The Dreamtime, also known as 'The Dreaming', constitutes the spiritual, philosophical, and narrative backbone of Aboriginal culture.
Aboriginal Art, an integral facet of Aboriginal life and an expression of cultural identity, serves as a conduit through which Dreamtime stories are conveyed and preserved. Here we want to share with you a deeper understanding of the Dreamtime and its depiction in Aboriginal Art, tracing the cultural, historical, and spiritual dimensions that make it an indelible part of Aboriginal culture.
Above Image: ‘The Rainbow Serpent’, Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey
If you are an educator or similar we welcome you to use our resources and only ask, where possible, that you provide a backlink to our site from your platform, notice board, etc. Thank you!
Aboriginal Art Articles to Read:
- Aboriginal Art of Australia: Understanding its History
- Dreamtime Stories and The Dreaming in Aboriginal Art
- Aboriginal Art Symbols
- Aboriginal Dot Painting: Evolution and History
It's important to clarify at the beginning, that the terms 'The Dreaming' or 'The Dreamtime' are European translations and other words could have been used, words like eternal and everywhen, for example, have been suggested but they too do not perfectly encapsulate the original concept as expressed in Aboriginal languages. For instance, the Warlpiri people use the term 'Jukurrpa' to describe this spiritual dimension. The use of the terms 'Dreaming' or 'Dreamtime' primarily stems from the interpretations of early anthropologists, offering a simplified perspective on a complex and deeply-rooted cultural concept. So, one key element to keep in mind when reading is that the Dreaming or Dreamtime does not relate to unreality or dreams.
Additionally, understanding the concept of the Aboriginal Dreamtime really demands an approach that moves beyond literal interpretations and conventional thinking. To put this into perspective, consider the vastness of our universe - an unimaginably colossal space, around 2 trillion galaxies each filled with hundreds of billions of stars, planets, and mysteries yet untold. Our Earth, though significant to us, is just a speck in this infinite cosmic canvas.
This expansive view of the universe echoes intriguing parallels with the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a spiritual reality that forms the foundation of Aboriginal identity and consciousness. As with the universe, the Dreamtime is not confined to a singular, linear point of reference; it's a holistic, encompassing dimension that ties together the past, present, and future in a continuum of existence and experience.
As the spiritual philosopher Eckhart Tolle beautifully puts it, "You are not IN the universe, you ARE the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.”
And just as our existence is interwoven with the universe, becoming a point of consciousness in its vastness, so too is the Dreamtime inextricably linked with Aboriginal identity and cultural consciousness. It's not a mere aspect of their culture; rather, it forms the core of Aboriginal existence, a cosmic symphony in which every note, every rhythm is interconnected.
In understanding the Dreaming and Dreamtime stories and their expression in Aboriginal Art, it's essential to bear this holistic perspective in mind. We want you to move beyond the surface and preconceptions and delve deeper into the spiritual, cultural, and cosmic layers of Aboriginal Dreamtime with an open mind.
Also, once we cover the general information please find specific details below relating to:
- Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story
- The Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story
- The Wandjina Dreamtime Story
- Water Dreamtime Stories
What is the Dreamtime?
The Dreamtime permeates all aspects of Aboriginal culture, underpinning the social, spiritual, and moral order of Aboriginal life. It bridges the temporal divide between the past, the present, and the future, forming a cyclical continuum where the ancestral spirits and their earthly incarnations co-exist. This section explores the spiritual essence of the Dreamtime, its manifestation in the physical world, and the moral codes it encapsulates.
The Dreamtime is a complex metaphysical framework, within which Aboriginal peoples understand their place in the universe, their relationships with their kin, and their connections with the land. It offers a unique interpretation of reality, where the temporal, the spiritual, and the natural domains are intricately interconnected, and life is seen as a harmonious part of this larger cosmic order.
The Dreamtime is also a realm where the Ancestral Beings roam. These spiritual entities, often embodied as animals or natural elements, are credited with creating the world and its inhabitants during the time of creation. Each Aboriginal group has its own pantheon of Ancestral Beings and creation stories, associated with specific geographical locations within their traditional lands. The paths traversed by these Ancestral Beings across the land, often referred to as 'Songlines', 'Dreaming Tracks' or 'Dreaming Paths', form a complex web of routes connecting significant sites or 'Sacred Sites' across Australia.
Along with its spiritual and narrative dimensions, the Dreamtime also incorporates a comprehensive moral code that guides the Aboriginal people's way of life. It establishes the laws for social conduct, responsibilities towards kin, respect for elders, stewardship of the land, and protocols for the sharing and transmission of knowledge. The Dreamtime, therefore, forms the basis of Aboriginal law and order, offering ethical and moral guidelines that uphold social harmony and mutual respect within the community.
In essence, the Dreamtime is the lifeblood of Aboriginal culture, imbuing it with rich spirituality, a profound connection to the land, and a robust moral framework. It provides Aboriginal people with a deep sense of identity and belonging, tethering them to their ancestors, their country, and their spiritual heritage. This deep-seated spiritual belief system remains a vital part of Aboriginal culture, fostering resilience and unity among Indigenous communities, despite the challenges and adversities they have faced since colonisation.
Dreamtime Stories: The Lore of the Land
Embedded in the Dreamtime are myriad stories, or 'Dreaming Stories'. These narratives encapsulate the journeys and deeds of Ancestral Beings and serve as a traditional means of conveying moral codes, survival techniques, and environmental knowledge. This section shares the intricate layers of Dreamtime stories, exploring their narrative structures, themes, and their significance in the preservation and transmission of Indigenous knowledge and wisdom.
The lore of Dreamtime stories forms an integral part of Aboriginal oral tradition. Passed down from one generation to the next, these narratives bring to life the interconnected complexities of the Dreamtime, portraying the exploits of Ancestral Beings, the genesis of the natural world, and the emergence of human societies. The stories are multifaceted, bearing multiple layers of meaning ranging from simple moral fables to sophisticated philosophical discourses.
At their core, Dreamtime stories are more than mere tales; they are the living repositories of Aboriginal wisdom and knowledge. They encapsulate essential survival information, such as the locations of water sources, the habits of animals, and the seasonal availability of food. They also offer practical wisdom on social interaction, conflict resolution, and moral conduct.
Moreover, Dreamtime stories also have a deep spiritual resonance, articulating the intimate bond between Aboriginal peoples and their environment. Many of these narratives are geographically specific, connected to particular landscapes, landmarks, and ecological features. They illustrate the Aboriginal perception of the land as a spiritual entity, imbued with the essence of the Ancestral Beings, and entrusted to their care.
Dreamtime stories thus serve a critical role in the preservation and transmission of Aboriginal culture and knowledge. They function as educational tools, instructing younger generations about the cultural history, traditional practices, social norms, and spiritual beliefs of their people. By perpetuating these stories, Aboriginal societies ensure the continuity of their cultural heritage, sustaining the spiritual vitality of the Dreamtime.
The Genesis of Aboriginal Art
Artistic expression in Aboriginal societies dates back millennia, with ancient rock art sites bearing testament to the artistic prowess of Indigenous Australians. This section traverses the historical journey of Aboriginal Art, from its ancient beginnings to its contemporary manifestations, highlighting its evolution, diversity, and enduring cultural significance.
Aboriginal Art, in its varied forms, has been an integral part of Indigenous cultural practices for thousands of years. Evidence of this artistic heritage can be found etched on the walls of rock shelters, carved into trees, engraved on ceremonial objects, and painted on bodies during traditional rituals. These ancient artistic practices reflect the early Indigenous Australians' deep spiritual connection with the Dreamtime and their need to articulate this connection through visual means.
One of the most potent forms of traditional Aboriginal Art is rock painting, a practice believed to date back over 30,000 years. Sites such as Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region in Western Australia abound with rock art galleries showcasing a rich array of images including human figures, animals, mythical beings, and abstract symbols. These ancient canvases are more than mere artworks; they are cultural archives, preserving the spiritual beliefs, societal structures, and environmental knowledge of the Aboriginal people.
Traditional Aboriginal Art also includes other art forms such as bark painting, body painting, wood carving, and weaving. Each of these practices employs distinctive techniques, materials, and symbols, reflecting the rich diversity within Aboriginal societies. While some of these art forms are utilitarian others serve specific cultural purposes, ranging from ceremonial and spiritual functions to storytelling and knowledge transmission.
In the late 20th century, Aboriginal Art underwent a significant transformation with the advent of the contemporary Aboriginal Art movement. Indigenous artists began to employ modern materials and techniques, translating their ancestral narratives and spiritual iconography onto canvas. This artistic renaissance has led to the global recognition of Aboriginal Art, showcasing the dynamism and resilience of Aboriginal culture in the contemporary world. Today, Aboriginal Art continues to evolve, yet it remains firmly grounded in the Dreamtime, reflecting the timeless and continuing connection of Indigenous Australians with their ancestral heritage.
For further reading on the history of Aboriginal Art and Aboriginal Art Symbols please read
Dreamtime Art is More than Aesthetics
Aboriginal Art, deeply entrenched in the Dreamtime, manifests as a potent expression of Aboriginal cosmology, societal norms, and ancestral narratives. Each artwork, irrespective of its medium or period, is a testament to the Dreamtime, encapsulating its intricate relationship with the past, present, and future, as perceived in the worldview of Aboriginal peoples.
Each artistic expression emerging from Aboriginal societies communicates the perpetual connection between the people, their land, their ancestral heritage, and their profound spirituality. This unbroken bond, preserved and expressed over millennia, resonates at the core of each artwork, adding layers of depth and significance that transcend a purely visual or aesthetic experience.
Understanding Aboriginal Art, therefore, involves embarking on a journey of enlightenment into a rich and complex cultural landscape – a voyage that leads us into the very heart of the Dreamtime. This journey goes beyond a passive observation of the artistic forms and patterns; it demands active engagement with the philosophy and wisdom they embody. As we navigate the complexities of these artistic expressions, we begin to decipher the meanings hidden within, illuminating our understanding of an ancient culture and its sophisticated conceptualisation of reality.
Furthermore, the exploration of Aboriginal Art opens up dialogues about cultural preservation and respect. As the artistic narratives unfold, they reveal the sacred connection of the Aboriginal peoples with the natural world, their communal responsibilities, and their spiritual wisdom, deeply embedded within their societal structures and daily lives. These insights underscore the significance of acknowledging, preserving, and respecting these rich traditions, especially in the face of increasing globalisation and cultural assimilation.
Profound Implications of Dreamtime Art
The magnitude of Dreamtime art permeates numerous facets of Aboriginal culture and society, acting as an indelible testament to the vibrancy of Indigenous heritage. As a vehicle for cultural continuity, Dreamtime art plays a crucial role in preserving the rich tapestry of Aboriginal heritage. Indigenous artists transpose the nuanced tales, customs, and metaphysical knowledge of the Dreaming onto canvas, ensuring a tangible and enduring manifestation of ancestral heritage. In doing so, the artistic journey serves as a conduit for the propagation of cultural identity and knowledge, handed down across the generations.
Dreamtime art emerges as a potent instrument for advocating and consolidating Aboriginal cultural identity. The intricacies of Dreamtime narratives, symbols, and iconography find a resonant voice in art, echoing the distinctive heritage of Indigenous communities. The art thus becomes an emblem of cultural pride, resilience, and continuity, reinforcing a sense of community identity and offering a counter-narrative to the impacts of colonisation and cultural assimilation.
By embodying the profound connection between Indigenous peoples and their land, Dreamtime art helps nurture this symbiotic relationship. Ancestral narratives are frequently woven into specific landscapes, natural landmarks, and sacred sites. Artists capture this intricate interdependence between the land, ancestral beings, and human existence in their works. The art thus becomes an artistic reaffirmation of the spiritual and cultural bond Indigenous people share with their ancestral lands.
Dreamtime art serves as a canvas for empowerment, enabling Aboriginal artists to reclaim, assert, and share their cultural narratives and perspectives. By expressing their stories through their art, artists challenge stereotypes, deconstruct barriers, and assert their autonomy in their cultural representation. Further, the evocative power of Dreamtime art has the potential to foster empathy and reverence in non-Indigenous audiences. This window into the rich spiritual and cultural universe of Aboriginal people promotes a dialogue of understanding, facilitating the path toward reconciliation.
The economic and societal implications of Dreamtime art have catalysed development within Aboriginal communities. The surge in recognition and appreciation of Aboriginal Art, domestically and internationally, has unveiled new economic prospects for artists and their communities. Proceeds from art sales, exhibitions, and cultural tourism initiatives generate sustainable income streams and employment opportunities. Concurrently, these activities instill cultural pride, rejuvenate traditional practices, and enhance social cohesion.
Dreamtime art, in many ways, serves as a cultural diplomat, forging a conduit between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous cultures. The visual narratives of Dreamtime stories offer non-Indigenous audiences an immersive exploration of the spiritual, historical, and cultural dimensions of Aboriginal culture. This process encourages dialogue, challenges preconceptions, and fosters an environment of cross-cultural collaboration, nurturing a more inclusive and diverse society.
The myriad implications of Dreamtime art transcend cultural, social, and economic boundaries, becoming a cornerstone of Aboriginal communities and the wider society. As a dynamic preservation tool, a cultural advocate, a bond nurturer, a platform for empowerment, and a bridge builder, Dreamtime art's roles are both multifaceted and profound. Through their artistic creations, Aboriginal artists persist in shaping the narrative of the Dreaming, thereby ensuring its enduring legacy and adding depth to the global artistic landscape. As we immerse ourselves in Dreamtime art, we are invited to appreciate the richness, beauty, and spiritual resonance of Aboriginal culture, offering a humbling reminder of the timeless vitality of the Dreaming.
The Living Legacy of the Dreamtime
Aboriginal Art, reflecting the profound nuances of the Dreamtime and sharing Dreamtime stories, serves as a living testament to its timeless significance and spiritual philosophy. This artistic tradition, deeply rooted in ancient wisdom yet dynamically evolving with the times, encapsulates a culture that invites us to look beyond our own cultural perspectives and appreciate the richness and diversity of human understanding.
The dynamism of Aboriginal Art resonates in its diverse forms and expressions, each revealing the depth of the Dreamtime and the richness of Aboriginal culture. Whether through primordial rock art, etched in time and place, or the pulsating and evocative contemporary canvases that reflect changing societal dynamics, each artwork is a cultural manifestation of the Dreamtime, an interwoven narrative of past, present, and future, as understood in the Aboriginal worldview.
Every artistic creation from Aboriginal communities demonstrates an enduring connection between the people and their land, their lineage, and their profound spirituality. This unbroken bond, preserved and expressed over thousands of years, permeates each artwork, adding layers of depth and meaning that extend beyond the visual or aesthetic experience. Understanding Aboriginal Art thus becomes a journey into a rich cultural landscape, a voyage into the heart of the Dreamtime. This journey involves not just observation, but active engagement with the philosophy and wisdom they embody, illuminating our understanding of an ancient culture and its sophisticated conceptualisation of reality.
Furthermore, exploring Aboriginal Art opens up vital conversations about cultural preservation and respect. The artistic narratives reveal the Aboriginal peoples' sacred connection with the natural world, their communal responsibilities, and their spiritual wisdom deeply embedded within their societal structures and day-to-day lives. These insights underscore the need to acknowledge, preserve, and respect these rich traditions, especially in a globalised world marked by increasing cultural homogenisation.
to conclude this section, Aboriginal Art serves as a vibrant testament to the timeless relevance of the Dreamtime and its spiritual philosophy. As we delve into the intricate artistic expressions, we are not just appreciating art; we are engaging with a deep spiritual and cultural heritage that has much to teach us about our shared human journey. Whether it is through the preservation of cultural identity, the affirmation of a profound connection to land, or the assertion of cultural narratives, Aboriginal Art offers a humbling reminder of the timeless vitality of the Dreamtime and the enduring power of human creativity.
Now lets explore some of the specific narratives.
The Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story
Rooted in the cultural beliefs and mythologies of Australian Aboriginal groups, this ancient narrative weaves together the forces of creation, nature, and spiritual wisdom. Aboriginal artists have played a crucial role in capturing the essence of the Rainbow Serpent through their artworks.
At the heart of the Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story stands the central figure—the Rainbow Serpent. Often portrayed as a colossal and vibrant snake, this powerful entity embodies the creative life force that shaped the world. In the Dreamtime the Rainbow Serpent roamed the land, its immense body carved rivers, created waterholes, shaped landscapes, and breathed life into plants, animals, and humans, setting the stage for the intricate web of existence.
L Wanampi Tjukurpa - Mythical Rainbow Snake Creation Story, 2009, Tiger Palpatja
R Garimala (The Two Snakes) 1988, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala
The Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story encompasses profound spiritual significance for many Aboriginal Peoples, particularly those inhabiting desert regions. Believed to dwell in waterholes and traverse the realm beneath the ground or amidst storm clouds, this enigmatic entity holds sway over rainfall, determining the fate of communities by bestowing or withholding vital precipitation. Thus, the Rainbow Serpent became an emblem of fertility, abundance, and the interconnectedness of all living beings.
The Rainbow Serpent wields extraordinary potency, capable of conjuring tempestuous storms, violent gales, and torrential downpours. Those who fail to approach it with proper deference risk its swift retribution. As a guardian of water, it exercises dominion over life and death in the desert's arid expanse. In Arnhem Land, nestled in the Northern Territory, the Rainbow Serpent embodies prosperity and fecundity, both in the natural realm and human society. It possesses the authority to confer conception spirits upon waterholes, while also exacting justice upon transgressors of age-old customs and laws.
Approaching a waterhole becomes an act of profound reverence for Aboriginal peoples. Beyond its role in shaping the physical world, the Rainbow Serpent is revered as a spiritual guardian. Aboriginal communities hold a deep respect for this ancestral being, recognising its enduring presence within the land. Aboriginal peoples believe that the Rainbow Serpent's spirit continues to guide and protect the natural environment and its inhabitants. Through rituals, ceremonies, and respect for sacred sites, Aboriginal peoples maintain a harmonious relationship with the Rainbow Serpent, honouring their responsibilities as custodians of the land.
Known as Ngalyod in the Kuninjku language of Arnhem Land, the Rainbow Serpent maintains a symbiotic relationship with water sources such as creeks and rivers. Its influence extends to the flourishing of waterborne flora, including vibrant waterlilies, entwining vines, and elegant palms. Shedding its skin symbolises the essence of renewal and the capacity to rejuvenate life's eternal cycle. Mythological accounts of the Rainbow Serpent often portray a formidable creature that consumes humans, only to release them transformed, a testament to its regenerative prowess.
The Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story carries profound symbolism and cultural significance within Aboriginal communities. Its tale serves as a didactic tool, imparting moral lessons, ecological wisdom, and ancestral heritage to younger generations. It underscores the importance of maintaining balance, harmony, and respect for the natural world, instilling a deep sense of belonging and connection with the land and its spiritual forces.
L Untitled(Rainbow Serpent), Rover Thomas, c1986
R Ngalyod - the Rainbow Serpent, Jimmy Njiminjuma, c1985
The Rainbow Serpent assumes a myriad of names and totemic forms across diverse Aboriginal languages and communities. Embedded within the tapestry of Dreaming and Creation narratives, it perpetuates its authoritative dominion over human existence. Sacred sites associated with the Rainbow Serpent command unwavering reverence and custodial care from Aboriginal communities. Adherence to prescribed protocols at these sites becomes imperative, for transgressions are believed to incite afflictions, accidents, and nature's tumultuous outpourings. However, there exist Rainbow Serpent sites where people are welcome to engage in hunting, fishing, and swimming without apprehension.
The allure of the Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story has transcended oral tradition and found expression in various forms of Aboriginal Art. Aboriginal artists skilfully capture the Rainbow Serpent's vibrant hues and sinuous form on canvases, bark paintings, and rock art. These evocative representations not only convey the beauty of the narrative but also serve as a means of cultural preservation and a way to share the spiritual significance of the Rainbow Serpent with the wider world.
In appreciating the Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story and the artists who paint it, it is crucial to approach it with respect, understanding, and cultural sensitivity. Aboriginal communities have guarded these narratives for thousands of years. By engaging in meaningful dialogue, supporting Indigenous artists, and actively promoting cultural appreciation, we can contribute to the preservation and celebration of these invaluable traditions.
The Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story invites us into a realm of profound beauty, wisdom, and interconnectedness. It unveils the ancestral knowledge, spiritual beliefs, and ecological harmony that have shaped the Aboriginal cultures of Australia for millennia. Embracing the significance of this narrative offers us an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the diverse world around us and forge meaningful connections with the land, its inhabitants, and the enduring wisdom of the Dreamtime.
The Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story
Within the intricate web of many Aboriginal language groups, the Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story stands as a mesmerising testament to the power of sisterhood, resilience, and the pursuit of autonomy. Rooted in ancient wisdom and adorned with celestial wonder, this captivating narrative continues to inspire and resonate with profound meaning across generations and is shared and empowered through Aboriginal artworks.
Pleiades seen with the naked eye (upper-left corner), Wikipedia
The Seven Sisters, a cluster of stars widely known as the Pleiades, grace the night sky with their ethereal presence. In Aboriginal lore of many language groups, but not all, they embody the essence of seven young women embarking on an extraordinary odyssey through the celestial expanse. Their journey serves as a metaphorical embodiment of the empowerment and liberation sought by women throughout time.
At the heart of the Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story and Aboriginal paintings of this nature lies the ever-present threat of a malevolent figure, Nyiru, who features in Orion’s Belt star cluster and whose desires drive him to relentlessly pursue the sisters. As they traverse the heavens, the sisters cleverly transform themselves into various earthly forms, using their ingenuity and resourcefulness to outwit their pursuer.
Their journey not only shapes the celestial realm but also leaves an indelible mark on the physical landscape of Australia. Mountains, valleys, and waterways bear witness to their celestial dance, creating a symbiotic connection between the heavenly and earthly domains. The land itself becomes a living testament to their resilience and the enduring power of their story.
Embedded within the Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story is a profound spiritual significance for Aboriginal communities. It embodies the strength of sisterhood, the spirit of independence, and the courage to defy oppressive forces. The story resonates with themes of empowerment, inspiring women to embrace their own journeys of self-discovery, autonomy, and liberation.
Artists within Aboriginal communities intricately depict the Seven Sisters in their paintings, translating the celestial saga onto canvas. Through vibrant colours and intricate patterns, they capture the essence of the sisters' celestial voyage, inviting viewers into a world of celestial wonder and feminine empowerment.
L Seven Sisters Dreaming, Alma Nungarrayi Granites, 2012
R Seven Sisters, Tjungkara Ken, 2021
The universal appeal of the Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story has transcended cultural boundaries, captivating the hearts and minds of people across the world. Its message of empowerment, perseverance, and the pursuit of freedom resonates across time and space, fostering cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.
As custodians of this ancient narrative, Aboriginal communities preserve and share the Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story with profound reverence. Through oral tradition, visual arts, and cultural practices, they ensure that the wisdom and teachings woven into this enchanting tale endure, enriching the lives of present and future generations.
The Seven Sisters Dreamtime Story serves as a luminous thread connecting celestial realms with the human experience. It invites us to contemplate the inherent strength within sisterhood, the pursuit of autonomy, and the enduring power of myth and legend to illuminate our shared humanity. Within this celestial odyssey, we discover the transformative potential that lies within each individual, as they embark on their own journey of self-discovery, empowerment, and the realisation of their true potential.
The Wandjina Spirit and Dreamtime Story
Deep within the ancient culture of the Aboriginal Peoples from the Kimberley region lies the enigmatic Wandjina. This captivating narrative unveils a realm of spiritual significance, rich symbolism, and profound cosmic connections that have resonated through countless generations. The Wandjina (also written Wanjina and Wondjina and also known as Gulingi) Dreamtime story unfolds like a sacred mural, painted across the rock galleries and caves of the Kimberley region in Western Australia. It is a story that speaks of the Rain Maker spirit, the Wandjina, whose presence is deeply associated with the seasonal regeneration of the land and all natural resources.
L Kimberley thunderstorms during the wet season
R Wandjina rock art, Bigge Island, The Kimberley
The significance of the Wandjina Dreamtime story transcends linguistic boundaries, as it is shared by several language groups across the west and coastal areas of the Kimberley, including the Ngarinyin, Worrorra, and Wunambul people. It is a story that binds these communities together, connecting them to the ancestral beings who shaped their land, imparted spiritual knowledge, and bestowed the gift of rain.
They are often depicted as large, otherworldly figures with distinct features, such as round faces, large eyes, and adorned with intricate headdresses and body decorations.
Wandjina rock art, Barnett River, The Kimberley
The artistry of the Wandjina dreamtime images, marked in red and white ochre, is an integral part of this sacred tradition. These timeless paintings adorn the walls of significant ritual sites, preserving the essence of the Wandjina and ensuring its continued presence in the lives of the Aboriginal people. The meticulous repainting of these images every decade serves as a testament to the deep reverence and ongoing relationship between the communities and the Rain Maker spirit.
The Wandjina is regarded as the most significant Creation Spirit within the Dreamtime story from this region. Their association with rain goes beyond mere meteorological phenomena; it represents the cyclical rejuvenation of the land and all natural resources. The Wandjina's power to bring forth life-giving rainfall is symbolised by the intricate dots covering their bodies. These dots are not mere artistic embellishments; they are representations of the life-giving force that sustains the land.
The imagery surrounding the head of the Wandjina often includes elements of thunderstorms, lightning, and torrential rains. These powerful forces of nature are incorporated into ceremonial dances that pay homage to the Rain Maker spirit. Headdresses symbolically referring to lightning and thunder become part of the dance, evoking the awe-inspiring energy of the Wandjina and their connection to the natural world.
For the Mowanjum community near Derby in the Kimberley, the Wandjina not only brings rain but also carries the law, culture, and language of their people. The Dreaming stories of the Mowanjum community tell of the first Wandjina, Idjair, residing in the Milky Way, and being the father of all Wandjinas. Idjair's first son, Wandjina Wallungunder, played a vital role in the creation of the Earth and all life upon it. He bestowed the laws of the Wandjinas upon the Gyorn Gyorn people, the first human beings. The journey of Wandjina Wallungunder to bring back more Wandjinas symbolises the connection between the different language groups of Mowanjum, with each Wandjina representing a specific group.
The rock paintings of the Wandjina carry an immense sense of antiquity, with some estimates suggesting their existence for over 4,000 years. These ancient images often coexist with even older Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw figures) paintings, creating a layered narrative of the region's rich cultural history. While the Gwion Gwion art has withstood the test of time, the temporal nature of the Wandjina paintings leaves them vulnerable to the passage of time and environmental factors. To ensure the continuity of the Rain Maker spirit's presence, contemporary Aboriginal artists continue to repaint rock surfaces and also depict the Wandjina on canvas, allowing the great image to transcend its traditional sites and inspire a broader connection.
Anthropologist Kim Ackerman provides insights into the Wandjina, offering valuable descriptions and interpretations of their significance and cultural context.
L Diagram of Wunambal Wanjina based on field notes of Kim Ackerman
R Alec Mingelmanganu, Wandjina, c. 1980
'' ..The identification with Wanjinas is reflected in their inclusion as major motifs in contemporary art of the north-central Kimberley that has seen shifts from paintings executed on the walls of caves and overhangs, to paintings on sheets of bark and ultimately industrial materials, from chipboard to the finest artist canvases. Regardless of actual size the proportions of good Wanjina paintings project a sense of cyclopean grandeur – a massive, looming ruggedness from which the large, penetrating eyes quizzically regard the viewer.
Wanjina beings are usually depicted as anthropomorphic figures, sometimes full length but also often as busts - with just head and shoulders portrayed. The head is often surrounded by one or more halo-like headdresses or by radiating ‘plumes’. The mouth is not depicted - although at least one artist, Charlie Numbulmoore, began to include mouth and teeth in the Wanjina paintings he made toward the end of his life. There is often an oval or sub-oval mark in the central chest region. Where the full body is depicted Wanjinas are often shown with a hair belt around the midriff and major joints as well as fingers and toes are indicated. Gender is not always obvious although female Wanjinas may be depicted with breasts. Wanjinas are believed to be responsible for the maintenance of the seasonal cycle - especially the Wet Season that reinvigorates the land after the drought conditions of the dry winter and early summer. Wanjinas are intimately associated with the Ungurr Rainbow Serpents. Clan leaders stimulate and encourage the Wanjinas to fulfil their roles as agents of fertility and growth by repainting their images located in the shelters in caves.''
In the depths of the Wandjina Dreamtime story, we are confronted with the enduring power of the Rain Maker spirit and its profound significance to the Aboriginal communities of the Kimberley. This ancient narrative invites us to appreciate the delicate balance between humanity and the natural world, acknowledging the awe-inspiring forces that sustain life and embody the wisdom of the Dreamtime. The Wandjina Dreamtime story stands as a testament to the profound cultural heritage of the Kimberley region, acting as a bridge to a deeper understanding of our shared human experience and the interconnectedness of all living beings. It challenges us to explore the depths of our own spiritual connections and embrace the awe-inspiring mysteries that lie beyond the tangible world.
Water holds profound significance within the art and spirituality of Aboriginal communities across Australia. It features in a myriad of Dreamtime stories, cultural practices, and artistic expressions that revolve around the life-giving element of water.
Ngurrara Canvas (10x8 meters), Created by the senior traditional owners of the Great Sandy Desert, May 1997. This incredible painting was used to show the artists' connection to their country during their Native Title claim and highlights the importance of water sites to the claimants in this vast area, albeit only a small part of the Australian continent.
From the coastal regions to the arid deserts of Australia, water Dreaming and Dreamtime stories reflect the deep connection between Aboriginal people and their environments, emphasising the importance of water as a physical need and a spiritual entity.
As you can imagine, water sources such as rockholes, springs, rivers, and billabongs are considered vital elements of traditional knowledge and ritual life. These water sites are diligently maintained to ensure their quality and accessibility, as they serve as crucial lifelines in arid regions.
The geological diversity of desert regions in Australia contributes to the varied characteristics of waterholes and springs. Some are permanent, often referred to as 'living water', holding water year-round due to the presence of reliable underground water sources. Others may be ephemeral, known as soakages or rockholes by some Aboriginal peoples, filling only during periods of rainfall and drying up during drier seasons. The size and depth of waterholes and springs can also vary, ranging from shallow pools to deep reservoirs.
These water sources, shaped by millions of years of geological processes, are vital for the survival of plants, animals, and Aboriginal communities in Australia's desert environments.
Kurtal by Ngarralja Tommy May with a photograph of the Great Sandy Desert site inset.
Kurtal waterhole is described as one of the most important sacred waterholes in the Great Sandy Desert. Ngarralja Tommy May is one of the custodians of Kurtal and about the rainmaker he says, ‘Kurtal is the Kalpurtu (Rainbow Serpent) that brings the rain. He is extremely powerful, not just anyone can talk to him. There is an important Junba (ceremony) that happens for him. He’ll come out, then he’ll bring the storm and it will rain’.
Kurtal, Spider Snell. Inset, Spider Snell dancing Kurtal on it's place as part of the large Ngurrara Canvas show above.
Kurtal dancers performing. Artworks: Kurtal with pink cloud, 1992 and Dance of Kurtal, 1988, both by David Jarinyanu Downs
For Aboriginal communities, waterholes hold great cultural and spiritual importance. Ceremonies are often conducted at these sites to commemorate their creation and to maintain a connection with their ancestral roots. Birthplaces of individuals are frequently located near waterholes, further emphasising the significance of water in their lives. Seasonal ceremonies are performed to invoke rains that bring about the regeneration of plants and provide sustenance for both animals and people.
Raining on Kurtal, Ngarralja Tommy May, 2016 and a Kimberley rainstorm.
Kurtal is the Jila (living spring), Kurtal is the Kalpurtu(Rainbow Serpent) that makes the rain, Kurtal is the ancestors. This work is Kurtal rising up and making it rain. - Ngarralja Tommy May
Water Dreaming sites are closely tied to the land and its water sources, such as rivers, creeks, billabongs, soakages, and springs. These water bodies serve as crucial resources, sustaining both the physical and spiritual well-being of the people and the land itself. The Dreamtime stories associated with water Dreaming often narrate the creation of these water sources, their significance in the natural order, and the ancestral beings responsible for their formation.
Bandilngan (Windjana Gorge) National Park is part of a 375 million-year-old Devonian reef system. Carved by the Lennard River, Bandilngan is over three kilometres long with 300 metre-high walls.
One example that highlights the importance of water Dreaming in the Central Desert region is found with the Warlpiri people of Central Australia. Warlpiri people have a deep connection to the country associated with their 'ngapa Jukurrpa' (water Dreaming), including the site of Mikanji, a watercourse west of Yuendumu. Despite being typically dry, Mikanji contains essential 'mulju' (soakages) within its creek bed.
Within the Warlpiri water Dreaming narrative, one story describes the journey of the water Dreaming from Puyurru, located northwest of Yuendumu, to a soakage in the Mikanji creek. During this journey, a tremendous storm is unleashed, bringing life-giving rains to the land. The story features two old blind Nampijinpa women sitting by the soakages. As they strain their eyes to see the sky, tears well up, and their emotions manifest in the form of rain. The spirits of these women can still be observed at Mikanji as two 'ngapiri' or river red gum trees growing near the soakage.
This Warlpiri water Dreaming also intertwines with other Dreaming narratives. In one, the storm created by the water Dreaming at Mikanji is picked up by a 'kirrkarlanji' or brown falcon. The falcon carries the storm on its wings, eventually dropping it at Pirlinyarnu (Mt. Farewell), where it forms a significant 'maluri' or claypan. This claypan holds a 'mulju' or soakage, sustaining life in the area.
Water Dreaming stories vary across different Aboriginal language groups, communities, and geographical regions. Each story carries unique elements specific to the land, water sources, and ancestral beings of that particular area. The Dreaming tracks associated with water Dreaming may traverse vast distances, linking various locations and creating a profound spiritual connection between different communities and across languages.
In the coastal regions, water Dreaming often relates to the ocean, tides, and marine life. For example, the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land have Dreamtime stories that explain the creation of saltwater and freshwater environments and the interactions between ancestral beings and marine creatures. These stories emphasise the interplay between land and sea, highlighting the cyclical nature of water and its importance in sustaining all aspects of life.
Yolngu man spear fishing in Arnhem Land
In the arid regions, water Dreaming is intertwined with the concept of 'living water' or 'Jila.' The Martu people of the Western Desert, for instance, have Dreamtime stories associated with the creation of waterholes and the movements of ancestral beings across the vast desert landscape. These stories reinforce the spiritual connection between the Martu people, the land, and the life-sustaining water sources scattered throughout the harsh desert environment.
Our Country (5x3m), Collaborative work by 10 Martu Artists, 2011. This work depicts the Canning Stock Route and the wells along it and illustrates the artists intimate knowledge of their country, the importance of fire to manage county, the vast sand hills and underground water sources, and Martu Jukurrpa (Dreaming).
Water Dreaming is not confined to specific stories but also encompasses broader cultural practices. Water is considered a sacred element, and ceremonies and rituals associated with water Dreaming play a significant role in many Aboriginal peoples cultures. These ceremonies often involve the singing of songs, the performance of dances, and the creation of intricate artworks that depict the Dreaming stories and ancestral beings associated with water.
In contemporary Warlpiri paintings, traditional iconography is used to represent the 'Jukurrpa' (Dreaming), associated sites, and other elements. In many paintings of this Dreaming, short dashes are often used to represent 'mangkurdu' (cumulus and stratocumulus clouds), symbolising the presence of water and rain. Longer, flowing lines represent 'ngawarra' or floodwaters, depicting the transformative power of water. Concentric circles often represent specific sites or water sources, while small circles are often used to depict 'mulju' or soakages and river beds, emphasising their importance as life-giving sources of water.
The depiction of water Dreaming in Aboriginal Art serves multiple purposes. It serves as a visual language, communicating the ancestral stories, cultural knowledge, and spiritual significance of water Dreaming. It also plays a role in preserving cultural heritage, passing down traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. Furthermore, the creation and sharing of artworks related to water Dreaming reinforce the connection between Aboriginal people and their ancestral lands, fostering a sense of belonging and cultural identity. Equally, Aboriginal Art serves as a vessel for Aboriginal Peoples to share and celebrate their culture with the outside world, fostering understanding and appreciation, and providing opportunities for economic independence.
Aboriginal Art Articles to Read:
- Aboriginal Art of Australia: Understanding its History
- Dreamtime Stories and The Dreaming in Aboriginal Art
- Aboriginal Art Symbols
- Aboriginal Dot Painting: Evolution and History