Aboriginals believe in two forms of time, two parallel streams of activity. One is daily objective activity. The other is an infinite spiritual cycle called Dreamtime, more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in Dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. Some people of unusual spiritual powers have direct contact with Dreamtime.
Dreamtime is often used as a collective term for all the dreamings of an indigenous people. Dreamtime in modern scholarship often refers to the time before time, or time outside of time. But Dreamtime in a real sense is also present and in the future. Indigenous Australian Peoples refer to it in translation as the all-at-once time which is experienced as a confluence of past, present and future. This does not counter the Indigenous Australians people’s concept of linear time, but it informs and qualifies it. Indigenous Australians consider Dreamtime to be objective, while linear time is considered a subjective construction of the waking consciousness of one’s own lifetime. This is in the converse of the European concept which views dreams as subjective and linear time as objective.
Dreamtime is also often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an Indigenous Australian might say that they have Kangaroo Dreamtime, or Shark Dreamtime, or Honey Ant Dreamtime, or any combination of Dreamtime pertinent to their country. Dreamtime established the patterns of life for the Aboriginal people. Dreamtime was the time of creation.
Dreamtime stories vary throughout Australia, and there are different versions of the same theme. For example, the story of how the birds got their colours is different in New South Wales and in Western Australia. Stories cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation, and which pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian’s life.
They believe that every person in an essential way exists eternally in Dreamtime. This eternal part existed before the life of the individual began, and continues to exist when the life of the individual ends. Both before and after life, it is believed that this spirit child exists in Dreamtime and is only initiated into life by being born through a mother. The spirit of the child is culturally understood to enter the developing foetus during the 5th month of pregnancy. When the mother felt the child move in the womb for the first time, it was thought that this was the work of the spirit of the land. Upon birth, the child was considered to be a special custodian of that part of their country and taught of the stories and songlines of that place.
Traditional Australian indigenous peoples embrace all phenomena and life as part of a vast and complex system of relationships which can be traced directly back to the ancestral spirit beings of Dreamtime. This structure of relations was important to the maintenance of the biological diversity of the indigenous environment and may have contributed to the prevention of overhunting of particular species.
Dreamtime establishes the structure of society rules for social behaviour and the ceremonies performed in order to ensure continuity of life and land. Dreamtime governs the laws of community, cultural lore and how peoples are required to behave in their communities. The condition that is Dreamtime is met when people live according to law, evoking Dreamtime transmissions or lineages, singing the songs, dancing the dances, telling the stories, painting the songlines and dreamings.
Creation was believed to be the work of culture heroes that in the creative epoch travelled across a formless land, creating sacred sites and significant places of interest in their travels. In this way songlines were established, some of which could travel right across Australia, in as many as six to ten different language groupings. The songs and dances of a particular songline were kept alive and frequently performed at large gatherings.
In the Aboriginal world view, every event leaves a record in the land. Everything in the natural world is a result of the actions of the archetypal beings, beings whose actions created the world. Whilst Europeans consider these cultural ancestors to be metaphysical many Aboriginal people still believe in their literal existence. The meaning and significance of particular places and creatures is wedded to their origin in Dreamtime, and certain places have a particular potency.
The dreaming and travelling trails of the Spirit Beings are the songlines or Yiri in the Warlpiri language. The signs of the spirit beings may be of spiritual essence, with physical remains such as petroglyphs of body impressions or footprints among natural elements. The Yarralin people of the Victoria River Valley venerate the spirit Walujapi as the Dreaming Spirit of the black headed python. Walujapi carved a snakelike track along a cliff face and then deposited an impression of her self as she sat establishing camp. Both these dreaming signs are easily discernible.