Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent

Rainbow Snake

Although Mediterranean mythologies today are considered dead, in many places in the world the situation looks completely different. A good example is the indigenous people of Australia, who believe that deities are behind all phenomena on Earth. One of the best known is the Rainbow Serpent / Rainbow Snake, about which this article is treated.

As the issue of the rainbow arises in the article, we would like to clearly state that this article does not fit into the mainstream of articles for or against 🙂

Rainbow Serpent / Rainbow Snake

Origin and meaning

The image of an unusual reptile occurs both in mythology and in the art of Australian Aborigines, mainly residents of the Arnhem Land, where there is an Aboriginal Reserve. The name of the deity is not only related to the colors, but above all to the shape – it resembles a snake, and a little rainbow arc. Probably many people have heard this name, because it is one of the oldest religious beliefs, practiced to this day and affecting contemporary culture.

A group of researchers suggests that the relationship between the serpent and the rainbow symbolizes the cycle of the seasons and the importance of water in human life. When a rainbow appears in the sky, the snake moves from one waterhole to the other, which neatly explains the reason for not being able to suck some waters during periods of drought. Aborigines see in him an important deity, possessing the great power of a god-animator, which is indicated by a close relationship with water. However, it may manifest bad, destructive force.

The name of the Aboriginal deity was created by a European – Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, an anthropologist who noticed the same motif in many cultures and under different names. The scientist described this cultural phenomenon in simple words: “the rainbow-serpent myth of Australia”. The whole concept was not well interpreted, because the Aborigines see the Serpent in the past, present and future, and European travelers, filtered by the form of the past Greek myths, could not accept it. It has also been suggested that the representation of the serpent as the supreme deity in the beliefs of the peoples of Australia is the invention of non-Aboriginal anthropologists. Western-educated people, with a cultural stereotype, tell the Aboriginal stories only in the past tense.

Rainbow Serpent / Rainbow Snake


In Dreamtime (in Aboriginal Alcheringa, Malchera, Mura-mura, Jukurrpa or Tjukurrpa) we learn about the history of great spirits and totems in the form of people and animals who formed the Earth. The Rainbow Snake comes from under the ground, creating powerful ridges of mountains and ravines. Due to the huge size inhabits artesian waters, controlling the most valuable thing in the world – water. In some cultures, he is considered the ultimate creator of everything in the Universe.

Sex of the snake

Depending on the culture, the Rainbow Snake is a man or woman, sometimes the sex is not specified, or just the opposite – the deity is bisexual. When presented as a woman, her attribute is breasts. Interpreters saw in the Serpent a phallic symbol combined with myths and fertility rituals. A scorpion or other animal may appear instead of a snake. Sometimes it is identified with a bat called a flying fox, some researchers also found images of birds, crocodiles, lizards, and even dingo dogs. In all versions, however, the animal was closely related to water, which is why it is sometimes combined with the evil bunyip – a terrifying inhabitant of the deepest waters, also derived from Australian mythology.

The powerful force of everything

The Rainbow Snake was sometimes unpredictable – when it replenished water supplies, it created great gorges and deep canals that changed the entire landscape. According to several Aboriginal tribes without the Serpent no rain will fall, and all the water on Earth will dry, while others say that the deity is supposed to stop the rain.

It may also have a close, healing relationship with human blood, especially its flow and the menstrual period. If we see lightning and hear thunders, we know that the rainbow Serpent is angry, which is often evidenced by powerful storms and cyclones. Use quartz and shells during the ritual to call it up.

Rainbow Serpent / Rainbow Snake

Myth and nature

The inspiration for the creation of the Rainbow Snake form may have been the Scrub or Amethystine Python, the taipan or and the file snake. Each of them has a feature that can be attributed to the mythological reptile.  The most likely inspiration for the Rainbow Serpent is speculated to be the Water Python (Liasis Fuscus). The fossil cast of the prehistoric big serpent found in Queensland could also have contributed to the creation of the myth.

The name of the representative of the species is Wonambi. It was not one of the pythons, unlike the Australian Morelia. Currently, Wonambi is classified as a member of the extinct Madtsoiidae family.

The role in the tradition

The Rainbow Snake legend is passed down from generation to generation. Aborigines worship him with rituals, which include works of art, songs and tradition. Apart from them, there are various ceremonies that remember the most distant times. The myth about the Wawalang sisters emphasizes the importance of the women’s menstrual cycle, leading to the establishment of a blood ritual in honor of the goddess Kunapipi, during which the indigenous people of Australia allegorically recreate the Rainbow Serpent eating the Wawalag sisters through dance and pantomime. It can be one of the fertility rituals.

Rainbow snake – an Aboriginal rock painting

Paragraph only for adults

For many aboriginal cultures, a woman’s menstruation is a sacred thing because it determines when a woman can give birth to a new life. Therefore, the woman has the same creative powers as the Rainbow Snake. Trying to imitate this sacred process, the ritual participants cut their arms or penises, and letting their blood run over their own bodies, each other’s bodies, and even into a woman’s uterus. Men sometimes mix their blood with a women’s menstrual blood, letting them flow together in a ceremonial unification of the sexes.

Rock paintings

The earliest rock paintings of the Rainbow Serpent date back to more than 6,000 years. Due to the close relationship with fertility, it is presented as a vagina and vice versa – the vagina was presented as a Rainbow Snake.

In some illustrations, the mouth is open and the tongue is extended, which symbolizes the vaginal opening and the blood flowing out of it. Many Australian peoples identify him with healing powers that can be passed on to people by performing an appropriate ritual.

The Rainbow Serpent Festival – electronic music festival in Australia

Names of the Rainbow Serpent

The Rainbow Serpent is known by different names by different Aboriginal cultures. The Rainbow Serpent is known as:

  • Borlung by the Miali
  • Dhakkan (or Takkan) by the Kuli
  • Kajura by the Ingarda
  • Goorialla by the Lardil people
  • Kunmanggur by the Murinbata
  • Ngalyod by the Gunwinggu
  • Numereji by the Kakadu
  • Taipan by the Wikmunkan
  • Tulloun by the Mitakoodi
  • Wagyl by the Noongar
  • Wanamangura by the Talainji
  • Witij by the Yolngu
  • Other names:
    • Bolung, Galeru, Julunggul, Kanmare, Langal, Myndie, Muit, Ungur, Wollunqua, Wonambi, Wonungar, Worombi, Yero, Yingarna, and Yurlunggur

Rainbow Serpent in culture

In Victoria, Australia, the Rainbow Serpent Festival takes place in January each year. This is an electronic music festival.

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


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