Rainbow Snake

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RAINBOW SNAKE (Rainbow Serpent) is an almost ubiquitous but elusive mythological figure throughout the Australian continent. To A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1930), the Rainbow Snake was "perhaps the most important nature-deity, the most important representation of the creative and destructive power of nature, principally in connection with rain and water." Writing about southeastern Australia, he notes the Rainbow Snake's association with waterfalls, as well as with smallpox, and he mentions the belief that ordinary people who approached the Snake's home site were in danger of being eaten. He adds that paraphernalia prepared for young men's initiation sequences in the Bora rites included a snakelike earth mound up to forty feet long. Although Radcliffe-Brown concludes that the bunyip in Victoria was not a Rainbow Snake, Charles P. Mountford (1978) includes bunyip s, as well as other Snake-like characters, in this category of beings. Even among traditionally oriented Aborigines, the name Rainbow Snake can apply to snakes with no obvious rainbow connections. They may have quasi-crocodile shapes or just "something" about them that is dangerous or not normally visible.

Human Contact with Rainbow Snake Power

Because of the aura of danger surrounding the idea of Rainbow Snakes and other similar beings, certain places are taboo to ordinary people but not to Aboriginal "doctors," the men or, less often, women whose experience goes beyond cases of illness or injury to include the supernatural dimension, usually through special initiation rites involving the Rainbow Snake and perhaps spirits of the dead. According to some Kimberley and Western Desert beliefs recorded by A. P. Elkin (1945), the novice was taken up into the sky, where he underwent a ritual death and had inserted into his body quartz crystals and perhaps maban (sometimes called "pearl shell"), both associated with the Rainbow Snake. The crystals or shells are invisible and confer particular powers on the recipient; or he might be given "little rainbow-snakes from a water-hole at the foot of the rainbow" (Elkin, 1945, pp. 3233). A person with such powers can see Rainbow Snakes and other beings and perhaps have a personal Rainbow Snake as a spirit familiar. He can use the rainbow as a vehicle in which to travel great distances through the sky.

Actual pearl shells from the northwest coast of Western Australia, some engraved with water and rain designs, were also associated with Rainbow Snakes. Used in initiation and in rainmaking rites, they were (and are) passed on along recognized trade routes, eastward well beyond the Victoria River district and south to the Great Australian Bight.

During the wet season (the cyclone season), the northwest coast is subject to monsoon storms that deluge the whole north coast across to northern and eastern Queensland. Rainbow Snake and other Snake stories are especially common throughout these potential flood areas. The Rainbow Snake of arid zones, known as Wonambi, Wanambi, and other names, is dangerous and powerful, but less dramatically so than his northern counterparts. Even inland, however, dry sandy creek beds can suddenly become raging torrents that flood the surrounding country (for example, the Tod River in Alice Springs and other rivers in northern South Australia or the usually dry Lake Eyre, which floods less often).

Along the northwestern Australian coast, for instance, summer cyclones threaten coastal townssometimes extending even into the southwest. For the non-Aboriginal population, the urgent questions have to do with whether a given cyclone will cross the coast, where and when it will do so, how destructive it will be, and, if it moves inland, whether it will become a rain-bearing low-pressure system, bringing water to areas that depend on the monsoon. Weather officials still regard cyclone movements as unpredictable. For traditional Aborigines, however, the matter is plain: mythic characters control the seasonal weather and tidal patterns, including cyclones, and the decisions are theirs.

Among the most important mythic characters are the wandjina (wondjina ), well known to the outside world through cave and bark paintings. In Ungarinyin territory, these spirits, which can be manifestations of Rainbow Snake, are also sometimes called Ungud. Ungud "brings down spirit babies in the rain to the waterholes" (Elkin, 1930, p. 351). Elkin adds, "The rainbow-serpent is associated with the coming of rain, the increase of natural species and the continuance of mankind." According to Phyllis M. Kaberry, in northeastern Kimberley, the Rainbow Snake known as Galeru (Kaleru) is also a life saver and sustainer, the embodiment of fertility, "the most sacred of the totemic ancestors and revered as such." He is a lawgiver, responsible for such features of social organization as marriage rules and subsections, and he is "the source of magical power not only in the past but also in the present" (Kaberry, 1937, pp. 194, 200201; see also pp. 193, 196n). Pearl shells come from him, and in some circumstances it is dangerous to dream of them (p. 206); in the creative era of the Dreaming (the ngarunggani), he carried inside him certain foods now subject to life-crisis or age-linked taboos; white stones used for rainmaking also belong to him (p. 207).

Here, as in many cases, the main emphasis is on the Rainbow Snake as a male being: for example, as husband to Kunapipi. In north-central Arnhem Land, Yulunggul is more often thought to be male. His Rainbow Snake identification there, less positive than it is in northeastern Arnhem Land, may have been influenced by the strong Rainbow Snake presence in western Arnhem Land. The Rainbow Snake in the west has several namesAmbidj, for instance, among the Maung of Goulburn Islands and the adjacent mainland, and Ngalyod among Gunwinggu speakers farther inland. Numereji, noted by Baldwin Spencer in 1912 as the Kakadu (Gagadju) name, has not been in use for at least forty years.

Gunwinggu speakers, especially, prefer to speak of the Rainbow Snake only obliquely, not directly by name. One everyday word for "creature(s)," edible or otherwise, is mai provided it is included in the noun class that takes the prefix na- (which can be a masculine prefix). When mai is used with the indicator ngal-, which can be a feminine prefix, it usually refers to the Rainbow Snake. If Gunwinggu speakers had traditionally used written language, they would surely have written Mai. As it is, the context and the ngal- indicators differentiate it quite plainly. Among other such oblique names, one that depends partly on intonation and context for its maximum effect is Ngaldargid: here the prefix ngal- is attached to a word in ordinary use, dargid, meaning "living," or "alive." It could be taken in more than its ordinary sense, as in "the living one" or even, perhaps, as "the life-charged one." In other instances, such as in Ngaldargidni, it means that the Rainbow Snake is still there, still living, at a particular site. Hundreds of myths recount the events of the creative era in which the landscape was formed, and the Rainbow Snake plays an active role in the majority of them.

In one traditional western Arnhem Land view the Rainbow Snake is a creator, the first mother. She travels under the sea from the northwest, and on the mainland she eventually gives birth to the people she is carrying inside her. She vomits them out, licking them with her tongue to make them grow and scraping them with mussel shells to make their skin smooth and lighter in color. Some Gunwinggu women have told this author,

No matter what our [social affiliations], we all call her gagag, "mother's mother." We live on the ground, she lives underneath, inside the ground and in the water[s]. She urinated fresh water for us to drink, otherwise we would all have died of thirst. She showed us what foods to collect. She vomited the first people, the Dreaming people, who prepared the country for us, and she made us, so that we have minds and sense to understand. She gave us our [social categories and] language, she made our tongues and teeth and throats and breath: she shared her breath with us, she gave us breath, from when we first sat inside our mothers' wombs. She looks a bit like a woman, a bit like a snake.

In myth, and in recent and even present belief, the Rainbow Snake, Ngalyod, can be aroused by too much noise, such as that of a crying child, or by too much shouting, too much interference with the ground, the breaking of a taboo-rock, or a person's failure to take precautions at times when he or she is especially vulnerable (by going near water during pregnancy or menstruation or too soon after childbirth or by allowing a young baby to do so). Gunwinggu women at Oenpelli summed up the expected consequences:

Far away, she lifts up her head and listens, and she makes straight for that place. A cold wind blows, there is a red glow like a bush fire, a great roaring sound, the ground cracks and moves and becomes soft and wet, water flows rushing, a flood covers the rocks, stones are falling, she comes up like a dream and swallows all those people. She carries them about for a while. Then she vomits their bones, and they turn into stone. They are still there today, as djang, eternally present: their spirits remain at [that place]. Let nobody go near [that place], where they came into Dreaming!

There are many variations of this account just as there are many distinctive rock formations in the Arnhem Land escarpment. Most of the named sites throughout the region have their specific djang spirits, and in almost all cases the Rainbow Snake was an agent in their transformation (see Berndt and Berndt, 1970).

On the coastal islands and nearby mainland, the Rainbow Snake is more often specifically categorized as male; the inland classification, however, is sometimes acknowledged to be partly a matter of grammatical gender, and the Rainbow Snake is occasionally described as either male or ambisexual. Moreover, in coastal and island contexts, myths often tell of parties of men who track down and kill the Rainbow Snake, cut her (him) open, and try to save the people inside. In one version they cook and eat the Snake to give them strength in the long task of pulling out the living and burying the great numbers of dead. But the Rainbow Snake is timeless, indestructible, and not limited to any one locality. Rainbow Snake manifestations can be almost everywhere or anywhere. For all the people of western Arnhem Land, the Rainbow Snake is traditionally a symbol of monsoon storms, rain, floods, and of danger; her (his) formal links with the sphere of the sacred are epitomized in the secret-sacred rites of the Ubar.

The Rainbow Snake as Catalyst and Symbol

Not only healers and law keepers can draw on the Rainbow Snake's power. In one western Arnhem Land myth, a man with a grievance deliberately smashes a taboo rock, knowing that when the Snake comes rushing to swallow (drown) everyone at that site he himself will die along with the people he wants to kill. Some sorcerers were believed to send their own Rainbow Snake familiars on vengeance missions.

In other areas a sorcerer could also supposedly draw on that power, for personal reasons or on someone else's behalf, to avenge a perceived wrong. When sorcery is identified as the cause of death, it is likely to be condemned as a misuse of the powers obtained from the Rainbow Snake and from spirits of the dead (e.g., Kaberry, 1937, p. 211). The argument is that such powers are directed toward selfish ends that are not socially approved, whereas directing them outside the community to avenge the death of one of its own members is assumed to have the community's approval.

Nevertheless, in many respects the Rainbow Snake is a guardian of the status quo as well as a source of power. The terror and dismay of victims in myth are sometimes a consequence of their own carelessness, sometimes a matter of fate or destiny (particularly in western Arnhem Land) or of seemingly harsh treatment for their own ultimate good. The Rainbow Snake is not necessarily a destroyer, to go back to Radcliffe-Brown's comment, but rather a symbol and a reminder of the potentially destructive and overpowering, as well as revitalizing, forces of nature, which can be fearsome as well as splendid. This constellation of cosmic imagery attracts within its orbit a host of other figures not necessarily categorized as Rainbow Snakes. Thus, according to Ursula H. McConnel, in North Queensland the deadly taipan snake is identified with the Rainbow Snake by virtue of its assumed "power as arbiter of life and death" (McConnel, 1957, p. 111).

The Rainbow Snake is Our Mother, but there are other mythic mothers. In some accounts he is Our Father, but there are other mythic fathers (although fewer, perhaps, than mothers). There are other phallic symbols, as well as other storm, flood, cyclone, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, and fertility symbols. Other Snakes and other beings are associated with deep pools, waterfalls, whirlwinds, and rivers. But the rainbow in the sky and the Rainbow Snake on the ground and in the waters are somehowdirectly or indirectly, explicitly or potentiallylinked to any or all of these from the very beginning of time. Very few elaborate ritual sequences are devoted to the Rainbow Snake alone as a central personage, and he or she has not one localized site but rather many actual or potential sites in all parts of the continent. These are pointers to a frame of beliefs that, though partly open, has as its central core image a wide-ranging, powerful deity of cosmic proportions, never wholly visible at any one time or place.

See Also

Gadjeri; Ungarinyin Religion; Wandjina; Yulunggul Snake.


Berndt, Ronald M. Kunapipi: A Study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult. Melbourne, 1951. Discusses the Rainbow Snake in the context of rituals and associated myths.

Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt. Man, Land and Myth in North Australia: The Gunwinggu People. Sydney, 1970. Includes discussion of myths and ritual relating to the Rainbow Snake in western Arnhem Land, including the Snake as an agent of destiny or fate in the transformation of the "First People."

Berndt, Ronald M. and Catherine H. Berndt. The World of the First Australians (1964). Rev. ed., Adelaide, 1985. Includes a number of references to Rainbow Snakes in the contexts of myth and ritual and of seasonal fertility.

Eliade, Mircea. Australian Religions: An Introduction. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973. Includes an overview and discussion of Rainbow Snake material from various parts of the continent, with critical comments and comparisons, see the sections on "The Wondjina and The Rainbow Serpent" (pp. 7680) and "The Rainbow Serpent," pp. 113116. Footnotes to the text cover a large range of published items on this topic.

Elkin, A. P. Aboriginal Men of High Degree (1945). 2d ed. New York, 1977. The John Murtagh Macrossan Memorial Lectures for 1944. Summarizes material available to that date, including his own earlier field notes and published material, on the initiation of Aboriginal "native doctors" or "clever men" in various parts of Australia.

Kaberry, Phyllis M. Aboriginal Woman, Sacred and Profane. London, 1939. Includes useful references to the Rainbow Snake in its (his) sociocultural context, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, where her field research covered several different "tribal" groups. The book would have a stronger impact on present-day readers if she could have revised and updated it, compacting and reframing her data and her arguments. Unfortunately, she did not live to do that.

Mountford, Charles P. "The Rainbow Serpent Myth of Australia." In The Rainbow Serpent, edited by Ira R. Buchler and Kenneth Maddock, pp. 2397. The Hague, 1978. Includes some interesting items, but needs to be read with caution. It is most useful for the quite lavish illustrations.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. "The Rainbow Serpent Myth in South-East Australia." Oceania 7 (OctoberDecember 1930): 342347. In addition to Radcliffe-Brown's essay, this issue of Oceania includes articles by Ursula H. McConnel on the Rainbow Serpent in North Queensland, by A. P. Elkin on the Rainbow Serpent in northwestern Australia, and by Ralph Piddington on the Water Serpent in Karadjeri mythology. They are short, tentative statements based on some field research, and mostly expanded in later publications. Radcliffe-Brown had an earlier article on the Rainbow Serpent in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 56 (1926): 1925. McConnel later included the story of "Taipan, the 'Rainbow Serpent'" in Myths of the Mungkan (Melbourne, 1957), pp. 111116. She added that "the most dangerous snakes, and the water-snakes, are associated with the rainbow, and of these Taipan, the deadly brown snake of North Queensland, is the most destructive. It is therefore Taipan who goes up in the rainbow, with his sisters, and causes all these troubles"storms and cyclonic disturbances that bring "terrors and discomforts," floods and high tides "in the low-lying Gulf Country."

Stanner, W. E. H. "On Aboriginal Religion: IV, The Design-Plan of a Riteless Myth." Oceania 31 (June 1961): 233258. One part of Stanner's larger study of Australian Aboriginal religion, this concentrates on a particular myth in the sociocultural setting of the Murinbata and neighboring groups in the Port Keats region, in the northwest of the Northern Territory. He analyzes various versions in some detail, exploring issues of interpretation and explanation in his usual carefully thought-out prose style and includes Aboriginal comments and differences of opinion in his assessment.

New Sources

Chippindale, Christopher, Meredith Wilson, and Paul S. C. Tacon. "Birth of the Rainbow Serpent in the Arnhem Land Rock Art and Oral History." Archaeology in Oceania 60, no. 3 (1996): 103124.

Gardner, Robert L. The Rainbow Serpent: Bridge to Consciousness. Toronto, 1990.

Hulley, Charles E. The Rainbow Serpent. Sydney, 2000.

McKnight, David. People, Countries, and the Rainbow Serpent: Systems of Classification among the Lardil of Mornington Island. New York, 1999.

Noonuccal, Oodgeroo, and Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal. The Rainbow Serpent. Canberra, 1988.

Taylor, Luke. "The Rainbow Serpent as Visual Metaphor in Western Arnhem Land." Oceania 60 (June 1990): 329344.

Catherine H. Berndt (1987)

Revised Bibliography