SageWoman Blogs

Sibylline reflections on culture, the politics of culture, and spiritual philosophies, with women at the center. Veleda is an ancient Celtic title for a seeress, most famously applied to a revolutionary tribal prophetess of the Bructerii in upper Germania.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Jillinya, Great Mother of the Ngarinyin

Posted by on in SageWoman Blogs

The magnificent rock paintings of the Kimberly range in northwestern Australia are among the most ancient in the world, going back tens of thousands of years. Radiocarbon dating of a fossilized wasp nest built over one painting places the nest itself at more than 17,000 years ago, so that the painting must be older -- possibly much older -- than that. Aboriginal people in this region call the paintings, or rather the Beings in them, Gwion Gwion, Giro Giro, and other names.

While making my Woman Shaman dvd, I did a lot of research on rock art around the world. These paintings grabbed my attention, not only because of their tremendous beauty, but because they show dance and ceremonial regalia. Aboriginal tradition says they represent ancestral Beings of the Dreamtime. Because human ceremony celebrates these beings, and reenacts their primordial creative acts, we come around full circle to a likely reflection what extremely ancient rites might have looked like. But from North America it was next to impossible to find Aboriginal testimony about these paintings.

While I was in Australia last year, the very knowledgeable Chris Sitka shared a book with me that contained such testimony, from several senior Law Men. (We know that Aboriginal women have their own Women’s Business in Western Australia, but the book-makers were all men, in the manner of old-school anthropologists who did not understand the implications of this; and so they had no access to the female-only traditions.) The book's title is Gwion Gwion: Dulwan Mamaa - Secret And Sacred Pathways Of The Ngarinyin Aboriginal People Of Australia (Köln: Konemann, 2000). The Law Men who testified are Ngarjno, Ungudman, Banggal, and Nyawarra of the Ngarinyin people (with background added by editor Jeff Doring).

Their explanations answered questions I had about gender representation in some of the paintings. Many show neither male nor female sex attributes, and so cultural knowledge is key. One possibility I had considered was that gender was not an important factor in the paintings; but this idea conflicts with the very strongly sex-marked character of ceremony known in Australia within the reach of human memory.

b2ap3_thumbnail_femalebackapron.jpg     The book’s editor concurs, “Gender is not obviously marked in most Gwion human figures.” He notes that females may be indicated by fuller hips, thighs and bellies, “but are best distinguished through differences in clothing, like the mambi  (triangular waist girdles) of possum or kangaroo hide.” This drew my attention, because these mambi resemble the back aprons that women wear in South Africa. I’ve never seen males anywhere represented wearing this form of dress, and was glad to find confirmation of it in Aboriginal custom.

Banggai said, “That’s all their dressing. We exactly dress too in here in bush, in this area old people used to tell me. These the mob now before wanjina have give them Law, these the ones Gwion... and these were the dancing for initiation ceremony, and those songs they still here today... we use ‘em.” [52]

Another thing that had drawn my attention was the string skirts worn by many of the figures. This is a global pattern in women’s ceremonial dress, as Elizabeth Barber has proposed for paleolithic Europe, bronze age Denmark, with parallels in more recent societies such as some in the Balkans. (I've found examples from ancient Chile, Romania, Xinjiang, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and in modern Aotearoa, Papu New Guinea, Andaman Islands, and the Bijagos Islands in Guinée-Bissau.) In Aboriginal Australia, string skirts have persisted from the time of the Gwion paintings to the European conquest—and beyond it.

Here too the book provides corroboration. Doring explains that one of the mandzu dancers (representing the Great Mother in the form of a mantis) is wearing “the typical women’s wa.ngara (girdle made from fibre or hide string) that hangs to make a long skirt.” [69] She also wears a mandzu mudurra in the triangular shape of the mantis head, a ceremonial peaked wig-headdress with two long feathers representing her antennae, “as befits a trance dancer revealing Jillinya the Great Mother herself.” [69] The mantis is one of her primary symbols, especially at her sanctuary in Guringi. 

“She is the Great Mother... Jillinya the mother of all.” –Nyawarra

“That mandzu... praying mantis is wind one... big wind one belong to Jillinya.” –Nyawarra [54]

The Law Men talk about the offerings brought to Jillinya, by the animals, the Wandjina, by humans. [45] Her sanctuary, where she appears in rock paintings, is “very important in place called mamaa, because it mamaa means ‘really top one, holy woman’ and that’s her place now.” [47]


Jillinya is a First Woman, as Doring elaborates, “the mother of all the Gwion ancestors.” He talks about the reverence of Law Man Ungudman toward her paintings, and those of Algi, another of her forms. “All Ngarinyin acknowledge the pre-eminence of Jillinya as the great mother of everyone. ...The Ngarinyin firmly believe that the first animals and humans were put on earth by Wanjina. But it was Jillinya, also known by the sacred name Mumuu, who gave women their womb and vaginas and the power of reproduction... That women had great authority among Gwion people from the earliest days is demonstrated by the strong and imposing matriarchal icons at Alyaguma waterhole.” [65]

He adds, “when munnumburra men talk of Jillinya and her influence today they always show deep respect for munummburra women, ‘Law Women,’ who carry their authority from the Great Mother with great vitality.” [66]

“All these women who are in the new generation, they are Jillinya.” --Nyawarra






Last modified on
Max Dashú is a founding mother of the Goddess resurgence who teaches global women's history and heritages through images. In 1970 she founded the Suppressed Histories Archives to recover the cultural treasures of women, and to research the history of domination. Her legendary slideshows and webcasts bring to light the women of power that have been hidden away, the ancient figurines, Goddess icons and spiritual philosophies, the female rebels. Drawing on a collection of over 30,000 images, she has presented hundreds of visual talks at universities, women's centers, bookstores, conferences, festivals, libraries, prisons, museums, schools, and temples. She also publishes a series of posters on female iconography, and her articles have been published in Goddesses in World Culture, among other anthologies and journals. Her paintings and prints re-envision spiritual worlds stricken from the cultural record. Her new double dvd Woman Shaman: the Ancients has just been released, following her acclaimed video Women's Power in Global Perspective.


Additional information