Aboriginal Symbols and their Meanings


Aboriginal symbols are an essential part of a long artistic tradition in Australian Aboriginal Art and remain the visual form to retain and record significant information.

Aboriginal people used symbols to indicate a sacred site, the location of a waterhole and the means to get there, a place where animals inhabit and as a way to illustrate Dreamtime stories.

To understand and appreciate Aboriginal symbols (or iconography) imagine how you would indicate, record and recall essential information or place names or events in a non material world.

Since Aboriginal people travelled vast distances across their country, significant information was recorded using symbols in regular ceremony. Sand painting and Awelye (body painting) ceremonies kept the symbols alive and remembered. Later, these symbols were transformed into a more permanent form using acrylic on canvas but the meanings behind the symbols remains the same.

Contemporary Australian Aboriginal paintings from the Central and Western Desert art regions in Central Australia are rich in aboriginal symbols.

Generally the symbols used by Aboriginal Artists are a variation of lines, circles or dots. Similar symbols can have multiple meanings and the elaborate combination of these can tell complex Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories. Combining the stories the Aboriginal artist tells about the painting with an understanding of the meaning behind the symbols, will lead to a greater appreciation of the work.

This painting by Denis Nelson Jupurrula is a good example of an Aboriginal painting rich in Aboriginal symbols. This painting is titled Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming. The bottom left of the painting shows the kangaroo tracks around a campfire (white circle). The smoke (white line) rises from the fire into the sky creating rain clouds (purple sky with symbols for rain). In the centre of the painting is the flying ant which migrates to form a new colony when the rains come. The possum tracks are shown on the left side of the painting in the yellow section.

The U shape reflects the mark left behind by a person. Groups of U shapes would indicate a meeting place for aboriginal people sitting around a campsite.

The gender of the aboriginal people is determined by what is associated with this symbol. For example spears would indicate a group of men.

In this painting Bush Tucker Dreaming by artist June Sultan Napanga she depicts iconographical symbols of woman (U), coolamon and digging stick. This indicates aboriginal women gathering aboriginal food

Tracks whether human or animal are shown by the tracks left behind in the sand and are generally represented as an aerial view. As examples:

A snake is represented by a curvy line

A porcupine by a series of short parallel lines

A dingo (Australian native dog) by a set a paw prints

A lizard or goanna by two parallel lines with small prints on either side made by feet

In this painting Janet Spencer Nungurrayi is representing her Wardapi Jukurrpa (Goanna Dreaming) using the tracks left by the goanna.

Concentric circles,straight lines can be depicted in many ways and the combination of these symbols can tell more complex Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories.

A series of concentric circles represent meeting place, campsite or waterhole

A series of parallel lines represent a journey path, sandhills (Tali), a creek or a riverbed

In this painting Tingari Cycle by artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri depicts aboriginal symbols to indicate the journeys taken by the Tingari ancestors, as they travelled and stopped to create sacred ceremonial sites.

Wavy lines may indicate running water, a series of creek beds or sand hills.

In this painting Inland Sea by artist Dorothy Napangardi, illustrating watercourses, ancestral tracks, sandhills at a significant sacred site, Mina Mina (Women's Dreaming) at Lake MacKay, north-west of Yuendumu region in Central Australia.

Dots are one of the conventional symbols that are widely used in the Central and Western desert art regions in Central Australia. This art form being referred to as dot paintings.

Patterns of dots are used to represent many Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories - including stars or native berries. Aboriginal artists often use the technique of over-dotting to obscure meaning and to mask certain symbolism.

In this painting Dreamtime Sisters aboriginal artist Colleen Wallace uses dots to illustrate stars.

Aboriginal word glossary