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Land and the Dreaming: The Two-Fold Heart of Indigenous Australian Culture

Updated on August 19, 2014

An Overview

The concepts of the land and the Dreaming are foundational cornerstones for Aboriginal religion and life. Indeed, the entire Aboriginal worldview is inseparably tied up with, even seen as the concrete implication of, these two notions. For the Indigenous Australian, nothing in life is done without an awareness of dependence on the land and the Dreaming. From conception, through their initiation into the adult community of their tribe, to their final repose, they are constantly aware of the essential connection of the land and Dreaming to their individual existence, that of their tribe, and even to that of the entire universe.

In themselves, the land and the Dreaming are also inseparably connected to each other. This can be seen in virtually, if not absolutely, every aspect of Aboriginal life - including in their belief system, their social structure, and their entire worldview.

In Aboriginal religion and life, the Dreaming is denoted as the condition for the establishment and continuation of all life. Without the ongoing presence of the power and spirit of the Dreamtime beings, life would not be able to be regenerated and would thus come to an end. The land holds an extremely special, even vital, place in this Dreaming system, as it is where the Dreaming originates and is continued. It is where and how the Indigenous Australians are constantly connected to their identity, their spirituality, their stewardship, and indeed all life.

The Dreaming

The term ‘Dreaming’ is translated from the Arrente (Aranda) word altjiranga, and carries the meanings ‘to dream’, ‘to see eternal things’, and ‘originating from eternity’[1]. It is important to recognise, however, that these meanings are also expressed throughout the Aboriginal population in such terms as wongar, and bugari[2].

Time of Creation

In its initial sense, the Dreaming indicates a creative period of time in the far past when Creator, or ‘Dreamtime’, spirits wandered the earth giving order to the universe and generating life as is now known. They created the physical features of the land, populated the land with living beings, established laws for existence, and instituted moral and ritual systems which endure today. The Creator spirits responsible for such generation differ according to the geographical boundaries of particular tribes.

Among tribes in South Eastern Australia there is a belief in a male ultimate creator being who is reported to have created everything on earth. This being is known by such names as Mungan-ngaua, Nurrundere (Ngurunderi), Baiame (Baiami), and Daramulun[3]. This is an interesting development as scholars posit a strong European Christian influence in the conception of such a being; particularly among the tribes of New South Wales, who experienced the most sustained contact with the British colonists. Among the Kamilaroi peoples of New South Wales, Baiame is described in myth as living on earth where he shaped the physical features of the land, created living beings, and instituted culture -largely in the forms of stories and rituals - before ascending into the sky where he continues a strong interest in human affairs to the point where he periodically returns to earth, particularly at the times of male initiation. Among the Yurin people of New South Wales, myths describe Daramulun as also living on earth where he shaped the physical landscape, created living beings and instituted culture before ascending to the sky where he continues his interest in human affairs[4]. The most fascinating part of the Daramulun myth is the description of a major flood which wiped out all but a small part of the human population; perhaps paralleling the biblical flood account of Genesis 7-8.

In contrast, tribes in northern South Australia, central Australia, northern Australia and central Western Australia describe several ‘shape-shifting’ creator spirits, who are understood as being partly human and partly animal[5]. For example, the Djugurba beings, such as Wadi Gudjara (the ‘Two Men’), Gulgabi/Milbali (the ‘white goanna’), and Jurigga (the ‘black goanna’)[6], are reported to have wandered the earth creating the physical landscape, generating living beings, and instituting ritual. The most universal Dreamtime creator being, found right across the Australian continent, is the Rainbow Serpent[7]. Though known by various names and under various genders, this being is always represented as being a “vital, yet destructive, force[8] of creation which shaped the physical landscape, lives in deep permanent waters, and is associated with water and floods. Among the tribes of western Arnhem Land, the Rainbow Serpent, known under the name of Ngaljod, is considered to be the first Creator who, in addition to shaping the land, made all living things[9].

Ever-present Reality

Although the Dreamtime does indeed refer to such a period of creation, it is also considered to be a present reality; the “ever-present and unseen ground for all existence”[10]. The Aboriginal concept of time is rather foreign to that of the West. Rather than a historical timeline of a horizontal nature, where everything that happened in the past is moved on from and remains inaccessible, the Aborigines understand life and history as existing on a cyclical ‘vertical timeline’. Everything that occurred in the past is in communication with everything in the present, and can be accessed through certain ritualised actions. The rites of ‘increase’, or ‘maintenance’, for example, ‘recreate’ the world through the re-enacting of the travels and actions of the Dreamtime beings. Such rituals bring the power of these beings into the present through the stylised actions of their incarnation in totemic descendants who participate in the ritual, in order to ensure the regeneration and continuance of life[11]. It is thus that the Dreaming lives on through the moral, social, and ritual systems of the Aborigines, the existence of animals and plants, the ‘plan of life’ which was given to the Ancestors of the Aborigines by the Dreamtime creator beings, and the Aborigines themselves in their own individual, tribal and environmental ‘Dreamings’.

[1] E. Stockton, The Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality for a Nation (Alexandria: Millennium, 1995), 52.

[2] M. Charlesworth, “Introduction,” in Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology, eds. M. Charlesworth, H. Morphy, D.Bell and K. Maddock (Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1986), 9.

[3] R.M Berndt and C.H Berndt, The World of the First Australians (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1977), 244.

[4] Berndt and Berndt, The World of the First Australians, 244.

[5] Berndt and Berndt, The World of the First Australians, 247.

[6] Berndt and Berndt, The World of the First Australians, 247.

[7] J. Cowan, Aborigine Dreaming: An Introduction to the Wisdom and Thought of the Aboriginal Traditions of Australia (London: Thorsons, 2002), 18.

[8] K. Maddock, “World Creative Powers,” in Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology, eds. M. Charlesworth, H.Morphy, D.Bell and K.Maddock (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1986), 85.

[9] Berndt and Berndt, The World of the First Australians, 252.

[10] M. Charlesworth, “Introduction”, 10.

[11] M. Eliade, Australian Religions: An Introduction (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1973), 61.


The Land

Another way in which the Dreaming lives on into the present is through the land. For the Aborigines, the land is constitutive of their entire identity, as they are defined by their specific totemic Dreaming. They hold that humanity and nature are parts of ‘one corporate whole’ as established in the Dreamtime[1]; an entire cosmos of living siblings existing on the land – the living ‘mother’ of all living things[2].

Locus of Creation

According to the Aboriginal worldview, the entire land is sacred. This stems from the mythical representation of the land as the locus of the wanderings and creative acts of the Dreamtime beings. Indeed, the sacred power of certain sites depends on their contexts in the Dreaming myths in which they are featured[3]. In some cases, these beings emerged from the land and returned into it after they had completed their travelling and creative deeds. Moreover, as these beings gave shape to the physical landscape, they instilled their power and spirit into it - more or less depending on the particular site. Or, in the case of central Australian myth, they themselves became certain landmarks and features upon the end of their creative works, such as mountains, rivers, and so on. For example, in the Aranda myth of creation beings awaken and rise out of the earth to give features to the desolate and formless land and give definition to the amorphous mass of humanity; eventually slipping back below the earth to continue their slumbering state, generally at the same places from which they had first emerged. The significance of this myth in terms of sacred land, lies within the belief that the places where these beings emerged from and returned to are considered to be far and above more sacred than any other patch of landscape[4]. In addition to this, the land is understood to be literally covered by sacred trails of ‘song’ which originate with the creator beings of the Dreamtime[5]. As these beings wandered, they left a trail of the songs that they were singing as they completed certain deeds at specific places. These have been entrusted to subsequent generations of their totemites to reproduce them and ensure their continuation amongst later generations. These song trails may cover thousands of kilometres, and connect all individuals that share in the specific Dreaming of the creator beings which generated them[6].

Sacrament of the Dreaming

It is thus that the land can be seen as the sacrament of the Dreaming. It is the physical connection between the material world of the living and the spiritual world of the Dreaming[7]. It points to that spiritual world and makes it present through the ritualised acts of the Aborigines. By following trails of song and performing rituals at sacred places, the Aborigines communicate with the Dreaming and maintain its existence in the universe. Indeed, the ‘plan of life’ instituted by the Dreamtime beings and given to the Aborigines requires the frequent performance of such acts in order to sustain the balance and regulation of the cosmos. Without the land, Indigenous Australians are incapable of tapping into the power of certain Dreamtime beings and therefore cannot maintain their part of the system of life. This engenders far-reaching complications in the universe, not least the silence of the land. Without constant maintenance through such ritual acts, the land does not reciprocate by providing food, water, and everything else which is required for living existence[8].

[1] Stockton, The Aboriginal Gift, 55.

[2] Stockton, the Aboriginal Gift, 59.

[3] Charlesworth, “Introduction”, 11.

[4] Eliade, Australian Religions, 45.

[5] Stockton, The Aboriginal Gift, 57.

[6] Eliade, Australian Religions, 57.

[7] Eliade, Australian Religions, 55.

[8] Eliade, Australian Religions, 63.


  • Berndt, R.M. and C.H Berndt. The World of the First Australians. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1977.

  • Charlesworth, M. “Introduction.” In Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology, edited by M. Charlesworth, H. Morphy, D.Bell and K. Maddock, 1-20. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1986.

  • Cowan, J. Aborigine Dreaming: An Introduction to the Wisdom and Thought of the Aboriginal Traditions of Australia. London: Thorsons, 2002.

  • Eliade, M. Australian Religions: An Introduction. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1973.

  • Maddock, K. “World Creative Powers.” In Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology, edited by M.Charlesworth, H. Morphy, D.Bell and K. Maddock, 86-103. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1986.

  • Maddock, K. Your Land is Our Land: Aboriginal Land Rights. Melbourne: Penguin, 1986.

  • Stanner, W.E.H. “The Dreaming”. In White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973, 23-40. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979.

  • Stanner, W.E.H. “Some Aspects of Aboriginal Religion.” In Religious Business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal Spirituality, edited by M. Charlesworth, 1-23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

  • Stockton, E. The Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality for a Nation. Alexandria: Millennium, 1995.


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