaṯa. There is a large paperbark swamp at Maṯamaṯa, where native honey bees live. Fire from the burning twig dropped by Djirikitj took hold of the tall grass in the swamp area and the native bees fled to Djiliwirri in Gupapuyŋu clan country. Thus Gupapuyŋu honey and Gumatj fire are linked through these ancestral events and also refer to a relationship between these two clans which is played out in ceremony.
The honey eating Pee-Wee Biṯiwiṯi built its nest high up in the trees safe from the fire- its song was to be heard after the morning of the fire. The indestructible spider Garr came out after the fire had passed and spun its web between the trees which is said to catch the souls of the Yirritja dead. Garrtjambal the kangaroo was as frightened as Waṉkurra and ran away from the fire burning his feet in the hot ash as he did so. Waṉkurra traveled through the hollow log with its tail on fire transferring the Gumatj identity to new places.
The harbinger of death is Ŋerrk, sulphur crested white cockatoo who is intimately associated with this place, these people and this ceremony. Another powerful Gumatj bird is Djilawurr whose sites are often associated with freshwater rainforest adjacent to the harbours of Macassans.
These creatures are all associated with named sites which were burnt as the ancestral fire spread across the land. Where the sites described occur outside Gumatj clan country, the path of the fire represents important relationships held between these clans.
The Gumatj clan design associated with these events, a diamond design, represents fire; the red flames, the white smoke and ash, the black charcoal and the yellow dust. Also the black skin, yellow fat, white bone and red blood of Gumatj people. Clans owning connected parts of this sequence of ancestral events share variations of this diamond design.
The Larrakitj had its traditional use for the Yolŋu of North east Arnhem Land as an ossuary or bone container erected as a memorial to a dead kinsman up to a decade after death. After death the body of the deceased was often ceremonially placed on a raised platform and left to the elements for an appropriate time. The area would then be abandoned until the next stage of the ritual.
This took place once it was determined that the essential eternal spirit of the deceased had completed its cyclical journey to the spring from which it had originated and would in time return again. This might be several years. Whilst the body was ‘lying in state’ others got wind of the death, perhaps by subliminal message and made preparations to journey to the site of mortuary. Usually enough time had elapsed for the bones of the deceased to be naturally cleansed on the platform. The essence of the soul within the bone was made ready for final rites when other outside participants necessary for its safe journey arrived. Ritual saw the bones of the deceased placed within the termite hollowed memorial pole for final resting. Mortuary ritual would end with the placement of the Larrakitj containing the bones standing in the bush. Over time the larrakitj and its contents would return to mother earth.
The Larrakitj has often been referred to as the mother’s womb. Once sedentary mission communities were established in Arnhem Land it became impractical to abandon permanent communities and outlawed to expose corpses on platforms. However the cosmology of the Yolŋu and the essence of ritual mortuary ceremony remains just as important. Larrakitj continue to be produced as the equivalent of headstones or to contain the personal effects of a deceased (which might be dangerous unless removed from the living because of the emanations imbued by contact with the deceased).
A further role for this cultural form is as a fine art object and an instructional tool for younger generations. Artworks of this nature have multiple layers of metaphor and meaning which give lessons about the connections between an individual and specific pieces of country (both land and sea), as well as the connections between various clans but also explaining the forces that act upon and within the environment and the mechanics of a spirit’s path through existence. The knowledge referred to by this imagery deepens in complexity and secrecy as a person progresses through a life long learning process.