Central Australia’s Caterpillar Dreaming: Gleaning an insight into Indigenous ritual and ceremony

Philip Jamieson and Marianne Schmidt

Featured image: aerial view of Alice Springs by Stephen Codrington, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=221254

Alice Springs, lying as it does almost at the geographic heart of the Australian continent, inspires in many Australians a nostalgic sense of their national identity – a tough and hardy community of people forging a living in the harsh Australian desert, enduring baking summers and freezing winter nights, and meeting each challenge with laconic indifference. It is an image of hardiness and mateship that we can draw upon at times of challenge. As half of global humanity now sits in lockdown, it is an image that helps inspire the fortitude we need as a nation to survive the adversity we are facing.

Alice Springs/Mparntwe’s antiquity

We also suggest that reflection upon the significance of Alice Springs to our national psyche provides opportunity as well as inspiration, an opportunity to recognise the antiquity of our human connection with the landscape of Alice Springs.

The Alice township dates only to the latter half of the 19th century, established well after British colonisation of the continent. For at least 30,000 years before, the local indigenous peoples, the Arrernte, had lived in the area, known to them as Mparntwe.[1] Reflecting the extent of their connection with the land, the town has one of the most dense populations of indigenous Australian sacred sites in Australia with more than 600 such sites within its boundaries.[2]

After attending the Cosmic Consciousness Conference at Uluru in January this year, we travelled to Alice Springs where we had the opportunity to visit a number of these sacred sites and learn more of the Arrernte’s connection to country. In Arrernte tradition, many ancestral beings were involved in shaping the landscape of Mparntwe, amongst them wild dogs, two sisters and travelling uninitiated boys.[3] However, it was the creation story of “the Caterpillar Dreaming” that particularly caught our attention.

Our interest was inspired not only by the nature of the story itself, but also by one of Marianne’s photos (taken at Glen Helen Gorge early in our visit) in which appeared a peculiar blurring that was suggestive to Marianne of the image of a caterpillar. We believe that image was intended to draw our attention to “the Caterpillar Dreaming” story that we would learn more of during our stay.

Glen Helen Gorge

Photo taken by Marianne of the “caterpillar” at Glen Helen Gorge

Difficulties in researching indigenous Australian Dreaming stories

There are a number of well-recognised difficulties in researching indigenous Australian Dreaming stories. Affrica Taylor, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra, has specifically commented on those difficulties in the context of Mparntwe:

Researching these stories is not necessarily straightforward. They often seem fragmented and contradictory. They lack the standard narrative form that westerners are accustomed to and expect from stories. Even though it is common local knowledge that Ayeparenye Altyerre [the ‘Caterpillar Dreaming Story’] is the most significant Dreaming/Country Mparntwe story, or set of stories, not everyone can access all aspects of these stories. What you are told and what you can know depends upon who you are and where you come from. In a radio documentary, ‘Off Track: in the shadow of the caterpillar’ (Australian Broadcasting Commission [ABC], 2013), Jenny McFarland explains that this is because people only get told the bits that relate to them. ‘Country has skin, country is family’ and not everybody’s family business or stories of country are the same. … There is no ‘one true story’, but a number of partial stories told from a variety of different positions within and perspectives on country.[4]

The Caterpillar Dreaming

With that caution, we relate our understanding of “the Caterpillar Dreaming” story. It revolves around three powerful caterpillar ancestral beings[5] (though a fourth – Irkngeltye – is also sometimes mentioned)[6] – Yeperenye (Ayepe-arenye), Utnerrengatye and Ntyarike/Ntyalke – considered to be the major creative ancestors of Mparntwe,[7] and amongst the most sacred and important of all Arrernte totems[8] (in particular, the Yeperenye).[9]

Each is a living (though threatened)[10] presence in the Mparntwe region and a traditional food for the local Arrernte.[11] They are the larvae of four scientific taxa of hawk moth: Yeperenye (tar vine caterpillar) being the white-lined hawk moth (Hyles livornicoides); Ntyarlke the vine hawk moth (Hippotion celerio); Utnerrengatye the moth Coenotes eremophilae; and the fourth Irkngeltye thought to be possibly the convolvulus hawk moth (Agrius convolvuli).[12]

Photo taken by the authors of signboard at Anthwerrke (Emily Gap)

Their creation story begins at Anthwerrke (Emily Gap), not far to the east of Alice Springs in the East McDonnell Ranges. It is here that they originated.[13] After creating Anthwerrke, they travelled west, in the general direction of today’s Alice township, creating, producing, shaping and calling into existence many of the topographical features of Mparntwe.[14]

Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme

One of the first sites created by the ntyarlke caterpillars was Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme.[15] It is a relatively small, rocky ridge only a few metres wide, running in a westerly direction and abutting the eastern side of the Todd River. Interestingly, it requires little imagination to see it as taking the form of a caterpillar. It was here that the ntyarlke crossed the river in their travels.[16] It is one of the most sacred sites in the area for the Caterpillar Dreaming.[17]

Ridge

Photo taken by the authors of Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme

It also features in another aspect of the Arrernte creation story, one of particular prominence. It arises from the caterpillars of the three clans, having originated at Anthwerrke, returning for ceremonies,[18] Allowing for some contradiction in the accounts we have read, the Yeperenye clans came from Atula to the east, the Ntyalke from Urlatherrke (Mt Zeil) to the west, with other clans coming from Amperrknge (Central Mt Stuart) in the north and from Apwetele on the Finke River to the south. They converged at Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme before travelling on towards Anthwerrke.[19] But after leaving Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme, they came upon the ilperenye (green beetle men) at Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap). There a great battle took place, with the caterpillars defeated and many beheaded, their bodies now forming parts of the McDonnell Ranges, joined head to tail as travelling caterpillars are seen to do, their decapitations creating the spectacular gorges that cut through the ranges.[20]

Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme sacrificed to urban development

The creation story of Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme has been described as illustrating that land is the source of all life for Arrernte people – “[f]rom land comes everything, their stories, their relationships and their sustenance”.[21] Eastern-Arrernte elder, Veronica Dobson emphasises that sacred sites such as Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme are therefore “like churches, where special rules of worship must be followed”.[22] Yet, in 1983 the Northern Territory Government dynamited and bulldozed the base of the ridge nearest the river, the caterpillar’s tail, to lay down a road, Barrett Drive (known to the Arrernte as Broken Promise Drive).[23] The damage to the site was self-evident as we stood on the road verge and cast our eyes over the ridge.

Galena at Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme

While standing near the destroyed tail of the sacred site, Marianne’s gaze was drawn to something glinting silver in the raw rockface. It appeared to be a relatively abundant mineral apparently exposed by the blast, what looked to us to be galena.

Galena 2

Galena 1

Photos taken by the authors of galena deposits in Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme

Our subsequent researches showed that Alice Springs does indeed have the right geology for the presence of galena and that there are known deposits in the region.[24] Buoyed by those discoveries, we approached a geology graduate who confirmed not only that its presence fits the geology of the area but that from our photos we looked to have “nailed it” – the mineral “certainly does look like galena”, with the correct lustre and the cubic form being a “dead giveaway” given that while there are other minerals with the same cubic form their colour is noticeably different.

Galena in ancient culture

Galena has a long history of use in human cultures.[25] From at least some 10,000 years ago[26] it was used in a number of ancient communities and for a variety of purposes. When crushed or ground, it produces a silver powdery glitter, which on turning white on oxidisation could be used with water as paint. While this appears to have been its major ancient use, its use as personal decoration also included service as accessories and ornaments (such as beads, and oval and bird effigy pendants). Perhaps most well known was its application to the face or body, in Ancient Egypt as the eye cosmetic kohl. It is thought that kohl was applied around the eyes with a view to reducing glare and repelling flies,[27] although Marianne has noted that kohl, being black, also has the effect of enhancing the amount of sunlight absorbed by the skin and/or eyes. She has suggested that as the Ancient Egyptians believed that souls resided in the sun, they might well have sought to enhance the amount of sunlight they were absorbing with a view to gaining soul energy emanating from the sun.

The use of galena in antiquity was certainly widespread. As the natural mineral form of lead sulphide, the use of galena in ancient cultures was in fact so extensive that it has been suggested that pre-Columbian Native American galena processing and/or use even resulted on occasion in lead pollution.[28]

For us, it is of particular interest though that with its glistening silver colour and perfect cubic cleavage, galena was valued amongst the ancients for its ceremonial use – used by shamans, as magical charms and found in ceremonial burial sites. These are clearly spiritual settings. We have come to understand (albeit initially with some surprise) that in the framework of spiritual understanding even contemporary words have the power to speak through time. While in its more traditional interpretation, galena is said to derive from the ancient Greek “galene” meaning “lead ore”, in her more spiritually guided use of etymology, Marianne points to the transposition of its letters as “a glean” (a new understanding) and to the fact that “glistens” ensures one’s attention is drawn to the intention “Gee, listen”. To us, this emphasises one reason ancient cultures may have been drawn to things that glistened and gleamed, for in doing so they were in truth gleaning insights and listening to their higher self/spirit/god. And galena is a mineral with a particular property which lends significant further support to this thesis.

Galena’s electrical property as a semi-conductor

Galena is a semiconductor (conducting electrons in one direction only), an effect that is worth noting is especially strong in galena.[29] Indeed, it is well understood when conducting a geophysical survey that a region of higher electrical conductivity may have galena.[30] This (one way) electrical conductivity enabled it to function as the operative component of the once popular crystal radio receiver,[31] by which radio signals could be received (though not also transmitted).

Telluric energy and songlines

It is also well understood that there are natural electric currents that circulate within the Earth.[32] One such electric phenomenon is a telluric current, although there are many mechanisms by which such a current may form. These currents travel at or near the Earth’s surface, interacting in a complex pattern.[33] It has been suggested that these patterns are reflected in the songlines (or Dreaming tracks) of Australia’s indigenous communities, described by some as the counterparts of ley lines[34] and essentially following the Earth’s telluric currents.[35]

Moreover, along these songlines, the Earth’s surface layers contain various rocks and minerals which may impact these currents. Indigenous Australians are known to understand that rocks have an energy field. During ceremonies at sacred sites, the application of the participants’ physical and mental energies, in conjunction with sound generated at specific frequencies through instruments and chants, would stimulate the energy fields of the rocks at that site. And in this process of stimulation, some rocks have a higher energy potential.[36] Galena is such a rock. Indeed, we have already noted that galena’s semiconductivity is especially strong.[37]

Galena’s power to enhance shamanic insight

In the same way that this one way electrical semiconductivity enabled galena to function as the operative component of a crystal radio receiver, we would suggest that its presence at a sacred site would enhance the ability of a shaman undertaking rituals to receive (or “download”) the energies at that site.

This effect further enhanced by heat

We would also suggest that this effect would be further enhanced in the area of Alice Springs by another peculiar property of semiconductors whereby an increase in temperature or heat increases their conductivity.[38] We hardly need note the harshness of the Central Australian climate.

Ceremonies and rituals at Mparntwe

Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme is a sacred site created by the ntyarlke caterpillars in the “Dreaming”. In the “Dreaming” creative period, the caterpillar ancestors at Mparntwe conducted ceremonies at such sacred sites:

There were times when they acted more like humans than caterpillars … on occasion, the beings would sit down at a certain spot and paint themselves with red ochre and fat, thus setting the pattern for subsequent ritual performed by people.[39]

These ancestor ceremonies established ritual for the Arrernte at these sacred sites. Elders remember when ceremonies were regularly held in and around these sites.[40] Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme is one of the most sacred sites for the Caterpillar Dreaming. And we would suggest that the presence of galena at the site would have served to enhance the effectiveness of ceremony undertaken there.

The importance of protecting sacred sites such as Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme

Tragically, Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme has been irreparably damaged by the dynamiting and bulldozing of the caterpillar’s tail. This action is but one example of the enormous impact on Arrernte life and culture that has been wrought with non-indigenous settlement in the area. Even into the early part of the twentieth century, large singing and dancing ceremonies are remembered as regularly being held in and around the sacred caterpillar sites of Alice Springs, [41] but development – houses, suburbs and industry – has come to severely compromise many sacred sites in the region.[42] Efforts are being made within the indigenous community to ensure that their members are able to access and continue to practise their culture, to ensure that their cultural identity, knowledge, practices and traditions are passed on for future generations: [43]

.. any information from the elders and people from long ago is very important, to keep continually teaching others so they know about the caterpillars and also about how people lived before.[44]

These efforts are being made, not only to support access to and understanding of their culture within the indigenous community, but also to promote awareness and understanding of indigenous culture within the broader community.[45] Indeed, the Arrernte see this inclusiveness as intrinsic to the Caterpillar Dreaming. The story emphasises that the caterpillars converged on Alice Springs from all directions – north, south, east and west. Mparntwe is “everybody’s four corners”, a meeting place – where people from all over (indigenous and non-indigenous alike) are “all mixed up together” – a place in which everyone can belong,[46] a melting pot in which all work together in community. As one Arrernte elder expressed it so eloquently:

We got to be like the two train-lines. That train, he cannot run on just one line.[47]

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Endnotes

[1] Wikipedia: Alice Springs

[2] Rosa

[3] Detailed, eg, in Brooks

[4] Taylor at 371-372

[5] Sleath (1) relating the teachings of senior Eastern-Arrernte woman, Veronica Dobson

[6] Walsh (1) relating the teachings of senior Eastern-Arrernte woman, Veronica Dobson

[7] Brooks, at 5. Similarly Araluen Arts Centre, Yen at 76

[8] Araluen Arts Centre

[9] Brooks at 6, Sleath (1), Taylor at 370

[10] Walsh (1)

[11] Yen at 76, Sleath (1)

[12] Walsh (2). See also Yen at 76; Wikipedia :Hyles livornicoides

[13] Mudrooroo

[14] On the creation story described, see generally Brooks (especially at 5ff)

[15] Brooks at 15. See further Mudrooroo.

[16] Brooks at 15

[17] Kimber at 3

[18] Their returning for ceremonies is noted, for example by Nicole Laughton

[19] Dobson referring at 8 to an interview with Veronica Dobson, Interview at Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme in Mparntwe, Thursday 15 April 2004

[20] There are various public accounts of the creation story. The description in the text has been drawn from a number of sources, including Anon, Aboriginal Spirituality: About Aboriginal Spirituality; Araluen Arts Centre; Dobson at 8, Rubuntja, Taylor at 372, Walsh (1) & (2)

[21] Dobson at 7

[22] Dobson at 8

[23] See a discussion in Brooks at 15 – 17, Short at 135

[24] For example, at Strangways Range some 70 kilometres north of Alice Springs, galena has been reported at some 7 localities in the region: see “Detailed Mineral List”: Galena in mindat.org

[25] On the description of uses which follows, see generally Gibbon at 310; ); Itipton; Karpathakis at 2, National Park Service (Ohio), Rafferty; Rapp at 120, 176 – 178; Romain at 161, Wikipedia: Galena

[26] Noted in Broxton

[27] Kohl was used by a number of ancient civilisations, providing UV absorption (Mahmood) and antibacterial protection (Mahmood, Miller)

[28] Broxton

[29] Cairncross at 28.

[30] Wikipedia: Near-surface geophysics

[31] Cairncross at 28, Wikipedia: Crystal radio

[32] An early discussion appears, for example, in Gish

[33] Wikipedia: Telluric current

[34] See a discussion in Anon, Songlines: Songlines of Australia, Balfour; Olsen (1) at 112; Olsen (2) at 108; Williams at 86

[35] See, for example, Anon, Songlines: Songlines of Australia, Olsen (2) at 108

[36] See a discussion of these ideas in Balfour

[37] Cairncross at 28.

[38] Anon, Heat & light effect on semiconductors

[39] Brooks at 6.

[40] Taylor at 372, for example, quotes the memories of Kwementyaye W. Rubuntja

[41] Taylor at 372 commenting upon and quoting the memories of Kwementyaye W. Rubuntja

[42] As noted during a sacred sites tour led by senior custodian Doris Stuart, as reported in Sleath 1

[43] See, for example, the work of Akeyulerre Inc (http://www.akeyulerre.org.au/)

[44] Senior Eastern-Arrernte woman, Veronica Dobson, in Sleath (1)

[45] For example, sacred sites tours led by senior custodian Doris Stuart (Sleath 1) and interactive tours for visitors to Anthwerrke (Emily Gap) (Central Land Council)

[46] Kwementyaye W. Rubuntja, as quoted and related in Taylor at 372

[47] Wenten Rubuntja quoted in Kimber at 1

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Bibliography

As at 16 April 2020

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