Aboriginal "Dreamtime" is misnamed

walter alter (walter@teleport.com)
1 Dec 96 17:20:42 GMT

>From abeggs@peg.apc.org Sun Dec 1 08:39:29 1996
Date: Mon, 2 Dec 1996 00:23:57 +1000
From: abeggs@peg.apc.org
Reply-To: kronia-l@teleport.com
To: kronia-l@teleport.com
Subject: The Australian "Dreamtime"

Title: The Australian "Dreamtime"

Walter and Pam both shared their approach to the meaning of
"dreamtime" or "dreaming" in Australian aboriginal mythology.

Walter had said: "The aborigine "dreamtime" is hard for me to
comprehend outside my Western analytical framework. But I'm not
so sure that my capacity to analyse sets me at such a disadvantage
in at least beginning to sort out the "dreamtime" by assuming that
Aborigines indeed have dreams, that they are vivid and compelling
and that they are attempting to incorporate these strange internal
landscapes into their waking lives."

Pam replied: "I got the distinct impression from books I've read
that the dreamtime is vitally connected to "place" - because they
refer to the Kalgoorlie dreamtime or the Wallogong dreamtime or
the Oodnadatta dreamtime and are familiar or mostly familiar with
their own dreamtimes connected with their own ancestral places.
And from this, I gather that it's not just "vivid and compelling
dreams" they're talking about but the history of the place thru
the dream and TIME landscape of their own culture--what has
happened on all levels to this people in this place & the time
seen as sort of like the Greek kairos vs. chronos time--chronos
time being what o'clock it is (i.e. a fairly scientific record of
progression of seasons & astronomical observations) and kairos
being what time is FOR--the subjective journey of a people thru


One of the first things I learned about "Dreamtime" is that the
term, not surprisingly, is a misnomer. It has nothing to do with
"dreams," as such. That is, the Australian aboriginal peoples do
not use "dream analysis" in the sense we Westerners use it (though
some New Guinea cultures do use the ritual analysis of last
night's dreams as part of their daily ceremonies.)

Where, when, and why the term arose I've not yet found out. But
its meaning in the original language terms would translate better
as "Golden Age" (complete with catastrophic collapse!). Most
indigenous people I've spoken with prefer the English word
"history" as a translation. They distrust the term "mythology"
because they know that we Westerners consider "myth" to be nothing
but fable and fiction (Ah, but we Saturnists know it differently,
don't we?)--and they believe the events they are describing
actually happened.

So whenever I see the term "Dreamtime" I read it as "history."
Australian history told by the indigenous cultures.

Now, in a very real sense it is also His-Story *and* Her-Story.
For it seems that every language group has (at least) two versions
of the Creation Story--the one told by the men and the one told by
the women. In Northern Arnhem Land this "two-story" complex is
woven throughout the entire culture. A person is born either "Dua"
or "Yirritja." This means rights and ceremonial obligations to a
whole complex of different His-Stories and Her-Stories.

In the stories of Djankawu told by the "Dua" people, Djankawu is
the hero who arrives in his canoe with his two sisters and his
huge spear and proceeds to create the land, the animals, and the
people. In the Wagilag Sisters stories of the "Yirritja" it is the
two Sisters (who are later swallowed and regurgitated by the
Rainbow Serpent) who give `birth' to the people and the animals.
Both stories are told side-by-side within the same language
groups, and within different language groups.

At a symbolic level these two stories are very similar. But in the
telling they are very different. This is partly because of what
Pam refers to as "kairos, being what time is FOR--the subjective
journey of a people thru spacetime," but it is also because each
*part* of the story has its own location in the landscape. Each
`sacred site' must be visited, and re-visited, and the
journeys/deeds of the Ancestors must be re-enacted through
ceremony, dance and song.

The Djankawu story and the Wagilag Sisters story are shared by
many different language groups over a vast area of Australia.
These are the `lands' created by these Ancestors. Each language
group knows, in broad outline, where the Ancestors started, where
they travelled, what they created, and where they went. At the
local level each language group celebrates those parts of the
Story which occurred within their area. And the people, like the
Ancestors, *walk* to these places and repeat the Ancestor's deeds
through symbol and ceremony.

In any particular geographical area there will be sites that are
sacred to the `big-time' Ancestors like Djankawu, Morning Star,
Rainbow Serpent, or Wagilag Sisters. But there will be many sites
that are sacred to other `local' Ancestors who created specific
geographical features or specific local flora or fauna. These
stories crisscross the land according to which direction the
Ancestor came from and went to. All of these stories combine to
tell the whole history of the tribe since Creation. And the
*journeys* of the `big-time' Ancestors are maps to vast tracts of
land which the local tribe knows of--some parts of which a few
members of the tribe may need to visit, occasionally, for ritual
exchange of gifts and/or initiation ceremonies.

It is said that the Stories of the Ancestors are "written into the
land." The landforms and animals are a witness to the deeds and
journeys of the Creation Ancestors. If you knew the story of
Djankawu you could cover a thousand miles and pass through the
lands of several hundred different language groups. What would get
you through would be the stories and *symbols* of Djankawu that
you would carry with you.

And so, an individual person's "dreaming" is a combination of
`sacred sites,' the `sacred stories' connected with these sites,
and the resulting ritual and ceremonial obligations *at* these
sites. A "dreaming place" is one of these sacred sites. And the
"Dreamtime" is the `historical' period in the past when these vast
events happened. For the "Dreamtime" had a beginning, a series of
transformations, and a catastrophic ending--just like the Golden
Age. And the re-telling of these events continues to this very day
as the Australian aboriginal people celebrate the songs, stories,
ceremonies, and *journeys* of their Dreamtime Ancestors.

Hope this helps.