Tjurunga or churinga

Not only were these objects collected as objects of desire but they are regularly traded. Pictures of tjurunga can been accessed along with the online auction results. These records have been maintained since 2003.

A churinga or tjurunga was a term applied to objects of religious significance by Central Australian Aboriginal Arrernte (Aranda, Arundta) groups. According to T.G.H Strehlow, (Aranda Traditions Melbourne University Press, 1947. P.85-6) these often had a wide and indeterminate native significance. They included:

Generally speaking , tjurunga denote sacred stone or wooden objects possessed by private or group owners together with the legends, chants, and ceremonies associated with them. They are amongst the very few forms of property which may be owned legitimately by individual persons in Central Australia.

The ownership of sacred tjurunga amongst the Arrernte groups was determined largely by `the conception site' of every individual member of a patrilineal totemic clan.

In many myths the ancestors themselves are said to have used them and stored them away as their most treasured possessions. Such myths emphasise the life-holding magical properties of these tjurunga. The ancestor regarded his tjurunga as portions of his own being; and is always anxious that strangers might come and rob him of the very essence of his life. Accordingly, the legends abound with stories of theft and robbery, and the very fierce vengeance exacted.

The acquisition of sufficient knowledge leading to possession of personal tjurunga was long, difficult and sometimes extremely painful. Practices differed amongst the various groups. Strehlow describes how the men from the Northern, Southern and Western Arrernte groups were put on probation for several years after their last initiations. The old men would carefully note a young man's conduct. He had to be respectful towards his elders; he had to be attentive to their advice in all things. He would know the value of silence in ceremonial matters: no account of his past experiences could be spoken with the hearing of women and children. His own marriage had to conform to the laws of the group. Then one day the old men, sitting in a circle, would call him in to sit down in their midst. They began to chant. One man told Strehlow:

The old men seized my hand. They all struck up the chant-verse:

With fierce eyes, with glowing eyes, they seize the thumb;
With fierce eyes, with glowing eyes, they rip off the nail.

An old man produced a sharp kangaroo bone (ntjala). He stabbed my thumb with it, pushed the bone deeply underneath the nail. He drew the point out; the rest kept up the chant. He thrust it under the nail in a different place. He gradually loosened the thumbnail. It was slippery with blood. I almost shrieked with pain; the torment was unbearable. I have not forgotten it: the pain was not slight; it was exceedingly great. When the nail had been loosened, he took a sharp opossum tooth, forced it into the living flesh through the base of the thumb-nail, and tore the nail off from behind. Blood spurted over his hand. The man chanted:

They rip off the nail, they tear off the nail;
Blood flows like a river, rushes along like a river.

Then they seized my left hand and removed the thumb-nail in like manner.

Nowadays we make a great concession to the young men in our group. We no longer tear off their finger-nails. The price is too high; we give the tjurunga to them at a much lower cost. Besides, the young men of the present generation are no longer hardy enough to endure such pain.

The tjurunga were visible embodiments of some part of the fertility of the great ancestor of the totem in question. The body of the ancestor merely undergoes a transmutation into something that will weather all the assaults of time, change and decay. Stone tjurunga were thought to have been made by the ancestors themselves. The wooden tjurunga made by the old men are symbolical of the actual tjurunga which `cannot be found'. These `man-made' tjurunga were accepted without reservation as sacred objects.

At the time of receiving his tjurunga-body a young man may be twenty five years of age. He will often be thirty-five or forty years of age before the most sacred chants and ceremonies that are linked with it have passed into his possession. As he grows older and continues to demonstrate his worthiness, he receives an ever-increasing share in the tjurunga owned by his own totemic clan. Eventually he may become a member of the assembly of old ceremonial chiefs who are honoured trustees for the ancient traditions of the whole clan.

In 1933, Strehlow noted that after the advent of white men to Central Australia, the young men employed by the foreign intruders were watched very closely by the old men of their group. In many cases, unless the young men were outstandingly generous in their gifts towards their elders, no ceremonies or chants of power and importance were handed on to this unworthy younger generation. With the death of the old men such chants and ceremonies passed into oblivion.