Australian Aborigine Dream Beliefs
The Australian native peoples are divided into more than 500 tribal groups. These tribes are also of two major types – those who live inland, and those who live along the coastline. The separation of tribes and the division provided by the environment led to differences in views about the nature of human life and death, and the part dreams played. But some beliefs, such as reincarnation and the ‘Dreamtime’, were universally held.
Dreamtime refers to an experience and to beliefs that are largely peculiar to the Australian native people. There are at least four aspects to Dreamtime – The beginning of all things; the life and influence of the ancestors; the way of life and death; and sources of power in life.
Dreamtime includes all of these four facets at the same time, being a condition beyond time and space as known in everyday life. The aborigines call it the ‘all-at-once’ time instead of the ‘one-thing-after-another’ time. This is because they experience Dreamtime as the past present and future coexisting. This condition – See: altered states of consciousness – is met when the tribal member lives according to tribal rules, and then is initiated through rituals and hearing the myths of the tribe.
Although Dreamtime may sound rather mystical or mysterious to the Western mind, the experience is based on understandable and observable facts of social and mental life which are unfortunately little valued in Western society. For instance the present is observably the result of past actions or events. Present society is particularly the result of past great men and women and their – heroic – deeds. For the Australian native peoples, as with many other ancient races, the heroic deeds of past ancestors were remembered with great veneration. It was seen that all present life, and even the personal skills and character of tribal members, arose out of the life of the ancestors. The ancestors, their deeds, and what arise from them into the life of the tribe in the present, are all held in the Dreamtime beyond the shifting events of things happening one-after-the-other.
The aborigine people believed that each person had a part of their nature that was eternal. This eternal being pre-existed the life of the individual, and only became a living person through being born to a mother. The person then lived a life in time, and at death melted back into the eternal life.
In writing about the state of mind – the mental world – of early races, J. B. Priestley – in Man and Time – says that if we are to properly understand the ancient peoples we must never project onto them our own state of mind and rational thought. Studies have shown that ancient people experienced what is called an undifferentiated state of mind. Their sense of being a separate and independent person was much less than is commonly experienced in modern life. They did not separate their religious life, their social life, their economic life, their artistic life and their sexual life from each other. This is obvious to even a casual observation of such societies, or even third world cultures, where religion and eating, and work are all very much connected. To be banished from the tribe was tantamount to death for primitive individuals, so deeply were they identified in psychological and practical ways to the rest of the tribe. But it is not an unusual thing for a modern man or woman to leave their place of birth, their family or their country, and live abroad. Such simple facts illustrate the deep divide between the modern and ancient state of mind.
If we remember our early childhood, with the absence of an awareness of passing time, the fullness of each day, the eternity of a week or a month, the enormous and unquestioned – if still untraumatised – sense of connection with our family, then we will have an idea of the mental world of the older races. For the aborigine these facts of their life were tangible realities, known through their inner experience in dreams and waking visions. Prior to the development of the reasoning and questioning mind, people did not consider things by thinking about them in neat ideas and definitions. Like the parables in the Bible or Aesop’s fables, which say so much, but do so with images and through the relationship of one thing or person with another, early human beings thought in pictures or dream like images. So the aborigine would meet the influence of the ancestors in their life as an actual visionary person, rather than thoughts about tribal history. With the visionary meeting would come deep feelings and insights, making it a real educational experience. This is exactly how dreams express, and in this manner most creative or problem solving ‘thinking’ was done by ancient peoples. Therefore the entrance into dreams, or into a condition in which the imagery of dreaming could function while awake, as in visions or altered states of consciousness, was important for the aborigine. Common ways of accessing this state of mind were through ritual or initiation rites. In this way enormous learning experiences could be met, a sense of complete identification with ancestors and tribal history achieved, and personal change or growth accomplished.
This condition of mind or being in which time is ‘all-at-once’ and the past is felt as intensely close as the present, is a natural and fundamental state. It is what the baby experiences in the womb prior to the separation at birth and the development of concepts through the learning of language. So the rituals which enable the aborigine to return to the womb of all time and existence enables them to feel connected once more to all nature, to all their ancestors, and to their own personal meaning and place within the scheme of things. The Dreamtime is a return to the real existence for the aborigine. Life in time is simply a passing phase – a gap in eternity. It has a beginning and it has an end. The life in Dreamtime has no beginning and no end.
The experience of Dreamtime, whether through ritual or from dreams, flowed through into the life in time in practical ways. The individual who enters the Dreamtime feels no separation between themselves and their ancestors. The strengths and resources of the timeless enter into what is needed in the life of the present. The future is less uncertain because the individual feels their life as a continuum linking past and future in unbroken connection. Through Dreamtime the limiatations of time and space are overcome. It is a much observed feature of aboriginal life that knowledge of distant relatives and their condition is frequently displayed. Therefore if a relative is ill, a distant family member knows this and hurries to them. Often the intuitive knowledge of herbal medicine is gained also.
For the aborigine tribes, there is no ending of life at ‘death’. Dead relatives are very much a part of continuing life. It is believed that in dreams dead relatives communicate their presence. At times they may bring healing if the dreamer is in pain. Death is seen as part of a cycle of life in which one emerges from Dreamtime through birth, and eventually returns to the timeless, only to emerge again. It is also a common belief that a person leaves their body during sleep, and temporarily enters the Dreamtime.
The aboriginal tribes are connected with their local landscape in a way that perhaps no other race of recent times is. The landscape is almost an externalisation of the individual’s inner world. Each tribe had a traditional area of the land which was theirs alone, and it was believed that in the Dreamtime the ancestors shaped the flat landscape into its present features. Each feature was in some way an act of the ancestors, and therefore the tribe. Like many tribal peoples, the Australian native people were deeply dependent upon their beliefs, the landscape and their inner life for their identity and strength. This makes them vulnerable to anything which disrupts their beliefs, although, apart from such vulnerability, they have a greater psychic sense of wholeness and identity with their tribe and environment than is common in Western individuals.