The Rainbow Serpent or Rainbow Snake is a common deity often seen as a creator god, known by numerous names in different Australian Aboriginal languages by the many different Aboriginal peoples. It is a common motif in the art and religion of many Aboriginal Australian peoples.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Names in different culturesEdit
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, also styled Yurlungur, Yulunggur, Jurlungur, Julunggur or Julunggul. The Yurlunggur was considered "the great father".
Kanmare is the name of the great water serpent in Queensland[a] among the Pitapita people of the Boulia District; it is apparently a giant carpet snake, and recorded under the name Cunmurra further south.[b] The same snake is called Tulloun among the Mitakoodi (Maithakari). Two mythical Kooremah of the Mycoolon (Maikulan) tribe of Queensland, are cosmic carpet snakes 40 miles long, residing in watery realm of the dead, or on the pathway leading to it;this is probably equivalent to the rainbow snake also.
Other names include:
- Bolung in the Northern Territory, by the Dangbon/Dalabon/Buan and Rembarrnga
- muitj (var. Moitt, Muit ) in Central Arnhemland  by the Rembarrnga, etc.
- Ngalyod[c] by the Kunwinjku
- Dhakkan (or Takkan) by the Gubbi Gubbi (Kabi)
- Andrénjinyi by the natives of Pennefather River, North Queensland
- Kajura by the Ingarda
- Goorialla by the Lardil people
- Wanampi by the Aṉangu
- Kunmanggur by the Murinbata
- Numereji by the Kakadu (Gaagudju)
- Taipan by the Wikmunkan
- Wagyl by the Noongar
- Wanamangura by the Thalanyji (Talainji)
- Wollunqua by the Warumungu
Development of conceptEdit
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. 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." 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.
It has also 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. 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.
The rainbow serpent is in the first instance, is the rainbow itself.[d] It is said to inhabit particular waterholes, springs etc., owing to the fact that such bodies of water can exhibit spectral colors by diffracting light, according to one explanation. Likewise, the rainbow quartz crystal and certain seashells are also associated with the Rainbow Serpent, and are used in rituals involving the rainbow serpent.[e] The underlying reasons are likewise explainable, since quartz acts as a prism to diffract light into different colours, while the mother of pearl exhibits an iridescence of colours.[f]
The Dreaming (or Dreamtime or Tjukurrpa or Jukurrpa) 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 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.
In some cultures, the Rainbow Serpent is male; in others, female; in yet others, the gender is ambiguous or the Rainbow Serpent is hermaphroditic 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, as in the case of the Kunmanggur serpent. Other times, the Serpent has no particular gender.
The serpent is sometimes ascribed with a having crest or a mane or on its head, or being bearded as well.
while it is single-headed, the Yurlunggur of Arnhem land may possess a double-body.
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. Some scholars have identified other creatures, such as a bird, crocodile, dingo, or lizard, as taking the role of the Serpent in stories. In all cases, these animals are also associated with water. The Rainbow Serpent has also been identified with, or considered to be related to, the bunyip, a fearful, water-hole dwelling creature in Australian mythology.
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. In this belief system, without the Serpent, no rain would fall and the Earth would dry up. In other cultures, the serpent stops rainfall: the Numereji serpent's iwaiyu (its soul or shadow) cast upon the sky becomes the rainbow, and the serpent ascends to stop the rain, the Andrénjinyi is said to halt the rain caused by enemies.
The Rainbow Serpent is sometimes associated with human blood, especially circulation and the menstrual cycle, and considered a healer. Thunder and lightning are said to stem from when the Rainbow Serpent is angry, and the Serpent can even cause powerful rainstorms and cyclones.
Stories about the Rainbow Serpent have been passed down from generation to generation. 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. 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.
The most common motif in Rainbow Serpent stories is the Serpent as creator, with the Serpent often bringing life to an empty space.
One prominent Rainbow Serpent myth is the story of the Wawalag or Wagilag sisters, from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land. 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. 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. 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, and this act creates Arnhem Land. Now, the Serpent speaks in their voices and teaches sacred rituals to the people living there.
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. In some versions, the great mother is accompanied by the Rainbow Serpent (or Lightning Snake), who brings the wet season of rains and floods.
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.
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. 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".
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. 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.
The Serpent has been depicted in rock art in various forms, generally snake-like but it may have heads resembling marsupials (macropods) or flying foxes, even birds or humans. Unlike an ordinary snake in nature, it may also be depicted with additional appendages such as animal legs and feet, also manifests tails of various forms in rock art.
Possible origins in natureEdit
Various species/taxa of snakes in the natural world have been proposed as the model for the rainbow serpent. Areas where rainbow serpent myth seemingly overlaps with the habitat range of Boidae family snakes (boas) in general.
One suggestion is that it is modeled on the "rock python", regarding the rainbow serpent in the myth of the Wawilak sisters among the Yonglu people. In some tellings of the sisters myth, the encounter with the Yurlunggur serpent occurs in its water-hole called the Mirrimina well, glossed as 'rock python's back'. Specifically, the banded rock python (aka Childreni's python; Liasis childreni <sc>syn.</sc> Antaresia childreni) has been identified with the Yurlunggur by one researcher. This species is of brown colour (cf. Yurlunggur described as "giant copper snake") flecked with darker patches and having a ventral side that is opalescent white.
Another suggestion is the Oenpelli rock python (aka Oenpelli python), which is called nawaran in the native Kunwinjku language, according to whose lore grew into the Ngalyod serpent. This snake is also brown with darker blotches with iridescent scales.
The carpet snake (Morelia spilota variegata) is considered a form that the Rainbow Serpent can take by the Walmadjari people in northern Western Australia. The Kanmare or Kooremah of Queensland are also considered enormous carpet snakes, as already mentioned.
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.
Role in traditional cultureEdit
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.
There are many ancient rituals associated with the Rainbow Serpent that are still practised today. 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.
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.
The earliest known rock drawings of the Rainbow Serpent date back to more than 6,000 years ago. 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.
The Rainbow Serpent is also identified as a healer and can pass on its properties as a healer to humans through a ritual.
Influence in modern cultureEdit
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, and the Rainbow Serpent Project, a series of films which document the filmmaker's journey to various sacred sites around the Earth, 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.
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; the Rainbow Serpent has also appeared as a character in comic books such as Hellblazer. The Rainbow Serpent, under the name Yurlungur, has featured as a demon or persona in several titles of the Megami Tensei series of Japanese role-playing games. The Rainbow Serpent has also appeared as an antagonistic character in the novel Eyes of the Rainbow Serpent.
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. Some New Age religions and spirituality movements around the world have now also adopted the Rainbow Serpent as an icon.
Similarly, the Rainbow Serpent can inspire social movements. 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. 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.
- The first example in the 1926 rainbow serpent paper by Radcliffe-Brown.
- Given as Cunmurra in Duncan-Kemp (1933), in here reminiscences at "Mooraberrie homestead, 138 miles (222 km) west of Windorah"; Mooraberrie Station being approximately 180 miles (290 km) south of Boulia.
- Or Ngalmudj.
- Or at least in some instances, identified with the rainbow (or otherwise associated with the rainbow).
- Quartz crystal and "elongated pieces of pearl-shell, pindjauandja" used by medicine men of Forrest River District, in rites involving the rainbow serpent.
- The Serpent is also identified with a prismatic halo around the moon that can be regarded as a sign of rain.
- Other suggestions from a televised source include the scrub or amethystine python, the taipan, and the file snake.
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See also the page for Aido Hwedo the Rainbow Snake deity of Africa.
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