Creativity and Eternity: The Aboriginal Dreamtime

Is the emphasis on a rational grasp of reality destroying the creativity and insight that come from dreams and myth?

Manhole cover in Perth, Australia © Ole Reidar Johansen with CCLicense
Manhole cover in Perth, Australia
© Ole Reidar Johansen with CCLicense

The indigenous peoples of Australia have fantastic Creation myths, peppered by archetypes and universal stories that have been given local color and significance. These people are not only keeping alive a sacred tradition, they are living it. Because of the particular qualities of that tradition, known as the Dreamtime, they have an extremely unique relationship to their land and to the creative spirit.

The Dreamtime existed in the beginning, a place of unbridled creativity and surprises unhampered by logical reality. It was from this place that creation sprung and souls took the form of humans, animals and plants. This is a very intelligent way of dealing with that which is valuable and yet not literal. It acknowledges that there is much humans cannot explain about our origins and allows conscious reality to partner with subconscious experience and intuition. Inherent in this partnership is the recognition that the world of the Dreamtime is present concurrently with what we like to call the “real world” and that creation is not finished. Whenever creativity surfaces in any medium, this is the creative spirit moving and making things new, inviting humans to be a part of the process.

Rock art, Redcliffe, Queensland © Leonard John Matthews with CCLicense
Rock art, Redcliffe, Queensland
© Leonard John Matthews
with CCLicense

If you were traveling in the Australian outback you might be surprised to see indigenous people touching up ancient rock paintings, perhaps even adding to them. What others might see as sacrilegious, disrespectful or careless is to them a loving process of extending creativity into the future and allowing the insights of the creative spirit to guide them into new understanding. For them, this is a far more important thing than preserving the work of a particular artist or group. Art, like creation, is not static and dead, but ever changing.

Wandjina style art, Australian Museum, Sydney
Wandjina style art, Australian Museum, Sydney

Painting the Wandjina, or spirit beings, the alien like figures pictured above, requires special permission from tribal leaders in consultation with the spirits. Very few artists are allowed to do so and only with utmost reverence. Taboos like this have caused some division in the community recently, not unlike those in that have surfaced in other religions, between those seeking to honor the old ways and those pursuing the creative spirit within themselves.

© Alan Levine with CCLicense
© Alan Levine with CCLicense

Particular tribes identify with totem animals from their region, experiencing Crocodile Dreaming, Kangaroo Dreaming, Bandicoot Dreaming or one of many others.

a Perentie also known as a Goanna © Christopher Lance with CCLicense
a Perentie also known as a Goanna
© Christopher Lance with CCLicense
Australian Cockroach © Jean Hort with CCLicense
Australian Cockroach
© Jean Hort with CCLicense

They may use patterns that they see on animals and plants to decorate their artwork, as well as defining their own symbols. Their awareness of these patterns reveals a keen scientific eye as well as a sense of magic and awe in the world around them. They truly  operate in two spheres.

Art at Alice Springs Airport © CameliaTWU with CCLicense
Art at Alice Springs Airport
© CameliaTWU with CCLicense

Indigenous Australians have long believed that the soul exists in the Dreamtime before the life of the individual begins and continues to exist there when the life of the individual ends. The time spent on earth is only a short part of the journey and is rather like an actor playing a part. In becoming flesh, the soul accepts limitations that are not binding in the Dreamtime. In dreams and in creative moments, the individual can feel the connection to his larger soul and experiences synchronicity between the Dreamtime and reality. What a beautifully poetic way to understand the creative process and life itself.

You can watch and hear the story of Waatji Pulyeri, the Blue Wren, a story from the Dreamtime, here on Synkroniciti.

Read more at the subject at Aboriginal Art Online and the Smithsonian Magazine.

8 thoughts on “Creativity and Eternity: The Aboriginal Dreamtime

  1. dreamrly Reply

    Very interesting post! Thank you so much! Werner Herzog’s film Where the Green Ants Dream explores times when the aboriginal way of life and “modern culture” clash. In the film, for the aboriginal group featured (which seems to be based on rather than truly reflective of real aboriginal groups) the dreaming of the green ants is critical to the life of the entire world, and this dreaming becomes threatened when developers move in on aboriginal land. It is worth checking out for those interested in learning more about the topic!

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Thanks, dreamrly! I will check out Where the Green Ants Dream. I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams recently and that has some relevance here as well. Herzog always has an interesting point of view.

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  3. herongrace Reply

    If you love this art, you might be interested in a 3 part art documentary shown on the ABC in Australia, October 2010 called “Art and Soul” made by art curator Hettie Perkins. It featured contemporary urban and traditional Aboriginal artists. It was fabulous.
    One segment made a huge impression on me of an exhibition, Northern Australia somewhere where they showed a very old aboriginal artist being wheeled around the exhibition. He stopped in front of a very long painting of black markings swirls and spirals etc on a white canvas. He studied it intently for a while, and then started to sing. It was explained he did not know the artist or that particular country, but he could read this country and it’s significance, and sing this country. Incredible! We don’t really understand it, but somehow they see these squiggles in a 3 dimensional way and have an deep understanding which I don’t think a white person will ever get.

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Yes, I will look for it. Thank you for the recommendation!
      I think this kind of thing can never be totally understood, but these people definitely get more practice than most of us do and possess a wealth of cultural memory and uncanny eyes. I’m in awe. If I even get an inkling of what is going on I feel blessed.
      Thanks again!

  4. katmcdaniel Reply

    Reblogged this on synkroniciti and commented:

    As part of our visions theme, I am reblogging this post from 2013. I am so captivated by the Dreamtime!

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