A common denominator amongst indigenous cultures around the globe is the use of ochre in ritual magic, painting, and funerary customs. You can find this intriguing use amongst the Australian Aborigines, the Native Americans, the Celts, the Egyptians, and even prehistoric Cro Magnon cave dwellers. In many of these societies, only certain individuals were permitted to collect ochre. It was a popular trading item amongst the Native Americans, the Australian Aborigines, the Celts, and other civilizations that has elaborate rituals. The term “Ochre” comes from the Greek “ὠχρός, ōkhrós” which means “pale”. It is sometimes spelled “ocher”. It most commonly is yellow-gold, light yellow brown, or with a reddish tint for color. Red Ochre, is distinquished in use from regular ochre as it often has more ritual and burial use in various cultures. Some rare forms of brown or purple ochre are popular in ceremonial use as well. It was amongst the very first pigments to be used by humankind as it was a tinted clay embedded with mineral oxides consisting of hydrated iron oxide. The first written use of ochre appeared in 1550 BCE papyrus scrolls in Egypt. The earliest art utilizing ochre belonged to Cro-Magnon cave paintings of Southern Europe dating from 32,000-10,000 B.C.E. Some Neolithic graves suggested they used the ochre symbolically representing a return to the Earth or a form of ritual rebirth and symbolizing the blood of the Great Goddess. The Ancient Picts and the Irish were known to paint themselves “Iron Red” with red ochre. After being ground, it was often mixed with fish oil, animal fats, linseed oil, or oils to make a paint out of it.
In Australia, “The Ochre Pits”, a mine belonging to the Western Arrernte, are a popular place to visit amongst tourists in the Northern Territory, just outside of Alice Springs on the Larapinta Trail. These pits contain numerous layers of multi-colored rocks that the Australian Aborigines would grind up as pigment or paint to utilize in their ceremonies and was a common trade item between neighbouring clans and countries throughout the continent. Ochres from these mines were the choicest known to man – soft, vivid, magical. Some with sheen others without, ranging in color from crimson to gold. The Australian Aborigine would ground the ochre and mix it with Emu fat to use as a bodypaint for ceremonial body adornment.