Rainbow Serpent

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Australian Aboriginal rock painting of the "Rainbow Serpent".

The Rainbow Serpent or Rainbow Snake is a common deity often seen as a creator god,[1] known by numerous names in different Australian Aboriginal languages by the many different Aboriginal peoples. It a common motif in the art and religion of many Aboriginal Australian peoples.[2]

There are many names and stories associated with the serpent, all of which communicate the significance and power of this being within Aboriginal mythology, which includes the worldview commonly referred to as The Dreaming. The serpent is viewed as a giver of life through its association with water, but can be a destructive force if angry. The Rainbow Serpent is one of the most common and well-known Aboriginal stories and is of great importance to Aboriginal society.[3][4]

Not all of the myths of the ancestral being link a rainbow with the snake and not all describe the being as a snake, but there is usually a link with water or rain.[5] Some scholars have suggested that the link between the two suggests the cycle of the seasons, for example blue (winter), red (summer), yellow (spring) and orange (autumn), and the importance of water in human life.[6] When the rainbow is seen in the sky, it is said to be the Rainbow Serpent moving from one waterhole to another and the divine concept explained why some waterholes never dried up when drought struck.[5]

The Rainbow Serpent Festival is an annual festival of music, arts and culture in Victoria.[7]

Names in different cultures[edit]

Myndie as represented by Aborigines of Victoria, circa 1878.
Myndie c. 1878

The Rainbow Serpent is known by different names by the many different Aboriginal cultures.

Yurlunggur is the name of the "rainbow serpent" according to the Murngin (Yolngu) in north-eastern Arnhemland,[8] also styled Yurlungur,[9][2] Yulunggur,[10][11] Jurlungu,[12] or Julunggul.[13][14][15] The Yurlunggur was considered "the great father".[9][a]

The serpent is called Witij/Wititj by the Galpu clan of the Dhangu people, one of Yolngu peoples.[1][16]

Other names include:

Development of concept[edit]

Though the concept of the Rainbow Serpent has existed for a very long time in Aboriginal Australian cultures, it was introduced to the wider world through the work of anthropologists.[26] In fact, the name Rainbow Serpent or Rainbow Snake appears to have been coined in English by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, an anthropologist who noticed the same concept going under different names among various Aboriginal Australian cultures, and called it "the rainbow-serpent myth of Australia."[5] It has been suggested that this name implies that there is only one Rainbow Serpent, when the concept actually varies quite a bit from one Aboriginal culture to another, and should be properly called the Rainbow Serpent myths of Australia.[27] Similarly, it has been suggested that the Serpent's position as the most prominent creator god in the Australian tradition has largely been the creation of non-Aboriginal anthropologists.[26] Another error of the same kind is the way in which Western-educated people, with a cultural stereotype of Greco-Roman or Norse myths, tell the Aboriginal stories in the past tense. For the indigenous people of Australia, the stories are everywhen – past, present and future.[28]

Characteristics and associations[edit]

The Dreaming[3] (or Dreamtime or Tjukurrpa or Jukurrpa[1]) stories tell of the great spirits and totems during creation, in animal and human form that moulded the barren and featureless earth. The Rainbow Serpent came from beneath the ground and created huge ridges, mountains, and gorges as it pushed upward. The Rainbow Serpent is understood to be of immense proportions and inhabits deep permanent waterholes[29] and is in control of life's most precious resource, water. In some cultures, the Rainbow Serpent is considered to be the ultimate creator of everything in the universe.[14]

In some cultures, the Rainbow Serpent is male; in others, female; in yet others, the gender is ambiguous or the Rainbow Serpent is hermaphroditic[2] or bisexual, thus an androgynous entity. Some commentators have suggested that the Rainbow Serpent is a phallic symbol, which fits its connection with fertility myths and rituals. When the Serpent is characterized as female or bisexual, it is sometimes depicted with breasts. Other times, the Serpent has no particular gender. The Serpent has also been known to appear as a scorpion or another animal or creature. In some stories, the Serpent is associated with a bat, sometimes called a "flying fox" in Australian English, engaged in a rivalry over a woman.[30] Some scholars have identified other creatures, such as a bird, crocodile, dingo,[27] or lizard, as taking the role of the Serpent in stories. In all cases, these animals are also associated with water.[6] The Rainbow Serpent has also been identified with the bunyip, a fearful, water-hole dwelling creature in Australian mythology.[27]

The sometimes unpredictable Rainbow Serpent (in contrast to the unyielding sun) replenishes the stores of water, forming gullies and deep channels as the Rainbow Serpent slithers across the landscape.[31] In this belief system, without the Serpent, no rain would fall and the Earth would dry up.[3] In other cultures, the Serpent is said to come to stop the rain.[5] In addition to the identification with the rainbow, the Serpent is also identified with a prismatic halo around the moon that can be regarded as a sign of rain.[5] The Rainbow Serpent is sometimes associated with human blood, especially circulation and the menstrual cycle, and considered a healer.[2] Thunder and lightning are said to stem from when the Rainbow Serpent is angry,[2] and the Serpent can even cause powerful rainstorms and cyclones.[3] Quartz crystal and seashells are also associated with the Rainbow Serpent and are used in rituals to invoke it.[2] The identification with quartz crystal presumably results from its prism-like appearance.[5]

Serpent stories[edit]

Stories about the Rainbow Serpent have been passed down from generation to generation.[24] The serpent story may vary however, according to environmental differences. Peoples of the monsoonal areas depict an epic interaction of the sun, Serpent, and wind in their Dreamtime stories, whereas those of the central desert experience less drastic seasonal shifts and their stories reflect this.[31] It is known both as a benevolent protector of its people (the groups from the country around) and as a malevolent punisher of law breakers. The Rainbow Serpent's mythology is closely linked to land, water, life, social relationships, and fertility. The Rainbow Serpent often takes part in transitions from adolescence to adulthood for young men and swallows them to vomit them up later.[2]

The most common motif in Rainbow Serpent stories is the Serpent as creator, with the Serpent often bringing life to an empty space.[4]

One prominent Rainbow Serpent myth is the story of the Wawalag[14] or Wagilag sisters, from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land.[1] According to legend, the sisters are travelling together when the older sister gives birth, and her blood flows to a waterhole where the Rainbow Serpent lives.[14] In another version of the tale, the sisters are travelling with their mother, Kunapipi, all of whom know ancient secrets, and the Serpent is merely angered by their presence in its area.[1] The Rainbow Serpent then traces the scent back to the sisters sleeping in their hut, a metaphor for the uterus. The Rainbow Serpent enters, a symbolic representation of a snake entering a hole, and eats them and their children. However, the Rainbow Serpent regurgitates them after being bitten by an ant,[14] and this act creates Arnhem Land. Now, the Serpent speaks in their voices and teaches sacred rituals to the people living there.[1]

Wollunqua is the Warumungu people's version of the Rainbow Serpent, telling of an enormous snake which emerged from a watering hole called Kadjinara in the Murchison Ranges, Northern Territory.[32]

Another story from the Northern Territory tells of how a great mother arrives from the sea, travelling across Australia and giving birth to the various Aboriginal peoples.[33] In some versions, the great mother is accompanied by the Rainbow Serpent (or Lightning Snake), who brings the wet season of rains and floods.[33]

From the Great Sandy Desert area in the northern part of Western Australia comes a story that explains how the Wolfe Creek Crater, or Kandimalal, was created by a star falling from heaven, creating a crater in which a Rainbow Serpent took up residence, though in some versions it is the Serpent which falls from heaven and creates the crater. The story sometimes continues telling of how an old hunter chased a dingo into the crater and got lost in a tunnel created by the Serpent, never to be found again, with the dingo being eaten and spat out by the Serpent.[34]

The Noongar people of south-western Western Australia tell of how Rainbow Serpents, or Wagyls, smashed and pushed boulders around to form trails on Mount Matilda, along with creating waterways such as the Avon River.[24] Some Aboriginal peoples[who?] in the Kimberley region believe that it was the Rainbow Serpent who deposited spirit-children throughout pools in which women become impregnated when they wade in the water. This process is sometimes referred to as "netting a fish".[14]

A more child-friendly version of the Rainbow Serpent myth tells of how a serpent rose through the Earth to the surface, where she summoned frogs, tickled their bellies to release water to create pools and rivers, and is now known as the mother of life.[22] Another tale is told in Dick Roughsey's children's book, which tells how the Rainbow Serpent creates the landscape of Australia by thrashing about and, by tricking and swallowing two boys, ends up creating the population of Australia by various animal, insect, and plant species.[23]

Possible origins in nature[edit]

Wonambi naracoortensis and Thylacoleo

The carpet snake is considered a form that the Rainbow Serpent can take by the Walmadjari people.[31] Four other snakes may have served as inspiration for the Rainbow Serpent: these include the scrub or amethystine python, the taipan, and the file snake, each of which possesses a characteristic that was associated with the Rainbow Serpent, however the most likely inspiration for the Rainbow Serpent is speculated to be the water python (Liasis fuscus)[35]

In Queensland, a fossil of a snake was found, and they believe that it came from the prehistoric family of large snakes that may have inspired the original Rainbow Serpent.[26]

Wonambi is a genus that consisted of two species of very large snakes. These species were not pythons, like Australia's other large constrictors of the genus Morelia, and are currently classified in the extinct family Madtsoiidae that became extinct elsewhere in the world 55 million years in the past. Aboriginal people describe this serpent as having "hair" around its head and face.[citation needed]

Role in traditional culture[edit]

In addition to stories about the Rainbow Serpent being passed down from generation to generation, the Rainbow Serpent has been worshipped through rituals and has also inspired cultural artefacts such as artwork and songs, a tradition which continues today.[14]

There are many ancient rituals associated with the Rainbow Serpent that are still practised today.[14] The myth of the Wawalag sisters of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory marks the importance of the female menstruation process and led to the establishment of the Kunapipi blood ritual of the goddess, in which the Indigenous Australians allegorically recreate the Rainbow Serpent eating the Wawalag sisters through dance and pantomime, and can be regarded as a fertility ritual.[14]

Female menstruation is sacred to many Indigenous Australian cultures because it distinguishes the time when a female is capable of bringing life into the world, putting a woman on the same level of creative abilities as the Rainbow Serpent. It is for this reason that men will attempt to mimic this holy process by cutting their arms and/or penises and letting their blood run over their own bodies, each other's bodies, and even into a woman's uterus. Men will sometimes mix their blood with a women's menstrual blood, letting them flow together in a ceremonial unification of the sexes.[14]

The earliest known rock drawings of the Rainbow Serpent date back to more than 6,000 years ago.[14] Because of its connections with fertility, the Rainbow Serpent is often illustrated as a vagina, and vice versa. Some rock art has been discovered in which the Rainbow Serpent was drawn mouth open and tongue out to represent the vaginal opening and streaming menstrual blood.[14]

The Rainbow Serpent is also identified as a healer and can pass on its properties as a healer to humans through a ritual.[36]

Influence in modern culture[edit]

Sidney Nolan's Snake (1970-72), held at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, is a giant Rainbow Serpent mural made of 1620 painted panels.

The Rainbow Serpent, in addition to the continuation of traditional beliefs (which can be the subject of religious controversy), is often referenced in modern culture by providing inspiration for art, film, literature, music, religion, and social movements. For example, The Rainbow Serpent Festival, an annual music festival in Australia,[37] and the Rainbow Serpent Project, a series of films which document the filmmaker's journey to various sacred sites around the Earth,[38] are both inspired and named after the creature.

Many Aboriginal Australian artists continue to be inspired by the Rainbow Serpent and use it as a subject in their art.[26]

The Rainbow Serpent has also appeared as a character in literature. The Lardil people's Dreaming story of the Rainbow Serpent was retold in Dick Roughsey's award-winning Australian children's book The Rainbow Serpent;[23] the Rainbow Serpent has also appeared as a character in comic books such as Hellblazer.[39] The Rainbow Serpent, under the name Yurlungur, has featured as a demon or persona[40] in several titles of the Megami Tensei series of Japanese role-playing games.

The Rainbow Serpent can still serve a religious role today, particularly for Aboriginal Australians, but some Aboriginal Australians who are Christians reject the belief and resent its identification with Aboriginal culture.[26] Some New Age religions and spirituality movements around the world have now also adopted the Rainbow Serpent as an icon.[26]

Similarly, the Rainbow Serpent can inspire social movements.[36] Art historian Georges Petitjean has suggested that the identification of the Rainbow Serpent with various genders and sexualities helps to explain why the rainbow flag has been adopted as the symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.[36] Politically, for example, the Rainbow Serpent was adopted as the symbol of an anti-uranium mining campaign in Australia, using the notion that the mining would disturb the Serpent and cause it to seek revenge as a metaphor for environmental destruction.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cottrell also applies "great copper python" to Yurlungur.
  2. ^ Or Ngalmudj.[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bird, Stephanie Rose (2006). "Australian Aborigines". In William M. Clements (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 292–299.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Mercatante, Anthony S.; Dow, James R. (2009). "Rainbow Snake". Facts On File Encyclopedia Of World Mythology And Legend (Third ed.). New York: Facts On File. pp. 817–818.
  3. ^ a b c d "The First Australians". SBS. SBS. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  4. ^ a b Big Black Dog Communications (6 March 2008). "The Dreaming". Australian Government. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1926). "The Rainbow-Serpent Myth of Australia". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 56: 19–25. doi:10.2307/2843596. JSTOR 2843596.
  6. ^ a b c Maddock, Kenneth (1978b). "Metaphysics in a Mythical View of the World". In Buchler, Ira R.; Maddock, Kenneth (eds.). The Rainbow Serpent: A Chromatic Piece. Chicago: Mouton/Aldine. pp. 99–118.
  7. ^ "About". Rainbow Serpent Festival. Retrieved 9 August 2021.
  8. ^ Warner (1937), p. 257 et passim.
  9. ^ a b Cotterell, Arthur (2003). "Overview: Yurlungur". Dictionary of World Mythology. Oxford University Press. pp. 295–296. ISBN 9780191726934. Retrieved 21 January 2020. also via Oxford Reference site
  10. ^ Berndt, Catherine H. (31 December 1970), "Monsoon and Honey Wind", Échanges et communications, De Gruyter, pp. 1306–1326, doi:10.1515/9783111698281-034, ISBN 978-3-11-169828-1
  11. ^ Hargrave, Susanne (1983). "Two Sister Myths: A Structural Analysis". Oceania. 53 (4): 347–357. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.1983.tb01998.x. ISSN 0029-8077 – via JSTOR.
  12. ^ Mountford (1978), pp. 79–78.
  13. ^ Elkin, Berndt & Berndt (1950), p. 32–33, 38–39, 41.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Grove, Peggy (Winter 1999). "Myths, Glyphs, and Rituals of a Living Goddess Tradition". ReVision. 21 (3): 6–14.
  15. ^ Róheim, Géza (1951). "Mythology of Arnhem Land". American Imago. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 8 (2): 181–187. ISSN 0065-860X. JSTOR 26301306. Retrieved 9 August 2021.
  16. ^ "Djalu' Gurruwiwi" (PDF). Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 January 2020. Retrieved 19 January 2020 – via Hollow Logs Didgeridoos.
  17. ^ a b c Taylor, Luke (1996). "Appendix: Glossary of Kunwinkju Words". Seeing the Inside: Bark Painting in Western Arnhem Land. Clarendon Press. p. 261. ISBN 9780198233541.
  18. ^ Elkin (1961), p. 4.
  19. ^ Maddock (1978b), p. 105.
  20. ^ Garde, Murray. "ngalyod". Bininj Kunwok online dictionary. Bininj Kunwok Regional Language Centre. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  21. ^ Taylor (1990), p. 330 and 1996.[17]
  22. ^ a b Carroll, Colleen (1 September 2012). "Mythology in Art". Arts & Activities. 152 (1): 22–26.
  23. ^ a b c Roughsey, Dick (1975). The Rainbow Serpent. Sydney: Collins.
  24. ^ a b c Kickett, Everett (1994). "The Trails of the Rainbow Serpents". Daniel Habedank. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
  25. ^ Mountford (1978), pp. 31–32.
  26. ^ a b c d e f Anderson, Sallie (December 2001). "Rejecting the Rainbow Serpent: An Aboriginal Artist's Choice of the Christian God as Creator". Australian Journal of Anthropology. 12 (3): 291–301. doi:10.1111/j.1835-9310.2001.tb00078.x.
  27. ^ a b c Mountford (1978).
  28. ^ Stanner, W. (1968), "After the Dreaming" (ABC Boyer Lecture Series)
  29. ^ Isaacs, Jennifer (1979). Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History. Sydney: Lansdowne Press. ISBN 978-0-7018-1330-7. OCLC 7274630.[page needed]
  30. ^ Maddock, Kenneth (1978a). "Introduction". In Buchler, Ira R.; Maddock, Kenneth (eds.). The Rainbow Serpent: A Chromatic Piece. Chicago: Mouton/Aldine. pp. 1–21.
  31. ^ a b c http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/climate_culture/rainbow_serp.shtml
  32. ^ Baldwin Spencer, Walter (1904). Northern Tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan. pp. 226, 631, 756. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511751202. hdl:2027/coo1.ark:/13960/t6737bs6n. ISBN 9780511751202.CS1 maint: date and year (link) Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  33. ^ a b "Australia". Encyclopedia of World Mythology. Galahad Books. 1975. pp. 54–56. ISBN 978-0706403978.
  34. ^ Sanday, Peggy Reeves (2007). Aboriginal Paintings of the Wolfe Creek Crater: Track of the Rainbow Serpent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  35. ^ "Rainbow Serpent". National Geographic. Public Television's Wild Chronicles. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  36. ^ a b c d Petitjean, Georges (2012). Welling, Wouter (ed.). "'Casting Ahead Serpent-fashion': The Rainbow Serpent in Australia". Dangerous and Divine: The Secret of the Serpent: 172–181.
  37. ^ "Rainbow Serpent Festival". Rainbow Serpent Festival. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  38. ^ Webster, Tor. "Rainbow Serpent Project". Retrieved 17 April 2013.
  39. ^ "Hellblazer" (89–90). New York: DC/Vertigo. May–June 1995. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  40. ^ "Persona 5 Yurlungur Stats Skills List". Samurai Gamers. 30 March 2020. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  • Taylor, Luke (June 1990), "The Rainbow Serpent as Visual Metaphor in Western Arnhem Land", Oceania, 60 (4, Special 60th Anniversary Issue): 329–344, JSTOR 0332450

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