Ngalkunburriyaymi fish-women spirit #1 by Samantha  Malkudja

Ngalkunburriyaymi fish-women spirit #1

The water spirits Yawkyawk or Ngalkunburriyaymi are perhaps the most enigmatic of themes. sometimes compared to the European notion of mermaids, they exist as spiritual beings living in freshwater streams, particularly those in the stone country. The spirit yawkyawk are usually described and depicted with the tails of fish and female human torsos. Thus the kuninjku people sometimes call them Ngalberddjenj which literally means ‘the women who has a tail like a fish.’ They have long hair which is associated with trailing blooms of green algae (called man-bak in kuninjku ) found in freshwater streams and rock pools. at times they leave their aquatic homes to walk about dry land, particularly at night.

Today the kuninjku believe that ngalkunburriyaymi are alive and well living in freshwater sites in a number of sacred locations. Kuninjku people also believe that ‘ clever’ men ( people with cultural healing powers called in Kuninjku na-kordang ) may take these spirits as wives. The Ngalkunburriyaymi also have husbands and children of their own kind. Their sites are usually shared with the rainbow serpent Ngalyod. Some have ritual importance, for example in some depictions the yawkyawk spirit holds ceremonial string, just like the lengths of string women hold between both hands today during certain public ceremonies.

There are at least three major Ngalkunburriyaymi sacred sites that are well known in the area south and  south-west of Maningrida. One site is on the Mann River at a place near Yikarrakal Outstation where the Mann River has rugged rocky banks and clefts beneath stone overhangs in the water. Another very similar site further west in the Kumadderr River district is surrounded by a number of small but very old rock art sites and has become known in English as Dreaming Lady . A third site is a major yawkyawk dreaming place which is so significant that the traditional clans custodians have set up an outstation community near the site, and the identity of this group is very much related  to their yawkyawk dreaming for which they have spiritual and practical responsibility. This group, known as dangkorlo clan, are well known for their bark paintings and sculptures of yawkyawk.

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