Warlpiri - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The central concept in Warlpiri religious beliefs is jukurrpa, usually translated as "the Dreaming." This term refers to the period when the world was created, the features of the landscape made, and the pre-European rules for conduct laid down, all by the ancestral heroes. These beings, at once both human and nonhuman, emerged from the subterranean ancestral spirit world and led a life much like that of traditional Warlpiri, only on a grander scale. The land surface was transformed into its present-day features by their activity. At each point where they engaged in creative acts are sources of water, and at some other places they left behind life force in the form of spirit children, which are responsible for new human and nonhuman life. The ancestral heroes had designs on their bodies, which carried the life force and which are the designs that men and women reproduce in ceremony today to renew the life force by recreating the founding dramas of their world. In addition to the ancestral beings, mildly malevolent spirits called gugu are often invoked to keep children close to adults at night or away from areas where men are holding ceremonies. Mungamunga, female ancestral spirits, may appear to either men or women in dreams with new songs, dances, or designs. Large or permanent bodies of water are thought to harbor rainbow serpents that can be offended if proper precautions are not taken.

Religious Practitioners. There is no separate class of religious practitioners since all adults play an active part in religious life. Nevertheless, some people are regarded as particularly knowledgeable about specific bodies of religious knowledge, usually manifested in the mastery of a large repertoire of songs relating to the deeds of particular ancestors.

Ceremonies. The Warlpiri have a rich religious life with a wide variety of ceremonies. These include: secular purlapa, based on songs and dance steps brought to people in dreams by ancestral spirits and then fashioned into performances; maturation ceremonies, principally for males; women's yawulyu and men's panpa ceremonies, which are separately held rites for paternal ancestral dreamings; community-based ceremonies to resolve conflicts and to celebrate the winter solstice; important religious festivals; and magical and sorcery rites performed by an individual or small group for immediate personal ends. Settlement life has removed many logistic problems formerly associated with holding ceremonies, leading to an efflorescence of ritual and a greatly increased catchment area for participation in and exchange of ceremonies.

Arts. Art is central to Warlpiri religious life. The designs given to the people by the ancestors are principal elements of religious property, important in substantiating rights to land and essential to the reproduction of people and nature. Even more important than the designs are the songs commemorating the deeds of the heroic ancestors, which often run into the hundreds for particular lines of travel. Singing is essential for turning boys into men, curing the sick, easing childbirth, attacking enemies, ensuring fertility, and tapping the powers of the Dreaming. In addition to various styles of dancing, there is a huge range of religious sculpture that is dismantled immediately following the ceremony for which it was constructed.

Medicine. A number of older people, almost all of whom are men, are thought to have healing powers and are called upon to treat the sick, especially when the major problem is internal and has no obvious immediate cause. A wide range of herbal medicines is known to people throughout the community and still used from time to time.

Death and Afterlife. The individual personality dissolves with death but the spirit returns to the ancestral spirit world. Traditional practices surrounding death and disposal of the body have been modified more than most aspects of Warlpiri life. At death the house of the deceased, if of a temporary nature, is vacated and destroyed. In the past there was platform burial with disposal of the recovered bones in a termite mound. Nowadays people are buried in cemeteries, although recently some people have been buried back in their own home territories.

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