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In Australian Aboriginal mythology, The Dreaming or Altjeringa (also called the Dreamtime) is a sacred 'once upon a time' in which ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings formed The Creation.

Fred Alan Wolf opens chapter nine of The Dreaming Universe (1994) entitled The Dreamtime with a quote from The Last Wave, a film by Peter Weir:
Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the "dreamtime", more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime.

The Dreaming

"Dreaming" is also often used to refer to an individual's or group's set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an Indigenous Australian might say that they have Kangaroo Dreaming, or Shark Dreaming, or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their "country". However, many Indigenous Australians also refer to the creation time as "The Dreaming". The Dreamtime laid down the patterns of life for the Aboriginal people.

Dreaming stories vary throughout Australia, and there are different versions on the same theme. For example, the story of how the birds got their colours is different in New South Walesmarker and in Western Australiamarker . Stories cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation, and which pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian's life.

They believe that every person in an essential way exists eternally in the Dreaming. This eternal part 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 5th 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 taught of 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."

It was believed that, before humans, animals, and plants came into being, their 'souls' existed by themselves; they knew they would become physical, but not when. When that time came, all but one of the 'souls' became plants or animals, with the last one becoming human and acting as a custodian or guardian to the natural world around them.

Traditional Australian indigenous peoples embrace all phenomena and life as part of a vast and complex system-reticulum of relationships which can be traced directly back to the ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings of The Dreaming. This structure of relations, including food taboos, was important to the maintenance of the biological diversity of the indigenous environment and may have contributed to the prevention of overhunting of particular species.

The Dreaming, Tribal Law, and Songlines

The Dreaming establishes the structures of society, rules for social behaviour, and the ceremonies performed in order to ensure continuity of life and land. The Dreaming governs the laws of community, cultural lore and how people are required to behave in their communities. The condition that is The Dreaming is met when people live according to law, and live the lore: perpetuating initiations and Dreaming transmissions or lineages, singing the songs, dancing the dances, telling the stories, painting the Songlines and Dreamings.

The creation was believed to be the work of culture heroes who in the creative epoch travelled across a formless land, creating sacred sites and significant places of interest in their travels. In this way songlines were established, some of which could travel right across Australia, through as many as six to ten different language groupings. The songs and dances of a particular songline were kept alive and frequently performed at large gatherings, organised in good seasons.

In the Aboriginal world view, every event leaves a record in the land. Everything in the natural world is a result of the actions of the archetypal beings, beings whose actions created the world. Whilst Europeans consider these cultural ancestors to be mythical many Aboriginal people believe in their literal existence. The meaning and significance of particular places and creatures is wedded to their origin in the Dreaming, and certain places have a particular potency, which the Aborigines call its dreaming. In this dreaming resides the sacredness of the earth. For example in Perthmarker, the Noongar believe that the Darling Scarp is said to represent the body of a Wagyl – a serpent being that meandered over the land creating rivers, waterways and lakes. It is taught that the Wagyl created the Swan Rivermarker. In another example, the Gagudju people of Arnhemlandmarker, for which Kakadumarker National Park is named, believe that the sandstone escarpment which 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, eventually turning to stone and becoming the escarpment. The common theme in these examples and others like them, is that topographical features are either the physical embodiments of creator beings themselves or are the results of their activity.

In one version (there are many Aboriginal cultures) Altjira was the god of the Dreamtime; he created the Earth and then retired as the Dreamtime vanished. Alternative names for Altjira in other Australian languages include Alchera (Arrernte), Alcheringa, Mura-mura (Dieri), and Tjukurpa (Pitjantjatjara).

The dreaming and travelling trails of the Spirit Beings are the songlines (or "Yiri" in the Warlpiri language). The signs of the Spirit Beings may be of spiritual essence, physical remains such as petrosomatoglyphs of body impressions or footprints, amongst natural and elemental simulacrae. To cite an example, the Yarralin people of the Victoria River Valley venerate the spirit Walujapi as the Dreaming Spirit of the black-headed python. Walujapi carved a snakelike track along a cliff-face and deposited an impression of her buttocks when she sat establishing camp. Both these dreaming signs are currently discernible.

Dreamtime in creative art



Also, the 1986 film with Henry Thomas (E.T.) titled "Frog Dreaming" (renamed "The Quest" in the USA) included certain aspects of aboriginal Dreaming.


The MTV animated series The Maxx predominantly revolved around dreamtime elements.

Other media

"Project Alchera" from the computer game Dreamfall: The Longest Journey draws heavily from the concept of Dreamtime, as well as from other Aboriginal mythologies.

During the 1980s, the UKmarker band The Stranglers recorded an album called Dreamtime and its title track in particular was inspired by the Aboriginal concept.

In the episode "Walkabout" of the animated series Gargoyles, an Aborigine 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.

In the Big Finish Production of "Dreamtime" has the 7th Doctor dealing Aborigine mysticism and Ayers Rock.

Kate Bush's 1982 Album is entitled The Dreaming. The title track deals with the upheaval of the Aborigine people.

In the episode "In the Dreamtime; The Unfair Pair" of the animated series "Rugrats", Chuckie experiences wild dreams. As a result, he becomes confused about what is and is not a dream. The title is clearly a reference to The Dreamtime.

Daryl Hall had a hit song called "Dreamtime" in 1985.

The Dreamtime Rugby League team is a team of the best aboriginal players that plays certain exhibition matches.

In the video game Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, used by a small kola character simply known as Guru who becomes a member of Sly's team.

See also


  1. The English phrase 'once upon a time' is employed in a culturally sensitive and intentional manner as it is frequently used in oral storytelling, such as retellings of myths, fables, and folklore.
  2. The Australian Aboriginal dreamtime: an account of its history, cosmogenesis, cosmology and ontology
  3. Bates, Daisy (1996), "Aboriginal Perth and Bibbulmun biographies and legends" (Hesperion Press)
  4. 'Fella' is a colloquial contraction of 'fellow', though like the Australian colloquial usage of 'guys', often refers to women as well as men.

Other sources

  • Wolf, Fred Alan (1994). The Dreaming Universe: a mind-expanding journey into the realm where psyche and physics meet. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-74946-3
  • Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History. Compiled and edited by Jennifer Isaacs. (1980) Lansdowne Press. Sydney. ISBN 0-7018-1330X
  • C. Elbadawi, I. Douglas, The Dreamtime: A link to the past
  • Max Charlesworth, Howard Murphy, Diane Bell and Kenneth Maddock, 'Introduction' in Religion In Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology, University of Queensland Press, Queensland, Australia, 1984.
  • Anna Voigt and Neville Drury (1997). Wisdom Of The Earth: the living legacy of the Aboriginal dreamtime. Simon & Schuster, East Roseville, NSW, Australia.
  • W.H. Stanner, After The Dreaming, Boyer Lecture Series, ABC 1968.
  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin and Francis James Gillen (1899; 1968). The Native Tribes of Central Australia. New York, Dover.
  • Stanner, Bill (1979). White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University Press.
  • Lawlor, Robert (1991). Voices Of The First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal dreamtime. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Ltd. ISBN 0-89281-355-5

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