The Meaning of Symbols
The use of a fixed set of symbols would seem to make interpretation easy, but only those directly involved in creating a ground painting can give its meaning with absolute authority. Related mythological sites, on the travelling route of some Dreamtime creative animal, might well have very fine shades of variation. Again, bird tracks are very similar, as are several other animal tracks. Further, some symbols have a multiplicity of meanings; a series of concentric circles can mean a camp-fire, home, cave, rock-hole, clay-pan, spring, tree or mountain - the list is not exhaustive; a sinuous line can mean a snake, running water, lightning, a hair-string girdle, native bee honey storage, or a bark rope.
Levels of Interpretation
A single design element can in itself have several interpratation levels. Thus-to take a hypothetical example-a circle might be described, in the secular context, as a particular geographical region; become a specific water-hole to a first-stage initiate; be a bundle of hair-string carried by a mythological hunter who visited the water-hole to a second stage ritual man; be extented to mean an object made from the hair-string to a still more knowledgeable man; and have its meaning extended even futher to the complete ritual man. Each revelation is made only after the older custodians are certain that the previous step, with its associated songs and ceremonial detail, is fully comprehened by the younger men.
From the Ground to Canvas
Even if an outsider may be privilege enough to be shown a ground painting, it is highly doubtful that any person other than a man of central Australian Aboriginal origin will ever be permitted to understand its ultimate meaning. This, however does not detract from the beauty of the ground mosaics and the artistic merit of the adapted paintings. Nor does it make secular interpretations any less interesting.
To see the geographical locations of mythological events is to gain an important aid to understanding of ground painting and associated ceremonies. It may well be use to see them in different weather conditions, fully appreciate the mythological associations. Thus, Watulpunyu, a Walpiri Water Dreaming site in the depiction of which there are several circle (representing rock holes) and sinuous lines (representing both mythological lighting and running water), leaps into life when you visit it.
Mythological Becomes Reality
A spring-flow of water distant from the main rock-holes after heavy rains illustrate the mythology, for in the dreamtime the custodians were unable to stop the storm-water flow. The tiered series of rock-hole , and correct approach protocol, give further initial appreciation. As the years pass and you learn the meanings of natural markings and objects, rock engravings and paintings, and are introduced to linking site, you develop even greater insight. The mythological becomes reality; the reality becomes mythology.
The creators of the beautiful ground mosiac do not consider them in artistic isolation. They see them as derived from, and sauctioned by, the mythological ancestors; as referring to specific geographic sites and linked with the useful plants and animals of the Aboriginal environment.
The mosaic have complementary artistic expression in cave paintings, rock engravings, incised ceremonial objects and other art forms; act as social controls upon young and old; help determine social roles; and give excitement and pleasure to artists and actors in their use.
They are tangible representations of legendary events, relating to mythological beings who are seen as both distantly ancestral and yet also ever-present in quiescent, invisible form. At the same time they relate to the Aboriginal ancestral past, to the living present, and to the certainty of the future continuation of the natural law.