What is the Aboriginal Creation Myth of the Dreaming?

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According to Aboriginal religion and rock art, Dreamtime or Dreaming was the time of creation (1). Although here we will focus on this aspect of the myth, it is important to acknowledge that the Dreaming accounts for much more than just creation. It also accounts for Aboriginal social custom, tribe organization, inventions, rituals, and the arrangements of living, each of which require anthropological and sociological analysis in their own right.

In the Dreaming, the ancestral beings called the First People shaped the land and embedded within it spiritual power. These beings journeyed across the land in the primal world leaving behind in their wake “Dreaming tracks.” From these, they shape the land, animals, plants, and humans before finally transforming themselves into parts of the natural environment such as stars, rocks, trees, and watering holes. Phenomenologist and historian of religion Ninian Smart captures the variety of land and animal the ancestral beings created,

“The Dream (or Dream Time) is that period long ago (yet still somehow present to us in everyday life) when the deities moved about on the earth, giving shape and substance to the land, generating human beings, and arranging the rules of society. It was in its own way a creative epoch, but it is much more than some generalized period of cosmogony. The Dreaming helps to explain the most particular items in the environment. The environment is—for the most part— a rather harsh one, in which ingenuity is needed to live successfully. It is a hot land, with red deserts and glittering eucalyptus trees, half-dried watercourses and dry gullies, sparse rains and elusive high clouds, grand rounded rocks and strangely contoured hills: a land populated sparsely with ingenious animals—the kangaroo and the wallaby, the anti-eating echidna, the lizard goanna—and bright bride, from the small kookaburra to the flamboyant galas and bright-colored parrots, and many insects, notably the creators of great anthills and the ever-present flies. It is this environment that received its particularities in the phase of the dreaming” (2)

The land can, believe the Aborigines, be accessed because it is that alive with this power from the ancestral beings. For example, the Gunwinggu tribe believes the land is infused with spiritual power (djang) and that it is possible to tap into this power through ritual, song, dance, sacred objects, rocks, the human body, and paintings. There thus exists an intimate link between the Dreaming and the natural world, which instills within Aborigines a strong reverence for the landscape they believe represents the ancestral beings. A famous landmark set aside for its spiritual significance is the sandstone rock formation Uluru (called Ayers Rock by the Europeans who discovered it in 1873). This rock radiates the Dreaming and is therefore home to much djang. Aboriginal religion is aptly classified as animistic.

Various myths from different Aboriginal tribes took shape regarding the sacredness of the land, including the story of Ngurunderi, the great Murray God, the Rainbow Snake, and the carpet-snake people. A popular myth tells that prior to the existence of Uluru were the carpet-snake people who lived there (3). To the west of the carpet-snake people were the Windulka who invited them to a ceremony, and while the carpet-snake people were on their way they stopped at the Uluru waterhole where they met the sleepy-lizard women. This led them to forget their invitation by the Windulka who then sent Panpanpalana, a bird, to find the carpet-snake people. However, the carpet-snake people told the bird that they could not attend the ceremony because they were now married, which made the Windulka feel offended and ask the poisonous-snake people to attack the carpet-snake people. The result was a large battle that the poisonous-snake people won. During this battle, the Uluru rock formed and it is believed that three rock holes on the formation are were the leader of carpet-snake people, Ungata, bled to death.

References

1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 178-180; Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 35.

2. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 178.

3. Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. Ibid. p. 35.

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