Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Dreaming

Aboriginal religion, as with all religions, integrated an explanation for existence and attempts to regulate behaviour, though in Aboriginal religion they assumed the parity of all life and subjected all aspects of it to religious sanction. The Dreaming is what all this pivoted on, the word conveying the sense of timelessness that was central to Aboriginal belief. It has been declared by Ted Strehlow that the great contribution of Aboriginal religion to religious thought has been the conviction, that was unquestioned, that there was no division between time and eternity. According to the author1 the Dreaming conceives of a universe that is unchanging, and is hence free of time. 

Tthe creator beings travelled across formless space giving substance to land and sea as they went, eventually settling in a place that was important to them where they remain still. The track they followed in their travels bears the marks of their trials and travels. To the Aboriginal People all things derive either from the presence of these beings or these beings or their deeds, and are ruled by the laws they gave to their descendants.

The Dreaming is a belief system that was present in all parts of the continent. It was believed by the settlers that the Tasmanian Aboriginal People had no Dreaming, but according to the author1 at the time of the death of the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal People in May 1876, it wasn't known by the Europeans that it existed on the mainland either. A clue that they actually did believe in a Dreaming in Tasmania was the practices they used to manage the land with fire. On the mainland the tribes all over the continent received their knowledge of the burning practices, with variations to suit each locality, from the Dreamtime beings who gave rise to all things in the environment, including the people. Robinson was told by people of Oyster Bay that Moinee was thrown from heaven and then lived on the Earth and when he died he changed into a stone where he remains at Coxes Bight, his own country. The Aboriginal People of Tasmania said they were made by Laller, a small ant.

The native Tasmanians shard a belief system with those of the mainland, but it was not well recorded before they were gone. What is known of their practices, their links and duties of care with named animals and places, in their taking the names of plants and animals, a belief in the transmigration of souls, in their dances of the various animals such as the emu, kangaroo, fire, wind etc. They show similarities indicating that they thought in similar ways to the mainlanders. They also had tracks that were followed by their Dreamtime ancestors as did the mainlanders.

The track followed by a Dreamtime creation being is a songline or a storyline, the track along which the ancestral being followed bringing everything into existence.

According to the Berndts2 the basis of human socio-cultural existence was established during the Dreaming by the great mythic beings. These same beings attended to the environment, many parts of it being formed by them. They created the natural species, including humans, placing them in specific parts of the country. These beings were associated with particular territories and mythic tracks, many of the beings being transformed into sites where their spirits have remained since the Dreaming. There are also places they left in commemoration of their wanderings and actions, part of their spiritual substance remaining in those places, resulting in the land being full of signs. To traditional Aboriginals their actions and creations still have crucial significance. They are believed to be spiritually just as alive as they were in the past. Being eternal, their material expressions in the land were also believed to be inviolable. As the Berndts2 say this was more than a sentimental bond between the people and their deities and the people and their land. Phrased in personal-social terms it was religious, both directly and indirectly.

The primordial land 'was given' (was there) according to traditional belief. It was shaped by the mythic beings, who humanised it, and through their own essence and actions added to it. They peopled the land and created (or provided) everything in it, everything that was relevant to humans. As they moved across the land they established the nuclei of small groups. Important spiritual association focal points are at various sites and particular physiographic features.

According to the Berndts2 the significance of the sites was substantiated by the mythology and validated by ritual, each site being infused with a sacred essence. The whole land was sacred in Aboriginal belief. The shaping of the land by these beings from the Dreaming, according to the Berndts2, comes very close to the term 'creation'. The sites that were visited by these beings as they travelled across the country from one site to another or from from one waterhole to another, etc. are named and commemorated in socio-religious, as well as economic, terms. Significance is also given to the country between the sites or the country surrounding them. The concern is with the Earth per se and it's fertilisation, in many of the mytho-ritual cycles. Beyond these points, that are more general, there are linkages, that are specific, between any person and a range of mythic beings, and through them to the land. During pregnancy the foetus is animated when a spirit breathes life into it, which, so to speak, makes it human. This spirit, that derives directly from the mythic being, remains at a particular site. As a result of this spiritual animation the child who is born, as well as being a manifestation of a sacred mythic being is also linked very directly and significantly with the site, as well as the country that is associated with that mythic being. This has implications that are social and ritual.

The Berndts2 summarised these points:

  • In all parts of Aboriginal Australia land is God-given - it is sacred land that has places of special significance and spiritual importance.
  • The land, its character being that of the Dreaming, is inalienable.
  • An Aboriginal man has an incontrovertible right of possession.
  • By virtue of his/her birth there is a spiritual link between the person and a specific site or a part of the country. This is more than association with an area of land, any land, specific land. In spiritual terms the land 'is' the person. As the concept is relevant to generations from both past and present, the spiritual part of the man/land is believed to be eternal, and cannot be removed from the person even by death. When the person dies the spiritual part of the person is returned to the mythic being concerned, or the sphere associated with such beings, to be recycled.


Sources & Further reading

  1. Gammage, Bill, 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginal People made Australia, Allen & Unwin
  2. Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 02/03/2012 

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