The period of creation before time as we know it existed, is known to the Aboriginal people as The Dreaming. This is when the very essence of human nature came to be understood.
The lessons of this period of enlightenment and the ability to live in peace and harmony, are encapsulated within The Dreaming and passed on to the next generation in the oral traditions. As there was no known written language, information was passed on orally.
Dreamtime is a word, first used by a European anthropologist, in the early 1900’s, to define what he perceived, as a religion. He used this word to describe the all-encompassing mystical period of Aboriginal beginning.
However, the Aboriginal people do not worship any single Deity or other Gods. They built no monoliths, memorials or idols, nor did they have an organized religion. They lived by the lores of the Creator and Ancestral Spirits of the diverse landscapes, sky, creatures and plants of Australia.
The art, stories, songs and dances, became well known as part of the Dreaming, but it is still little understood. The Dreamtime is part of the oral tradition, and is only one aspect of a very complex spiritual belief system – the Dreaming.
The Dreamtime stories, are the oral form of the spiritual Dreaming, which comprises: Art – the visual form, Dance – the physical form, Customs – the practical form, Music – the acoustic form, Totems – the spiritual forms, Lore – the cultural form, Lands – the physical forms.
Altogether, they form an all-encompassing, mystical whole. Over the last 220 years, since colonization of Australia, non-indigenous people have perceived these art forms as separate entities, rather than as part of a whole. The result has been a fragmented overview of the Aboriginal culture.
The Stories of the Dreaming are more than myths, legends, fables, parables or quaint tales. They are definitely not fairytales for amusement of children. Down through generations, the Aboriginal people’s stories, were told orally, but were never written down. They were the oral textbooks, of their accumulated knowledge, spirituality, and wisdom, from when time began.
The structure and form of a traditional Dreamtime story is quite unique and cannot easily be copied. An oral Dreamtime story of ten minutes’ length, can cover several topics and subject matters, and be suitable for all age groups. They are structured with valuable lessons for children, or for bringing a renewed understanding to older people.
For instance: twenty or more lessons can be found in one story, teaching such topics as: The spiritual belief system, Customs, Animal behaviour, Animal psychology, Land map of the region, Hunting and gathering skills, Cultural norms, Moral behaviors, Survival skills, Food resources.
In the book, Gadi Mirrabooka, the stories: “Brolga” and “First Platypus” are excellent examples of Stranger Danger and “The Murray Cod”, is a Creation Map story. The Min MinLight is a Space storyl
Every genre of storytelling and hundreds of categories are used, within the Dreaming stories, such as:
- Babies’, older children’s and adult stories,
- women’s stories – both public and secret.
- men’s stories – both public and secret,
- love, comedy, tragedy and horror stories,
- parables, sacred stories – both public and secret
- and mystical stories.
The Dreaming stories are not specifically related to time, as time was not important for the story to become part of the oral tradition. The important issue is the event which occurred, and affected the people, the land and the culture.
Research into animals, described in traditional Dreaming stories, corroborates the existence of these creatures of the Creation and megafauna, which existed in other periods of world history. Many of these animals are now extinct, but their remains are currently being discovered and stuadied by archaeologists.
Some examples of these are:
- The Giant Lizard stories, of the Dinosaur Period.
- The Birth of the Platypus story, of at least 1,000,000 years ago.
- The Giant Kangaroos of at least 15,000 years ago.
- The Dreaming story of the Devil Dingo, of at least 5000 years ago,
- The invention of Weapons – the Boomerang – of at least 15-25,000 years ago,
- The Dreaming story, of how Death came into the world. (date unknown)
- The Dreaming story, of the Birth of the Sun. (date unknown)
Many of the `Dreaming stories refer to an Aboriginal group’s creation time, for instance; `Rainbow Serpent Dreaming’ or ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’. Their ancestor spirits arrived here at the time of creation in human and animal spirit form, and are now encapsulated in the Stories of the Dreaming, associated with that group of people.
New Dreaming stories are being continually added to those already in existence. Stories of islands, pushed along by clouds, were of the sailing ships of the 1700’s, with their strange men from across the seas. The Aboriginal people perceived them as ghosts, or evil spirits, but, in fact, they were the colonists of 1788 to the 1950’s.
Tales abounded of hoofed, four-footed, monstrous creatures – with two heads – that stank like bunyips (water demons) and defiled nature — men on horses. Stories of other objects were told, that could only be described by the sounds they made. There is no word in any Aboriginal language that could describe such a creature. They were known as `chuggasshhhh-chuggashhhhhh’, and were the early paddle steamers on the Murray River.
The stories of the `flying ships’ of sixty years ago – airplanes of the 1940s – totally amazed and terrified those people of the interior, who had never seen them.
The most recent Dreaming stories are of `the black cloud of Maralinga’ – the atomic testing grounds of the 1950’s, `deaths in custody’ and `removed or stolen children’ – a time, better known to the Aboriginal people, as the’ Screamtime – Nightmare’ period of history.
The lessons within a Dreaming story are not taught directly, but are assimilated by repetition. Understanding of the story is acquired from life experiences, as a person grows to maturity. When the time comes for that person to keep the oral tradition alive, by passing the stories on in their entirety, to the next generation, it can be done correctly and without distortion.
As the Aboriginal culture was an oral one, the written word was unknown to these people, so the storyteller’s role was not just to entertain, but also to preserve their culture, while educating the growing generation of children and young adults, in the history, traditional values and lore of their people.
Symbolic languages, such as the map-like dot pictures and cave paintings and carvings, were used throughout Aboriginal Australia to record information. A written language was never developed or used.
There is no universal Aboriginal language, as there are approximately 700 Aboriginal groups – each with their own dialect. On top of this, there are regional languages, common to many groups or clans within a region, such as the Murray River basin region, Northern Territory or Kimberley.
According to the land regions and the creatures’ habitat, there are as many different versions of a core story, as there are clans. These may differ in that, the animals or other creatures in the story, may be changed to fit the regional landscape of swamps, rivers, mountains, plains or coastal land areas.
The Aboriginal people do not believe in land ownership. Rather, they see themselves as custodians of the landmass, known as Australia. They believe, the time has now come for the Aboriginal people, who have survived many changes – both natural and man-made – to share, not only their culture, but also the wisdom and experience of The Dreaming. The elders have given permission for stories, including some previously secret stories from The Dreaming, to be disseminated.
Through these stories, which teach us to care for the land and one another, we catch glimpses of the great diversity within Australia — of its people, animals, and landforms. The stories in this book offer a comprehensive glimpse of the Dreamtime.
Some early European anthropologists who’d arrived to study the Aboriginal people, brought some of the “secret men’s and secret women’s stories”, and “secret, sacred stories”, back with them and published them. An unfortunate lack of understanding, by outsiders, of the significance of these special stories, which the Aboriginal people regarded as sacred and part of their cultural property, greatly offended the Aboriginal people. They had shared their deepest secrets with these men and their permission to share, or publish them, had not been sought!
Note: It is courteous, if you find an Australian Aboriginal story you wish to tell, to always attempt to find the source and ask permission from the Aboriginal Elders, to tell it.
Helen McKay is an Australian author of four published books and many articles. Gadi Mirrabooka was written and edited by Helen F. McKay. Aboriginal Elders, Storytelling Custodians, June Barker, Francis Firebrace, and Pauline McLeod, told the sacred creation and traditional stories included in the book. See more details at www.gadimirrabooka.com.