Egg Tempera and the Yolngu

Donald Thompson
In the early 1930s an Australian anthropologist, Donald Thompson, travelled to Arnhem Land in northern Australia and made friends with the indigenous Yolngu people. He averted a likely massacre of Yolngu people by white Australians and freed three Yolngu from prison. When he went on to study and document Yolngu customs and rituals and was given absolutely unprecedented access because of his service to the Yolngu and because of what he could teach them about the ways of white Australia. He had formed a very close friendship with a member of one clan who then accompanied him when staying for several years with another Yolngu clan. But this presented a problem for his friend. The information being shared with Thompson was of such huge value that by sharing in it he was putting his own clan into debt to the other clan such that it would take generations to repay.

I bring this up because I was thinking about egg tempera, taking egg yolk off the plate my son had been eating from. That’s a pretty good invention, although you can see how someone thought of it. The yolk forms a binding medium to which powdered pigments are added. It’s been used since egyptian times, sometimes with honey or milk rather than yolk. But if you were to develop and perfect that relatively simple technique it would take a lifetime. The knowledge would have to be treasured and passed on, or it would be lost.

Which is exactly what happened, as the example of the Yolngu demonstrates. Humans used to treasure knowledge and pass it on carefully from generation to generation. Nor were religion and knowledge separate. The cultural treasure of a people was every skill, every legend and myth. The gods were a small part of this but woven throughout it. How to make just the right tempera mixture when the eggs are too fatty. What it means to say “full up to dolly’s wax”. My grandmother was born in 1902 and she had a saying for every situation, and little fragments of stories. She remembered everything through these and I think that was common for the time.

This enormous treasure, a quilt of changing hues as you move from one valley and one clan to the next, this is all being lost to a faster age and a way of understanding the world which is more rigid, in some ways more powerful, but less deep. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about that except perhaps to document where we can and at least mourn, at least have a wistful moment, for its passing.

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