Images of Lightning Spirits can be found throughout Arnhem Land in caves and on rock surfaces. Some of these are sacred but can be viewed by outsiders, while others are both sacred and secret and cannot be seen by the uninitiated. The sacred site of Namarrkon, the Lightning Spirit for the Kunwinjku people living at Gunbalanya, is about 56 kilometres (35 miles) away to the east of Nimbuwah rock, which towers into the sky from the surrounding plains. It is here that Namarrkon dwells throughout the dry season. Sometimes he assumes the form of a grasshopper to forage for food among the cabbage tree palms and bush shrubs growing nearby. He is also said to have created aljurr, (“Leichardt’s grasshopper”), who goes looking for Namarrkon during electrical storms.
When the wet monsoon season starts to build up in November, Namarrkon flies up into the sky and sits on storm clouds made by the Rainbow Serpent. From there he emits deep growls of thunder and sends lightning flashes across the sky, although no rain falls until the Rainbow Serpent releases it. This high vantage point allows Namarrkon to keep a close watch on Aborigines living below to see if they are observing codes of good behaviour, conducting sacred ceremonies, and passing on history and religion to the uninitiated in their tribe. If Namarrkon sees anything which displeases him, he plucks one of the stone axes from his knee or elbow joints and hurls it at the offender. Sometimes he misses and cleaves a tree in two.
The lines running around Namarrkon’s body and through his head in this image represent the lightning circuits which give him great bodily strength. The crosshatching on Namarrkon manifests the sacred body design of the artist’s clan. Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, now rears into the sky and bursts the stormclouds with his forked tongue, bringing torrential rain and often floods to the earth. The Wet Season has begun. This is a happy time as there is an abundance of food available during the rainy period.