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  Seaweek 2005 - Save Our Sharks - Student Info sheet    
Student Information Sheet 8 - The Cultural Significance of Sharks and Rays
in Aboriginal Australia
Download pdf version
The shark: Mäna

For the Yolngu peoples of northeast Arnhem Land, certain ancestors that created potent sacred sites are known as “power totems.” These ancestors are central to the identity of the clans descended from them, and clansmen draw spiritual and physical strength by accessing their power through sacred designs, songs, and dances. Several Yolngu clans trace their identity to the ancestral whaler shark Mä na (pronounced: MAR-na).


According to the public version of the story, this ancestral being began his journey along the coast of northeast Arnhem Land. While sleeping on the beach, Mä na was speared by an ancestor from another clan who did not want other creator beings near him. Enraged by this stealthy attack, Mä na charged inland from the sea, exploding into the landscape.

The ancestral shark gouged his way inland using his teeth to carve out several river systems. As he journeyed onward, his teeth broke off on the hard riverbanks; these lost teeth became the pandanus trees that line rivers today. The leaves of these trees are dagger-shaped with serrated edges, like shark teeth. These trees represent both Mä na’s anger at being speared and the stingray-spine tipped spear that Mä na carried to avenge his death.

Whaler shark
(© Andrea Marshall)


Next - The stingray: Gawangalkmirri

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Save Our Sharks March 6 to 13, 2005