This is a mythic being of Aboriginal Australian lore, and a striking symbol to bridge past with present. The Rainbow Serpent is held in common by numerous Aboriginal tribes. Because of this, it has many names. Some of these are Wanamangura, Goorialla, Numereji, Yurlunggur, Taipan, Ungur, and Ngalyod. Its legend takes many forms. So the Rainbow Serpent may be an individual deity, or it may be a family of related deities who moved across the Earth. It may be male, female, or androgynous. It can be cruel and proud, or gentle and helpful. As god/dess of water in parched Australia, its power was never to be taken lightly.
What frustrates me in exploring this ancient dragon is how much information comes from scientists and settlers who weren’t part of the Aboriginal world. The Aborigines themselves seem to be left out of the telling. Perhaps this is their choice, to maintain their cultural privacy. Most likely, it’s a function of how the Aborigines were marginalized by colonial rule. Yet they still live on, and their faith is a living religion.
Most accounts say the Rainbow Serpent is a great snake with scales of many colors — a literal personification of the rainbow. As it arched across the sky, folk believed the Rainbow Serpent was traveling from one watering hole to another. Australia has been arid though most of recorded history, and any pool that held water during the dry season was a vital resource. Perhaps it isn’t surprising the tribal members thought these must be the dwellings of a god.
The legends also agree that the Rainbow Serpent came from the Dreamtime, a mystical neverworld that exists both together and apart from the earthly world. It is eternal, where mortal creatures may perish. The Rainbow Serpent came from the Dreamtime deep underground. In its struggle toward the surface, it raised mountains and carved valleys. At last it made its home in deep pools where the water never dried out, even during droughts. This cemented the Rainbow Serpent’s connection with the vital element of water.
On Saturday, I’ll recount some of the Rainbow Serpent’s legends.