The Rainbow Serpent (artwork by Kinjaii)

The Australian Aboriginal people believe there is a world or era which exists beyond this world, the Dreamtime.  In that timeless transcendent realm, totemic forces and mighty spirit beings perpetually shape the earth.  One of the most important of these spirits was the great rainbow serpent, an immense magical snake which lives simultaneously in the watercourses, deep billabongs, and underground springs of Australia, in the rain, and, of course, in the eternal Dreamtime. 

According to myth, the rainbow serpent created the rivers and mountains of Australia in the course of his or her travels.   Serpent stories vary from tribe to tribe.  Different groups even call the spirit serpent by various names, but the concept is pan-Australian.  Aboriginal tribes which live in the monsoon regions of Australia tell stories about the serpent’s interaction with the sun and the wind to bring the seasonal rains.  Tribes from the deep desert tell about its underground travels through the underworld between the permanent waterholes.

Painting by Susanne Iles

The serpent can appear in the sky as a rainbow, however its true nature is as fickle as ever-changing water.  To some people, the serpent brings healing, knowledge, and fertility while he gulps down others, drowns them, or visits sickness upon them. The voice of the rainbow serpent is the sound of a didgeridoo.  George Chaloupka, an expert on folklore and rock art describes the Rainbow Serpent as follows:

“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.”

The first humans whose titanic existence marked the dreamtime, who brought flora to the world were said to have been swallowed up by the rainbow serpent. Although timeless and nigh omnipotent, the rainbow serpent did come from somewhere. Aborigines believe that it was an offspring of the vast cosmological serpent, visible as the dark streak in the Milky Way.

Good grief! It does look like a serpent...