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The Importance Of Dreaming In Australian Aboriginal

Religion Essay, Research Paper

The Dreaming is a term that refers to all that is known and all that is understood by Aboriginal people. It is central to the existence of traditional Aboriginal people and their lifestyle and culture, for it determines their values and beliefs and their relationships with every living creature and every feature of the landscape. It is the way Aboriginal people explain the beginning of life and how everything in their world came into being. It tells of the journeys and the deeds of Spirit Ancestors who made the trees, rocks, waterholes, and rivers, mountains and stars as well as the animals and plants, and whose spirits inhabit these features of the natural world today.

It is the natural world that provides the link between the people and the Dreaming, especially the land (or ‘country’) to which a person belongs. Aboriginal people see themselves as related to, and apart of, this natural world and know its features in intricate detail. This relationship to the natural world carries responsibilities for its survival and continuity so that each person has special obligations to protect and preserve the spirit of the land and the life forms that are a part of it. These obligations may take the form of conservation practices, obeying the law, observing codes of behaviour or involvement in sacred ceremonial activities. The influence of the Dreaming is embedded in every aspect of daily life. The Dreaming permeates song, dance, storytelling, paintings, artefact making, hunting and food gathering activities as well as the social (kinship) system because it provides the framework within which Aborigines live.

An example of the importance of dreaming can bee seen through this language group, The Krantji Kangaroo clan (northern Aranda Aboriginal people). They trace their spiritual lineage to the red kangaroo – this is their totem. To them, the powerful kangaroo is a beloved ancestor, shaper of the landscape, an immortal being of that timeless, instructive, and never-ending epoch of creation and earthly transformation widely known as the Dreamtime.

The most sacred place to the Red Kangaroo clan is a small natural spring known as Krantji. It has long been the traditional duty of each generation of the Red Kangaroo Clan to honour ceremonially this place. This spring is the birthplace and everlasting home of Krantjirinja their Original Ancestor, the leader of their Red Kangaroo clan.

In December 1980, A E Newsome, a wild life biologist and respected authority on the natural history and ecology of the red kangaroo published an article in the journal “Mankind” reporting that the Red Kangaroo Dreaming may in fact have an underlying ecological rationale.

Relying upon living Aboriginal elders and T.G.H Strehlow’s classic Aranda texts, Newsome meticulously pieced together segments of the meandering dreaming trails evoked in certain red kangaroo stories. He matched sacred Aranda sites mentioned in accounts of the mythological journeys of the ancestors with actual physical locations.

Newsome found that Aboriginal tales of the Dreamtime travels of Krantjirinja and other kangaroo ancestors during the Creation Time, revealed a sophisticated grasp of red kangaroo ecology. A map of the ancestors overland trek near Krantji – breathing life and form into the landscapes as they went – corresponded with uncanny correctness to maps of the preferred habitats of red kangaroo, which Newsome had assembled by scientific studies. Conversely, a map of the subterranean portions of the ancestors Dreamtime journeys, during which their radiant powers diminished, corresponded neatly with expanses of desert land largely inhospitable to red kangaroo populations. Newsome concluded that the ancient Aborigines must have been well acquainted with the ecology of the red kangaroo, and appear to have passed that knowledge into the mythology to be hidden by story.

A taboo against hunting red kangaroos in areas surrounding sacred-clan totemic sites like Krantji is, in effect, a potent conservation tool. These sacred places are often located along the overland Dreaming trails of the ancestors, corresponding to prime red kangaroo habitats. Embedded in ancient Aranda spiritual knowledge of the origins and eternal fecundity of the red kangaroo is a potentially powerful environmental ethic that must have ensured, wrote Newsome, that the red kangaroo were protected near their best habitats.

Such an emotional marriage of spirit and ecology is inconceivable without a profound, enduring sensitivity to the real workings of the natural world over great expanses of time. This exemplifies the great importance of dreaming, particularly in this tribe.

Naturally, there are many different kinds of visual art in Aboriginal Australia. Some modern paintings are clearly representational and might depict, for example, totemic ancestors in recognisable forms. Central Australian Aborigines like the Walbiri and Pintupi, however, employ a more abstract style, which to uninformed Europeans appears to be non-representational. Yet the abstract nature of these paintings fits neither into representational categories of art nor into abstract art in the sense that we usually mean it. To understand these paintings, (but not to understand precisely what is being said, what the specific narrative or narratives are, or what each mark might represent, but rather to understand the essence of the works) one has to start from the ways in which Aborigines envision them The Dreaming. Central desert paintings contain the essence of aboriginal thought; by examining them one can begin to gain access to an Aboriginal way of perceiving the world.

Upon examination of these drawings one can see revealing, their ritual and ceremonial function; there is no concept of an end-directed creation producing an artistic object for contemplation. The purpose of the designs is to pass on knowledge by re-telling the stories of the ancestors; by visually re-visiting the topographical sights that the ancestors saw or created during the Dreamtime, the initiate reinforces a connection with his totemic ancestor. In this way Aboriginal art is process-oriented rather than product-oriented, and perhaps is more closely associated with Western notions of dance than painting. And, in fact, for ritual purposes, the drawings are almost always executed in conjunction with dance and song.

The designs are not used as display devices once they are finished or, indeed, while they are being created. They are instead ritual re-enactments of the ancestors Dreamtime travelling which, in Aboriginal mythology, are synonymous with the creation of the world. As the ancestor travelled he or she created the sites of the earth through song, dance and ritual.

From here it is clear to see that, traditionally, Aboriginal people also maintain contact with the Dreaming through their dreams, which are seen to be significant in Aboriginal society just as in many other cultures. Individual dreams might inspire new stories, songs and dances about recent events or provide insights and knowledge about people, places and events of the past, present or future. But these concepts of time do not apply to the Dreaming because it is seen as a continuous ‘whole’ where past, present and future can merge. This means that when a story from the Dreaming is ceremonially re-lived, it is actually being spiritually re-lived.

Without intentionally being Euro centric one might consider that The Dreaming is as important to Aboriginal people as the Bible and the whole ethos of Christian belief are to devout Christians. Each Aboriginal group has a Dreaming of its own although there are often similarities between them. The Pitjantjatjara word for it is ‘Tjukurpa’ but other words are used by different groups and different linguists; for example, ‘Djugurba’. The Dreaming is the most acceptable English word to Aboriginal people. They have asked us to use it rather than terms like ‘mythology’. They have also asked us to use the words ‘Dreaming Story’ rather than ‘myth’, ‘legend’ or ‘fable’.

The Dreaming beliefs are passed on to young people by an interwoven network of stories and ceremony. The stories are a powerful way of educating young children, particularly when storytelling, art, music, and dance are combined. They relate the true Aboriginal link to the Australian environment. They tell of all the aspects of Aboriginal lifestyle and law and explain the creation of the land, the animals and the people. The Dreaming Stories have been passed down through thousands of years and have continued to tell the Aboriginal people how they should behave, what is good and bad and the history of their environment.

They are not ‘fairy stories’ but rather an accurate and valid oral history of Aboriginal people. The Dreaming should be treated with a great reverence and respect.


Edwards, W.H. (1988). An Introduction to Aboriginal Societies, Wentworth Falls, Social Science Press.

Edwards, W.H. (1987). Traditional Aboriginal Society, South Melbourne, Macmillan.

Berndt, C.H. & Berndt, R.M. (1985). The World of the first Australians, Adelaide, Rigby.

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