Aboriginal Art Symbols

Aboriginal symbols used in art differ between the tribal nations of Australia .


Although Australian  aboriginal symbols are usually associated with the dot paintings  the ancient rock art also incorporate  symbols to represent spiritual characters and specific dreamtime stories.


Whats the significance of Aboriginal Symbols


Aboriginal paintings are all associated, however loosely, to a tale and the symbols within that painting tell that story.

You have heard the saying     “A picture tells a thousand words

Who knows maybe if you have enough pictures you don’t need any written words at all.


In the absence of any written language as such, art symbols were an important of keeping the tales of old alive.


What are the stories of old. They are the things that are important to pass on to the next generation. They are in away the library of what has been learnt.  A library of what should not be forgotten.  The stories of life. 


And- Life is but a collection of many stories.


Many people may think aboriginal paintings and stories are all about the “Dreamtime” or the time of creation and many are. However, many of the traditional stories have some sort of sound practical knowledge or ecological basis for teaching the way of doing things.  Survival in the often-harsh environments is a major concern.  So, stories about finding sacred underground water holes. Stories about how and when to hunt or gather food. When where and why to set fire to certain areas.   The stories and teachings about sacred areas such as rainforest or areas surrounding permanent water holes had sound ecological basis for sustainability etc.  


Aboriginal people like every other civilisation has done in the absence of modern-day science make up stories myths  and legends about the things we want answers to but find difficult to comprehend..

Why sometimes there is no rain for years.   Why at other times,  old  riverbeds that have not seen water in many many years suddenly flood and like a giant serpent swallow all that is nearby.  Why sometimes the sun goes dark during an eclipse or why the moon is red. Why the geese did not come to flood plains this year and Why it once snowed where it never does.  What cause the thunder and lightning etc. The unexplained and the unknown has fascinated man since the beginning of time. 


For the indigenous people of Australia, in the absence of a written language, ceremony song lines dance and storytelling with the use of artistic symbolism was the way of preserving their culture. The use of icons symbols and designs conveyed the stories of old and teachings so important in their culture.


How are Aboriginal Symbols used in Art

If you ask Mr. Google to look up “Art Symbolism” he and Mrs. Wikipedia will tell you Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin.. But symbolism art was around many thousands of years before that. The desert aboriginals of Australia had been using symbolism to produce large mosaics in the sand some bigger than most art gallery floors, for ceremony. The often-complex designs and symbols which were then. destroyed during the ceremonial dancing. 

The rock artists of the Kimberly and Arnhem Land escarpment had been painting their own form of symbolism on the rocks for thousands and thousands of years.


A symbol or combination of symbols can be used to represent an abstract idea, an action, person, place, ceremony, word, object, mood, emotion, story, life or  death, anything. And while the symbols suggest the storyline your mind experience, and imagination personalises the message. 


Symbolism in aboriginal art also includes the colours and sequence of colours themselves. In the same way as many of us think of the colour red to symbols danger and green to symbols safety, grey as gloom and bright sequence of rainbow colours to symbolise happiness,. So too aboriginal artists use colours and colour sequences to convey meaning. The symbols or icons in aboriginal dot paintings often imply more than their literal meaning especially when combined.


A good comparison is the Chinese Witten language that uses symbols and symbol combinations. Chinese characters have singular meaning but combined together they tell a different story 

Some may be obvious others not so much

Aboriginal art symbols are used in much the same way

Australian Indigenous art symbols are much the same. Whist symbols can have many meanings. It depends upon the context . A symbols get its context from neighbouring symbols and the story itself.

However, one must keep in mind there were over 600 different language groups throughout Australia.  Australia covers 7,595,342 km2, thus easy to understand why there is no substantial all-encompassing uniformity in language or cultural practices, art or symbolism.

Different Styles of Aboriginal Symbols used in Art


For this example of comparing different styles symbolism in Aboriginal artworks,  we will concentrate on two very broad groupings,  as we have done for all the indigenous artworks sold online.

Each group containing several major nations or language groups. Central Australian Desert and Northern Australian predominately that of Arnhem Land.


Aboriginal culture is living and ever evolving. The contemporary aboriginal art movement of central Australia is, now somewhat detached from old traditional limitations and each artist tends to use more and more colors and symbol with variations and adaptions of their own. The Northern Artists from Arnhem Land and the Kakadu area tend to stick more closely to established tradition.  Sometimes describe as 'primative art' are similar in form and composition to that of the old rock art paintings of  millennia gone by. Although this changing.

Even though Aboriginal Art styles can vary from artist to artist, these two distinct broad styles Central and Northern can easily be identified or grouped as dot paintings and crosshatch paintings.

 Meanings of Aboriginal symbols 


Here are some of the basic symbols incorporated in dot painting by Sandy Walker Japangardi and Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra.

Thorny Mountain Devil

This relatively small cute lizard is named  a    "Thorny Mountain Devil"  Its quite a remarkable creature , it can absorb water up its legs.  Apart from that,  it and his tiny spiky claws that make a series of tiny holes in the sand and that is how it is symbolised in paintings.  As mass of tiny dots.

Two paintings here of Thorny Mountain Devil Story

Is a good example of how the subtle combination of symbols can be difficult to intemperate . All the circles,  they are site but different  sites representing different parts to the story 

Northern Art Symbols

Northern crosshatch symbolic artworks. 


In Arnhem Land artworks exhibit more figurative symbols being more realistic representations of their animal totems and staple plant foods. The figures are usually infilled with intricate and sometimes complex patterns of crosshatched lines.  This line crosshatching known as rarrk. 

The rarrk belongs to each tribal group.  A familiar comparison may be the Scotts and their tartan kilts.  The aboriginal rarrk pattern including the colour sequence is unique to each tribal group. It is painted on the body during ceremony and is often used by artists from this region to infill their artworks.

Some artworks animal totems rather than being infilled with their tribal rarrk show symbolic representations of the animals’ internal organs.  This style of symbolic painting is now referred to as X-ray paintings. This stylistic imagery has been found on the very ancient rock art paintings of the Arnhem Land escarpment country.


Aboriginal peoples from Arnhem Land believe that ancestral spirits in varying forms created the world was we know it. Indigenous stories myths and tales of the creation period have been passed down and recorded in artworks from ancient rock art galleries to modern day canvases. The Mimi spirits of creation taught everything from hunting practices to ceremonial and cultural lore.

The artworks of North and Arnhem Land in particular were not done for art’s sake. They were often records and representations of ancient sacred beliefs ceremonies. T hey often reflect the brutal reality associated with survival and the myths associated with the cultural beliefs about the origins of natural phenomena and aspects of human behavior.

Artist will not paint another rarrk style and who can paint what involves rigid enforcement of initiation rights and clan association and ownership and the rights to certain stories are passed down according to cultural lore.

Common stylized and symbolic representations of ancestral spirits include 

Note image symbols below are outline  representations  of identifiable structure In actual paintings they will take different forms shapes and colours


The artist has painted Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent. Ngalyod is regarded as a most important ancestor spirit in West Arnhem Land and appears in various manifestations in Kunwinjku mythology. In the Dreamtime she assumed a range of animal forms including snake, kangaroo and crocodile and at times transformed herself from one to the other, or into a combination of each. It is believed that as a serpent she tunnels underground using barbed extensions from her head and the bony protuberance from her neck as aids. It is believed that Ngalyod dwells in various billabongs in Arnhem Land today, sometimes swallowing bininj (the Kunwinjku term for Aboriginal people) as punishment when they break traditional laws.
Ngalyod is painted by many Kunwinjku artists, according to each artist’s own imagination and mythological background. She is often depicted with the leaves of the mandem (water lily) protruding from her back.....
                                                                                          reference Injalak Arts


Namarrkon, the Lightning Man, is an important ancestral being in the mythology of the Kunwinjku people of Western Arnhem Land. This spirit helped create the country during the Dreamtime. Namarrkon creates thunder by throwing stone axes down onto the earth. These axes can be seen protruding from various parts of his body, particularly the joints. An arc of lightning encircles his body. Namarrkon is especially active during December, 

                                                                                              reference Injalak Arts

Yawk Yawk

Yawkyawk is the Kunwinjku term for the female water spirits that have fish tails.   Yawkyawk start out in a tadpole-like form, as they get older they grow fish tails and spend most of their time in the water but are able to sit on the banks of billabongs. When fully grown they are able to change their tails into legs and walk on land to forage for food. They also change into dragonflies at the end of the wet season, which signifies the rains have finished. Yawkyawk are said to have namarnkol (barramundi) as pets and that Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent serves as their protector. These spirits are guardians of sacred waterholes

                                                                                              reference Injalak Arts

Mimi Spirits

 According to the Kunwinjku people of West Arnhem Land, Mimih spirits were the original spirit beings who taught Aboriginal people many of the skills they needed to survive. They also taught aspects of ceremony such as singing, dancing (kunborrk) and playing didjeridu (mako). Mimih spirits are believed to inhabit the rocky escarpments around Gunbalanya but because they are extremely timid they are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently depicted in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures, often shown with a range of hunting tools.

                                                                                                                 reference Injalak Arts


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