What are the Devils Marbles?

What are the Devils Marbles?

Written by: Cameron Ward

Published: 11/15/2019

Reading time: 3 mins

These precariously balanced boulders are an icon of the Northern Territory, but what is their significance?

Formed over 1500 million years ago, the Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles defy gravity. In the Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve, these boulders have seemingly dropped from the sky.

The marbles balance precariously atop each other in mind bending formations. The granite boulders glow a stunning red in the early morning and as the sun sets each day. Scientists believe that the boulders were part of a large formation that cracked, and that natural erosion over thousands of years rounded their edges, resulting in their spherical shape today.

Cultural Significance

The marbles are a site of cultural significance for the Alayawarre people; however they are also the meeting place for the three other language groups; the Kayteye, Warumunga and Warlpiri people. Together they look after the land and have spiritual connections to the boulders. Alayawarre elders regularly visit the area to pass their culture to younger generations. Traditionally, the marbles were the only area in the park where both men and women could freely visit to search for bush food, hunt and gather bush medicine. Other parts of the park were considered dangerous, elders would only visit for ceremonial purposes. In fact, traditionally the current campground was strictly out of bounds for most Aboriginal people.

There are many spiritual and dreaming stories relating to the marbles. Many of them are sacred to the traditional owners. As tourism numbers have increased, a common misconception has grown that the Alayawarre believe the marbles are the fossilised eggs of the creator, Rainbow Serpent. However, this is not true. Many traditional stories are not appropriate to share with the uninitiated. The following story, from the Alayawarre people, is okay for the public to hear;

Arrange, the Devil Man, travelled through the area from Ayleparrarntenhe. As he journeyed, he made a hair belt (an item worn by initiated men). Twirling the hair into strings Arrange dropped clusters of hair onto the ground. These clusters turned into the boulders you see today. On his way back to Ayleparrarntenhe he spat on the ground. His spit transformed into the boulders that are across the middle of the reserve. Finally, Arrange returned to his place of origin, Ayleparrarntenhe.

Today, Ayleparrarntenhe is the name of the twin-peak hill located in the east of the reserve. The Alayawarre people believe that Arrange is still there.

Removal of a Marble

Part of the Aboriginal understanding of the marbles is their extreme power. Traditional owners believe that the damage, tampering, or removal of the boulders could cause life threatening consequences. Despite this, in 1953 a boulder was removed without consultation. Taken to Alice Springs, it sat on the grave of the Royal Flying Doctor services founder John Flynn.

After 45 years of pain and activism, the boulder returned to the Alayawarre people. A new boulder, from the Alice Springs area replaced it. The local Arrernte people chose the new boulder, and it was removed with their permission.

Today, Northern Territory law protects them as a Registered Sacred Site. The area was returned to the traditional owner’s care in a historic ceremony in 2008. The Devils Marbles are open for the public every day of the year. Though there is not legal ban, the traditional owners request that visitors do not climb the boulders.

Related article: The Natural and Cultural Wonder of the Devils Marbles

Cameron Ward
Cameron Ward
Managing Director at Sightseeing Tours Australia

Cameron Ward turned his travel passion into a thriving Australian tourism business. Before he co-founded his own business, Sightseeing Tours Australia, he was enjoying being a Melbourne tour guide. Even now, Cameron delights in helping visitors from all around the world get the most out of their incredible Australian trip. You’ll see Cameron leading tours or writing about his favourite Australian places where he shares his local insights.