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ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy of Yimula Mununggurr

Yolŋu funeral story of Mäna the Ancestral Shark

Date: 2002
Overall: 1780 × 130 × 130 mm, 9.6 kg
Medium: Wood, ochre paint
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Copyright: © Yimula Mununggurr
Classification:Ceremonial artefact
Object Name: Hollow log coffin
Object No: 00036155
Place Manufactured:Wandawuy

User Terms

    This hollow log coffin is painted with a story referring to Mäna, the ancestral shark. It is decorated with white, brown and beige cross-hatching to represent the different states of freshwater. The wide black bands at the top and bottom of the log refer to the ancestral fishing net used in the attempt to capture Mäna. For Djapu clan members Mäna is the spiritual force that frees their soul at death and log coffins are part of their traditional funerary practices. This is two of eight log coffins held by the National Maritime Museum.

    Hollow log ceremonies are performed to ensure the spirit of the deceased arrives safely in the land of the dead, having completed its perilous journey from the earth. Bones of the deceased are placed within the log; after the ceremony the coffin is left to the elements and the burial cycle is complete. The designs are related to the artist's clan - linking people to or by a common ancestor, land, language and strict social affiliations.

    The burial ceremony is known according to language - including Lorrkon, Djalumbu, Badurru, Mudukundja, Mululu, Larajeje, Larrakitj.

    SignificanceLog coffins and the story of Mäna the Ancestral Shark are integral to the funerary rituals of the Yol?u people in east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. This coffin represents the people belonging to the Dhuwa moiety of the Djapu clan in the homeland of Wandawuy.

    These poles were made as works of art for public display - moving the works beyond their traditional use in funeral rituals to being aesthetic objects in contemporary Indigenous art.
    HistoryThe Yol?u people of East Arnhem Land inhabit a landscape that was formed by the actions of ancestral beings, who can take both human and animal form. For instance water now flows where these creatures walked and hills have formed where they died. Ancestral time is not just in the past but also the present and future. In light of this, the sacred landscape and stories of East Arnhem Land are central to the Yol?u people’s way of life and prominent themes in their bark paintings and art.

    During the time of the ancestors the Ancestral Shark Mäna travelled across the saltwater country connecting the Dhuwa clans of the Djapu, Dhudi-Djapu, Marrakulu and the Wanapuynu, Dhukayana and Wawilak. The path he took through the saltwater country of Lutumba is the traditional route that the souls of deceased clan members now travel to reach their final resting place. The Yol?u people today re-enact Mäna's journey in rituals and song.

    Information from the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala:

    The cross hatching grid pattern is the sacred design for the freshwaters of the Djapu clan at their homeland of Wandawuy - now an outstation about 150 kms south of Yirrkala and inland from Blue Mud Bay.

    This Djapu clan outstation and spiritual residence for ancestral beings Mäna the shark and Bolngu the Thunderman is surrounded by permanent freshwater. Rains inspired by the actions of Bolngu fed the rivers and filled the billabongs. The waters also made a home for Mäna. The grid (cross hatching design) refers to the landscape of Wandawuy - a network of billabongs surrounded by ridges and high banks.

    Ancestral Hunters once set a trap here to snare Mäna but to no avail. These Yol?u people were called Barngbarng and Monu`a and they came to cut the Dhuwa trees called Gu`uwu, Gathurrmakarr, Nyenyi, Rulwirra and Gananyarra. They used straight young trees and cut them with their axes called Gayma`arri and Bitjutju. Areas of the river are still staked by the Yolngu; branches are interwoven through them and an anaesthetic (made from a particular pulped bark) is added. Using nets constructed similarly to the beak of Galumay the pelican, the Yol?u wade through the waters scooping up the catfish.

    In the days before the first morning, Mäna the ancestral shark came through this way on its epic travels. Yol?u ancestors tried to trap Mana in the freshwater by means of these fish traps. But they failed. The powers and physical strength of Mäna were of no match to the folly of mere mortals. Mäna's ire and thrashing tail smashed the trap and muddied the water as he escaped. But the ancestors did witness the strength of Mäna and sing about it. The black lines on the logs refer to the trap, the coloured verticals to the differing states of the freshwater (clear or muddy) - the source of Djapu soul.

    In ceremonies still practiced today, appropriate participants for mortuary rites enter a shelter (woven like the fish trap) where the deceased has been lying in state. Sacred spears tipped with stingray barbs - manifestations of Mäna's teeth - stand up alongside the shelter. The sacred song cycles of Mäna at Wandawuy are intoned with music from the Yidaki (didjeridu) and Bilma (clapsticks). At the conclusion of the ceremony the dancers crash through the shelter imitating the actions of Mäna escaping the trap. The action has reference to the release of the deceased's soul back to the sacred waters of Wandawuy to be reunited with its ancestors.

    Additional Titles

    Web title: Yolŋu funeral story of Mäna the Ancestral Shark

    Primary title: Image of Mana from the Yolngu funeral story of Mana the ancestral shark featured on a hollow log coffin

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