‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’.

Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of “dreamtime” (which I was probably introduced to by the notoriously unreliable Bruce Chatwin); I’ve also been uneasy about depending on vague thirdhand understanding of what I was aware must be an incredibly complicated cultural complex of ideas. If you’re like me, you will welcome as I did the chance to improve your understanding at least a bit by reading Christine Judith Nicholls’s series of three posts from 2014, ‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’ – an introduction. It begins with a good quote by Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi, formerly a Warlpiri teacher at the Lajamanu School in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory:

To get an insight into us – [the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert] – it is necessary to understand something about our major religious belief, the Jukurrpa. The Jukurrpa is an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment.

The philosophy behind it is holistic – the Jukurrpa provides for a total, integrated way of life. It is important to understand that, for Warlpiri and other Aboriginal people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, The Dreaming isn’t something that has been consigned to the past but is a lived daily reality. We, the Warlpiri people, believe in the Jukurrpa to this day.

Nicholls writes:

In this succinct statement Nungarrayi touched on the subtlety, complexity and all-encompassing, non-finite nature of the Jukurrpa.

The concept is mostly known in grossly inadequate English translation as “The Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming”. The Jukurrpa can be mapped onto micro-environments in specific tracts of land that Aboriginal people call “country”.

As a religion grounded in the land itself, it incorporates creation and other land-based narratives, social processes including kinship regulations, morality and ethics. This complex concept informs people’s economic, cognitive, affective and spiritual lives.

She later adds that “words from many different languages have been squished into a couple of sleep-related English words – words that come with significantly different connotations – or baggage – in comparison with the originals”:

As noted earlier, the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert describe their complex of religious beliefs as the Jukurrpa.

Further south-east, the Arrerntic peoples call the word-concept the Altyerrenge or Altyerr (in earlier orthography spelled Altjira and Alcheringa and in other ways, too).

The Kija people of the East Kimberley use the term Ngarrankarni (sometimes spelled Ngarrarngkarni); while the Ngarinyin people (previously spelled Ungarinjin, inter alia) people speak of the Ungud (or Wungud).

“Dreaming” is called Manguny in Martu Wangka, a Western Desert language spoken in the Pilbara region of Western Australia; and some North-East Arnhem Landers refer to the same core concept as Wongar – to name but a handful.

Part two asks the question “who dreamed up these terms?” (it started with Francis Gillen, an Arrernte speaker and keen ethnologist in the late 19th century); part three is “‘Dreamings’ and dreaming narratives: what’s the relationship?” There’s lots of food for thought, and the illustrations are gorgeous.


  1. This is new to me, but quite interesting. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time studying world religions, for example through the writing of Huston Smith whose courses I took way back when at MIT in the 1960s. Smith introduced us to guest lecturers like the Dalai Lama’s brother Thubten Jigme Norbu, who was a professor in Indiana (who knew?), as well as to Richard Alpert/Ram Das and his brand of LSD/Hindu mysticism. They were outliers then, but nothing in mainstream comparative religious study even mentioned Aboriginal beliefs.

    Later, as part of being a board member at a Shaker museum in Massachusetts, I learned about the Shakers, who were Christians, but very non-mainstream, who experienced as reality received (or “given”) visions that were expressed in the form of Spirit Drawings and songs.

    What’s interesting to me is to consider the correspondence between Aboriginal art, as illustrated in these articles, and the Shaker drawings. While there are more realistic components in the Shaker drawings compared to some of the Aboriginal ones, they share a sense of depicting a vision of cosmic order.

    I think it’s important to understand that in both of these sets of cosmic visions (and many others around the world), to those who experience them they are actually not dreams, not visions: they are reality. For example, Hannah Cohoon, creator of the best-known Shaker drawing, the Tree of Life, wrote this about her inspiration for it: “I received a draft of a beautiful Tree pencil’d on large sheet of plain white paper bearing ripe fruit. I saw it plainly, it looked very singular and curious to me. I have since learned that this Tree grows in the Spirit Land. Afterwards the Spirit showed me plainly the branches, leaves and fruit, painted or drawn upon paper. The leaves were check’d or cross’d and the same colours you see here. I entreated Mother Ann to tell me the name of this tree which she did on Oct. 1st 4th hour P.M. by moving the hand of a medium to write twice over Your Tree is the Tree of Life.” Non of the Shaker artists talked about seeing a vision or having a dream; they spoke about actual visits from Mother Ann (then long deceased) or others who gave them these gifts.

    Nicholls writes similarly about the Aboriginal “dreaming”: “… the dream-related terminology serves to erase the complexities of the original concepts in the many different Indigenous languages and cultures, by emphasising their putatively magical, fantastic and illusory attributes, when The Jukurrpa, Altyerr, Ungud, Ngarrankarni, Manguny, Wongar, and so forth are understood by their diverse Aboriginal adherents to be reality, religion, and the Law.”

    The Shakers experienced reality, not visions. The Aborignal Australians experience reality, not dreams.

    One more resonance, in Part Three there is this quote: “For many Indigenous Australians, person and place, or “country”, are virtually interchangeable.” I’ve been noticing my Native American friends introducing themselves as, “I am [my name]; I am from this place.”

  2. Thanks, a very enlightening comparison!

  3. SFReader says:

    There is a theory which claims that religious beliefs originated from inability of people of the past to distinguish between dream and reality.

    It makes good sense. If you dreamed about your late father last night and you tend to treat dreams as reality, then you just have to accept that afterlife exists.

  4. These are fascinating articles, but I was hoping they would say more about the referents of all of those terms — are they in any useful sense the same thing, or do they have a shared core, or from an interior perspective are they quite different?

  5. European versions of this idea, with somewhat less wooziness, are called radical or social constructivism.

  6. Peter Beck says:
  7. tangent says:

    @SFReader, that seems to make more sense the more one takes waking and dreaming (in a particular experience of them) to be the only states available.

    If those are the range of experience, then it makes sense that conflating dreaming with waking could be there source of belief in various dreamed content. Though the more I think about it, why would life after death out of all the wild worlds of dream be selected to believe?

    Anyway, but if mystical and numinous experiences are also under consideration, they seem a more likely candidate to me. For one thing, they often carry their own drive to take them as real in a way which dreams only rarely do. (Dreams actually seem to have a special ease of forgetting, which may help reduce taking them as real.) A waking direct sense of the presence of a now-dead person would give the same content as a dream would.

  8. tangent says:

    Stu Clayton, to be precise, a European would say it’s a related idea, being the way they think about Warlpiri belief. The Warlpiri might disagree (or might not, but they very well could) with the idea that reality is socially constructed.

    (SFReader, I now move to amend your theory to say that people distinguished dreaming and waking, but had them both as kinds of reality. This is common across cultures while I think total conflation is not, and this seems to work just about as well as a source of content for religion, as least for beliefs of “the dead live on somewhere”, rather than “the dead intermingle with us.”)

  9. SFReader says:

    Art, poetry, folk tales, all of them might have been perceived as real and happening in real-time.

    I mean, when your grandfather tells a story how Raven stole the Moon and it seems so real, then it IS real, it is happening right now, you are actually witnessing the event!

    Somewhat similar to playing a video – even though it was recorded years ago, when you are playing it, it is happening right before your eyes. How you can say that it’s not real, that it’s not happening now?

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Further south-east, the Arrerntic peoples call the word-concept the Altyerrenge or Altyerr (in earlier orthography spelled Altjira and Alcheringa and in other ways, too).

    Alcheringa is a palaeontological journal.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    From the second part:

    In Croatian I (as the only person working in this academic field) translate The Dreaming as Snivanje, which is a gerund form. The morpheme is “san”. Its etymology is Old Slavonic or more specifically Latin (somnus).

    Oh no, it’s cognate to somnus and inherited from PIE *sup-no-, which also has descendants in Sanskrit, Old English, Albanian, Hittite and I forgot where else.

  12. Fascinating set of articles, although it feels very incomplete. The landscape as holy book: it’s a concept that shouldn’t seem as strange to us as it does. From the Sahel to the Hebrides, the Old World was dotted with saints’ tombs and pilgrimage routes not too long ago, each with its associated stories and symbols (although rather lacking the ecological dimension that seems prominent in Australia).

  13. @tangent: to be precise, a European would say it’s a related idea, being the way they think about Warlpiri belief. The Warlpiri might disagree (or might not, but they very well could) with the idea that reality is socially constructed.

    That appears to be your construal of the matter. It’s different from mine, but hardly more “precise”. I have no idea what the Warlpiri might think about either construction, it is not something I addressed. My point was merely to suggest very indirectly that “dreaming” sounds (“to a European”, if you like) more exotic and interesting than “radical constructivism”.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    it feels very incomplete

    The third part promises at least two more.

  15. David, see Peter Beck’s links, above, to those two installments.

  16. Bathrobe says:

    London Tube, Parisian Metro, Tokyo Underground, and New York Subway

    Just as with the ‘Dreamtime’, it’s important to get the local naming right. I believe it’s the London Underground and the Tokyo Subway.

  17. What Does Jukurrpa (‘Dreamtime’, ‘The Dreaming’) Mean? A Semantic and Conceptual Journey of Discovery, by Cliff Goddard and Anna Wierzbicka (Australian Aboriginal Studies 1, 43–65), looks interesting, if anyone has access to it.

  18. “London Underground” must be quite an old name; if it had been coined more recently it would probably be “Londerground”.

  19. [1] Re: “In Croatian I (as the only person working in this academic field) translate The Dreaming as Snivanje”

    Croatian also has the word “drijemanje,” but although it sounds more like the English “dreaming” actually means “snoozing”, “nodding off” or light sleep. “Snivanje” or “sanjanje” is definitely the better translation. Although they could have used the fairly neutral term Mythology. eg. In Aboriginal mythology… = In Aboriginal Dreaming/Dreamtime…

    [2] The Noongar word for Dreamtime is “nyitting” which literally means “cold” or “cold time.” So not all Aboriginal cultures in Australia associate their Age of Myth with dreams.

  20. Thubten Jigme Norbu founded a wonderful Buddhist retreat center outside Bloomington when he was a professor there: http://www.tmbcc.org/
    He lived on the grounds of the center after his retirement, and I met him there a couple times. He was an interesting guy.

  21. Rodger C says:

    Alcheringa is a palaeontological journal.

    In my day it was an ethnopoetics journal.

    I didn’t know Norbu, but we had many mutual acquaintances. He reportedly would say that he’d had a choice between being a minor Tibetan deity and an American academic, and …

  22. Lars (the original one) says:
  23. Mollymooly: It set a precedent, though; a more recently named transit operation, a suburban railway system, is known as “London Overground”.

  24. It’s on academia.edu

    Thanks! I have to admit that even though I understand the point of it, reading texts in Natural Semantic Metalanguage gives me the heebie-jeebies (“people in this place often say many things for some time about this”). I definitely appreciate the appendix with the text in Ngaanyatjarra, though!

  25. Greek has an interesting opposition between ὄναρ/ὄνειρος ‘dream, vision or revelation in a sleep’ and ὕπαρ ‘waking vision, apparition’ (of something real, hence the adverbial meaning ‘really, actually’). This is odd, because ὕπαρ, together with ὕπνος ‘sleep’ belongs to the word-family based on the verb root *swep- ‘sleep, fall asleep’. In some branches of IE, including Indo-Iranian and Slavic, one and the same word, *sw(e/o)p-no-, means both ‘sleep’ and ‘dream’ (the corresponding verbs are different: the primary verb means ‘to sleep’, while the one meaning ‘dream’ is denominal). The various nouns mentioned above go back to an old heteroclitic neuter *swop-r̥/*swep-n-. Since such formations are typically action nouns (or some closely related semantic type), the meaning of the r/n-stem was in all likelihood ‘sleep’, and words meaning ‘dream’ were formed as “possessive” derivatives (‘belonging to/connected with a sleep’ — a process repeated later in languages such as Latin: *swep-no- ‘sleep’ –> swep-ni-o- ‘dream’ > somnus : somnium). As the irregular heteroclite went out of use, the derivatives took over its meaning. As a result, further semantic shifts occurred. Greek, Armenian and Albanian show reflexes of what may be the original IE word for ‘dream, vision’, *h₃on-r̥ (and the synonymous delocatival noun *h₃on-eri-o- ‘something seen in a vision’), unlikely to be an areal innovation because of its archaic morphology and lexical isolation. I wonder which (if any) of these hypnotic and oneiric words the Indo-Europeans would have used to refer to their version of the Dreaming.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    The article on Vampires just posted by Y in the thread on Bantu porridge (I really love the thread-creep on this site) contains (as it happens) the following apposite words:

    There is a certain trend, especially among scholars from fields unrelated to the study of cultures or religion, to propose naturalistic explanations for religious phenomena and things that go bump in the night as rationalizations of naturally-­occurring conditions. Such theories are quite often presented in the popular media due to their convincing appearance of empiricism, but under closer scrutiny are in most cases deeply flawed methodologically. Their main weak point is the assumption that phenomena described in religious or folkloristic literature are to be understood literally and uniformly in the way they are described in the available accounts, as a sort of primitive pseudo-science; possibility for the inclusion of psychological realities, alternative states of consciousness, metaphor or just entertaining fiction used to illustrate metaphysical concepts in the way of a parable are usually neglected. The fact that mythologies have other functions apart from the explanatory one, such as initiation, social cohesion or the formation of the so-called Sacred Cosmos as it was defined by Luckmann (1967), are usually not addressed at all. This creates a major misunderstanding of the source material, which is usually extracted from pre-scientific or non-Western cultures and world-views based on perceptions of reality different than those seen as obvious and axiomatic by contemporary Western scientists.

    Preach it, brother!

  27. Yes, that’s a great quote.

  28. Bathrobe says:

    I’d say it’s a habit that started with Biblical studies. Word of God is literally true and all that. So how to explain it in non-religious terms.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Latin: *swep-no- ‘sleep’ –> swep-ni-o- ‘dream’ > somnus : somnium)

    Somnus Scipionis was his dream, though.

  30. In Dan Everett’s account of his time with the Pirahà, Don’t Sleep: There Are Snakes, there’s a whole chapter devoted to Pirahà perception of the supernatural, as compared to his own. It’s several pages, too long too quote, but it’s fascinating (pp.139–, try the preview on Google Books or Amazon if you don’t have it.)

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Although they could have used the fairly neutral term Mythology.

    Doesn’t “mythology” suggest “religion nobody believes in anymore”?

    I’d say it’s a habit that started with Biblical studies.

    How about good old Euhemerus?

  32. marie-lucie says:

    David M: Doesn’t “mythology” suggest “religion nobody believes in anymore”?

    True, but the fact that people educated about ancient times continue(d) to refer to figures and events from antique mythologies (whether from their own ancestors or those of other peoples) shows that even if these people did not “believe” in the factual existence of the mythical figures and events, the myths did allow them to give metaphorical expression to truths about the world and humanity’s place in it. In the Western world, where wholesale conversion to Christianity had seemed to banish the old deities and their legends from popular consciousness (sometimes remaining only as local “devils” subsisting in “benighted” rural areas), formal literature made heavy use of Greco-Roman mythology for centuries, and several countries even tried more or less successfully to rediscover the mythologies of their own ancestors, sometimes still accessible through the work of scholars. Celtic and Germanic mythologies come to mind, the first one even spurring modern religious revivalist movements such as “Wicca”, the second one (or aspects of it) coopted for political ends in the first half of the 20th century.

  33. David M: Doesn’t “mythology” suggest “religion nobody believes in anymore”?

    Greek mythos means something like “story” or “fable”. Aesop’s fables are “mythoi” (or something similar) in Greek. I always took “mythology” to mean stories of olden times when gods and supernatural creatures lived among men.

    I don’t think that Demosthenes believed that centaurs actually pranced about in the Attic countryside any more than a present-day Noongar believes that the Wagyl (a giant snake) actually carved out the rivers and water courses by slithering around the place.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    zyxt: Perhaps not Demosthenes, but many others did. I suppose it is the same among Australian aborigines.

    The Hindu religion has a vast and complex mythology including elements of what seem to be several old traditions. But nobody is compelled to have a literal belief in any of it to be considered a good Hindu: several levels of belief are admitted, from the most concrete and literal to the most abstract and metaphorical.

  35. David Marjanović: Somnus Scipionis was his dream, though.

    That’s why it’s known as Somnium Scipionis.

    The old r/n-stem probably survived in Latin as sopor ‘deep sleep, lethargy’, which may reflect the animate internal derivative of *swóp-r̥/*swép-n-(o)s, i.e. *swép-ōr/*sup-r-és (if the *r is original and not due to s-rhotacism). By Classical times sopor was reduced to a poetic synonym of somnus (though later writes revived it to some extent). If *swepnos could originally mean ‘that which you experience in your sleep, a dream’ (see its Indo-Iranian semantic profile), it lost that meaning in Latin.

  36. 1) The London Underground is known to its many friends as “the Tube”. (I was once a native of London.)

    2) Paul Veyne wrote a whole book – in French! – addressing the question Did the Greeks believe their myths

    3) The fundamentalist mindset so widely to be regretted in the modern world of, in particular, today is arguably a back-port of scientistical ideology to substrates that arguably are poorly suited to bear them. Exegetical traditions of a wide variety of faiths were previously demonstrably less hamfisted.

  37. Lars (the original one) says:

    heebie-jeebies — I recognize it as something akin to predicate based programming / specification languages, specifically a very wordy version of Prolog, and my reaction is more ‘finally a description where you don’t have to guess where they mean, how nice!’ But then my brain is wired for programming more than literature 🙂

  38. Lars (the original one) says:

    @m-l: The Germanic, specifically North Germanic, mythology does have modern adherents who refer to it as Asatrú. I’m sure there’s an overlap with adherents of the early 20th century political ideas you refer to, but the proponents of the latter that are in the public eye here don’t go around performing blót.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    528 ghits for “somnus scipionis”. The first 8 are a modern song, but the next 2 are German books from 1836 and 1833, and on the next page there’s a Spanish philosophy book from 2005.

    Did the Greeks believe their myths

    Once you get to classical times, various philosophies – Epicureanism and Stoicism come to mind – had basically abstracted the gods and the myths away, and some of these philosophies were pretty popular even if those of Diagoras of Melos and Theodoros the Godless still weren’t.

    But in older times, and among people with less access or inclination to philosophy? Centaurs in the Attic countryside? Why the hell not? That’s barely one impossible thing before breakfast.

  40. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    Centaurs in the Attic countryside? Why the hell not? That’s barely one impossible thing before breakfast.

    Well, in my extensive experience of mythologies the more particularly mythological bits are commonly noted for happening off of the immediate stage of immediate personal experience, either in Distant Lands or otherwise in a Time Of Gods And Heroes.

    This goes a long way towards explaining what might otherwise be a problematic absence of lived experience of centaurs.

  41. A point Huizinga makes in Homo Ludens is that people are able to believe something on one level and not believe it on another; players in a a game or participants taking on roles in a ritual are what they play and may take their roles entirely serious, while still knowing that it’s a game or a ritual, and the same is true for those watching them.

  42. A point Huizinga makes in Homo Ludens is that people are able to believe something on one level and not believe it on another…


  43. David Marjanović says:

    Nah, I think Ross is just lying so he doesn’t get disowned by his family and fired by “Liberty” “University” – after all, it’s hard to imagine he has many other job prospects. I should send you his paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    Lars (the original one): The Germanic, specifically North Germanic, mythology does have modern adherents who refer to it as Asatrú. I’m sure there’s an overlap with adherents of the early 20th century political ideas you refer to, but the proponents of the latter that are in the public eye here don’t go around performing blót.

    Thank you. I remember coming across the word Asatrú but not the context in which it was used. Wikipedia has an entertaining chapter on this belief system and its adherents. It mentions blót but downplays it, instead stressing other rituals involving copious amounts of alcohol.

  45. The Basics: How to Blót

    Til árs ok friðar!

  46. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    Ich, for one, bin nicht blöd.

  47. Ian Myles Slater says:

    There is a substantial literature on Medieval European ideas about dreams and visions, which turn out to be rather complicated, with various types of “true” and “false” dreams. It turns out translating the medieval terms into modern European languages is not a straightforward matter (either).

    I’m no longer current on the subject, even just in English, but a selection of titles of some of the more recent contributions (since the 1990s), with reviews, can be found on-line at the archive of The Medieval Review:


    For the less ambitious, there are brief discussions of the relationship between these medieval ideas, with their use in literature, and their sources in ancient and late-antique literature (e.g. Cicero, Chalcidius, Macrobius) in C. S. Lewis, “The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature,” notably Chapters 3 and 4.

    I found Lewis helpful in understanding Chaucer and (somewhat less so) “The Pearl,” which, indeed, his students were likely to read, but his presentation, besides being inevitably simplistic, may be out of date in detail. (Perhaps fortunately, he does not go into the etymologies of the terms.)

  48. David Marjanović says:

    nicht blöd

    Whoa, that video is Germany at its worst!

    BTW, the Norse cognate of blöd means “cowardish”.

  49. Whoa, that video is Germany at its worst!

    I don’t think it quite meets that exacting standard.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    OK: its worst in the years After Present.

  51. SFReader says:

    Re: belief in myths

    I’ve witnessed a few such conversations before.

    “Look, you are an educated man, how can you believe in spirits of the mountains and make sacrifices to them?”

    The thing is, PhD degree and belief in spirits are perfectly compatible.

  52. Yes, when I was teaching college in Taiwan almost everyone I knew seemed to believe in ghosts. It is our modern Western hyperrationalism that is the exception, and it should avoid triumphalism and pitying head-shaking. There are more things in heaven and earth…

  53. BTW, the Norse cognate of blöd means “cowardish”.

    And blöd also (mostly in years of yore) could mean “short-sighted”, “weak” and a bunch of other stuff.

  54. English blate is now dialectal, though blatant (coined or introduced by Spenser, using the old participle ending) is current. There is also bloat from the same root.

  55. Rodger C says:

    “Look, you are an educated man, how can you believe in spirits of the mountains and make sacrifices to them?”

    “The spirits of the mountains are of course in my head. Less reductively, they’re an expression of the (natural or at least non-arbitrary) relation between me and the mountains. What I do is about that relationship.”

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