Women’s Business is sacred business and it is secret business. During the ceremony important cultural knowledge and sacred practices are shared and the agreement is that participants do not talk about the particulars of the ceremonies with those who have not participated in them before. However, we were given permission to share about the going-ons of the visiting women’s camp since we were not doing ceremony with Aboriginal elders there. We were also asked not to take any photos while in either camp and to refrain from journaling, especially notes about the going-ons in the ceremony. We were asked to come with an empty mind and to be present to what is. I have often found photo-taking during sacred activities to be somehow disturbing the feel or energy of what was unfolding in the moment and refraining from journaling helped me stay more present with what was moving through me and before me rather than spending time in reflection and analysis. (I will share a few comments about the above painting later in this post.)
I have made the commitment to honor the request of the Aboriginal people and not offer any description of what unfolded during the ceremonies. Instead, I would like to share some general information about women’s ceremonies, which is readily available on-line and in academic and popular literature. For the sources that I draw on, please check the lists of references I am compiling under my resource tab.
Awelye means women's ceremony and stems from the Anmatyrre language that is now shared by many language groups of the Central Desert. Awelye also refers to the designs that women paint on each others' body using ocher and other natural pigments at the beginning of the ceremonies. During these ceremonies Aboriginal women call on their ancestors, show respect for their country and demonstrate their responsibility for the wellbeing of their community. The ceremonies reflect women's role as the nurturer, healer and caretaker of their families and community. These ceremonies celebrate the fertility of the land and the food the land provides. Awelye is women's business and is never done in the presence of men.
The designs that the women paint on each other relate to a particular women's Dreaming, which is the story about a time before time when spirits emerged from beneath the earth and above the sky to create the land and all living things. The Dreaming also contains important knowledge about their skin name, tribal social order, and the social and moral law. Throughout the women chant their particular Dreaming as well. The whole experience is a meditative and sensual experience. Decorating the body can take several hours and the identities of those who are painted become transformed through the process. The final part of the ceremony is when the women dance and chant.
Intentions and Revelations
When I go on sacred journeys such as this one, I usually approach it with some kind of intention. These intentions usually have something to do with switching out of my usual day-to-day way of being and to become internally prepared for another kind of experience. My intention for the journey was to participate in the ceremonies if and when it seemed right, to witness, to be moved, to learn, to open my mind beyond it’s previous boundaries, melt my heart, grow my compassion, feel the intense presence of mother earth, the static feminine who is so secure of her cycles and tacit processes, and to know more about the bigger truth that has to do with being a woman. This intention guided me well and what I have learned from this ceremony is still unfolding for me. However, the most significant revelation I had can be synthesized into the following words that I already shared at the beginning of part 1 of this post. Because of the significance I share these words here again.
Ceremonies are a collective healing response to the elemental and existential experiences of being human. As we dance, pray, chant, make offerings, surrender, and feel heard and witnessed by one another and the great mystery of which all spirits, all gods, and all that is divine are a part, our shared humanity becomes visible, and our place within this great weave of life is affirmed. Ceremony is healing and an enactment of wholeness.
In closing, I would like to make a few comments about the painting depicted in this post. I purchased the painting after our days of being in ceremony was complete. It was made by Barbara, one of the Aboriginal elder women who had participated. The painting is about women meeting at a sacred place to do Women's Business. The concentric circles represents a sacred site and the traditional U shape depicts the women. The wavy lines going off to the bottom left and right symbolize snakes. In some Aboriginal paintings snakes represent the Rainbow Serpent, which is a mythological creature associated with fertility rites. In Aboriginal mythology the rainbow serpent is also responsible for creating land formation as he/she forges her way across the landmass of Australia. From my own experience with ceremony and sleeping in the desert, there is a persistent awareness of the presence of snakes, visible or not, and the danger they represent. They are part of life in the Bush and as a group camping out in the bush we had our own encounter with snakes a couple of times. On one occasion, a snake had found its way between a huddle of women sitting together around a fire. After a little commotion, one of the aboriginal women grabbed the snake, yelled at it with some humor, and threw it back into the Bush.
Returning to the Red Desert
My next trip to the Central Desert to participate in another ceremony is coming up in less than two weeks. We will meet at a different location, about 200 kilometers deep into the desert from Uluru. We are heading for Umutja. According to their creation story this is where the four races where created. I can only imagine what the mythological richness of this place will hold for us when we once again come together as women from many cultures to participate in Aboriginal Women’s Business. I feel blessed to be able to go, not only for me but also for my daughter, my sisters, my mother and women from all the races. May this ceremony bring healing to all of us.