Exploring Dreamtime Stories and Connection to Land

Dreamtime stories are the core of Aboriginal culture, imbuing it with rich spirituality and a profound connection to country. Ultimately, this spiritual belief system fosters resilience and community cohesion.

The term ‘Dreamtime’ is a western word that struggles to capture the complex ideas of Aboriginal beliefs. But it can be said to refer to the Ancestral Beings who journeyed across Aboriginal lands, etching out the landscape as they went.

Symbolism

The stories that form the Dreamtime, the foundation of Aboriginal culture, are rich in symbols. While there are many different interpretations of these mythological tales, certain symbols have specific meaning and relevance. Some symbols are figurative, others represent the natural world and all of its living things. For example, the Rainbow Serpent, an ancestral spirit who provides water for all living creatures, is a common theme in Aboriginal art. The Rainbow Serpent appears in various forms depending on the region, but most depict the giant snakelike creature emerging from the ground and traveling across the landscape forming mountains, hills, rivers, lakes and billabongs. When a rainbow is seen in the sky, this indicates the Rainbow Serpent has traveled from one water hole to another, replenishing the earth and its inhabitants with water.

Aboriginal spirituality is based on the notion that the world and all of its lifeforms (human, animal, plant) were created by Ancestral Beings during a time called the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is not a separate time from the past, present or future but exists in a cyclical continuum where the physical and the spiritual exist in a harmonious relationship.

The Dreamtime also provides Aboriginal people with a guideline for their behaviour on the land. The ancestral beings set out laws for their behaviour including the rights and responsibilities of all living creatures, social organisation, punishments for breaking the law and rules on how to care for the land.

It is important for Aboriginal artists to convey the essence of a Dreaming story through the use of symbols within their work. This helps non-Aboriginal viewers to understand the story and connect with it on a deeper level. The use of symbols can be very complex as the meaning may change depending on context. For instance, a simple dot may be symbolic of a campfire, while groups of dots may signify the number of Ancestral Beings at the campfire. Dots could also be a reference to the stars, specific locations such as a river, hill or waterhole, or even yam plants bursting forth from the soil.

Themes

The stories of the Dreamtime permeate every aspect of Aboriginal culture, from religious beliefs to legal codes, maps and even cooking manuals. They form a complex metaphysical framework that unites the past, present and future and provides a strong sense of identity and belonging.

These narratives, known as Jukurrpa, provide a traditional means of conveying cultural knowledge to young people and the general public. They are also a vital means of passing down essential survival skills and addressing social issues such as how to protect Country, and the responsibilities that come with it.

Often, Dreamtime stories are woven into specific landscapes and natural landmarks and act as a physical reaffirmation of the symbiotic relationship between Aboriginal people and their ancestral homelands. These artistic reaffirmations help nurture the enduring connection to the land and provide a rich source of spiritual wisdom that is deeply embedded within Aboriginal societal structures.

The complexities of the Dreamtime stories are revealed through intricate themes in works of art such as the ‘Emu and Jabiru’, an enthralling tale about two families who engage in a fight over stingray meat. This story illustrates the importance of sharing and cooperation, as well as demonstrating the negative effects of selfish behaviour. It is one of many ‘daily lessons’ from the Dreaming that help to teach children how to live with respect for each other and for their environment.

Another theme that is explored in these works of art is the ‘laws of country’, a set of guidelines that govern the interaction between human beings and their natural environment. These laws are based on an understanding that everything has a spirit or soul and that the world is a dynamic, living organism. They ensure the continued health of the land and the people by ensuring that no person or animal wreaks unnecessary havoc.

As such, Aboriginal people owe it to their ancestors to maintain and care for Country. This is an incredibly delicate balance, which artists like Alexis Wright seek to explore in her work, such as the ‘Spirit House of Stones’. The ‘house of stones’ is a sacred site where the spirits of departed ancestors are said to reside and it is a place that must be respected at all times.

Objects

A richly symbolic and mystical belief system, the Dreamtime imbues Aboriginal culture with profound spirituality and deep connection to Country. In the face of colonisation, the cultural values and traditions of the Dreamtime have helped foster resilience and community spirit within Indigenous communities. It is this enduring spiritual heritage that has enabled Aboriginal people to sustain their identity and to resist the pressures of assimilation.

Often called Jukurrpa in Central Desert languages, these timeless narratives narrate the exploits of Ancestral Beings and the genesis of the natural world, flora, fauna, and human societies. They encapsulate essential survival information, including the locations of water sources, the habits and seasonal availability of foods, and laws to follow to ensure the wellbeing of people and their environment.

The intricacies of the Dreamtime are reflected in art, which serves as a living repository of traditional knowledge and spirituality. Whether through primordial rock art, etched in time and place, or pulsating contemporary canvases that reflect changing societal dynamics, each artwork speaks to the dynamism of the Dreamtime and the deep connections embedded in Aboriginal culture.

While each artist may interpret the stories differently, they all convey a sense of the symbiotic relationship between the land, the Ancestral Beings, and the Aboriginal people. By incorporating specific landscapes, natural landmarks, and sacred sites into their work, artists nurture this symbiotic connection with their ancestral lands.

Aboriginal people recognise their responsibility to their Country and their obligations on it, and artists are often a vehicle for sharing these messages with the wider public. For example, this striking canvas by Spinifex senior Simon Hogan depicts a map of his inherited Country that includes the sites associated with four major Tjukurrpa (cosmological) songlines.

By recognising their responsibilities and obligations to the land, the Ancestral Beings, their family group, and the community, Aboriginal people honour their heritage through their art and storytelling. The vibrant and enchanting works of Australian Indigenous artists offer a window into a complex cosmology that transcends space, time, and human understanding. They are a powerful expression of Indigenous heritage, and an invaluable resource for the present and future.

Locations

The concept of the Dreamtime, also referred to as Tjukurrpa and Ngarrangkarni, is central to Aboriginal culture. It describes the time of creation, a sacred era that created and shaped all aspects of Aboriginal society and the natural environment including animals, plants, landscapes and people. It is a story that provides traditional Aboriginal societies with a powerful moral framework, tethering them to their ancestors and country.

In addition to providing important cultural knowledge, the Dreamtime encapsulates a vast spiritual understanding of the land. It bridges the past, present and future, forming a continuous cyclical continuum. It also determines all Aboriginal lore, customs, laws, and kinships. Knowledge of the Dreaming has traditionally been passed on through a range of methods, including oral storytelling, art and music.

Aboriginal artists are tasked with recording and interpreting the spiritual and physical connections between the landscapes, landmarks and ecological features of their region. They also convey the totemic significance of each element within the artwork, illustrating the intimate relationship that Aboriginal people have with their ancestral heritage and their land.

Many of the recurring themes in Dreamtime Stories, such as a Rainbow Serpent or a Woman collecting bush plums, are rooted in this deep connection to their land. As such, these symbols are a key feature of the works by contemporary Aboriginal artist Sarrita King.

The emergence of this new generation of Aboriginal artists is a testament to the ongoing dynamism and resilience of the Aboriginal cultural legacy. The resurgence of the Dreamtime has catalysed development in Aboriginal communities, offering economic prospects, instilling cultural pride and strengthening social cohesion.

Aboriginal Art is a unique form of artistic expression that is imbued with the Dreamtime and its ancient religious schemata. This deep spiritual belief system has endured throughout the centuries and remains a vital part of Australian Indigenous life, tethering them to their innate sense of belonging and connecting them with their country. This unbroken bond is reflected in the works by modern Aboriginal artists, whose synthesis of traditional and contemporary artistic techniques illustrates a rich and vibrant spirituality and a solid sense of community and identity.