About 50,000 years ago, humans reached Australia for the first time. They were the ancestors of a group of nomadic peoples, collectively known as the Aboriginals, who spoke more than 250 different distinct languages and developed complex cultures and what anthropologists say is the world’s longest enduring religion. That religious tradition includes an array of myths about the creation of the world, which took place in an ancient age called the Dreamtime.
In Aboriginal myth, the Earth’s surface once was nothing but a vast, nondescript expanse of mud or clay. But that lifeless landscape changed when ancestral spirit beings rose from beneath the surface or descended from the sky, and assumed the forms of animals, plants, and humans. They then journeyed across the Earth, changing it by shaping the mud into rivers, hills, islands, and other features. The ancestral beings also gave birth to all living things—including humans, to whom they also gave languages, knowledge, and beliefs.
The Aboriginals believe that they are descendants of those spirit beings. To them, it’s important to trace the journey of creation that a person’s mythical ancestor took through the world, which is called a Songline, and to speak the language and learn the music of that ancestor.
Some of the Dreamtime creation stories from people of the state of Victoria in southeast Australia, which were, originally passed down through artwork, stories and songs, have been documented in the 2014 book “Nyernila—Listen Continuously,” published by Creative Victoria, a government arts agency, and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages. One story told by the Wathaurong people, for example, explains the origin of the sunrise. In the myth, the sky originally covered the Earth like a blanket; blocking the light of the sun and making everyone crawl around in the dark, until magpies took it upon themselves to change the situation. The birds gathered long sticks and pushed against the sky, lifting it up, and then wedged rocks under the sticks to lift it up ever further. Eventually, the sky split open, and the first sunrise appeared. The birds were so overjoyed to see the light and feel the warmth of the sun’s heat that they burst into joyful song—a habit that birds continue to follow, each morning.
Another Dreamtime story, told by the Yorta Yorta people explains the origins of the landscape and its colors. Gane, a Dreamtime being who was a great rainbow-colored snake, went out to look for an old woman who had become lost. As he followed the marks left by the old woman’s digging stick, his body pushed against the Earth and moved the soil and rocks, creating hills and valleys. The colors from his body spread throughout as well, covering trees, plants, birds, and animals. Then another mythical being, the spirit Biami, called out to Gane, in a voice that was so loud that it caused thunder, lightning and rainfall that lasted for days. The rain filled up deep crevices in the Earth left by Gane’s body, which became the river that the Yorta Yorta called Dungala, which today is known as the Murray River.
Yet another Dreamtime story from the Tyakoort Woorroong people tells of how two of Australia’s mountains, Mount Buninyong and Mount Elephant, once were beings with human form. But then Buninyong took a liking to a stone axe that Elephant owned and offered him some gold for it, which Elephant accepted. Then Buninyong decided that he didn’t like the axe after all, and demanded his gold back. When Elephant refused, Buninyong challenged him to a fight. In the struggle, Elephant stabbed Buninyong with a spear, only to receive a fatal blow on his head from the axe. Both beings, mortally wounded, staggered off in opposite directions. When they died, their bodies turned into mountains at the spots where they had fallen.
The Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime is comparable to the creation stories of other religions and cultures, but there’s an important difference. When the ancestral beings from the stories returned to the spirit realm, they kept their life-giving power, which they continue to release into to the world, as long as people followed the rituals and other directions that they left behind. In that sense, Aboriginals view the Dreamtime myths not just as the past, but as part of a cosmic order of things that includes the present and future as well.