Notes on the Zig Zag and triangle motifs of the Austronesians and of the Indo-Europeans


There are two methods of decorating smooth surfaces — (i) by carving the pattern, the intaglio portion of which is often filled up with powdered lime (Fig. 2); or (2) the design is engraved on the surface of the object by means of fine punctate or minutely zigzag lines (Fig. 5). The former method is alone applied to wooden objects, and also mainly to those made of turtle-shell (“tortoise-shell”); the latter is that employed on bamboo pipes and on many turtle-shell objects. Unbroken lines are very rarely engraved.

It is characteristic of this district that the patterns are inscribed within parallel lines, whether it be a comb (Fig. 2) or a bamboo pipe (Fig. i) which is to be decorated. The parallel lines are first drawn, and then the pattern is de-lineated. A noticeable peculiarity is the preponderance of  straight or angled lines to the exclusion of curved lines.
Simple semicircular curves and circles are common, it is true, but they are not combined into curved patterns; reversed or looped coils and complex curved lines, such as scrolls, are completely absent.

The most common pattern is the ubiquitous zigzag, and this is pre-eminently characteristic of this region. The zig-zag may appear as an angular wavy line, or each alternate triangle may be left in relief or emphasised by parallel lines, thus forming a series of alternate light and dark triangles, or what is sometimes termed a tooth pattern. It is obvious that when several rows of this pattern are drawn, a triangle of one row will so coincide with that of the contiguous row as to form a diamond or lozenge. Strange as it may seem, it appears that this is the actual way in which even such a simple form as the lozenge was discovered in this district. Even now, after generations upon generations of designers carving the same simple patterns, the lozenge is very frequently made by drawing a median horizontal line parallel to the boundary lines and then cutting a more or less symmetrical triangle on each side of it (Fig. 2, third and fifth bands). A herring-bone pattern (Fig. 2, fourth band) and a few simple combinations of straight or angled lines complete the decorative attempts of these people.

Fig. 2. — Rubbing of the handle of a wooden comb; one – half natural size. Torres Straits. In the author’s possession.

Source: Extract from “Evolution in Art: as illustrated by the life-histories of designs” by Alfred C. Haddon

See also Inter- and Intra-regional Variation in the Austronesian Painting Tradition: A View from East Timor by Sue O’Connor and Nunno Vasco Oliviera, p. 397 (At Racolo and Lie Kere zigzag motifs were among the dominant geometric motifs found)

In “The Language of the Goddess”, Marija Gimbutas wrote:

“Zig-zag, the image of water

In the iconography of all prehistoric periods of Europe as well as of the whole world, the image of water is zig-zag or serpentine. The zig-zag is the earliest symbolic motif recorded: Neanderthals used this sign around 40,000 years B.C., or earlier. … at the Mousterian site of Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria a nonutiliarian fragment of bone that had been engraved with a zig-zag motif … It is clear that the engraving is an intentional zig-zag image (Marshack 1976: 139)

In the Upper Paleolithic, the zig-zag is a common motif and appears in association with anthropomorphic, bird, fish, and phallic images. …

The zig-zag alternates with the M sign an abbreviated zig-zag. in Magdalenian times and later in Old Europe, Zig-Zags and M’s are found engraved or painted within uterine and lens (vulva) shapes, suggesting the symbolic affinity between the zig-zag, M, female moisture, and amniotic fluid.”

Another connection between the goddess and the triangle motif is the Indian symbolism of the triangle as representing the tantric Sakti goddess, the three sides of the yoni, the primordial triangle, creative matrix of the cosmos (source:  The Dynamics of Psyche and Symbol):

Sakti yantra

Sakti Yantra. The three sides of the yoni, the primordial triangle, creative matrix of the cosmos, stand for the three qualities composing material nature: sattva, the ascending quality, seen as white; rajas, the kinetic quality, seen as red; tamas, the descending quality or inertia, seen as black. Rajasthan, c. 17th century (p113)

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