The Dreamtime

So, I wanted to talk about the Dreamtime and the Dreaming because this is the religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs, and it’s very important to Aboriginals, obviously, and is a big part of Australian culture. Most Australians are going to know if you mention the Dreamtime of the Dreaming, right. So, they‘ll have an idea of what you’re talking about.

So, these terms were first coined by Australian anthropologist Frances Gillen and his colleague W. Baldwin Spencer who studied the indigenous tribes around Alice Springs, and they publish their work in the book The Native Tribes of Central Australia.

In that work, they spoke of the ‘alcheringa’, an indigenous word from the Aranda people of Central Australia, which was translated as “the name applied to the far distant past with which the earliest traditions of that tribe deal”.

Five years later, in their book The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, they gloss ‘the far distant age’ as ‘the Dream times’ and they link it to the word ‘alcheri’ meaning ‘dream’, and affirm that the term is also used by many other indigenous peoples nearby.

That said, it has been argued that it is based on a misunderstanding or mistranslation. Some scholars suggest that the word’s meaning is closer to “eternal, uncreated”. Anthropologist William Stanner once remarked: “Why the blackfellow thinks of dreaming as the nearest equivalent in English is a puzzle“, and said that the concept was best understood by non-Aboriginal people as a “complex of meanings”.

So, what’s the difference between The Dreamtime and The Dreaming.

The Dreamtime is the period in which life was created according to Aboriginal culture. In the Dreamtime, all elements of the natural world–animals, plants, hills, rocks, rivers, waterholes, deserts–they were all created by spiritual beings or by ancestors often of heroic proportions or with supernatural abilities who inhabited the land at the time.

These figures were often distinct from ‘gods’ as they did not control the material world and they weren’t worshipped, but instead only revered. The stories of their creation are the foundation of Aboriginal lore and culture, and they are also the subjects painted by many Aboriginal artists.

According to Aboriginal lore, all living things were either created by the ancestors themselves or by spiritual beings. So, for example, a river may be an ancestor or it may be a creation snake, a spiritual being.

In contrast to The Dreamtime, The Dreaming explains how life came to be. It is sort of the equivalent of Genesis in the Bible. It is the stories and beliefs behind the creation. It is called different names in different Aboriginal languages such as ‘Ngarranggarni’ by the Gija people, the ‘Jukurrpa’ by the Warlpiri people or ‘the Ungud’ by the Ngarinyin people.

The Dreaming explains how things came to be. For example, why is a rock a certain shape or in a specific location. Why did the echidna get its spikes? Why does the moon return full every month? How did kangaroos get their tails?

On top of explaining how and why the world is the way it is, The Dreaming also commands the rules and ways of being in Aboriginal culture. Dreaming stories explain these beliefs such as: the lesson not to hurt animals; who one should marry and bear children with according to the Aboriginal skin system; or who one should not talk to, again, according to the Aboriginal skin system; how one should show respect in another’s country; how one should welcome strangers into one’s own country.

So, it dictates how one needs to behave in certain circumstances. The Dreaming stories are the cultural rules and obligations Aboriginal people are expected to live by within their culture.

The Dreaming is not static or linear. It is the past, but it is also the present and the future. It is constantly evolving to explain events and changes today, such as floods and storms, and both negative and positive occurrences in people’s lives.

Because Australian Aboriginals never had written language, The Dreamtime and The Dreaming are oral traditions that have been passed down through thousands of generations for maybe more than 65,000 years as songs and stories.


Be a puzzle – a person or thing that is difficult to understand or explain; an enigma.

Bear children with SO – relating to the process of conceiving, being pregnant with, and giving birth to children.

Come to be – enter into existence.

Have an idea of ST – have a basic understanding of ST; have heard of ST before.

Heroic proportions – the dimensions or size of ST to be that of a hero or heroine.

In contrast to ST – in comparison to ST.

Oral traditions – a form of human communication wherein knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material is received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another.

Pass ST down – for an older generation to give information or possessions to a younger generation.

Supernatural abilities – the capacities attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

The Aboriginal skin system – a feature of Aboriginal social organisation and family relationships across Central Australia. It is a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land.

The material world – physical aspects of the universe, compared with immaterial ideas or beliefs.