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The Nature and Origins of the Tingari Cycle


Lloyd D. Graham


"The first people were created out of the Tingari Dreaming. They appeared out of smoke. When they arrived, they were already grown men with beards" - Benny Tjapaltjarri (Douglas 1992)

Tingari traditions are widely distributed among the Aboriginal people of Central and Western Australia, but the many facets of meaning associated with the word 'Tingari' (also written 'Tingarri' or 'Dingari') cause great confusion and often make interpretation problematic (Myers 1986:300). In the widest sense of its normal usage, however, tingari denotes a class of songs and ceremony within Western Desert culture that is distinct from other categories such as ilpintji (love magic), tjuyutu (sorcery), tulku (entertainment), and so on (Myers 1976:186; Moyle 1979:18). Tingari songs are learned by post-initiatory novices during periods when they are secluded from women and children, a time of intensive ritual instruction referred to as 'Tingari time' (Myers 1976:187). Nevertheless, songs in the tingari category can in fact be heard by women (Myers 1976:186), or at least they can if they are being sung in a non-ceremonial context and the women are far enough away not to hear the words too clearly (Moyle 1979:27). Moreover, the associated visual designs (used in ceremonial body and ground paintings) are said to be 'dear' rather than 'dangerous', and this may in part explain why Pintupi artists concentrate on tingari as opposed to other subjects in the paintings they produce for sale. Even so, the more esoteric elements of these designs are usually modified or omitted by the artists (Myers 1989:179).

         Although we have seen that the word 'Tingari' has a wide range of associations[1], the term can usually be presumed to refer to a specific group of inter-related tjukurrpa (song-myth cycles) within the tingari category. In this context, Tingari[2] denotes a group of ancestral elders who - in the Dreaming - travelled over vast areas of the Western Desert, performing rituals and creating or opening up the country. These senior men were usually accompanied by punyunyu, recently-initiated novices whom they provided with further instruction and guidance in the Law. Accordingly, the term Tingari is often glossed by Western Desert informants as 'all the men' or 'many novices' (Myers 1986:61). There were also travelling groups of Tingari Women. The adventures of the Tingari groups are enshrined in numerous song cycles which form part of the teachings of punyunyu today, and provide explanations for contemporary customs in Western Desert societies (Perkins & Fink 2000:278).

         In overview, we can identify three great trails of travelling Tingari ancestors that lead inland from the coast and culminate in a network of tracks that traverse the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts (Kimber 2000). Viewed from a distance, the journeys seem to have a north-west to south-east trend (Chailleu 1999:7). In the Tingari heartland of the Gibson Desert, three major journey-lines can be discerned, as follows (Myers 1986:62). One runs roughly from west to east below Lake Mackay, linking sites south of Jupiter Well to Kiwirrkura, Pinari, and the famous Water Dreaming site of Kalimpinpa. Another track runs roughly south to north, linking Docker River and Tjukurla with Mitukatjirri, Kintore, and Pinari. A third track describes a loop that initially leads west from Tikatika (near Kintore) to a point some 150 km south-west of Lake Macdonald, before returning to end at that lake. At the many sites that make up these journey lines, groups of Tingari people held initiation and other ceremonies, caused or encountered raging bushfires, hunted game, found and cooked bush-tucker, fought and killed one another, disposed of the dead or brought them back to life, interacted with totemic ancestors, copulated illicitly, made and used sacred objects, flew through the air, and died in hailstorms. In the course of these many adventures, they either created or became the physical features of the sites they visited, forming rocky outcrops, waterholes, trees, salt lakes, ochre deposits, and so on.

         The oral narratives that describe these adventures stretch to thousands of song verses, and detail myriad topographical details of the land. Petri speculates (somewhat romantically) that these verses may reflect the remembrance of early Aboriginal settlement in Australia from south-east Asia, or - at the very least - a collective memory of past ethnic dynamics within the continent's interior (Petri 1970:263). Whether or not this is true, there is certainly little dispute that the story cycles fulfil a practical need for minutely detailed guides to the resources and dangers of the country they cover (Petri 1970:263). They also rationalise and justify familiar entities, forms, and relations (Berndt 1970:223). For the Kukatja and Pintupi[3], the Tingari Cycle underpins the ritual education that turns boys into men in the same way that the Malu-Kanyala-Tjurki (Kangaroo-Euro-Owl) complex does for some Pitjantjatjara, and the Wati Kutjarra Dreaming does for other regional groups (Wallace 1990:56-57).

         In their primordial form, individual Dreamings are firmly anchored in the individual location that they embody and that embodies them. Such Dreaming events lack organisation in time or in a unified spatial order[4], and they can only be ordered in each specific place (Swain 1993:32). While some Dreamings have remained quite localised, others have developed into Ancestral tracks that traverse the full width and breadth of the Desert region, embracing a number of local groups and dialect units (Berndt 1972:184). The Wati Kutjarra (Two Men), Minyma/Kunga Kutjarra (Two Women), and Tingari Cycle stories are good examples of the latter class. One rationale for the development of such networks is that they may help to maintain human contact with far-flung sites in situations where there are insufficient numbers of people to do this in a one-to-one fashion. Thus, in an interview, Kimber observes "I can't conceive of the Pintupi ever having had the numbers to allow people to have been conceived, born, initiated, and to have died at all points in their country. The numbers of points in their country are so numerous that the numbers of people don't match up. Some of the sites are so inaccessible that they have only been visited every 50 years, so you get more and more of the people born at the key waters or conceived at those more critical points." (Kimber 1990:12). In the same vein, Berndt says of the Kukatja and related groups that "The population was always, probably, rather sparsely distributed throughout the desert, and actual sites of sacred or generally mythic significance were far in excess of living-person allocation. This meant that, although all sites were ... claimed, they did not all have at any one time formally specified caretakers. Many were likely never to have any; others could expect to obtain them through ... the principle that what was relevant for one particular local group, mythically, could also be relevant to other areas associated with the same mythic beings, by track linkage alone" (Berndt 1972:193). For the Kukatja, then, the Tingari Cycle constitutes an accretion of myths that are not necessarily woven together coherently to form an integrated whole (Berndt 1970:222). In other areas, similar processes of consolidation have occurred quite recently but have been carried to greater extremes. Thus, Kolig observed the displaced Aborigines of the Fitzroy Crossing area to 'meld their affiliation with myriad ancestors into two macro-Dingari myths and only a few sites', which simplified the task of retaining key contacts with their homeland from a distance (quoted in Swain 1993:252).

         The sense of pan-spatial unity provided in embryonic form by Tingari-like networks is fertile ground in which even more 'universalist' ideologies can take root. There is a consensus amongst ethnographers that the traditional Tingari symbolism has for some time contained core elements derived from Kunapipi (Gunabibi), part of the Arnhem Land cult of the All-Mother, a pan-Aboriginal and spatially all-embracing cult. Aspects of the Kunapipi scheme may have arrived directly from Asia during the period of the Macassar (Indonesian) trepang expeditions, c.1700-1904 (Swain 1993:160 & 177); this could explain why the present-day Kunapipi ceremonies seem to have parallels with the Tantric sects of India, which in the 6th century AD spread to Java and Sumatra (Mudooroo 1994:76-77). On the other hand, the All-Mother cult may have been conceived by indigenous Australians in response to the philosophical and social problems posed by the Macassar visits to Australia's northern shores (Swain 1993:177-178). Whatever its origins, the cult of the All-Mother took hold and conscripted pre-existing Arnhem Land myths, especially those of the Wagilag Sisters, for its own ends (Mudooroo 1994:76). In due course, parts of the Kunapipi myth escaped from northern Australia and moved south-west, entering Central Australia via the Kimberley. Berndt writes that 'whatever the source, [these] traditions are now rooted in the natural environment of the Desert and have associated with them a large number of subsidiary myths' (Berndt 1972:206).

         When the Kunapipi scheme diffused into Central Australia, the role and importance of the All-Mother underwent substantial modification. The Warlpiri, for example, grafted some aspects of the imported Kunapipi cult onto a pre-existing desert hero myth, and in doing so they discarded the Mother completely (Berndt 1970:224). The Kukatja also assimilated the new scheme into indigenous myth forms, and in doing so they too omitted many of its essential features. They retained the Mother, but not so directly as in northern Australia (Berndt 1970:224). Thus the great Fertility Mother of Kunapipi does not appear directly in the Tingari Cycle of the Kukatja, although she is mentioned periodically by the name 'Gadjeri' ('Kadjari'), and much of the ritual concerns fertility (Berndt 1972:206-207). Instead, the All-Mother is replaced by a group of powerful Ancestor women - the Ganabuda (Kanaputa) - who initially possess all of the ritual power. These women, who can be identified with the widely-known Mungamunga (Berndt 1972:208), often travel in a Tingari ritual group and are therefore glossed as Kungka Tjuta or Minyma Tjuta ('all the women') (Myers 1976:188). In due course, one of the men succeeds in stealing the Ganabuda's ritual knowledge, and thereafter the power resides with the men (Berndt 1972:206-207). The Kukatja stories that Berndt collected at Balgo relate to groups of Tingari women followed by groups of Tingari men, or vice versa (Berndt 1970:222). The Tingari women may be accompanied by young girls, whom they provide with ritual education (Berndt 1970: 225), while the Tingari men are often accompanied by male novices, whom they instruct and initiate (Berndt 1970:222). There may be several different versions of a particular story.

         It is likely that the situation described above for the Kukatja is also representative of the Pintupi, especially when one recalls that their territories overlap extensively (Kimber 1990:11), that the people speak closely related dialects of the Western Desert language, and that kinship ties are such that many individuals identify strongly with both groups. The main pattern observed in the Tingari stories of the Pintupi (or, at least, in the public versions thereof) is one where groups of Tingari men, accompanied by novices, are followed by groups of women, who are sometimes accompanied by children. The male novices are instructed in ritual matters by the Tingari men. Like those of the Kukatja, the Tingari groups of the Pintupi associate with various totemic characters who constitute more local - and indeed more ancient - Dreamings. Thus Kimber speaks of these Tingari routes as 'overlaying and melding with' the numerous chthonic Dreamings of the places involved (Kimber 2000:273). While Berndt shows that Lon (Luurnpa), the Kingfisher Ancestor of the Kukatja, is prominent in Tingari stories from around the Balgo region (Berndt 1972:207), Myers' accounts show how Kuningka, the Western Quoll Ancestor, dominates Tingari exploits in the Pintupi heartland just west of Lake Macdonald (Myers 1986:62-64). The greater antiquity of these totemic place-beings is not only apparent to anthropologists but is apt to be acknowledged in the narratives themselves. Thus Tingari exploits often add or modify features at pre-existing sites, or append postscripts that revive and extend more ancient narratives (Kimber 2000:273).

         The Tingari Cycle narratives indicate that the Tingari ancestors brought key aspects of the Pintupi's current customs to the Western Desert from the north, which we know to be the original source of Kunapipi traditions (Myers 1986:183). While the Pintupi version of the Tingari constitutes a super-totemic cult belonging to 'all the men', the full pan-Aboriginal significance of the All-Mother does not prevail. Thus Pintupi men only use the Tingari to claim solidarity within their own dialectal group and - at most - with closely aligned neighbours such as the Kukatja and north-western Pitjantjatjara. The 'people from the west' are 'one group, one family ... [because] they are all from the Tingarri, one long and interconnected Dreaming story' (Myers 1986:60). In recent years, new Kunapipi-related movements[5] have emerged and spread (Swain 1993:212-275; Ryan 1993:87). In some areas, these cults have appropriated the indigenous Tingari mythologies, changing their emphasis along non-traditional lines to further enhance a sense of pan-Aboriginal unity (Petri 1970:262; Koepping 1988: 403-405; Swain 1993:241-262). Fortunately, however, the major written compilations of Kukatja and Pintupi Tingari narratives - the outcome of fieldwork done at Balgo by Berndt (1958-1960) and at Yayai by Myers (1973-1975) - have a structure and content that show no signs of such conscription.


1. Apart from the meanings described in the text, the word also occurs in other contexts. For example, an Aranda myth about two Kangaroo Men north of Ilpili uses the word 'tingari' to mean a ceremonial pole (Roheim 1945:28). In addition, 'Dingari' is sometimes used to denote a mythical country or location with specific ancestral attributes, as described in note 5. It also seems that, in the early days of the art movement at Papunya, the term 'Tjingari' was misunderstood to mean a specific location in the Gibson Desert (Bardon 1991:82, 93-94, 100-101, 105-107).

2. For convenience, the term Tingari (capital T, no italics) will hereafter be used whenever this more specific meaning is intended.

3. Pintupi traditional land lies mainly to the south of Lake Mackay, in the Gibson Desert, while Kukatja territory lies mainly to the north of the same lake in the Great Sandy Desert. Nowadays, the Pintupi are mainly settled south of Lake Mackay in Kintore (Walungurru) and its outstations, while the Kukatja are mainly settled on the southern edge of the Kimberley in Balgo (Wirrimanu) and its outstations. In this article, Kukatja should be regarded as an umbrella term that includes the Walmajarri.

4. Geoffrey Bardon explains the same concept in relation to Western Desert art by saying that "the images do not provide a mere graphic equivalent of spoken words, thereby attaching themselves to the temporality implicit in the ordinary syntax of a sentence. Quite to the contrary, and importantly: time has become space. There is no conventional sequentiality in the 'stories', but rather the accretion of space or 'place'. Since the space or 'place' is only the retelling of a story already known to a painter, the so-called story is an eternal idea in the culture of the painter. The elements or images of the story therefore have no reading direction as we understand it" (Bardon 1991:34).

5. For example, the Kuranggara/Djanba, Worgaia/Djinmin, and Djulurru/'Balgo Business' movements. In some of these, the name 'Dingari' is used to denote the mythical land where the wandering Ancestors ended their travels in the Dreaming, or, in some versions, the place from which the Ancestors originated, and to which they are only now returning (Petri 1970:262; Koepping 1988:403-404; Swain 1993:251-272).



Bardon, G. (1991) Papunya Tula - Art of the Western Desert. J.B. Books, Australia.

Berndt, R.M. (1970) Traditional Morality as Expressed Through the Medium of an Australian Aboriginal Religion in R.M. Berndt, ed. Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of the Australian Aborigines, p.216-247. Western Australia University Press, Nedlands.

Berndt, R.M. (1972) The Walmadjeri and Gugadja in Hunters & Gatherers Today: A Socioeconomic Study of Eleven Such Cultures in the Twentieth Century, ed. M.G. Bicchieri, p.177-216. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.

Chailleu, L. (1999) Painting Secret Stories: Secular Representations and Uses of Tingari Cycle in M. Girard-Geslan & L. Chailleu, eds. Painting the Desert. Alliance Francaise de Canberra and Embassy of France.

Douglas, F. (1992) Benny and the Dreamers (video documentary). CAAMA Productions.

Kimber, R.G. (1990) Aspects of Warlpiri and Pintupi Life, in M. Charlsworth, ed. Ancestor Spirits: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal Life and Spirituality, p.7-46. Deakin Univ. Press, Geelong.

Kimber, R.G. (2000) Tjukurrpa Trails: A Cultural Topography of the Western Desert in H. Perkins & H. Fink, eds. Papunya Tula - Genesis & Genius, p.269-273. Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

Koepping, K-P. (1988) Nativistic Movements in Aboriginal Australia: Creative Adjustment, Protest or Regeneration of Tradition in T. Swain & D.B. Rose, eds. Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions. Australian Association for the Study of Religions, Bedford Park, S.A.

Moyle, R.M (1979) Songs of the Pintupi: Musical Life in a Central Australian Society. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

Mudooroo (1994) Aboriginal Mythology. Thorsons, London.

Myers, F. (1976) To Have and to Hold: a Study of Persistence and Change in Pintupi Social Life. Ph.D. dissertation, Bryn Mawr College, Pa.

Myers, F.R. (1986) Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Univ. California Press.

Myers, F.R. (1989) Truth, Beauty, and Pintupi Painting. Vis. Anthropol. 2, 163-195.

Perkins, H. & Fink, H., eds. (2000) Papunya Tula - Genesis & Genius. Art Gallery of NSW, in assoc. with Papunya Tula Artists.

Petri, H. (1970) Stability and Change: Present-day Historic Aspects among Australian Aborigines in R.M. Berndt, ed. Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of the Australian Aborigines, p.248-276. Western Australia University Press, Nedlands.

Roheim, G. (1945) The Eternal Ones of the Dream: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Australian Myth and Ritual. International Universities Press, New York.

Ryan, J. (1993) Songs of Wandering: Art of Balgo, in J. Ryan, ed. Images of Power - Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley, p.86-93. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Swain, T. (1993) A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being. Cambridge University Press.

Wallace, N. (1990) The Religion of the Aborigines of the Western Desert, in M. Charlsworth, ed. Ancestor Spirits: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal Life and Spirituality, p.49-92. Deakin Univ. Press, Geelong.

© 2002 Lloyd D. Graham, all rights reserved. P.O. Box 184, North Ryde, NSW 1670.

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