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Sacred era in Australian Aboriginal mythology
Stencil art at Carnarvon Gorge, which may be memorials, signs from or appeals to totemic ancestors or records of Dreaming stories.
Dreaming (also the Dreaming, the Dreamings and the Dreamtime) is a term devised by early anthropologists to refer to a religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs. It was originally used by Francis Gillen, quickly adopted by his colleague Baldwin Spencer and thereafter popularised by A. P. Elkin, who, however, later revised his views. The Dreaming is used to represent Aboriginal concepts of Everywhen during which the land was inhabited by ancestral figures, often of heroic proportions or with supernatural abilities. These figures were often distinct from gods as they did not control the material world and were not worshipped, but only revered. The concept of the dreamtime has subsequently become widely adopted beyond its original Australian context and is now part of global popular culture.
By the 1990s, Dreaming had acquired its own currency in popular culture, based on idealised or fictionalised conceptions of Australian mythology. Since the 1970s, Dreaming has also returned from academic usage via popular culture and tourism and is now ubiquitous in the English vocabulary of Aboriginal Australians in a kind of "self-fulfilling academic prophecy".[a]
Origin of the term
The station-master, magistrate, and amateur ethnographer Francis Gillen first used the terms in an ethnographical report in 1896. With Walter Baldwin Spencer, Gillen published a major work, Native Tribes of Central Australia, in 1899. In that work, they spoke of the Alcheringa as "the name applied to the far distant past with which the earliest traditions of the tribe deal".[b] Five years later, in their Northern Tribes of Central Australia, they gloss the far distant age as "the dream times", link it to the word alcheri meaning 'dream', and affirm that the term is current also among the Kaitish and Unmatjera.
Early doubts about the precision of Spencer and Gillen's English gloss were expressed by the German Lutheran pastor and missionary Carl Strehlow in his 1908 book Die Aranda (The Arrernte). He noted that his Arrente contacts explained altjira, whose etymology was unknown, as an eternal being who had no beginning. In the Upper Arrernte language, the proper verb for 'to dream' was altjirerama, literally 'to see God'. Strehlow theorised that the noun is the somewhat rare word altjirrinja, which Spencer and Gillen gave a corrupted transcription and a false etymology. "The native," Strehlow concluded, "knows nothing of 'dreamtime' as a designation of a certain period of their history."[c]
Strehlow gives Altjira or Altjira mara (mara meaning 'good') as the Arrente word for the eternal creator of the world and humankind. Strehlow describes him as a tall strong man with red skin, long fair hair, and emu legs, with many red-skinned wives (with dog legs) and children. In Strehlow's account, Altjira lives in the sky (which is a body of land through which runs the Milky Way, a river).
However, by the time Strehlow was writing, his contacts had been converts to Christianity for decades, and critics suggested that Altjira had been used by missionaries as a word for the Christian God.
In 1926, Spencer conducted a field study to challenge Strehlow's conclusion about Altjira and the implied criticism of Gillen and Spencer's original work. Spencer found attestations of altjira from the 1890s that used the word to mean 'associated with past times' or 'eternal', not 'god'.
Academic Sam Gill finds Strehlow's use of Altjira ambiguous, sometimes describing a supreme being, and sometimes describing a totem being but not necessarily a supreme one. He attributes the clash partly to Spencer's cultural evolutionist beliefs that Aboriginal people were at a pre-religion "stage" of development (and thus could not believe in a supreme being), while Strehlow as a Christian missionary found presence of belief in the divine a useful entry point for proselytising.
Linguist David Campbell Moore is critical of Spencer and Gillen's "Dreamtime" translation, concluding:
"Dreamtime" was a mistranslation based on an etymological connection between "a dream" and "Altjira", which held only over a limited geographical domain. There was some semantic relationship between "Altjira" and "a dream", but to imagine that the latter captures the essence of "Altjira" is an illusion.
Other Aboriginal language terms
The complex of religious beliefs encapsulated by the Dreamings are also called:
In English, anthropologists have variously translated words normally understood to mean Dreaming or Dreamtime in a variety of other ways, including "Everywhen", "world-dawn", "ancestral past", "ancestral present", "ancestral now" (satirically), "unfixed in time", "abiding events" or "abiding law".
Most translations of the Dreaming into other languages are based on the translation of the word dream. Examples include Espaces de rêves in French ('dream spaces') and Snivanje in Croatian (a gerund derived from the verb for 'to dream').
The concept of the Dreaming is inadequately explained by English terms, and difficult to explain in terms of non-Aboriginal cultures. It has been described as "an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment ... [it] provides for a total, integrated way of life ... a lived daily reality". It embraces past, present and future.
Aboriginal beliefs and culture
Ku-ring-gai Chase-petroglyph, via Waratah Track, depicting Baiame, the Creator God and Sky Father in the dreaming of several Aboriginal language groups.
Waugals (yellow triangles with a black snake in the centre) are the official Bibbulmun Track trailmarkers between Kalamunda and Albany in Western Australia. The Noongar believe that the Waugal, or Wagyl, created the Swan River and is represented by the Darling scarp.
"Dreaming" is now also used as a term for a system of totemic symbols, so that an Aboriginal person may "own" a specific Dreaming, such as Kangaroo Dreaming, Shark Dreaming, Honey Ant Dreaming, Badger Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their country. This is because in the Dreaming an individual's entire ancestry exists as one, culminating in the idea that all worldly knowledge is accumulated through one's ancestors. Many Aboriginal Australians also refer to the world-creation time as "Dreamtime". The Dreaming laid down the patterns of life for the Aboriginal people.
Creation is believed to be the work of culture heroes who travelled across a formless land, creating sacred sites and significant places of interest in their travels. In this way, "songlines" (or Yiri in the Warlpiri language) were established, some of which could travel right across Australia, through as many as six to ten different language groupings. The dreaming and travelling trails of these heroic spirit beings are the songlines. The signs of the spirit beings may be of spiritual essence, physical remains such as petrosomatoglyphs of body impressions or footprints, among natural and elemental simulacra.
Some of the ancestor or spirit beings inhabiting the Dreamtime become one with parts of the landscape, such as rocks or trees. The concept of a life force is also often associated with sacred sites, and ceremonies performed at such sites "are a re-creation of the events which created the site during The Dreaming". The ceremony helps the life force at the site to remain active and to keep creating new life: if not performed, new life cannot be created.
Dreaming existed before the life of the individual begins, and continues to exist when the life of the individual ends. Both before and after life, it is believed that this spirit-child exists in the Dreaming and is only initiated into life by being born through a mother. The spirit of the child is culturally understood to enter the developing fetus during the fifth month of pregnancy. When the mother felt the child move in the womb for the first time, it was thought that this was the work of the spirit of the land in which the mother then stood. Upon birth, the child is considered to be a special custodian of that part of their country and is taught the stories and songlines of that place. As Wolf (1994: p. 14) states: "A 'black fella' may regard his totem or the place from which his spirit came as his Dreaming. He may also regard tribal law as his Dreaming."
In the Wangga genre, the songs and dances express themes related to death and regeneration. They are performed publicly with the singer composing from their daily lives or while Dreaming of a nyuidj (dead spirit).
Dreaming stories vary throughout Australia, with variations on the same theme. The meaning and significance of particular places and creatures is wedded to their origin in The Dreaming, and certain places have a particular potency or Dreaming. For example, the story of how the sun was made is different in New South Wales and in Western Australia. Stories cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. In Perth, the Noongar believe that the Darling Scarp is the body of the Wagyl - a serpent being that meandered over the land creating rivers, waterways and lakes and who created the Swan River. In another example, the Gagudju people of Arnhemland, for which Kakadu National Park is named, believe that the sandstone escarpment that dominates the park's landscape was created in the Dreamtime when Ginga (the crocodile-man) was badly burned during a ceremony and jumped into the water to save himself.
Werner Herzog's Where the Green Ants Dream (Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen) (1984) posited an Aboriginal protest against uranium mining based on the taboo against disturbing the dream of green ants and thus causing the destruction of the world.
Frog Dreaming (1986) (renamed The Quest when released in the USA) included certain aspects of Aboriginal Dreaming.
The Marvel Comics character Gateway, an Aboriginal "mutant" that lives in the Outback and first appeared in a 1988 Uncanny X-Men comic, accesses Dreamland through his mutant powers, giving him precognition and the ability to teleport others from place to place.
In The Maxx, The Outback represents a primeval landscape of a fictional Australia where the characters travel from the real world. The Outback takes heavy inspiration from Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime.
In the episode "Walkabout" of the animated series Gargoyles, an Aboriginal mentor to Dingo teaches him of the Dreamtime. In the same episode, Goliath and Dingo enter the Dreamtime in order to communicate with an AI nanotech entity called the Matrix.
Grant Morrison's character King Mob in his comic The Invisibles (1994-2000) visits Uluru and speaks telepathically with an Aboriginal Elder, he remarks that this is possible because he is a "Scorpion dreaming".
Queenie Chan's manga The Dreaming (2005) takes place in Australia and deals with students from a boarding school who mysteriously go missing. Aboriginal legends feature in the series.
Betty Clawman from DC Comics' New Guardians was an Aboriginal girl chosen to be part of the next stage in man's evolution - i.e. the New Guardians. Dreamtime figured in the story.
Wildstorm's Planetary issue #15 briefly deals with the Dreamtime.
In the graphic novel Y: The Last Man, the protagonist's love interest, Beth, spends time in Australia. Events in the Dreamtime are presented as a possible reason for the worldwide plague that killed almost all male mammals.
In Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and Dreamfall Chapters there's a place which draws heavily from the concept of Dreamtime, as well as from other Aboriginal mythologies: the Storytime. It is described as the place where every story begins and ends.
In the animated series ExoSquad, two of the main characters talk to an Aboriginal aid who explains the nature of the Dreamtime and the cave art are shown depicting their current events.
The Australian fantasy superhero television series Cleverman draws its premise and many concepts from various Dreaming stories, including those of the "hairymen", a monster known as the Namorrodor, and the Cleverman himself. The Dreaming is referenced explicitly several times.
^Stanner warned about uncritical use of the term and was aware of its semantic difficulties, while at the same time he continued using it and contributed to its popularisation; according to Swain it is "still used uncritically in contemporary literature".
^"the dim past to which the natives give the name of the 'Alcheringa'." (p.119)
^The Strehlows' informant, Moses (Tjalkabota), was a convert to Christianity, and the adoption of his interpretation suffered from a methodological error, according to Barry Hill, since his conversion made his views on pre-contact beliefs unreliable.
Vanni, Maurizio; Pedretti, Carlo (2005). Giuliano Ghelli. Le vie del tempo (in Italian, English, and German). Poggibonsi (province of Siena), Italy: Carlo Cambi Editore. pp. 18, 70. ISBN88-88482-41-5. Ghelli's work appears as an authentic initiatory experience, with important ordeals to overcome. No Aboriginal boy can be considered a man, nor can an Aboriginal girl marry, until he or she has overcome all the initiatory rituals. One of these, perhaps the most feared, is the interpretation of symbols in paintings associated with Dreamtime.
Voigt, Anna; Drury, Neville (1997). Wisdom of the Earth: the living legacy of the Aboriginal dreamtime. East Roseville, NSW: Simon & Schuster.