--Yanyuwa elder Mussolini Harvey, quoted in John Bradley’s Yanyuwa Country, 1988
Twenty-five years ago today, the Australian government returned to local Aborigines control over Uluru, more commonly known to us as Ayer’s Rock. This sandstone monolith, almost 6 miles around, rises over 1,000 feet over the central Australian outback. Once they received recognition of their land rights, the Pitjantjatjara tribe agreed to lease the site for 99 years back to the Australian park service. While the park continues to allow tourists to climb the rock, the native folk have asked tourists to refrain from climbing Uluru, out of respect for its sacredness as laid out in their lore. The story of Uluru made me want to pause today and consider the virtue aspects of Altjeringa (the Dreaming).
First, remember that Westerners use the term “Aborigine” to refer to an entire continent of people. Just as Native Americans across North America represented hundreds of distinct languages, histories, and belief systems, so too do the natives of Australia contain a huge diversity of cultures.
Even so, we find the notion of Altjeringa across almost all Aboriginal cultures, though the specific term “Altjeringa” comes only from the Arrernte tribe of central Australia. The people who live around Uluru actually use the term Tjurkurrpa; tribes from elsewhere in the continent call the Dreaming by names such as Palaneri, Bugari, Wongar, or Ungud.
What is the Dreaming? After spending hours reading on this question, I conclude we have no easy complete English translation. I’d suggest “Eternal Spritual Power and Order, Spoken through Nature” as a rough beginning. For native Australians, the Dreaming refers in part to the Dreamtime, a “time outside of time” and spiritual plane from which rose the Ancestor Spirits who created the land, animals, and people in it. “The Dreaming” refers to the spiritual power in a place tracing back to the order of Creation. It also means the spiritual beliefs and practices of the people who live in the place.
Aborigines hold that the specific spirituality or “Dreaming” of a person comes from tapping into the power of a place, which expresses itself in local laws or customs guided by sacred ceremonies, song, and art. Individual persons living in a place have distinct Dreamings which they treat as intellectual property; an artist with a Honey Ant dreaming, for instance, must give permission for someone else to paint images related to that Dreaming. Certain sacred chants embed knowledge about specific places within them; the natives call the paths through the land (or sky) described in such music “Songlines.” (Recall most tribes kept a nomadic way of life until the arrival of the Europeans.) You can see an example of a Blue Wren Dreaming here:
Altjeringa constitutes a virtue inasmuch as native Australians uphold the Dreaming as the source of their ways of life--their Law. As such, we can see that Altjeringa represents Divine Order. As one commentator explained,
The Dreaming is met when people live according to law, and live the lore: perpetuating initiations and Dreaming transmissions or lineages, singing the songs, dancing the dances, telling the stories, painting the Songlines and Dreamings.
To me, Altjeringa recalls the Confucian virtue of Li, a word similarly hard to translate into English but that includes ideas like “customs,” “ritual,” and “proper behavior,” and refers to everything from songs and costumes, to food, to architecture, to expression of emotions and relations between blood relatives and strangers. Sometimes translators just shrug and call it “culture.”
Unlike other virtues, which have an invariable quality, the Order in Altjeringa will manifest differently from place to place and even from individual to individual. (As a member of the eclectic Reclaiming community I resonate with this!)
Altjeringa brings to mind two other virtues we’ve visited recently. One is the Shinto virtue of Musubi, the Blooming or unfolding of a person or event harkening back to primal Divine powers of creation. Another is yesterday’s stopover, Abiding, which I found in a reverie on the Chartres cathedral and the Timelessness of the creative act, in which we shed our ego and touch the Divine--which may be simply another name for the Dreamtime.
Indigenous Australians believe that only an extraordinary state of consciousness allows one to attune to the Dreaming. For us, I think it serves as a reminder to take time for Listening to the world around us, and the sacredness of Nature, who today seems all-too-beleagered. As someone who has had my feet knocked out from under me in the past year, the Order and Beauty of the Dreamtime calling out to us through Nature holds appeal. It reminds me of the Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --/over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.”
Take a moment today to sit quietly in a natural setting that has meaning for you, whether that’s a favorite park filled with trees and birds, or the abandoned lot next door giving refuge to “weeds” and insects. Can you tap into the Dreaming of the place? How does it speak to you? How do you honor it?
May we see the gates of Altjeringa, and perhaps make a home there.