Video Clip A: First Australians Ep 1 Dreamtime (1 min 40 sec)
Did you know . . .
TICK what you know
Find out more about what you don't know
"The Dreaming" is the belief of many Aboriginal groups that Aboriginal people have been in Australia since the beginning.
During this significant period the ancestral spirits came up out of the earth and down from the sky to walk on the land where they created and shaped its land formations, rivers, mountains, forests and deserts. These were created while the ancestors traveled, hunted and fought. They also created all the people, animals and vegetation that were to be a part of the land and laid down the patterns their lives were to follow. It was the spirit ancestors who gave Aboriginal people the lores, customs and codes of conduct, and who are the source of the songs, dances, designs, languages, and rituals that are the basis of Aboriginal religious expression. These ancestors were spirits who appeared in a variety of forms. When their work was completed the ancestral spirits went back into the earth, the sky and into the animals, land formation, and rivers. The ancestors-beings are ‘alive’ in the spirit of Australian Aboriginals.
Aboriginal people and culture are grounded in a non-European/Western
European/Western world views have at their heart ideas of:
- Progress and change - the world progresses and things improve
- Roles and functions - things get done in society because people have roles and functions.
- Time is linear and measurable
- Counting, measuring, dissecting and analysis
- Written culture
The Dreaming is a different world view. At its heart are ideas of:
- Continuity - things stay the same
- Relationships are how things get done
- We don’t own the land - we care for it - we are custodians
- Whatever we have it is shared with everybody else.
- Holistic and relational
- Oral culture.
Some of the practical effects of coming from a culture grounding in the dreaming, the land and kinship (rather than a European/Western world view) are:
- A more fluid approach to the start and finish times of meetings
- Meeting are gatherings not functional business meetings
- Consultations and conversations can continue to go on even after ‘the decision’ seems to have been made - endings are harder to define.
- People can give away goods provided by service providers because someone else they have kinship ties with needed it more than they did.
- Stories and times for stories are important
- People are holistic (not fragmented functions).
World view & The Dreaming
Each of us has a worldview.
Our worldview provides us with an ordered sense of reality. Our worldview enables us to make sense of what we do and hat we observe in the world and provides us with a sense of certainty and, to some degree at least, predictability. It gives us security because it enables us to interpret what happens in the world in terms of a mental framework that makes sense to us.
The Dreaming is the worldview which structures many Indigenous cultures, providing Indigenous Australians with an ordered sense of reality-a framework for understanding and interpreting the world and the place of humans in that world. This worldview performs three major functions in Indigenous cultures:
- It provides an explanation of creation-how the universe and everything within it came into being.
- It provides a set of blueprints for life-all living forms were created through The Dreaming.
- It provides a set of rules or laws for living. The Dreaming provides rules for social relationships, economic activities, religious activities and ceremonies, and art-in short, the rules governing all activities.
The term 'The Dreaming' is a European term, coined by anthropologists. This use of the term was particularly consolidated by the well-known anthropologist WE. H. Stanner in his 1953 article 'The Dreaming' (reprinted in Stanner, 1979). However, we should note that the concept really has nothing to do with dreaming-although sometimes dreams can convey messages. Different language groups (see below) use their own terms to refer to what Europeans call 'The Dreaming'.
The Dreaming is sometimes referred to as mythology. While technically this is an appropriate term, we should also note that this can be used as a derogatory term as in 'It's just a myth', meaning 'It isn't really true'. The Dreaming is not mythology in this sense of not being true and it isn't about dreams-for many Indigenous Australians it is the truth about the meaning of everything. The Dreaming should always be spelt with a capital 'D' to distinguish it from ordinary dreaming and it can also be preceded by a capital 'The' following the precedent established by Stanner.
Explaining the process of creation
'In the beginning' the land was a flat, featureless, barren plain.
No animals or plants lived on it, and no birds flew over it. However, during The Dreaming ancestral beings, the forerunners of all living species, began stirring and finally emerged from the land, the sea and the sky to begin a series of odysseys which carried them throughout the length and breadth of Australia.
The emergence and the subsequent travels of these beings, which were notable for frequent fights, lovemaking, and mystical changes in shape and form, resulted in the formation of the topography of the Australian landscape. The rivers, the mountains, the sand hills, the rocks and the lakes were all created during these travels, as these beings left their imprint on the landscape.
The landscape was also shaped by ceremonies performed by these ancestral beings as they recalled their wanderings and feats in dance and song. The remnants of these ceremonies (decorations, feathers, dried blood, stone chips, etc.) turned into rocks, trees and plants which may still be seen. For example, blood from wounds incurred in battles became deposits of red ochre, and parts of bodies hewn off became trees or rock outcrops. The places where these major events left their imprints on the landscape are typically described as 'sacred sites' or 'sites of significance'.
Transmitting The Dreaming
All knowledge comes from The Dreaming and is held in two forms: III It is held in the ceremonies (the rock engravings, the ground paintings, the bark paintings, the songs and the dances). III It is also held, and expressed, in story. Indigenous cultures were structured as oral cultures. The stories were not written down-they were told, taught, remembered and retold. The telling of Story is a central element of the process of teaching The Dreaming and the rules laid down by The Dreaming. Stories are not simply children's stories about 'How the emu lost its wings'. The telling of Story is the vehicle for many other functions relating to teaching The Dreaming and The Law, including: l!I accounting for natural phenomena III providing maps of the country III recording boundaries III teaching about the uses of different plants, animals and other resources III teaching social mores and rules III providing legitimacy for these rules-where they came from and why III providing warnings about the consequences of breaking the law III providing entertainment III locating the individual within the community and constructing individual identity.
'Going through The Law'
A further, much more formal process of learning about The Dreaming is often described as 'Going through The Law'. Once young men and women reach a certain age (which varies between different groups, but is typically around puberty) they begin a lifelong process of learning the knowledge of The Dreaming. This is a highly structured, formalised and controlled process.
Remember-the land is alive and is powerful. The ancestral beings are powerful. They continue to reside in the land and they can still exert influence. Because ceremony, and knowledge about ceremony, can provide access to that power it can be dangerous and must only be acquired by wise, responsible and trustworthy people. Knowledge is therefore arranged hierarchically, from the public knowledge which everybody in the community must have access to, through to highly secret knowledge which only a few senior people have access to.
This knowledge is revealed carefully, in a highly controlled series of stages. How far an individual moves through this hierarchy depends on how trustworthy they are considered to be by the Elders. The further through the hierarchy a person moves, the greater power and authority they have. This is a highly structured process, undertaken in secret and accompanied by ceremony and ritual. As an individual moves through these stages, they are marked by a range of signs or symbols of rank or authority. These signs vary across different language groups but might include, for example:
- body adornment (including red headbands, feathers or bone)
- tooth evulsion
- body scarring (cicatrisation).
This is a hierarchical society in which authority is vested increasingly in those who have progressed further through the system, with these symbols providing public acknowledgment of authority and status.