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Aboriginal Art meaning

Aboriginal art meaning varies from area to area. This article looks at the meaning of Aboriginal art from North Central Australia. Central Australia is where aboriginal dot art originated. Comprehending aboriginal art meaning is not easy. It may take some time to get your mind around it. It is worth the effort.

Traditional aboriginal art and early aboriginal paintings have a sacred design that depicted Alcheringa.

Understanding Alcheringa and the designs found on sacred Churinga is the key to comprehending aboriginal art.

Do you want a better understanding of how aboriginal art depicts a sacred place? How concentric circles and other symbols depict an ancestral spirit? The relationship between artist, his songlines and the dreaming? Then this article I hope will help.









Aboriginal Art Symbols


The symbols in aboriginal art are design specific. Symbols have different meanings depending on which design is being painted. A concentric circle on one design may mean waterhole. The same concentric circle design mean a camp place in another.

Aboriginal art symbols are not like letters or hieroglyphics. They only have a specific meaning when they are within a particular design.

A design made up of different symbols tells the story of a particular mythical ancestral heroes journey to get to his final resting place.

The individual symbols map out that journey. The arranged symbols together they represent that mythical ancestor journey. They also represent the place his spirit now resides

The design as a whole also represents the spirit of a specific mythical ancestral hero called an Alcheringa.

Different Alcheringa spirits reside in different sacred sites. Each has its own specific design.

Aboriginal art meaning and Alcheringa

When these legendary Alcheringa ancestral heroes died they became a distinct geographical feature. Their spirit still dwells in these sacred sites. The design as a whole, therefore, represents an Alcheringa spirit being and a particular sacred place. The individual symbols tell the story of the spirit’s journey to get there.

Early Aboriginal artists have a very strong spiritual connection to specific Alcheringa. To understand this connection you need to first understand Churinga.

Aboriginal Churinga and aboriginal art meaning

Sacred Churingas have the same designs as found in early paintings. These designs were not painted but incised into flat oval-shaped pieces of wood or stone. Churingas are not art they are sacred spiritual objects.

Churingas are extremely sacred. Women or uninitiated boys could only see them on penalty of death or blinding by fire stick.

According to Aboriginal customary belief if a woman falls pregnant then an Alcheringa spirit has entered her body. It is the Alcheringa that has caused the pregnancy. She will know which Alcheringa impregnated her. She knows which Alcheringa made her pregnant because she knows which of the sacred sites she was near when she fell pregnant.

Customary belief is that when a woman gives birth to a child that the Alcheringa spirit will drop the child’s churinga. The Alcheringa spirit will drop the churinga at the place of the mother’s conception. The mother will tell her elder brother or father at which sacred spot she thinks the spirit entered her body. Father or brother can then return to that sacred site and “find” the child’s churinga.

This churinga dropped by the Alcheringa spirit is a part of that child. The churinga is then placed in a sacred storehouse. The storehouse contains the churinga of all the people the Alcheringa has concieved. It is a very sacred hiding spot storing the churinga of both living and deceased.

Initiation is gaining knowledge

It isn’t until initiation that an Aboriginal man will ever see his own churinga. The initiates churinga represents the Alcheringa spirit that resides in the place of his own conception. The individual, the Alcheringa spirit and sacred place are intrinsically linked by the churinga.

During the initiation, the initiate will learn the story of the travels of the ancestral being who bought him into existence. These travels are represented by the designs on the sacred churinga and those travels learnt through song.

The travels of the Alcheringa are often called a dreaming or a songline.

The initiate will also learn the ceremony associated with that Alcheringa. Many of these ceremonies involve Aboriginal sand paintings which have the same designs and story as churinga.

Sacred knowledge is transferred during initiation.

Meaning of Early Aboriginal Paintings

Early aboriginal artists painted their traditional designs while chanting. They were singing the travels of the Alcheringa spirit and sacred place that bought them into existence. These stories sung of the travels of the Alcheringa are depicted by the symbols they paint.

They were painting their songlines or dreamings.

Early aboriginal artist on a spiritual level are the children of an Alcheringa spirit that resides at a particular sacred site. So when they paint a particular Alcheringa sacred design it is a place, a spirit a story and also a part of themselves.

So, for example, Old Walter Tjampitjinpa was the senior custodian for the Kalipina Water dreaming. Being senior custodian meant he looked after the storehouse for all the churinga of all the people ever conceived near that sacred site. It also meant he had more knowledge of that story, that dreaming, that songline then any other person.

When he paints the water dreaming he is not just painting a place, he is painting the story of the travels of how the Kalipina Alcheringa came to exist.

Aboriginal art meaning disclaimer

There is more to it than I have described. There is more to it than I can describe because the full story can only be learnt by the initiated.

Each Alcheringa has a specific ceremony associated with it. Every Alcheringa has totemic animals associated with it. Each Alcheringa has its own story and then a more in-depth story known only to the elders. To fully understand the art you would need to fully understand the culture and be fully initiated.

No offense is meant by this post. I believe that it is only through trying to understand other cultures beliefs that we can better question our own.

Aboriginal Art Meaning Reference

Native tribes of Central Australia

Other Aboriginal Art and Artists

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