Yawkyawk is a word in the Kunwinjku/Kunwok language of Western Arnhem Land meaning ‘young woman’ and ‘young woman spirit being’. The different groups of Kunwinjku people (one of the Eastern dialect groups call themselves Kuninjku) each have Yawkyawk mythologies, which relate to specific locations in clan estates. These mythologies are represented in bark paintings and sculptures of Yawkyawk beings. There are also a few examples of rock art images of these beings.
The female water spirits Yawkyawk or Ngalkunburriyaymi are perhaps the most enigmatic of mythological themes. Sometimes compared to the European notion of mermaids, they exist as spiritual beings living in freshwater streams and rock pools, particularly those in the stone country. The spirit Yawkyawk is usually described and depicted with the tail of a fish. Thus the Kuninjku people sometimes call them ngalberddjenj which literally means ‘the young woman 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). At times they leave their aquatic homes to walk about on dry land, particularly at night.
Aboriginal people believe that in the beginning most animals were humans. During the time of the creation of landscapes and plants and animals, these ancestral heroes in human form transmutated into their animal forms via a series of various significant events now recorded as oral mythologies. The creation ancestor Yawkyawk travelled the country in human form and changed into the form of Ngalkunburriyaymi as a result of various ancestral adventures. Today the Kuninjku believe that Ngalkunburriyaymi are alive and well and living in freshwater sites in a number of sacred locations.
Some features of a respective country are equated with body parts of Yawkyawk. For example a bend in a river or creek may be said to be ‘the tail of the Yawkyawk, a billabong may be ‘the head of the Yawkyawk and so on. Thus different groups can be linked together by means of a shared mythology featured in the landscape, which crosscuts clan and language group boundaries.