Adventures in Aboriginal Dreamtime
April 27, 2014 § 5 Comments
[Colleen Wallace Nungari, “Dreamtime Sisters”]
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home. ” ~ Aboriginal Proverb
“‘The Dreaming’ or ‘the Dreamtime’ indicates a psychic state in which or during which contact is made with the ancestral spirits, or the Law, or that special period of the beginning.” ~ Mudrooroo
“Those who lose Dreaming are lost.” ~ Aboriginal Proverb
Dreamtime, or “The Dreaming,” is a spiritual concept of the Australian Aboriginal tribal peoples. To define Dreamtime is a bit tricky, as there are several ways in which the word is used. Meanings vary from tribe to tribe, but the basic concepts appear consistent.
The Dreamtime refers to a source dimension beyond time & space, which exists alongside the linear world of humans, where the ancestors & creator spirits dwell. The Aborigines call it the “all-at-once” time—referring to the mundane world as the “one-thing-after-another” time. People emerge from the Dreaming into physical reality when they are born, visit in dreams & visionary states, & return after physical death. An essential part of each person exists eternally in Dreamtime. Aboriginal cosmology includes transmigration of the soul, otherwise known as reincarnation. A human might return again into the family of man, or as an animal. “The Eora/Dharawal Aborigines believed in transmigration…For example during the 1830s Quaker James Backhouse toured the Illawarra district and recorded that some Aboriginal men were mortified when some Europeans shot and killed some dolphins. The Aborigines of the area believed that after death, their warriors became dolphins. This belief was bolstered by the habit of dolphins to herd fish and to protect people from shark attacks.” (Australian Aboriginals.)
[Dolphins with Jellyfish by Peggy Quinlan]
According to Aboriginal mythology, our world (physical life on earth) was “dreamed” by the ancestor spirits who dwell in Dreamtime. The Dreaming or Dreamtime also refers to a sacred era of creation. “Ancestor beings rose and roamed the initially barren land, fought and loved, and created the land’s features as we see them today. After creating the ‘sacred world’ the spiritual beings turned into rocks or trees or a part of the landscape. These became sacred places, to be seen only by initiated men.” (Aboriginal Art.) “The landscape is almost an externalisation of the individual’s inner world. Each tribe had a traditional area of the land which was theirs alone,” notes dream scholar Tony Crisp in his article “Australian Aboriginal Dream Beliefs.” Additionally, an individual’s Dreaming can refer to their cultural identity & spiritual allegiance. “Each Aboriginal person identifies with a specific Dreaming,” relates Aboriginal artist Paddy Japaljarri Stewart. “It gives them identity, dictates how they express their spirituality and tells them which other Aboriginal people are related to them in a close family, because those share the same Dreaming. One person can have multiple Dreamings.” (What Is the Dreamtime?) For example, an Aboriginal person might identify as having “Wallaby Dreaming.” As I understand it, this concept is similar to the Native American relationship to spirit animals or totemic allies in that it may have been received in a vision, although it also may have been inherited as a family totem. One having Wallaby Dreaming will draw upon the Wallaby’s spirit for guidance.
“Studies have shown that ancient people experienced what is called an undifferentiated state of mind,” relates Tony Crisp. “Their sense of being a separate and independent person was much less than is commonly experienced in modern life. They did not separate their religious life, their social life, their economic life, their artistic life and their sexual life from each other.”
This oneness-oriented or pantheistic worldview is held by most ancient peoples—it is only the Western world & modern man who has increasingly cut himself off from his surroundings, other creatures & his fellow man, feeling so separate as to breed an epidemic of disconnection. Yet, we strain against this isolation, reaching for what we sense we once knew in what psychonaut-writer Terence McKenna has called “The Archaic Revival“….Modern man’s resurrected interest in the wisdom of ancient cultures.
As highly respected Dhungutti Elder Rueben Kelly states, “Centuries ago you white people chose the path of science and technology. That path will destroy the planet. Our role is to protect the planet. We are hoping you will discover that before it’s too late.” “The experience of Dreamtime, whether through ritual or from dreams, flowed through [into life] in practical ways,” adds Tony Crisp. “The individual who enters the Dreamtime feels no separation between themselves and their ancestors. The strengths and resources of the timeless enter into what is needed in the life of the present. The future is less uncertain because the individual feels their life as a continuum linking past and future in unbroken connection. “Through Dreamtime the limitations of time and space are overcome. It is a much observed feature of aboriginal life that knowledge of distant relatives and their condition is frequently displayed. Therefore if a relative is ill, a distant family member knows this and hurries to them. Often the intuitive knowledge of herbal medicine is gained also.” “For the aborigine tribes,” notes Crisp, “there is no ending of life at ‘death’. Dead relatives are very much a part of continuing life. It is believed that in dreams dead relatives communicate their presence. At times they may bring healing if the dreamer is in pain. Death is seen as part of a cycle of life in which one emerges from Dreamtime through birth, and eventually returns to the timeless, only to emerge again. It is also a common belief that a person leaves their body during sleep, and temporarily enters the Dreamtime. (Australian Aboriginal Dream Beliefs.) A person is also thought to enter the Dreamtime during ceremonies & while listening to or playing ancestral music. “The melodies, tunes, harmonies and rhythms of Aboriginal music included traditional ceremonial songs that were handed down from generation to generation,” notes researcher & author Ellie Crystal. “It was very important in Aboriginal thinking, to replicate the songs that had been first played and sung by the ancestors in the Dreamtime. When the traditional music and songs were used, living men considered themselves to be in the Dreamtime. Particularly during initiation ceremonies.” The idea of this world as a dream is an ancient & fascinating concept, echoed by the Hindu idea of Maya, or “world as illusion,” and the Buddhist concept of Samsara. But unlike these Eastern perspectives, for the Aborigines, there appears no negative connotation to this world being a dream. It is no delusion to be escaped, but rather a sacred experience to be honored & celebrated. It’s simply not the ultimate reality…and everything is connected & related beyond visible boundaries & lines, being all within the same dream.
I’ve had experiences during sacred vision questing where the serendipity & related connectivity of people, animals & events struck me as mind-bendingly improbable when set against the yardstick of our rational materialist worldview; beyond coincidence. If this world is dreamed into existence by timeless primal beings, as the Aborigines—most ancient of peoples—believe, then all our laws of science can still co-exist alongside a larger mystical fluidity. Within the dream, there are laws. Gravity, for instance. Cause & effect. Yet if all exists within the same dream, reality is like a tapestry; there may be an image here of a horse, there of a man, beside him a tree—but their threads interconnect. They are all part of the same living tapestry.
[‘Deer Hunt’ (detail), Netherlands, Circa 1440]
This is scientifically more accurate than our concept of rigid separation & division, as the molecules composing my hand touching a tree are no different than the molecules that make up its rough bark. Though they appear vastly so to the perceiving eye. And the brain categorizes them as worlds apart: tree, man.
But if we are all Dream Beings interacting in the same evolving dream, all players portraying separate roles that yet exist in the same interwoven living tapestry, with common threads, it stands to reason that things are not so fixed as they may feel. While the laws of science remain within the dream, there is no reason why a greater coherence can not express itself at the same time, manifesting as serendipity, connectivity; mystery.
[Peter Muraay Djeripi Mulcahy, Wayamba the Turtle]
The great Sufi Mystic poet, Rumi, wrote a timeless piece on the world-as-dream theme:
The Dream That Must By Interpreted
This place is a dream.
Only a sleeper considers it real.
Then death comes like dawn,
and you wake up laughing
at what you thought was your grief.
But there’s a difference with this dream.
Everything cruel & unconscious
done in the illusion of the present world,
all that does not fade away at the death-waking.
and it must be interpreted.
All the mean laughing,
all the quick, sexual wanting,
those torn coats of Joseph,
they change into powerful wolves
that you must face…
And this groggy time we live,
this is what it’s like:
A man goes to sleep in the town
where he has always lived, and he dreams he’s living
in another town.
In the dream, he doesn’t remember
the town he’s sleeping in his bed in. He believes
the reality of the dream town.
The world is that kind of sleep.
The dust of many crumbled cities
settles over us like a forgetful doze,
but we are older than those cities.
as a mineral. We emerged into plant life
and into the animal state, and then into being human,
and always we have forgotten our former states,
except in early spring when we slightly recall
being green again.
That’s how a young person turns
toward a teacher. That’s how a baby leans
toward the breast, without knowing the secret
of its desire, yet turning instinctively.
Humankind is being led along an evolving course,
through this migration of intelligences,
and though we seem to be sleeping,
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,
and will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are.
“Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.”
*It would be irresponsible to offer these beautiful cultural gems without acknowledging that, despite this rich & sacred heritage, the conditions of modern urban Aborigines are despairingly dystopian—their stigmatization & mistreatment, at the hands of first the British invaders & then the Australian government, echoe the tragic dynamic so often seen when the new world meets the old. Visit Survival International to see how you can help.