In Western culture, dreams hold different weight for different people. Some of us examine our REM reveries to make sense of our daily lives; others see a dream as a real place, one they can visit and interact with its inhabitants. Still others see dreams as nothing more than a fluttering of subconscious gibberish. For most people, however, one thing is certain: A firm line of demarcation separates the dream world from the real one.
No such line exists for Australia’s aboriginal people. Their complex belief system is based on the fact that the world was formed in the dreams of the the Creator. Every feature of the earth, they believe, exists in both realms — in a place called "The Dreamtime." Only by looking at the realms together can someone fully understand their ancestry and place in the world. The dream of the creator is an ongoing mythic reality that's overlaid onto features of the earth and points the way to cultural touchpoints and truths embedded in the land. For aborigines, dreams and reality are one.
Some scientists believe that Australia’s aborigines have the world’s oldest surviving culture. Stone tool technology and red ochre pigment (which they still use today) date back to more than 60,000 years ago. Dreamtime beliefs may also be among the oldest around. Seven-thousand-year-old rock paintings of the rainbow serpent — an important figure in their mythos — were discovered in the Kakadu National Park region.
Australia’s indigenous people were, prior to the arrival of Europeans, a diverse group of nomadic hunter-gatherers that moved around to follow seasonal shifts and animal migrations. Though they numbered less than a million before making contact with Europeans, they boasted more than 250 spoken languages and upwards of 900 distinct regional groups. As Australian author James Cowan points out about Australian aboriginal traditions in the book “Aborigine Dreaming: An Introduction to the Wisdom and Thought," not much is known about aboriginal history before European contact because their culture was strictly oral. And without written records to dissect, our knowledge of their world primarily comes from rock paintings and from what they passed down: Dreamtime myths.
What is the Dreamtime?
The Dreamtime refers to the mythic original period of time when the creator formed the earth in a dream. It also refers to the ongoing reality of that original time, overlaid across the landscape like an annotated key placed over a map, as well as to the practices — such as rituals and ceremonies — that transport aboriginal people to original time.
The concept is difficult to describe in its entirety. In “After the Dreaming," a seminal exploration of Dreamtime by Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, it's referred to as a “complex of meanings." Simplified, the Dreamtime is the creation story of both the earth’s topography and the continuous state of primeval time, as well as the code for appropriate human conduct within the cosmos. In short, all life is bound in the dreaming world.
In the beginning, according to aboriginal mythos, the world existed as a vast and featureless plain. Then the creator had a dream in which the first beings emerged from the ground and came down from the sky. As the creatures wandered through the dream, their actions formed Australia’s topography. A riverbed, for example, formed in the space where a fertile snake man-slash-woman slithered through a valley. While fleeing the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades constellation), a whale moved through water with such force that his shoulders pushed up cliffs. And a battle between ants and wallabies kicked up dirt to make a series of low hills.
At the end of the Dreamtime, these totemic spirit creatures returned whence they came. But their actions changed the topography, leaving the once-featureless landscape with distinguishing physical marks.
The aboriginal people reproduce the wanderings of their mythic “ancestors" and assign especial significants to certain points along the ancestral pathways. To harvest food, they retrace the path of a mythological lizard who disgorged seeds that became vegetables. On another journey, a carpet snake created a womb-like cave while giving birth, providing a hidden sanctuary for tribal initiation rites. These sacred spots helped define rituals, such as ceremonial dances at which members don body paint and costumes.
Aborigines interpret dreams as memories of the original time. But that’s not their primary means of accessing the Dreamtime. During ceremonies and ritual activities, they straddle the dream world and the real world and so do the physical features of the land. For example, an aborigine might perceive a standing stone as a remnant of original time in the form of a digging stick — a kind of prehistoric plow — left by a Wallaby ancestor whose wanderings created that specific feature of the land.
Wade Davis, one of the world’s most influential anthropologists, has traveled the globe living with and studying indigenous peoples. Also a trained ethnobotanist, Davis has written or edited over a dozen books, and additionally produced or co-written at least a half dozen well-known documentaries. In 2008, Davis spent time in the Northern Territory of Australia working on a film about the Dreamtime. “The aboriginal mind embraces reality on two different levels,” he said in 2010 NPR interview. “On one hand, there’s the realm of the phenomenological, and there’s also the realm of the Dreaming. So the world both exists as you see it before your feet, but it is always waiting to be born in the realm of the Dreaming.”
For the aboriginal people, both worlds are real. The standing stone and mythic digging stick exist simultaneously in both. So too does the person viewing them.
One of the best examples of a dreaming tale is that of the Perentie Lizard man told by the Pitjantjatjara people of Angatja in Central Australia. One day, as the Lizard Man stood grinding wild pigweed to make cakes from the seeds, he heard the sound of another grindstone, clearly a better one than his own. He traveled to the nearby camp of another lizard tribe, and stealthily made off with the superior grindstone, but not without escaping the notice of his neighbors. They pursued him and, ultimately, killed him before he reached home.
In the Lizard Man’s death, a food supply for generations of people was created. As he ran away, the creature regurgitated grass and vegetable seeds that would later become sustenance for the tribes who retraced his path. Each year, people of the Perentie Lizard visit the spot to gather these crops.
The Lizard Man also vomited up mistletoe berries, which now appear as rocks that look like the fruit. Local people rub these rocks before rainfall to ensure abundance of the edible berries. In the place where he died, a line of rocks marked with circular indentations — that look like lizard skin — show where his spirit turned to stone. The Perentie Lizard Man’s saga remains written in the land along a path that people who consider him their ancestor still walk, a Dreaming track called a Songline.
Walking the Songlines
The paths that exist in the wake of every one of the mythic ancestors, such as the Perentie Lizard Man or the Hare Wallaby, criss-cross Australia, accounting for every valley, hill, creek and other geological feature that remains unchanged by the modern world. Guboo Ted Thomas, an Yuin Tribal elder born in 1909 who claimed to be the last initiated tribal elder of the South Coast, explained them in a 1986 interview in “Towards an Archeology of the Soul”. “Where you have cleared the land…the spirits go back to the trees then, to the woods and wait there,” he said.
The paths through country, called Songlines, are literally maps written in song. The Perentie Lizard Man’s story can be retold by tracing the path and singing the features he created: Notes indicating the stones that were seeds he regurgitated, notes where his struggles with the neighboring clan threw up mounds of earth, notes for the rocks that show where he died. Dreamtime songs are arranged in couplets, echoes of the footsteps of the original beings — a line for each footfall, two lines for a full step.
The rhythm of the lines imitates the ancestor’s walk. Where the Lizard Man dragged his heels across the salt flats at Lake Eyre, for example, the tune reflects his movements with long, low musical flats. Where he scampered over the MacDonnell escarpments — now parkland in Central Australia — the song also scampers with glissandos and arpeggios. But for all these variations, the tune stays constant. Any people of the same upbringing would recognize the song. Even if they didn’t understand the language of someone else of the same background (a definite possibility), someone adept at reading the map of the song would be able to identify what specific land features were being sung if they saw the topography.
Songs stretch on for miles across the terrain; some lines even cover hundreds of miles. Since pre-contact aboriginal culture had an oral tradition, the Dreaming songs also served as maps and instructions about such information as when and where to harvest. All were part of aboriginal education and initiation.
During phases of initiation, boys and men travel the Songlines, singing creation back into being. When walking the Songlines, initiates understand themselves as existing simultaneously in this world — our shared reality of trees and hills and rocks — and in the creator’s dream, the ever-existing realm of original time, what Stanner calls “everywhen”. Every inch of the landscape of country exists in both material and spiritual realms at the same time. This is understood as a literal bilocation, not merely a metaphoric idea.
Following the path of the Perentie Lizard Man (or, as it pertains to other tribes, the Hare Wallaby, the Kangaroo, the Honey Ant) and singing the story of their wanderings is also an act of singing the land into continued existence. By walking the Songlines and reciting the stories associated with them, the people keep the myths alive and also, they believe, continuously re-form the landscape, preventing it from returning to the featureless void of the time before the Dreamtime.
“The entire thrust of human intellectual and spiritual effort is not to change the world or to change yourself, but to do completely the opposite,” Davis reported to Steve Paulson on “To The Best of our Knowledge.” “To engage in ritual and ceremonial gestures that are deemed to be essential is to keep the world exactly as it was at the time of the first dawning.” Walking the Songlines is not just entering in the time of creation — it is the act of recreating.
Australian aboriginal people are born into their Dreamings, a gesture of fate that determines some of their most intimate relationships.
It’s possible to have more than one Dreamtime. Someone might, for example, belong to both a Dingo and an Orca tribe. These alliances can be determined by region or relation; your family or tribe might all perform Dingo ceremonies.
Affiliation also comes about through more esoteric means. When the totemic ancestors walked their pre-historic paths and created the Songlines, they left behind not only formations of earth but also spiritual seeds of sorts, proto-spirit children to be born later of human women. A pregnant woman who feels her baby kick for the first time marks the spot and goes and consults with the elders of her tribe to determine on what Songline the child’s first movement occurred. This ancestor’s life force has entered her womb, producing a spirit conception that places the child in the ancestor’s Dreaming. Basically, the ancestor has spiritually impregnated her. For example, if a baby kicks on the path of the orca, the child is born into an orca Dreaming. Elders called to the scene also determine specific stanzas of the song that makes up the relevant Songline that will become the child’s responsibility.
The sacred activities associated with a Dreaming depend on nomadic movement. Over the course of the year, seasonal migrations bring groups to particular places along a Songline at specific times to perform ceremonies or ritual activities (such as rubbing the Lizard Man’s vomited up seed-rocks before the growing season). Songlines also play an important role for nomadic clans by providing maps for their cyclical wanderings, assuring the ability to return to particular locations — maybe where a certain type of food grew, or where water sources could be found. Australian aboriginal art became popular in the 1980s, much of which depicts Dreaming maps.
The Rite of Walkabout
One of the most important aboriginal rites of passage, at least for men, is walkabout — a journey that traverses an entire Songline. This important ritual, which involves living alone in the wilderness for periods as long as six months, marks passage into manhood. Armed only with the song-as-map and the advice of elders, the walker sets off to travel the entire path his or her ancestor took in the dream of the creator. The way may run longer than 100 miles.
On the journey, the practitioner sings the correct songs, enacts the designated rituals, and uses body painting suitable to different important spots. A ritually important place might signify the meeting of two ancestors. At such locations, walkers sometimes enact rituals devoted to a totemic being not of their Dreaming. Perhaps someone of the Wallaby Dreaming greets Rainbow Serpent by performing a special rite there, acknowledging the meeting that happened in the original Dreamtime.
The Dreamtime’s Place in the Modern World
Up until the middle of the 20th century, most Australian aboriginal people still led a nomadic existence. As hunter gatherers, they relied completely on the environment. Constantly steeped in singing to recreate a palimpsest of rocks and river, ancient lizard corpses and the trails of the rainbow serpent, their lives were completely intertwined with a mythic landscape. The modern world encroached on their world, however, and the aborigines were settled into communities run by the Australian government. Their world was never the same.
The songs and other rituals still get taught. Modern versions of the myths are available in collections such as “Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories: Newly Recorded stories from the Aboriginal Elders of Central Australia”. Nowadays, however, instead of living immersed in the Dreamtime, they visit it for ritual. Instead of comprising their whole existence, it has become more like going to church.
Curator and documentarian David Betz lived with a community of Walpiri people in Yuendumu, a remote town in the Northern Territory of Australia that is the largest Walpiri settlement. With some of the last people still alive from the nomadic generation, he made a documentary called “Singing the Milky Way” that explores the old ways.
“This is a culture in transition”, he said. “Over the course of the 20th century, as the people became settled and had to deal with a new reality paradigm, they became part of the welfare state. Their whole experience was based on being at specific places in the landscape where the mythologies were alive. Now they don’t live in those places. They live with one foot uneasily in both worlds.”
The Dreamtime has, sadly, changed. The people once lived simultaneously in the environment of topographical features and the ever present mythic realm of the Dreamtime, constantly singing the reality of the creator’s dream back into existence. Now they must only venture into it sparingly, recreating their culture whenever the rest of the world allows.