The Rainbow Serpent

The Rainbow Serpent (Snake) is an important part of the beliefs and culture of the people of western Arnhem Land. Today the Rainbow Serpent is associated with ceremonies about fertility and abundance, as well as the organisation of the community and the keeping of peace. The Rainbow Serpent is also part of the beliefs of Aboriginal people in other parts of Australia, but is best known from Arnhem Land.

The Rainbow Serpent has been described by George Chaloupka, the foremost expert on the rock art of Arnhem Land, 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.” (from page 47, “Journey in Time”, Reed 1993).

Rock Art of the Rainbow Serpent

Paintings of the Rainbow Serpent first appear in Arnhem Land rock art more than 6000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 8000 years before the present, as the seas rose after the last Ice Age.

The most recent image was painted on rock in 1965, and the tradition has continued in work on bark and more recently on paper. The Rainbow Serpent is called Almudj by Gundjehmi and Mayali speakers and Ngalyodby Kunwinjku speakers.

Among the Kunwinjku speaking people of western Arnhem Land, and many of their neighbours, numerous Rainbow Snakes are said to populate the landscapes that make up their homelands. Two types of Rainbow Serpents consistently turn up in their oral history, mythology, ceremonies and painted art: Yingarna, the female Rainbow Serpent, is the mother, the original creator being; and the male Rainbow Serpent, Ngalyod, is the transformer of the land. They often live in deep waterholes below waterfalls.

The Rainbow Snake is depicted as a long mythical creature made of the parts of different animals – kangaroo’s or flying fox’s head, crocodile’s tail – joined along the body of a huge python decorated with water lilies, yams and waving tendrils. See, for example, the print on the right by Bardyal Nadjamerrek.

Daughter of the original female Rainbow Serpent, Yingarna.

A Scientific Interpretation

The rock art images in western Arnhem Land have been studied in detail by Dr Paul Tacon, Dr Christopher Chippindale of the Cambridge University in Britain, and Meredith Wilson at the Australian National University. After using statistical methods to analyse 107 images, they say they have found convincing evidence that the first snake images were inspired directly by climate change and also claim to have identified a living model for them.

Tacon and Chippindale say that the first images of Rainbow Serpents appear in the rock art at the time of the Yam period identified by George Chaloupka, beginning around 6000 years ago, and that these set the pattern for all following images: a snake-like body, curved horse-like heads, at least two types of tails (pointed or spiked), and an assortment of plant and animal appendages, including wispy tendrils and ear-like projections.

At first the researchers thought of a seahorse, but after talking to Dr John Paxton, a fish expert at the Australian Museum, they settled on another, though related animal model – the ribboned pipefish, Haliichthys Taeniophora, which is found around Irian Jaya and the coast of northern Australia from Shark Bay in Western Australia to the Torres Strait.

The researchers matched features of likely animals that may have served as models for the images, and found that the ribboned pipefish matched most closely, over and above those of crocodiles, snakes and kangaroos and other creatures. A related pipefish, the Ghost Pipefish, is shown on the right.

The World’s Oldest Religious Image?

This creature would have been unfamiliar to people living inland until the sea began rising after the last Ice Age and crept steadily inland, flooding familiar features and causing great disruption to climate, hunting and traditional patterns of life. Traditional food plants and animals dwindled and war increased as groups of people from diverse language and cultural groups were forced to share the diminishing landscape.

Because of this stress, the reasearchers reasoned, the serpent became a symbol of unity and peaceful cooperation, as well as of creation and destruction. From this they conclude that the Rainbow Serpent represents the world’s oldest continuous religious tradition.