The Dreamtime, also commonly referred to as the Dreaming, constitutes the core of traditional Australian Aboriginal religion. It is the story of how animals, humans, and natural terrain came to be and why they have the particular behaviors and characteristics that they have; it is a code of conduct for all time. Before the period known as the Dreamtime, the earth was an endless, featureless plain devoid of all life. During the Dreamtime the Spirit Ancestors arose from under the ground and descended from the sky realm, creating human and animal life while journeying across the land. In doing so, they left behind evidence of their activities in the markings and contours of the natural landscape before disappearing back into the land and sky realms. The Dreamtime continues as an eternal moment that is accessed today, as it was in the past, through recounting the stories of the Spirit Ancestors, singing sacred songs, creating various forms of art, performing rituals, and totemism. The concept of time as neither linear nor cyclical, but rather as atemporal, is at the heart of this oral tradition.
Australian Aboriginal Culture
Numerous distinct cultural and linguistic groups span Australia, but with significant overlap in cultural practices and beliefs. The native people of Australia likely have the longest continuous culture of any group on earth. Archaeological sites throughout Australia provide evidence that indigenous people have occupied the continent for as long as 60,000 years. For most of this time they existed exclusively as hunters and gatherers. Men hunted animals such as kangaroos, emus, and turtles while women and children gathered fruits, berries, and plants. To prevent the overuse of any area of land and its resources, groups were mobile within a wide territory. According to Australian Aborigines, traditional lifestyles associated with existence as nomadic hunter and gatherers, as well as a newer way of life resulting from centuries of European contact, can be explained by reference to the actions and laws established by the Spirit Ancestors during the Dreamtime.
The Spirit Ancestors
The term Dreamtime is often misleading to Western thinkers who view time in a linear fashion and so mistakenly regard it as an event that was concluded in a distant past. But neither should the Dreamtime be thought of as time comprised of vast cosmic cycles, as found in many of the Eastern traditions. Rather, the Dreamtime may best be described with the term everywhen, coined by anthropologist and historian W. E. H. Stanner or, similarly, as the “all-at-once-time,” in so far as past, present, and future coexist in an eternal now.
The Dreaming originated with the journeys of the Spirit Ancestors, who temporarily left their abodes under the ground and in the mystical sky realm to travel across the earth, creating the natural landscapes and living things that we see today. Taking a variety of human, animal, and other forms, the Spirit Ancestors endowed certain places with a particular power or sacredness while providing form to the landscape. These selfcreated Spirit Ancestors are not considered to be gods, but they do have significant power that can be used for either good or harm. For example, the Mimi spirits are described as tall, thin, stick-like figures that resemble humans. They live in rocky areas and although they may be mischievous at times, they are also credited with teaching the ancestors of today’s Australian Aborigines how to hunt and cook as well as how to create rock paintings. Some indigenous groups maintain that particular rock paintings were left by the Mimi themselves.
After completing their journeys, many of the Spirit Ancestors transformed themselves into objects such as rocks, stars, or animals, and their powers still inhabit these objects. The journeys of the Spirit Ancestors still have relevance for today’s people, with direct implications for why things are as they are. Explanations for how and why people and animals do the ordinary activities that they do, such as dancing, hunting, gathering food, and falling in love, are sought in stories of the Dreamtime that have been passed down orally for countless generations.
Stories of the Dreamtime
Knowledge of the Dreamtime was originally passed from older to younger generations in the form of oral stories rather than through the written word. Dreamtime stories are accounts of the journeys of the Spirit Ancestors as they moved across the landscape forming the natural geography and establishing the laws. Aboriginal groups who share a totem and territory are considered to be the owners of specific stories, songs, and ceremonies that pertain to the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in that territory. An individual’s totem affiliation is derived based on the territory in which that person was conceived. Totems are animal or plant representations of a given Spirit Ancestor that link individuals to the group of other individuals who share that particular totem but also link the totemic group as a whole to the Dreamtime via their totemic Spirit Ancestor.
Dreamtime stories cover a wide range of themes and topics that vary from one group of people to the next, but they often contain significant overlap across the territories that span the continent. They tell of the period of the Dreamtime when all was created and so give reasons, for example, as to why we see particular geographic formations, why indigenous animals behave the way they do, why there are seasonal weather patterns, why we suffer, how people first learned language, why kangaroos have pouches, why and how the sun rises every day and retreats every night, how flat country came to have hills, and even how death came to be a part of human’s lives.
The Rainbow Serpent is one of the most widespread figures throughout Aboriginal Australia. It is a large snakelike creature associated with the creation of watercourses such as rivers and lagoons that it formed while twisting and winding its way across the continent during the Dreamtime. The Rainbow Serpent is also attributed with producing the rain and storms of the wet season. As water is such an essential element throughout Australia, we see the Rainbow Serpent is revered as the source of life. However, if not respected, it can be a destructive force as well.
Another example of how Dreamtime stories explain the various contours of the landscape is found in the legend of a small lizard known as the Tatji and his actions at Uluru (Ayers Rock). At this site Tatji threw his kali, a curved throwing stick, which became embedded in the surface of the rock. In attempting to remove it by scooping it out with his hands, he left behind a series of hollows that continue to mark the rock face. Unable to remove his kali, he died in a cave where today his bodily remains appear as large boulders on the cave floor.
Given the importance of fire for traditional hunting and gathering groups across Australia, it is not surprising that another common theme found in Dreamtime stories is the origin of fire. Some Aboriginal groups attribute its origin to a strike of lightning or a small bird that brought it from a volcano. Others say that it was a gift from one of the Spirit Ancestors. One group traditionally located on the north coast of New South Wales claims that the Aboriginal people first discovered the benefits of fire for cooking and warmth long ago when the Spirit Ancestors accidentally set fire to the land. At this time in the distant past, only the Spirit Ancestors knew how to control fire, as they lived in the sky between two bright stars from which they could light fire sticks.
On one occasion the Spirit Ancestors faced a shortage of game in their sky world and were forced to seek food on Earth. During the hunt, two brothers carelessly left their fire sticks on the ground, whereby the two sticks began to chase one another leaving trails of fire in their wake. As the fire spread and overtook the cache of meat that had been hunted by the Spirit Ancestors, the people became excited by the wonderful smell of the cooked food and the warmth of the fire and so took the fire sticks for their own.
Ceremonies, Songs, and Art as Means of Accessing the Dreamtime
In addition to recounting stories, there are numerous means of invoking the Dreamtime and the Spirit Ancestors. Aboriginal religion is not centered on worshiping the Spirit Ancestors as gods but on reenacting the archetypal paradigms initiated by them. For this reason, Aboriginal beliefs about the creation of life and landscape on Earth and the laws set out by the Spirit Ancestors are conveyed in stories that are not only told but are enacted in ceremonial performance, art, dance, and song that allow participants to continually access the Dreaming. For example, people may perform ritual ceremonies at places in the natural environment that hold particularly potent power left by the Spirit Ancestors. Or, in different territories throughout Australia, such as Ayers Rock, we see rock art depicting the actions of the Spirit Ancestors that date back hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. These are typically painted with natural pigments of red, yellow, black, and white and may take a wide variety of unique stylistic forms. As Aboriginal culture continues to change to meet the demands of the 21st century, art associated with sacred totemic rituals endures but in addition to the traditional medium of sand, rock, or ground paintings, it can increasingly be found today in modern media such as acrylic and photography.
Catherine M. Mitchell Fuentes
See also Anthropology; Dreams; Mythology; Psychology and Time; Religions and Time; Sleep; Time, Subjective Flow of
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