Yulunggul Snake

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YULUNGGUL SNAKE . Yulunggul is the Great Python of north-central Arnhem Land, who swallowed the Wawalag sisters and their child(ren). Yulunggul is most often identified as male, with or without female counterparts. One northeastern Arnhem Land version specifies Yulunggul as female but with symbolic male (phallic) implications.

William Lloyd Warner's account (1937, e.g. p. 257) notes a variety of snakes, goannas, and snails as sons of Yulunggul. In a couple of women's versions, Yulunggul's python children, who live in the water hole with him, ask him to regurgitate what he has eaten so that they can eat it too. Warner refers to Yulunggul as "great father" (Yindi Bapa or Bapa Yindi), but it is possible that he misheard the more usual expression, "great snake" (Yindi Baapi).

Unlike so many of the great mythic characters, who came from elsewhere to sites that were to be spiritually associated with them, Yulunggul had always been at his special water hole, known as Mirara-minar and Muruwul; there is a cluster of names and waters in that area. The Wawalag sisters, in contrast, were travelers from a distant country and were strangers: the kinship terms identifying them as sisters of Yulunggul's were not consanguineously based. Nevertheless, all of the mythic Snakes in north and northeastern Arnhem Land, including Yulunggul, were good site guardians and knew who the travelers were.

The Wawalag sisters brought with them inland-type songs. These are in the compressed, key-word style typical of the Kunapipi (Gunabibi)unlike the long, drawn-out songs of north-central and northeastern Arnhem Land, such as Yulunggul sang. The longer songs include names for physical and other attributes of the Snake that are used as personal names by present-day Aborigines of appropriate social and territorial status, and they include singing words for the monsoon, the coasts and offshore islands, and the rough seas. This introduction to inland people and inland songs and religious rites was not achieved without trauma, in the context of the myth, but it marked the acceptance of "new" items on a longterm basis.

In one of his roles Yulunggul is, explicitly, a culture-area indicator, or a boundary marker. During his conversation with the other great Snakes after he has swallowed the Wawalag, he faces east. This conversation is like a statement about a broad cultural zone that shares a range of common understandings and rules, though there are local variations. Its principal binding force is its religious system, actively expressed through ritual collaboration. The Snakes (in Warner's version, p. 253) underline this accord, agreeing that although they speak "different languages" (dialects), they share the same religious commitments. Significantly, then, Yulunggul looks to and talks to his counterparts in the east, turning his back on western Arnhem Land. That region is clearly outside the eastern Arnhem Land bloc, notwithstanding its mythic swallowing and vomiting Rainbow Snakes and some cultural exchange and transmission; traditionally the westerners did not circumcise, and their marriage rules and language patterns were very different.

There are divergent views on whether Yulunggul is a Rainbow Snake manifestation. In the Milingimbi versions, when the two men from Wawalag country came to Mirara-minar, the water "shone like a rainbow. When they saw this they knew there was a snake there." (Warner, p. 258, also 385). Where his Rainbow Snake identification is not accepted, mainly on the eastern side of Arnhem Land, it is sometimes explained with, "Yulunggul is separate: he is himself."

As a weather symbol, Yulunggul has his own personal niche in the pantheon of deities (Warner, p. 378). He has both freshwater and saltwater affiliations. Although he is anchored spiritually to a special site, he is also spiritually mobile. He is the spirit of the monsoon, the west and northwest wind that brings the fertilizing rains of the wet season. Just as the copulations of the Snakes and clouds during the wet season ensure fertility in the dry season, so Yulunggul's "union" with the Wawalag transformed him into a symbol of seasonal fertility. He continued to inhabit his water hole but gained prominence in two additional dimensions. One was his role in the ritual constellations "given" to posterity by the Wawalag sisters. The other was spiritual mobility. In some Milingimbi versions (Warner, p. 254), he flies across the country with the Wawalag and their child(ren) inside him, naming various places and allocating local dialects. More generally, in all available versions he is identified in spirit with the baara, the fast-moving, rain-bearing monsoon storms and clouds from the west and northwest.

The full force of the monsoon can have a formidable impact on the people, creatures, landscape, and waters in its path. A skillful storyteller can convey the force dramatically in narrative versions of the Yulunggul myth. Warner (pp. 379381) tried to communicate the power of the monsoon through a quotation from a geographer about the Darwin area, but the cycle of the seasons is much less "uniform" than his source suggests. It is the variability and unpredictability of the monsoon that has convinced Aborigines of the need to work ritually to regularize it.

In his Milingimbi study, Warner (pp. 381382) mentions a number of named seasons, but his whole emphasis is on a twofold division between "wet" and "dry." Men are identified with the Snake, as a "purifying element" (p. 387), "with the positive higher social values," ritual cleanliness, the sphere of "the sacred" (p. 394), women with the dry season, "uncleanliness," and "the profane." Lévi-Strauss recognized the contradiction between these statements and the claim that Aborigines regarded the wet season as bad (too much rain, no food) and the dry season as good (plenty of food, greater mobility). But the seasonal picture and other suggested dichotomies are oversimplified and unreal.

Yulunggul's territorial, seasonal, and religious-ritual roles make him a powerful and majestic figure. Much of his ritual symbolism is secret-sacred, not to be discussed publicly, but his public persona is awesome enough. All of this gives rise to some intriguing questions. For example, in a Milingimbi version that is found only in Warner, after Yulunggul had regurgitated the sisters and they lay "dead," a great Yulunggul didjeridu (drone pipe) came out of Yulunggul's water hole of its own volition and revived them with the help of green ants. Yulunggul was angry. He "killed" the sisters and swallowed them again. The didjeridu that features so prominently in Kunapipi and associated rituals, however, is Yulunggul, and its sound is his voice. How to reconcile the contradiction? Contradiction is, up to a point, the essence of myth, and perhaps it merely reflects the approach of Yulunggul to the Wawalag sisters in the events of the myth as usually told and interpreted, in a relationship about which there is still much more to be said.

See Also

Rainbow Snake.


Berndt, Catherine H. "Monsoon and Honey Wind." In Échanges et Communications: Mélanges offerts à Claude Lévi-Strauss, edited by Jean Pouillon and Pierre Maranda, vol. 2, pp. 13061326. The Hague, 1970. Comments on Yulunggul as an intermediary between the interlinked dialect units and clans of eastern Arnhem Land and on the sociocultural scene in western Arnhem Land and its proliferation of Rainbow Snake myths. Notes briefly some points in Wawalag and Yulunggul songs from women's perspectives, as well as the issue of "incest" at the water hole rather than in Wawalag country.

Berndt, Ronald M. Kunapipi: A Study of an Australian Aboriginal Cult. Melbourne, 1951. Includes discussion of Yulunggul in the context of Kunapipi ritual and in relation to the Wawalag myth.

Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt. The World of the First Australians (1964). Rev. ed., Adelaide, 1985. Includes discussion of Yulunggul and of the Wawalag myth in their sociocultural context and in their ritual manifestations and interconnections.

Hiatt, L. R. "Swallowing and Regurgitation in Australian Myth and Rite." In Australian Aboriginal Mythology, edited by L. R. Hiatt, pp. 143162. Canberra, 1975. Summarizes a number of Aboriginal myths, including two versions of the Wawalag myth, and discusses various interpretations of the swallowing and regurgitation behavior attributed to certain mythic characters, among them Snakes and old woman (mother) figures who are "also cosmic creators."

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. La pensée sauvage. Paris, 1962. Translated anonymously into English with the unfortunate title The Savage Mind (London, 1966). The references to Yulunggul and the Wawalag myth are on pages 9194 and 96. Lévi-Strauss follows Warner's interpretation, reframing it to some extent but accepting his statements and his male-dominated perspective.

Munn, Nancy D. "The Effectiveness of Symbols in Murngin Rite and Myth." In Forms of Symbolic Action, edited by Robert F. Spencer, pp. 178207. Seattle and London, 1969. This perceptive analysis of the Wawalag myth and other features of northeastern Arnhem Land culture, ritual and social relationships includes an examination of the role of the Snake and its bearing on power relations between men and women, and between older and younger men.

Warner, William Lloyd. A Black Civilization: A Study of an Australian Tribe (1937). New York, 1958. Devotes a great deal of attention to Yulunggul (Yurlunggur, in his spelling) in the context of the Wawalag myth and associated rituals and their social and environmental implications.

Catherine H. Berndt (1987)