Aboriginal Symbols of Fauna and Wildlife
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Indigenous Symbols, Iconography and Imagery

Among the number of lizards that are important totemic animals of the Australian Aboriginal people, is the Thorny Devil. In the Central Australia Utopia region, this lizard is called the Mountain Devil Lizard and the Thorny Devil Lizard.

A prominent Dreamtime Story, it tells of Arnkerrth (Old Woman Mountain Devil Lizard or Thorny Devil Lizard) who travelled the vast regions of Atnangker Country, defining the landscape and identifying sacred sites. One of the most prominent artist to paint this dreaming is Kwementyaye Petyarre (also known as Kathleen Petyarre, c 1938 – 24 November 2018).

Atnangker on Anmatyerr country is located in Australia’s north-east Central Desert. Arnkerrth is from the Anmatyerr language meaning Mountain Devil Lizard and is one of the prominent Dreamings for Anmatyerre/Alyawarr people of the Northern Territory.

The Mountain Devil Lizard (Arnkerrth) is the ancestral totem for the famous sisters Kathleen Petyarre, Violet Petyarre, Myrtle Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Nancy Kunoth Petyarre, Jean Petyarre and Ada Bird Petyarre from the Utopia region in Central Australia, who inherited the Mountain Devil Lizard from their paternal grandmother.

This Dreaming is portrayed in different artistic interpretation by the Petyarre sisters each portray a different artistic interpretation. Kathleen’s work is famed for the detailed and rhythmic mapping that details the epic journey of Arnkerrth as it travelled across her traditional country (Atnangker).

In the depiction of the Thorny Devil, many artist stamp their own unique way of portraying the animal, whether it is just showing the tracks left by the animal, the abstract depiction of their stunning skin or as the flattened outline, or three dimensional form. The Thorny Devil also appearing in animal carvings.

Mountain Devil Lizard (Thorny Devil)
These two works are contemporary style of Raymond Walters Japanangka’s Grandmothers Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming.

When speaking to my Aunties from Utpoia, they told me about the Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming. My Aunties Kathleen and Gloria Petyerre paint this story.

The Mountain Devil Lizard, is an amazing creature and it’s dreaming has great significance within Aboriginal culture.

Mountain Devil Lizard is responsible for the creation of coloured ochres. These ochres are still gathered today for this purpose. This story is strongly associated with ceremonial body paint, design and dance.

The patterns depicted in my paintings show the pattern/design found on the back of the Mountain Devil Lizard, commonly know as the Thorny Devil.

The lines signify the spinifex, which is used as shelter by the Lizard.

When speaking to my Aunties from Utopia, they told me about the Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming. My Aunties Kathleen and Gloria Petyerre paint this story.

The Mountain Devil Lizard is an amazing creature and it’s dreaming has great significances within Aboriginal culture.

Mountain Devil Lizard is responsible for the creation of coloured ochres. These ochres are still gathered today for this purpose. This story i strongly associated with ceremonial body paint design and dance.

The patterns depicted in my paintings show the pattern design found on the back of the Mountain Devil Lizard – commonly know as the Thorny Devil.

The lines in the painting signify the spinifex, which is used by the Mountain Devil Lizard for shelter.

Artist Selma Coulthard does a number of different colour palettes to depict the Thorny Devil, reflecting the Thorny Devil chameleon-like abilities, being able to change colour to blend into the environment.

Check out our Reptile section for fauna information about the Thorny Devil.

Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus)
The iconic Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) © Greg Sully

Footnote & References

  1. Genius of Place: The work of Kathleen Petyarre, 2001, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Curator Russell Storer, Curatorial Advisor Christine Nichollshttps://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/exhibitions/kathleen-petyarre/