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In the animist framework of Australian Aboriginal mythology, The Dreaming or Altjeringa (also called the Dreamtime) is a sacred 'once upon a time' [1] in which ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings formed The Creation.

Fred Alan Wolf opens "The Dreamtime", a chapter in his book The Dreaming Universe (1994), with a quote from The Last Wave (1977), an Australian film directed 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 of the Aboriginal times

"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 he or she has Kangaroo Dreaming, or Shark Dreaming, or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their "country". Many Indigenous Australians also refer to the Creation time as "The Dreaming". The Dreamtime laid down the patterns of life for the Aboriginal people.[2]

Dreaming stories vary throughout Australia, with variations on the same theme. For example, the story of how the birds got their colours is different in New South Wales and in Western Australia[citation needed]. 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. It pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian's life.

They believe that every person essentially 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 fifth month of pregnancy.[3]. 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 his country and is taught 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." [4]

It was believed that, before humans, animals, and plants came into being, their 'souls' existed; 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, had the result of maintaining the biological diversity of the indigenous environment. It may have helped prevent overhunting of particular species.[citation needed]

The Dreaming, Tribal Law, and Songlines

The Dreaming establishes the structures of society, rules for social behavior, and the ceremonies performed 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 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, 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 Perth, 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 River. In another example, the Gagudju people of Arnhemland, for which Kakadu National Park is named, believe that the sandstone escarpment that 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. He turned to stone and became the escarpment. The common theme in these examples and similar ones is that topographical features are either the physical embodiments of creator beings 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 left an impression of her buttocks when she sat establishing camp. Both these dreaming signs are still discernible.

Dreamtime in creative art


Non-native writers and artists have been inspired by Dreamtime concepts.

  • Bruce Chatwin wrote the fiction/ non-fiction blended novel,The Songlines in exploration of some important aboriginal concepts.
  • Alexis Wright's novel Carpentaria weaves Dreaming narrative from the Gulf of Carpentaria through her stories of contemporary Aboriginal characters, a form of Australian magical realism.
  • Tad Williams four-volume science fiction epic Otherland touches upon Dreamtime and other aboriginal myths.
  • Spider Robinson's trilogy Stardance touches upon this in the second volume.
  • Richard McKenna's 1960 speculative fiction novelette, "Fiddler's Green", also touches upon Alcheringa, or Dreamtime.
  • Sam Kieth's comic Maxx relies heavily on the psychology and concept of Dreamtime.
  • Neil Gaiman's graphic novels The Sandman are partially set in "The Dreaming", referred to in early volumes as "Dreamtime", and also reference "Fiddler's Green"
  • Jeff Smith says that aspects of his cartoon/fantasy epic Bone were inspired by Dreamtime, amongst other things.[5]
  • Queenie Chan's manga The Dreaming takes place in Australia and deals with students from a boarding school who mysteriously go missing. Aboriginal legends feature in the series.
  • Sandra McDonald's novels, The Outback Stars and The Stars Down Under, use Aboriginal myth extensively.
  • The Star Trek novel Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonanno has Captain Kirk using Dreamtime to investigate an altered reality.
  • Betty Clawman from DC Comics' New Guardians was an aboriginal girl chosen to be part of the next stage in man's evolution - i.e. the New Guardians. Dreamtime figured in the story.
  • In issues #89-90 of DC Comics' Hellblazer, John Constantine ventures into the Dreamtime.
  • Wildstorm's Planetary issue #15 briefly deals with the Dreamtime.
  • In the graphic novel Y: The Last Man, the protagonist's love interest, Beth, spends time in Australia. Events in the Dreamtime are presented as a possible reason for the worldwide plague that killed almost all male mammals.


  • Walkabout (film) (1970) dealt with an aboriginal ritual passage for young men on the verge of manhood.
  • Peter Weir's The Last Wave dealt with Dreamtime.
  • Frog Dreaming (1986) (renamed The Quest when released 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 UK band The Stranglers recorded an album called Dreamtime, with a title track 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, Doctor Who deals with Aborigine mysticism and Uluru.

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.

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

The Dreamtime Rugby League team is a team of the best aboriginal players, who play certain exhibition matches.

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", Gamahucher Press
  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.
  5. ^ Smith, Jeff. Bone #46, Tenth Anniversary. Self-published. Bone-A–Fides section. 

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

External links

Simple English

In Australian Aboriginal religion, the Dreamtime, also called The Dreaming, had four parts: The beginning of everything; the life and power of the ancestors; the way of life and death; and power in life. Dreamtime was all four of these things at the same time because it is more powerful than time and space. In it all things exist at once. The aborigines call Dreamtime the all-at-once time because they think it is the past, present, and future at the same time.

They meet The Dreamtime by doing special dances and singing special songs. The aborigines believe that people have a part of them that will live forever. This part existed before a person was born and will exist after they die. It exists in The Dreamtime. All Australian Aborigines believe in the Dreamtime. Each tribe has stories that say things about it. Most Aborigines believe that all life is connected to the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime.

The expression Dreamtime is often used to describe the time before time, or the time of the creation.

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