Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs center on the myths that tell the travels and activities of spirit beings "in the Beginning." The earth was much as it is now, but the acts of the spirit beings at that distant time in the past set the patterns of proper behavior for the Yolngu who would follow, and left signs of their presence in the land. "Wangarr" refers both to spirit being and distant time past; it is comparable to what has been called "the Dreaming" or "the Dreamtime" in other accounts of Aboriginal religion. The spirit beings named plants and animals in the language of the people on whom they bestowed the land and performed ceremonies that Present-day owners of the land should perform. They transformed parts of the landscape during their journey. At what would be a clan's most important sacred site, they left a part of themselves; in some cases they stayed and "are always there." For the Yolngu, Wangarr continue to exist and to manifest themselves in both the seen and the unseen world. For individuals, the most important ones are those of their father's and their mother's clans. Healers ( marrnggitj ) have spirit familiars, often referred to as their "spirit children," who assist them in their curing practices. Since the arrival of the missions, all Yolngu have some knowledge of Christianity and to a varying extent have become active church members.
Religious Practitioners. Since all Yolngu are expected to participate in religious ritual—and most do—all are practitioners. All men sing the ritual songs and at some time do the appropriate dances; all women perform the women's dances that are required for the enactment of some phases of Ceremony. Traditional ritual specialists are men who commit to memory a large corpus of sacred names (sometimes called "power names")—names of clan lands, sites, spirit beings, and their appurtenances—and who intone them in the manner of invocations at certain junctures in ritual performance. Some Yolngu men have been ordained as ministers in the Uniting Church (the successor of the original mission Methodist church); for most Yolngu it is important that their Christianity has been Aboriginalized. Some of the ritual of Yolngu ceremony and its sacred objects have been incorporated in the iconography of the Yolngu Christian churches.
Ceremonies. The major ceremonies of the Yolngu focus on death; their mortuary rituals are an elaborate and Important part of their culture, although they have undergone Certain changes since the advent of the missions. The initial phases of induction into ritual adult manhood were often conducted at this time too, when ritual paraphernalia had been renewed and all the appropriate relatives were gathered. Marriage arrangements, trade, and other negotiations were also conducted during the time of ceremonies, which tended to be at the end of the dry season. Rituals at which the clans' most sacred ritual objects are freshly decorated, displayed, and their meanings explained are the most restricted of all: these ceremonies are directed by the oldest men; only mature men who have demonstrated their worthiness are admitted; and the meanings are imparted incrementally. These objects are of the greatest importance to Yolngu, their significance indicated by their having been called "title deeds" to land.
Arts. Performance of ritual is judged by canons of aesthetics which make it a form of art as well as religious practice; Individual dancers, singers, and drone pipe players are noted and praised for their performance style. Men learn to paint the figures and designs that represent or symbolize their clan's and their mother's clan's heritage, both ritually on bodies on religious occasions and at present on sheets of prepared bark as commercial fine art. Women have also produced Commercial fine art since the 1970s. In the houses of Yolngu living in towns, bark paintings and carvings are displayed for the aesthetic pleasure they give as well as for their religious meaning.
Medicine. Yolngu may now avail themselves of Western medicine and also call on the services of a marrnggitj for diagnosis and/or treatment, especially if the cause of illness is suspected to be sorcery or inadvertent entry into a spiritually dangerous place. Yolngu have in addition a large pharmacopoeia based mainly on indigenous plants, the knowledge and use of which most people have some familiarity with.
Death and Afterlife. At the time of death, the soul, or its malign aspect, remains about the place of death and is a threat to close family members. One objective of the purificatory rites performed to "free" both survivors and material objects associated with the deceased, including houses, is protection from the malignity of the soul. During the extended course of the mortuary ritual, the soul is guided to some particular area or site on its own clan land, usually a place where, along with other souls of its clan, it awaits reincarnation.