The significance and meaning of the Dreaming is central to Aboriginal spirituality. Each Aboriginal group is connected with the Dreaming and is aware its unique identity is derived from it. Aboriginals today, continue to emerge from the Dreaming, yet they are still intensely connected with it till this day. The Dreaming includes all aspects of Aboriginal life, and because of the vast scale it encompasses, it is a challenging task to link it entirely to a specific typology in the study of religion.
The ‘Dreaming’, is an English term which attempts to convey Aboriginal spirituality. There is no single term that can sum up Aboriginal spirituality, as it has infinite potential and relates to every aspect of Aboriginality. The term ‘Dreaming’, is translated into various languages of the Aboriginal people. The Ngarinyin aboriginal people in North West Australia call it Ungud, while the people in the North East Arnhem Land refer to it as Wongar. At the time of European settlement in Australia it was estimated there were over five hundred Aboriginal language groups.
Each aboriginal group has its distinctive characteristics in connecting with the Dreaming, and defining it which makes Aboriginal spirituality so exceptional, as every Aboriginal is connected with it. One can never truly understand the meaning and significance of the Dreaming unless they are living their life as an Aboriginal connected with it. The ‘Dreaming’, has been around since the beginning of time. It is not confined to the remote past, but also to the present and future.
Time, as a point in history is an unknown concept in traditional Aboriginal understanding, as ‘one cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was and is everywhen’. The beginning of time refers to when the ancestral spirits emerged from the formless earth in human and animal form. They traveled upon it, creating and shaping its physical features, as well as the people, plants and animals. This life force which was released at the beginning, is still present today, and is given off at special places on the earth according to the Aborigines.
This is why, aboriginal people are still emerging from the Dreaming yet still deeply connected with it. The ancestral beings that brought the Dreaming about, belong to an eternal moment that is an ever-present reality which symbolises aboriginal life. Aborigines believe this unseen spirit world and the living landscape gives order to the world. The study of the Dreaming as the religion of the Aboriginal people would include the observation that each tribe has its own forms of ritual, belief, stories and sacred structures, further more these four categories help convey Aboriginal Spirituality.
Each of these aspects could be linked to the various typologies of the study of religion, though the Dreaming as a whole could not be fully defined in one typology. Each unique aboriginal tribe, has different rituals and worship’s different things. Ritual and worship would include, the Rites of Passage and Rites of Devotion. Rites of Passage would include Initiation ceromonies which allow an Aboriginal boy or girl to pass from puberty to manhood or womanhood according to which Dreaming he or she belongs to.
Rites of passage also include birth, marriage and death rituals. Rites of Devotion include prayers, songs, dances, music and offerings which assist in bringing good health, and healing to invididuals and to the land, as well as the resolution of conflict and establishing social harmony in the community. These practices could be linked back to Ninian Smart, who talks of the seven dimensions of religion. These rituals of worship would fit into the Ritual dimension but most aspects would overlap into many of the other dimensions.
For example, an initiation ceremony of one tribe, would fit into the Ritual dimension, but it may have significant links to ethical and legal dimensions, and even mythological dimensions if an Aboriginal boy or girl were not to be initiated. Moore and Habel’s eight categories and Elliot’s similar eight categories also pose the same problem, as the Dreaming cannot truly be defined into separate categories as they would continue to overlap and some aspects of the Dreaming couldn’t be defined into any category. The beliefs and values of the Aborigines vary according to which tribe they belong to.
Though, they share one common factor, that is - the appreciation of the Dreaming as it affects all life. Included in the category of beliefs and values are Spiritual beings, Heroes, Human Nature, Salvation, Laws and Cosmology. Spiritual beings include, ancestral beings as they are the mothers and fathers of all things. Heroes may also include the ancestors, as they created the earth. Human Nature links in with the concern with conception of the child spirit, and life after death. Salvation is the attempt to establish harmony with the world through the spiritual powers of the ancestral beings.
There are aboriginal laws regarding the land, nature and fellow humans and finally Cosmology which relates to the significance of the Dreaming in life. Though, these are only brief outlines, the idea of the Dreaming is much more complex . Sacred Stories play an important part in connecting with the Dreaming. Myths and legends are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. This oral form of retelling sacred stories is extremely important according to the beliefs and values of the Aboriginal people. Moore and Habel put forward eight categories of defining religion, one of these being Sacred Texts.
In Aboriginal spirituality there are no sacred texts, therefore Aboriginality cannot be defined as a religion according to Moore and Habel’s approach, even though it relates to all other categories. The importance of language, and the oral retelling of stories wouldn’t fully fit into any of the categories proposed by the various typologies. The social structures in Aboriginal spirituality include Sacred Space, Sacred Time, Sacred People and Sacred Objects. Sacred Space are places with immense power as they aid in becoming closer to the spiritual beings.
Sacred time is determined by seasons, such as the harvest cycle of certain plants and the rites of increase in times of shortage. Sacred people range from owners of drawings and songs, to healers and sorcerers. Sacred Objects include symbols mentioned in sacred stories as well as natural symbols highly connected with the Dreaming. The idea of the sacred is a vital aspect of the Dreaming. Elliot’s approach rejected the idea of what he saw as a ‘sacred- profane dualism’. According to aboriginal spirituality, everything is sacred, as everything belongs to the Dreaming.
Moore and Habel defined religion as ‘any tradition whose phenomena had a family resemblance to Judaeo-Christian Tradition in its structure and types of phenomena’. The Dreaming does not resemble a Judaeo-Christian structure, which makes Moore and Habel’s approach extremely bias as therefore Aboriginal spirituality cannot be classed as a religion. Smart on the other hand, was concerned that categories should not be manipulated or shaped into a particular world view as he didn’t want to create bias. This then brings forward the concern of legitimacy.
Relating this back to Aboriginal spirituality, through the eyes of a European. Aboriginals could argue their attempts to describe the Dreaming is from an outsider’s point of view and is not a genuine interpretation. It may appear to be offensive, and inaccurate if the account is claimed to be objective. Aboriginal spirituality is more closely related with Smart’s approach into the study of religion, than Moore and Habel, and Elliot’s typologies. Yet, the dimensions put forward are not accurate enough to support all aspects of the Dreaming.
It is clear, that the Dreaming is central to Aboriginal spirituality as the Aboriginal people continue to live their life according to it. It is a present reality which has shaped the aboriginal culture, in the past, but also in the present and will continue to do so in the future. The Dreaming is the basis of everything, the Aboriginal people belong to it, and it belongs to them, in the same way their complete identity originates from it. To entirely link it to a specific typology is virtually impossible and there is no doubt according to the Aboriginals, the Dreaming will continue to have infinite potential among all life forces.