Water (gapu) metaphors

Water, or gapu, is a powerful symbol in a climate where a distinct dry season is followed by a season of monsoonal storms with rivers flooding down to the sea.

Yolŋu express complex ideas through metaphors that draw analogies between the flow and character of water, Yolŋu kinship relationships and the human body.

So, for instance, the source of a stream can be referred to the stream's 'eye' (mangutj), while the stream itself is talked about as a 'neck' (mayang) of freshwater. In the same way, groups of people may be associated with the upper or lower parts of a river and may be referred to as freshwater or saltwater people.

"The saltwater country has names for each clan or tribe. For the sea country there are people who know about their country, about the deep sea and over to where the clouds stand." Djambawa Marawili [1]


Important gapu metaphors

Ganma: Ganma is the meeting and mixing of salt water from the sea and of fresh water from the land. Ganma is sometimes used as a metaphor for "two-way learning".
Gurrutu (Kinship): The flow of water connects different places and is therefore a powerful symbol of connections between people. Langani Marika says: ‘Our kinship connects us to whatever lies in the sea. It holds our family. And everything in the ocean is related.’

Emotions and gapu: Yolŋu have many names for different states of the sea. Some of these are associated with the way that people feel.



Some examples of Yolŋu words describing states of sea and their meanings:

Maŋarri ‘waves dashing against the rocks’ – rough and dangerous.
Gunbilk calm sea which ‘shimmers’ to the horizon

Wapurarr or Milarr

calm waters, flat and easy to spot turtle
Rarrandarra calm water during the build up to the monsoons
Miyala, Mandul mandul deep water that wells up to the surface causing a calm, flattening but mushrooming effect
Dhalatj calm after flood
Djiwatjiwa choppy water
Ganu’ the muddied water stirred by the currents and tides made by the Mäŋa, the ancestral shark
Rapirrirra rough riptide, current
Ritjilili muddy
Manbuynga waves
Gularri stormy floodwater
Wapurarr or Naykuna calm waters
Warranya, Mandumandu dangerous rough sea

Note: Words for water sourced from Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country, Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre and Jennifer Isaacs Publishing, 1999.

1. Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country, 1999, p15