The Dreamtime

The Dreamtime is a term used to encapsulate the Australian Aboriginal belief of the genesis of the world. In the Dreamtime, ancestor spirits formed the natural features of the earth and established the laws of science and society. The Dreaming continues to sustain generation after generation of Indigenous Australian peoples who access its powers through ceremony, and through art.

The Dreamtime - the Australian Aboriginal belief of the genesis of the world

First and foremost, we should acknowledge that the terms 'The Dreaming' and ‘The Dreamtime’ are European expressions, invented by anthropologists. In the more than two hundred distinct Aboriginal languages of Australia, many different words exist for the concept of the Creation.

On our website, you may come across numerous artwork titles with the words Tjukurpa or Jukurrpa. These are the words used by artists belonging to the Pintupi and Warlpiri language groups.

Sometimes people translate the Dreaming as mythology. This does not do it justice and an Aboriginal person may perceive it as a derogatory term as in “It's just a myth” (meaning “It isn't really true”).

My experience is that the stories are treated very seriously by Aboriginal people.  They are revered.  Many times, at the conclusion of a story, the storyteller has said to me that "This is a true story.  Really important one, that one."

For Aboriginal people, the Dreaming is a holistic belief system that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment. It is a total, integrated way of life.

It is not a monotheistic or a polytheistic religion. There is no ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ – it is all based here on country. There is no afterlife to redeem your sins, law and payback must be dealt with here and now. When you pass away, you will simply return to country.

In Aboriginal culture, there is also no separation between the sacred and non-sacred, as all actions are steeped in religious purpose. The mere act of burning grass has a specific story attached to it, a story that directs the need and benefits of the action. It is an action prescribed by the ancestors and is enshrined in Law.

George Ward Tjungurrayi - Tingari Karrkurritinytja - Lake MacDonald

Unlike non-Indigenous culture which continually seeks to change the world around it, much of the emphasis of Aboriginal culture was to keep the world in which they lived the same. It may be argued that Indigenous Australians had a sustainable way of life that would have ensured their existence for the next millennia, whereas our Western culture is battling with the effects of human impact on the land after only 2,000 years. The primary mechanism Indigenous Australian people used for achieving this sustainable balance was Dreamtime stories.

The Dreamtime is past, present and future

The Dreamtime is difficult for people of western culture to comprehend because western norms such as the idea of time are not followed. The Dreaming is not static or linear. It is the past, but it is also the present and the future.

The Dreaming is constantly evolving to explain events and changes today, such as floods, storms and occurrences in people's lives. The stories are a Creative force from a distant past, but they are also a constant and pervasive force in present-day life. It is a lived daily reality for many Aboriginal artists.

Another way of looking at it is that the Dreaming stories are foundational, but the work of sustaining the world is ongoing. The Dreamtime encompasses both the presence of the Dreaming story, as well as all the work that people do today to sustain the connections and Law that were established by the Ancestors.

As well as the Dreamtime being omnipresent, the term is also used in a variety of contexts that westerners sometimes find confusing. For example, when discussing a painting, an Aboriginal artist might say “that’s my Tjukurrpa”. When someone is absent for ceremonies, their relatives may say “he’s gone for Tjukurrpa”.

Dreaming Ancestors – the great creator beings

The Dreaming Ancestors, which are also known as Ancestral Spirits or Ancestral Beings, are the ancient Creational figures. They were the first to move through country, creating landforms, singing and performing ceremonies. These Ancestral Beings did not only take human form. They could be an animal, reptile, an insect or a type of flora.

Jack Dale - Wandjina Arbi Yo Wal Arli

The Ancestors left their life force, their power, in the landscape and in cultural objects. When Aboriginal people today paint their body for ceremony, they use the designs that were also painted on the Ancestral Spirits at the time of the first ceremony.

The actions and behaviours of the Ancestors provide models for human and non-human activity, social behaviour, ethics and morality. Dreamtime stories identify both appropriate and inappropriate human behaviours.

You’ll notice that the Dreaming Ancestors frequently behave badly, acting as what could be described as “negative exemplars”. The Dreamtime stories are not always happy stories, but there is always something to be learned from them.

How are Dreamtime stories learnt and taught?

Dreamtime stories are there for the telling, but they are communicated in a number of different ways to different people. ‘Outside’ versions are public and known to all. Some of these are especially suitable for children, while others may be ‘just so’ stories or moral tales. The most important versions of the stories, generally called ‘inside’ knowledge, tend to be restricted to senior men and women.

Additionally, each person’s life has its own unique trajectory marked by characteristics of age, gender and family affiliation (also known as kinship). These factors determine which stories and which version of the story will be revealed to them. Scroll down to read about an example of the complex ownership and custodianship of Dreamtime stories within Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal people inherit their Dreamings. They have the responsibility to reproduce and maintain them by performing ceremonies and other methods as prescribed by the Ancestral Beings.

It is important to note that no Indigenous person owns a Dreaming story. They are simply the appointed custodian at this moment in time. There are places which are managed jointly by men and women, other places to which men may go but they do not know the full meaning, other are places where men may never go.

The Dreamtime stories are the principal method of intergenerational knowledge transmission, and amazingly it traditionally occurred entirely by word of mouth. This is because Australian Aboriginal people had no written language, so all important information was transmitted verbally.

In the old days, people would have learnt about the Dreamtime stories while on Country – on the site where the story took place and where the ancestors left their presence. In Central Australia, this process is often referred to as ‘going through Law’.

When going through Law, the elders take the young people onto country to show them the landforms and explain the stories.  If we pause to consider this, it becomes immediately apparent why the country and having access to it is so important to Aboriginal people.

Participating in ceremony was also an important opportunity to hear the songs and learn the ancient mark-makings. This performance of knowledge can be seen as a performance of identification and responsibility.

Dreamtime stories are usually fleshed out as a person grows up, with layers upon layers of meaning added. Artist Charmaine Pwerle discusses this process in a series of video interviews featured on our Awelye Dreaming page (link above).

Today, painting is one of the many new mediums used by Elders to pass on Dreamtime stories. As artists mark out the features in the landscape, they can explain to the youngsters watching and sing the stories of the land. The children can listen and learn.

Painting has become an important way of sharing culture and the Dreamtime with the younger generation. Scroll down to our section ‘The Dreamtime in Aboriginal Art’ where we discuss this point more.

The Dreamtime stories we are told are by no means the highest-level story as would be told between initiated men and women. They are the version that Indigenous people are allowed (and willing) to share with non-Indigenous people.

Often the men in an Aboriginal community do not know the intimate details of the women's Dreamings and vice versa. We cannot expect to be privy to this information which is protected by those authorised to know it. However, the stories that are available are interesting nonetheless, and give us some fascinating insights.

Songlines – the paths followed by the Dreaming Ancestors

As mentioned elsewhere, Australian Aboriginal people have no written language of their own, so all important information was transmitted verbally. Ceremonial Songs held great knowledge, and Songlines connected language groups and clans from one side of the country to the other.

If we take the example of the Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story, the central character travels great distances across Australia. From Wangkathaa and Martu Country in the west, through to Warlpiri and Anmatyerre Country in the north, and down to the remote tri-state environment of the NPY Lands.

The protagonist’s cross-country travels take him through many different clans.  Each clan knows what happened to this Ancestral Being while on their Country in great detail, almost like a ‘chapter’ out of this great tale. During a big ceremony, when clans would come together, the entire story would be sung.

Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi-Seven Sisters Deaming

Ownership and Custodianship of Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories

An example of the incredible complexity of Aboriginal culture is the concept of ownership vs custodianship of the Dreamtime stories. As mentioned earlier, Dreaming stories, sites, and associated rituals are inherited and managed along complex lines of subsection and kinship association.

One level of this complex kinship system can be seen by the Warlpiri people in Australia’s Northern Territory. For the Warlpiri, there are two groups of people involved in the re-enactment of the Dreamtime stories: the Kirda (bosses) and the Kurdungurlu (policeman).

For each Dreaming, there will be one group of people who are Kirda and another who are Kurdungurlu. The Kirda relationship to Country is inherited from a person’s father’s side, and the Kurdungurlu’s rights derive from their mother’s fathers’ side.

A particular Dreaming may be inherited by the Kirda, and it is their responsibility for the maintenance and well-being of the land and its people by performing ceremonies. The Kurdungurlu are like managers and will ensure they ‘get it right’. If they believe mistakes are being made, the Kurdungurlu will provide advice. 

In one way, you could see the Kurdungurlu as a safe-guard measure to ensure cultural memory and that important knowledge is maintained.  For example, the Warlpiri people live in mostly arid desert country. So, it is imperative that the Kirda for the Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming) knows the locations of the watering holes, otherwise the entire clan might be doomed!

This system of co-ownership of Dreamings also translates to contemporary Aboriginal art and other cultural expressions. It explains who has the right to depict specific subject matter.

 

Elders – the custodians of Aboriginal Dreaming Stories

An example of the incredible complexity of Aboriginal culture is the concept of ownership vs custodianship of the Dreamtime stories. As mentioned earlier, Dreaming stories, sites, and associated rituals are inherited and managed along complex lines of subsection and kinship association.

One level of this complex kinship system can be seen by the Warlpiri people in Australia’s Northern Territory. For the Warlpiri, there are two groups of people involved in the re-enactment of the Dreamtime stories: the Kirda (bosses) and the Kurdungurlu (policeman).

For each Dreaming, there will be one group of people who are Kirda and another who are Kurdungurlu. The Kirda relationship to Country is inherited from a person’s father’s side, and the Kurdungurlu’s rights derive from their mother’s fathers’ side.

A particular Dreaming may be inherited by the Kirda, and it is their responsibility for the maintenance and well-being of the land and its people by performing ceremonies. The Kurdungurlu are like managers and will ensure they ‘get it right’. If they believe mistakes are being made, the Kurdungurlu will provide advice. 

In one way, you could see the Kurdungurlu as a safe-guard measure to ensure cultural memory and that important knowledge is maintained.  For example, the Warlpiri people live in mostly arid desert country. So, it is imperative that the Kirda for the Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming) knows the locations of the watering holes, otherwise the entire clan might be doomed!

This system of co-ownership of Dreamings also translates to contemporary Aboriginal art and other cultural expressions. It explains who has the right to depict specific subject matter.

 

The Dreamtime in Aboriginal Art

Before European contact, Indigenous Australian art was closely connected with religious ceremony and practise. The designs, patterns and stories were taught to the Aboriginal people by the Ancestors. They were then replicated through dance, song, body paint for ceremonies, rock art and on cultural objects.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa - Water Dreaming

As mentioned previously, many stories relate to landforms which mean many stories are location specific. When going through Law, the elders take the young people onto country to show them the landforms and explain the stories. Since European contact, Aboriginal people have been affected by government policies that have removed them from their country.

This was particularly true for the Pintupi people, who were transported to the community of Papunya. The elders faced huge cultural uncertainty, not knowing how they could pass on Law and culture without physical reference to landforms and the stories that go with them.

In the early 1970s, when the Pintupi people at Papunya had the opportunity to paint using western materials such as acrylic paint and canvas, it is not surprising that many depicted the Dreaming stories. It was a way to assert their identity and ensure their stories were taught to the younger generation.

It is also not surprising then that the Aboriginal Art Movement flourished during the Homelands Movement. During the 1970s small groups of Aboriginal people left the mission-run larger communities, such as Papunya, and moved back to their traditional and often remote land. As the old saying goes, ‘there’s no place like home’ and many Aboriginal artists experienced a creative explosion once returning to their country.

To this day, the central inspiration for many Aboriginal artists is the Dreaming. Mark making from rock art and ceremonial life continues as the reference point and structure behind much contemporary art. Aboriginal art continues to express Indigenous beliefs and cosmology, and people’s hope and aspirations in a changing world. 

Related Topics:

The Rainbow Serpent
Dreamtime Stories
Aboriginal Art Symbols
History of the Aboriginal Art Movement