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The Dreaming of the Australian Aborigines

The Dreaming Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis 1992

A major consideration for anyone studying The Dreaming religion of the Australian Aborigines must be the diversity of these native people.  It is estimated that upon European settlement some two centuries ago there were approximately 500 distinct Aboriginal peoples and at least 200 Aboriginal languages. While there were many similarities in beliefs, rites, and stories, there were also significant differences.  It is certainly not possible to speak of one Aboriginal religion as there were many (Charlesworth et. al. 7). But in spite of the differences, at the core of all the variations was The Dreaming and the totemic structure that it spawned.

Another factor is the age of these beliefs, conservatively estimated at 40,000 years. Some people believe the religion to have its beginning 80,000 years ago.  This is an astounding contrast to the two-to-four-thousand-year history of most “major” religions.  In studying Aboriginal beliefs, rituals, and designs for living, we may be gaining insight into the deepest collective memory human beings have maintained (Lawlor 9). This is not to say that Aboriginal culture and religion have not changed in 50,000 years.  They have undoubtedly gone through countless modifications over the millennia, but this is a faith with stringent adherence to the rituals and beliefs of The Dreaming. It is possible to believe the essence of the Aborigine’s faith as we know it is very similar to what existed when the caves of Lascaux were being painted in France.           Another important factor to consider is that until 10,000 years ago all human beings lived as hunter and gatherers, a lifeway that is the still the basis of a few contemporary Australian Aborigines (Lawlor 8). That 10,000-year interval is a brief period of time compared to the 1,000,000 years human beings, probably quite contentedly, were born, lived, worshipped, and died in the economic structure of hunting and gathering. Because Australian Aborigines maintained this hunting and gathering economy they have often been categorized as “primitive ,” “elementary,” or “backward,” and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, “savages.” By 20th century standards the Aboriginal culture is materially “poor.” But this perceived material poverty is balanced with a tremendous spiritual richness that permeates every aspect of their lives.

This richness of religious life is derived from what we call The Dreaming, which refers not to a dream in the Western way of thinking but to an ongoing period of time in which the Aborigines’ Ancestral Beings shaped the world – a process that continues today through the Aborigines’ lives and rituals. The Creative Ancestors came to earth and traveled the surface as the Aborigines do today. They gathered, hunted, made camp, fought, loved, and in doing so, shaped the land into the topography of today. They “dreamed” into existence all the animals and plants; they made the heavenly bodies, the human, tribes, and clans. The Ancestors were metamorphic beings who changed from humans, to animal, to plant, to land form.  When the Creative Ancestors grew tired from their great efforts, they withdrew into the earth, the sky, and the creatures of the earth, where they remain and reverberate with the life force that they created. The following story of the Sleepy Lizard Man, Lunkana, is one of the many creation stories:

During Creation times, an unmarried sleepy lizard  man called Lunkana lived by himself at Ayers Rock.  Despite Aboriginal law about sharing food, he was  so mean that he kept all the meat he caught for  himself.  When he caught emus, he would bring them  secretly back to his camp and eat after dark. His  cooking place became a small rockhole. After a  while the carpet snake people became angry at such  meanness and decided to kill Lunkana.  While he  was asleep in his wet-weather shelter of boughs,  the Kuniya men set fire to it and the lizard died  in agony. The windbreak where he slept was turned  into a cave, the smoke is now a large area of  lichen and the dead body of Lunkana is a low  boulder at the base of the Rock.

The low rock is the increase center for sleepy lizards and is full of Kurunba or the essence of  life of the lizards. by Pitjantjarjara-Yangkuntjatjara, central  Australia (Isaacs 42)

While the Creative Ancestors have now retired, their creation continues to live and evolve through their stories, ceremonies, rituals, symbols, and designs that have been carefully maintained for tens of thousands of years (Lawlor 14- 18). The journeys of the Creative Ancestors are called Dreaming tracks, or songlines, which crisscross the Australian landscape. Every group of Aborigines “owns” a segment of a songline and it is their responsibility to maintain it with an elaborate series of rites and ceremonies to be performed at sites along the songline. The travels of the bands are a cyclic journey recreating the Ancestors’ activities and ceremonies to ensure the continuation of all that the Ancestors made (Lawlor 48). At the ritual sites lengthy cycles of songs and ceremonies are performed where the Ancestors have left the essence of fertility that guarantees the flourishing of the plants and animals created. Songs, mime, and dance sometimes lasting weeks reenact the actions of the Ancestors.  Without these ceremonies the cycle of life could be broken and the cosmos endangered. A group’s claim to an area of songlines is drawn from the original dreaming and is not a physical owning of the land but a spiritual stewardship to maintain purity (Isaacs 87 & 99). The concept of owning land as a material possession is foreign to the Aborigines. There are no words meaning possession in Aboriginal languages (Lawlor 237).

There is a pantheon of Ancestral Beings with names varying greatly from one Aboriginal group to another, but there are three that have some degree of universality throughout the continent: the All-Mother, the All-Father, and the Rainbow Serpent. The All- Mother or Great Earth Mother, the symbol of fertility and creator of life, is particularly dominant in northern Australia. The All- Father is given credit for shaping much of the landscape in southeastern Australia and for instituting many of the cultural aspects of life.  He is still called upon to return to earth during male initiation rites (Isaacs 51 & 58). The Rainbow Serpent is a more complex being with a wide range of meanings and functions for various groups around the country. The serpent is seen as male by some and female by others; sometimes as benevolent, sometimes as wrathful; sometimes as creative, sometimes destructive. In many regions Rainbow Serpents are responsible for many great creation functions during The Dreaming, and they are also believed to be still living in deep waterholes throughout Australia. Some groups perform ceremonies of the serpent, with complex rituals and ground sculpture, that last up to fifty days. Another aspect of the Rainbow Serpent is the snake’s relationship of bestowing power, magic, and new songs to men of high degree.  Through various rituals the serpent takes the postulant both under the water and into the heavens on the rainbow to initiate him to a higher understanding and more profound powers (Buchler & Maddock 59).

The connection of Aborigines to the Creative Ancestors and to one another is complexly and completely formed by a system of totemism. The Creative Ancestors deposited the life forces for each aspect of the cosmos, and each person is given a personal affiliation with a part of that creation, a “totem.” The individual’s totem may be a specific animal or plant or force of nature. A few totems among the thousands are the dingo, honey ant, carpet snake, witchetty grub, bush banana, thunderstorm, emu, water, and kangaroo. People are linked to their totems because they themselves are also a part of that same creative force the totems embody.  This produces a direct connection of humanity, nature, and the gods which are not separate components but part of a single unit. Men and women usually have more than one totem as they are also given totems relating to their families, and some groups also have sex totems and place-of- conception totems (Lawlor 283). The multiple totems create tremendously complex linkages with groups of people of the same totem, adding to an already expansive family kinship group.  The totemic systems weave the individual into unity with many groups of people, with nature, and with the Creative Ancestors.

The Dreaming created the land, the people, the animals, the plants, and the heavens, and it also created the Law. The Law demands a respectful, sensitive adherence to the way of life as shown through the songs and stories of The Dreaming. The stories of The Dreaming show the good and the bad, the violent and the peaceful, the moral and the immoral. Life is created in its totality (Berndt 15).  The rituals and ceremonies established in the songs of The Dreaming form the roles people are to play in the earthly design of The Dreaming.  The Creative Ancestors clearly laid down laws governing the roles of men and women, marriage, children, hunting, gathering, and food distribution (Isaac 157). As neither time nor history, as we think of them, exist to the Aborigines, The Dreaming and its Law is not a historical event, but a contemporary ever-present force forming social organization and behavior (Cowan 26).

Men in the society are seen as the primary guardians of The Dreaming rituals for their group. They have the responsibilities for continuing the sustaining ceremonies, locating the ritual sites, and determining the travel pattern.  Some of the most complex rituals are male initiation ceremonies. Boys grow up in the women’s camp and enjoy nearly total freedom until they are of age, when they are seized and undergo a series a rituals that include a journey, return to the homeland, circumcision, a simulated near-death experience, a seclusion, a second homecoming, and a betrothal, even though actual marriage may be as many as fifteen years away (Lawlor 184-194). A segment of the initiation ritual from North Arnhem Land is described as follows:

…this ceremony makes use of ground painting in  which the first Creative Ancestor is represented by  a large circle of concentric red and white rings,  like a standing wave field.  The red rings are  formed and hardened by earth mixed with blood that  has been ritually extracted from the veins of  initiated men. The white rings are also blood and earth, but thousands of white bird feathers have  been applied to the surface….

The circle is painted on the earth in a remote    sacred place known only to initiated men, at the spot  where the Ancestor is said to have emerged from the  earth in the Dreamtime. The Aborigines described the  events thus: “Though asleep, the ancestor was  thinking. His desires flashed through his mind,  causing animals to emerge from his navel and arm  pits.”

The ceremony proceeds with three initiated men    taking their place in the center of a circle of young  initiated men. The young men lie on the ground,  pressing their ears and chests against the earth. The  tribal elder in the center holds a large, heavy  wooden pole that is also encircled from top to bottom  with red and white colored rings.  It has a crown of  white feathers on top. The elder sits cross-legged  with the pole in front of him; he raises and lowers  it so that it pounds the earth.  The pole is called  Numbakul, which means Eternal Naming. The alternating  red and white colors of the pole, as well as the alternating, thumping sound, represents the principle  of duality that manifests itself in all things, most  transparently in the sexes.

The first line sung to the silent initiates is    “May Numbakul reach to the stomach of the sky.” This  is sung as a mantra, alternating with “The earth is  the stomach of the sky.” As the sun sets the chanting  stops. Assisted by the two men flanking him, the  tribal shaman raises and lowers the pole, thumping  the earth through the night. The silent group of  young initiates lies utterly still and naked,  absorbing and dissolving into the vibratory dream of  the Creative Ancestor pulsating from the earth.  As  dawn approaches, the initiated men, seated quietly in  the surrounding bush, begin to chant as if their  songs arose from the heart-like beat of the pole thumping the earth. The songs tell of the mysteries  of the emergence of life and substance from the  vibratory preformed realm of the Ancestors. (Lawlor  107-8)

Aspects of Aboriginal rituals such as bloodletting, circumcision, subincision (the splitting of the head of the penis, done in a ritual latter in a man’s life), and scarification can be difficult for a Western mind to understand. From an outsider’s perspective understanding requires the individual to move beyond the act of the blood sacrifice to what is being symbolized, to the union of the individual to the group and to the spiritual (Charlesworth et. al.  ed. 151-2). Through ritual The Dreaming is reenacted in all its forms: the dark and the light, the cruel and the beautiful. Ceremony and ritual create the depth and intensity of the people’s unity with the Dreaming (Lawlor 74). The initiation of males is not simply a ceremony; it is the ritual killing of the child and recreating him as a man.  It is making a man, giving him a new outlook on life, new responsibilities, new identity (Berndt 4).

In the complex ceremonies and rituals, art plays an integral role. Sand drawings and paintings, body painting, painted and carved sacred boards and stones, earth sculptures, painting on bark and rocks are all forms that are used, usually in conjunction with each other, to create the connection with Creative Ancestors.  More than that, most of the designs are thought to have been originally produced by the Creative Ancestors themselves. Many of the ancient rock paintings and carvings are thought to be original creations of the Ancestors and they are carefully maintained and renewed (Isaacs 241).

An Aborigine once said, “Women are born from nature, men are made by culture” (Lawlor 181). Women are naturally part of the cycles of The Dreaming. They naturally sacrifice their blood for fertility and the perpetuation of the group. Men on the other hand need to be shaped into harmony with The Dreaming, as shown in the initiation rites previously described. Women’s apparent subservient role in Aboriginal society has been widely discussed and commonly exaggerated. Women’s importance to the economics of the group cannot be exaggerated, as it is women who provide up to eighty percent of the food through gathering and hunting small game (Lawlor 201). Women have a direct relationship with their totemic ancestors and have their own ceremonial grounds where men are not allowed. At the core of women’s ceremonies is emotional management. Their ritual and magic is aimed at nurturing emotions, people, and the country itself. Women see themselves as the caretakers of social harmony (Charlesworth et. al. ed. 215).

Because of the attitude Aborigines have toward children and conception, women do not see their primary function in life as childbearing. Pregnancy is not perceived as a sole result of sexual intercourse, but instead is the result of a spirit child entering the woman or man to be transferred to the woman. These spirit children are the life forces of a Creative Ancestor, which has been deposited in the landscape and finds its way into women in many ways.  Because of this. children are not thought of as the property of anyone.  They are united to and are part of the Creative Ancestors.  Children are brought up by their mothers and fathers and extended family (Lawlor 162-3). The kind of upbringing the children receive in a traditional setting is described by Daisy Utemara from the Kimberely:

Now, the child had their lessons every day. Early morning and in the evening their grandmother and  their mother warmed their hands and touched their  forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and right down to  their feet, which meant Wuduu, the warming of hands.  When they touched the forehead, that meant to give;  and the nose, not to go around another person’s fire;  eyes, not to see evil things and not to love up with  any strangers; mouth, not to use bad language; hands,  not to steal what doesn’t belong to you; and the  feet, not to trespass on other people’s land. Now the  father told the children about wunun, which meant the  sharing with other people. The father and mother and  grandmother told about sharing everything — the last  thing you have you must give. (Isaacs 176)

Children grow up in nearly complete independence and indulgence.  They learn by participating in nearly all aspects of community, kinship, environment, stories, and rituals. This integrates them into the society and prepares them to take their places (Lawlor 165-8).

Leadership in the community falls to those in closest association with The Dreaming, the elders. Leadership in ritual is designated by descent and kin positioning but their positions are ultimately maintained only by their ability and genuine association with The Dreaming (Berndt 6).  Egalitarianism between tribal members is highly valued, and even when leadership is needed, authority is carefully handled to minimize any perceived ego-centered behavior. When even respected elders speak as leaders they constantly make reference to The Dreaming to reinforce their position. They often sit facing the other direction from the group and give repeated assurances that they are “only telling a story” (Lawlor 249).  There are “men of high degree” and “wise women” in groups who have reached extraordinary spiritual power and psychic skill, but even these people are not revered more than others who have developed advanced skills in hunting, dancing, or boomerang making (Lawlor 360).

Death to the Aborigines is considered the last of their life-changing rituals. As is male initiation, death is actually a rebirth, this time into the realm of the dead.  At death the spirit of the individual splits into three components: the totemic soul, the ancestral soul, and the ego soul. The totemic soul is reunited with the force of the totemic ancestor from which it came.  The ancestral soul is reunited with its ancestors in the land of the dead which is located in the heavens and stars.  The third part, the ego soul, is also referred to as the Trickster and can be the most difficult part of the soul to deal with. This soul is bound to the locality of the person, and also to his or her earthly pleasures, and might not want to leave.  It can become “stuck” in this world and cause problems for the living. Special ritual assistance is needed to assure its departure. The Aborigine’s concept of the afterlife in the land of the dead is basically a reflection of what life is on earth. This is an agreeable vision for people who are satisfied with their lives (Lawlor 344 & 350).

The ancient religious traditions of the Aborigine people have led to some dramatically different ways of perceiving life and reality. Through lives structured around following the songlines of The Dreaming, they measure their lives according to space rather than time. They gauge their understanding of reality and The Dreaming, not according to “when” or “before” or “after,” but where.  Space and place became the defining factors of life rather than time. For instance, the defining factor of a birth is not when the birth took place but where the birth took place. Time for the traditional Aborigine is a factor that is absorbed by the physical place and the cycles of life that takes place there.  The Dreaming knows no time; it is eternal and the Aborigines’ existence is a part of that eternal existence (Lawlor 238-41).

Another striking aspect of Aborigine culture is the way they experience reality as expressed through their language. Aboriginal dialects have such an abundance of detailed, descriptive names that the language is impossible for Westerners to master. A particular type of tree can have hundreds of different names describing the subtle qualities of that tree; each individual tree may also have a variety of names.  Animals, plants, and all variety of natural phenomena are named with tremendous perceptive skills.  But they have no words for tree, plant, or animal. They have no words for abstract generalizations that are not grounded in perceptual reality (Lawlor 267). There is no such thing as a “tree.” But there is an “oak tree in spring foliage with a dead limb on the south side growing on the east side of a certain hill” and the Aboriginal dialect may have a name that means that. The Aboriginal mind thinks in the precise world of reality and in its mirror image of The Dreaming.

The heart of the Aboriginal religion is life. Every facet focuses on life and living in harmony with humanity, nature, and The Dreaming — as all three are one. The Dreaming creates a total way of life; from the Aborigine’s first breath at birth to their last breath at death, the Dreaming shapes, forms, patterns, designs their lives into a meaningful composition of not time, but space. It has been written:

The whole religious corpus vibrated with an  expressed aspiration for life, abundant life….  Aboriginal religion was probably one of the least  material-minded, and most life-minded of any which  we have knowledge. (Berndt 4)

Viewing the Aboriginal religion and culture from a society that is probably the most material-minded and least life-minded in history, it is easy to romanticize The Dreaming. It is easy to become seduced by the many qualities it possessed, and still possesses in the few surviving traditional bands — qualities which we have lost.  While The Dreaming is not a faith that an outsider can become a part of any more than one can “become” an Aborigine, we can look to The Dreaming and its wisdom for inspiration and help in healing our relationship with the earth and our relationships with each other.


Berndt, Ronald M., Australian Aboriginal Religion, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

Buchler, Ira R., and Kenneth Maddock eds., The Rainbow Serpent, The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978.

Charlesworth, Max, Howard Morphy, Dianne Bell, and Kenneth Maddock, eds. Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An  Anthology, St.  Lucia: University of Queensland, 1986.

Cowan, James G., The Aborigine Tradition, Rockport, Element, 1992

Lawlor, Robert, Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions,  1991.

Isaacs, Jennifer. Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Australian History, Sydney: Lansdowne Press, 1980.

1992 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

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