The Dreaming

The Dreaming

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.

Psychology and Indigenous Australians Foundations of Cultural Competence

The Dreaming

"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 were 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 apart 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 basic 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.

This rock painting depicts the creation spirit Biame. Creator of all things, this particular image is known to the local Wanaruah people as the Keeper of the Valley.

The Rainbow Serpent is one of the Dreamtime creators. Dreamtime stories can vary between tribes, however the Rainbow Serpent is one of the few common to all. In the Dreaming the world was flat and empty. The rainbow Serpent lay sleeping under the ground. When it was time, she pushed herself up, with all the animals in her belly waiting to be born. Calling to the animals to come from their sleep she threw the land out, making mountains and hills and spilled water over the land, making rivers and lakes. She made the fire and the sun and all the colours. The serpent or snake plays an important role in every culture, sometimes as the Creators or Source of everything other times as the giver of knowledge, sexual energy, spiritual awakener or source of evil. Not only does it connect Aboriginal tribes, it also unites people of all different cultures and walks of life throughout the world.

Further Reading

Living the Dreaming, by Bill Edwards in Aboriginal Australia, An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies, Second Edition (Edited by Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke and Bill Edwards). University of Queensland Press. 1998, 2004.

A few of the points made in the reading:

The first Europeans coming to Australia had preconceived ideas of religion and what it involved (churches, priests, etc). When they could not see these things in Australian Aboriginal communities they presumed Aborigines had “no religious notions or ideas”. These Europeans were wrong.

The Dreaming is difficult for people of western culture to comprehend because western norms such as the idea of linear time are not followed.

The Dreaming is used commonly to describe the Aboriginal creative epoch.

The Dreaming does not assume the creation of the world from nothing.

It assumes a preexistent substance, often described as a watery expanse or a featureless plain. From this substance spirit beings emerged and formed creatures often made up of various humans, plants and animals. These creatures roamed the land, doing this they created what is now the land, e.g. “the winding track of a serpent became a watercourse”.

The entire Australian continent is dotted with sites that are sacred to different Aboriginal groups, this is because these spirit creatures are thought to have created and formed these sites with their actions in the Dreaming.

Aborigines are aware of the Dreaming in there every day life, e.g. upon approaching a waterhole an Aborigine might throw a stone into the water to alert the spirit of a water serpent that he/she is approaching. He/she would do this because of a real fear that a water serpent might attack them should they not alert it of their approach.

Relationships are extremely important in Aboriginal communities, everyone knows what type of relationship they have with other members of the community, these relationships are often based on relationships accorded to the spirits of the Dreaming.



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'.

Psychology and Indigenous Australians Foundations of Cultural Competence

Creating and re-creating life

As well as creating the landscape, the ancestral beings also created all the life forms:the birds, the trees, the kangaroos, the ants and all other species (including people). These ancestral beings could change shape or form, from (for example) a red kangaroo, to a person, and then back to a red kangaroo.

When they created life forms they created them in their own image. So, a red kangaroo ancestral being created red kangaroos, but also created people who then shared a common ancestor with all red kangaroos. When we talk about 'totems' or 'totemic relationships', this is what we are talking about-groups of people who share common ancestral links with specific animals. When an Indigenous man says 'That kangaroo is my brother' he means it literally. They have a common ancestor-the red kangaroo ancestral being.

These totemic relationships constitute one of the fundamental determinants of Indigenous identity. We will discuss the concept of totemic relationships in more detail later in this chapter. These ancestral beings, having created the world and all of the life forms, then returned to where they came from. Some returned to the land, some to the sky, some to the waters or seas. However, when they were on the earth they carried a 'life force' with them, which they used to create all the different forms of life. Walbiri people know this life force or 'life spirit' as guruwari. All living beings are alive because they are invested with this guruwari. The guruwari is of the same nature as the being that produced it, and the existence of modern counterparts of the Dreamtime being is directly related to the existence of this guruwari.

The land is the reservoir of this guruwari-when an animal (or person) dies, the guruwari returns to the land. When a new creature is born, it becomes alive because its body has been entered (or quickened) by guruwari emerging from the land. This begins to explain why the land is so important to Indigenous Australians. It is the repository of the life force which is needed to create new life. Without a continuous recycling of guruwari, no new plants, animals or people can be born. One of the potential dangers of mining, of course, is that destroying the land will destroy the guruwari, so ending all life.

Psychology and Indigenous Australians Foundations of Cultural Competence


Sacred sites

This concept of a life force which creates all new life also explains one of the functions of religious ceremony.

Sacred sites are particularly strong sources of this life force. Some of the ceremonies held at sacred sites are a re-creation of the events which created the site during The Dreaming. The re-creation of these events is part of a process of encouraging the life force located at that site to remain active, to keep coming out of the land, and to create new life. If the ceremonies are not performed, the life force will become dormant and no new life will be created.

And indeed, in areas with extensive mining, where Indigenous people have been removed from the land, sacred sites have been destroyed, sacred water holes have been polluted and ceremonies are no longer performed, the effects on native flora and fauna are there for everybody to see. How many indigenous species have disappeared since the arrival of Europeans? The Indigenous explanations of why this has occurred may differ from Western scientific explanations, but the evidence certainly supports Aboriginal explanations as well as Western ones.

Psychology and Indigenous Australians Foundations of Cultural Competence

Transmitting The Dreaming

All knowledge comes from The Dreaming and is held in two forms:

A. It is held in the ceremonies (the rock engravings, the ground paintings, the bark paintings, the songs and the dances).

B. 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:

  • accounting for natural phenomena
  • providing maps of the country
  • recording boundaries
  • teaching about the uses of different plants, animals and other resources
  • teaching social mores and rules III providing legitimacy for these rules-where they came from and why
  • providing warnings about the consequences of breaking the law
  • providing entertainment
  • locating the individual within the community and constructing individual identity.

Psychology and Indigenous Australians Foundations of Cultural Competence

'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:

  • initiation
  • body adornment (including red headbands, feathers or bone)
  • tooth revulsion
  • 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.

Psychology and Indigenous Australians Foundations of Cultural Competence

A. First Australians Ep 1 Dreamtime (1 min 40 sec)

Video Dream Time Story