Two Aboriginal Oral Texts from Arnhem Land North Australia, and their Cultural Context


  • Margaret Clunies Ross


aboriginal oral text, arnhem land


 This study examines two Aboriginal oral texts, recorded on tape and 16mm. film during the course of a mortuary ritual in Arnhem Land during August, 1978.1 Their subject-matter is similar but their nature as utterance is different, as each belongs to a different oral register. Both texts concern two related sacred forces: the first is a spirit-being, or totem, as it would be called in the older anthropological literature, which takes the shape of a sea-bird named Mulanda and the second is a large black rock, Ngaliya, Mulanda's home. Text 1 is an oration, made by one of the senior men present at the ritual, to a gathering of male participants, shortly after he had supervised the execution of two icons, representing the two sacred forces, on the hollow log ossuary which had been prepared to house the bones of the man in whose honour the mortuary ceremony was held. The speaker has a double audience: he directs himself at times to the eye of the camera, but more often to his Aboriginal hearers. Text 2 is a single song-verse, which belongs to the standardised oral form~ that Aborigines from North-East and North-Central Arnhem Land call manikay.3 The word is usually translated as "clan-song series". The song-verse in this instance, which also celebrates the same two sacred forces as the oration, formed part of the conventional musical and choreographic accompaniment to the mortuary ritual, whose nature will be described briefly below.