Why is Earth Paint Sacred? Aboriginal Art through the Ages

Why is Earth Paint Sacred? Aboriginal Art through the Ages

It’s a well guarded secret by the Aborigines in Australia and it’s forbidden for them to talk about it, but there are many guesses as to why earth paint is considered sacred. 

It was a general belief among Aboriginal cultures that the geographical features of the land were created by a mythical snake as it journeyed over it. The colored ochre seams were believed to be the "tracks" left by the snake through the earth, and therefore just one remove from touching that god-body.


There are probably as many dreamtime stories about red ochre as there are tribes, but most of them have the spilling of blood as the central theme. For example, one dreamtime story is about a handsome man named Kirkin who would stand on a high boulder at sunrise every morning and comb his golden hair, enjoying all the adulation and attention from others. Except one person, a healer named Wyju, who saw right through to his vanity. Kirkin hated him for this and plotted revenge. He tricked Wyju into leaping into a trap of spiked spears. Kirkin laughed while Wyju writhed bleeding into the earth. Ever since, the Aboriginals have gone to that specific valley for red ochre.


Red ochre is an integral part of the initiation ceremony of young boys when they become men. In Arnhemland, novices are smeared with ochre in sacred clan patterns on their chests, with white clay masks on their faces. The paint is part of the secret initiation. Anthropologists say the red earth represents men’s blood (death) or women’s menstrual blood (birth) but there’s another theory that the iron in the red ochre acts as a kind of magnet to show Ancestors and Aboriginal people the way along sacred paths.

Modern Day Aboriginal Art

Recently, modern day Aboriginal art has become very popular around the world, selling for large amounts of money in major galleries and museums. But guess what type of paint they use- acrylics! Perhaps this makes it less complicated for them to represent their secret and sacred Dreaming stories for outsiders if the materials themselves are not sacred. As if by changing the paint, the designs begin to lose the things that make them dangerous and powerful.

Aboriginal Ochre Wars

There was a time when all of Australia was a network of trading posts. And good ochre (earth pigments) was one of the most prized items to trade. “Wilga Mia” in Western Australia is one of the most sacred ochre mines on the continent. If you want to collect any you have to ask permission from the traditional aboriginal owners and also from the sacred beings who live beneath it’s ancient chambers. It was still being mined and traded in the 1980’s, although by the end of the 20th century it was being collected in plastic buckets instead of bark dishes.

In the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, there’s another famous ochre deposit. For thousands of years Aboriginal expeditions (70-80 men) would walk for two months to travel the thousand-mile round trip to collect their red-gold ochre at a place called Parachilna. They would return with 20 kilos of ochre each in possum or kangaroo skin bags, and on their heads they’d carry huge grinding stones from a nearby stone quarry.

In 1860, guess what happened, the white guys arrived. Farmers arrived with land and sheep ownership claims and didn’t want the Aboriginals to eat their sheep or walk across their land. But the natives continued to take sheep meat for their journey and walk across their land which soon became punishable by hanging. In 1863 there was an “ochre massacre” when scores of Aboriginals were killed by angry settlers. Then someone from the South Australian administration suggested a solution! They decided to “move the mine to the Aboriginals” so they wouldn’t have to make the journey. But they moved the wrong mine. They removed four tons of ochre from a mine owned by another tribe on the coast and spent weeks hauling it back. It was a completely wasted effort because the Aborigines wanted none of it.
The white settlers missed the point that it was a pilgrimage involving elaborate ceremonies in collecting the ochre and bringing it back. Also, the sacred ochre was essential for trading which happened when one item is seen as equal in value to another. But free ochre had no value. And lastly, the sacred ochre was used for painting ritual designs and this other ochre from the coast was not good enough or sacred enough and didn’t contain the hint of mercury that made it sparkle.

Information from Victoria Finlay's book Color

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