The Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal Mythology: Story & Myth

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Threaded into Australian culture is a rainbow serpent believed to be responsible for giving life and issuing punishment. In this lesson, you'll learn more about this mythical creature and one of the stories it inspired.

Watch Out for Rainbows

If you could talk to the earliest known inhabitants of Australia, also referred to as aboriginals, you would hear some interesting stories about their culture. You might hear about Piggi-Billa the Porcupine or Wayamba the Turtle, or perhaps another favorite - and the subject of this lesson - the Rainbow Serpent.

The Myth of the Rainbow Serpent

In Australian folklore, the rainbow serpent represents a deity, or god, responsible for giving life as well as creating and destroying nature, particularly in relation to water. It is believed that the snake travels from one waterhole to another, blessing the people when happy and causing destruction when angered. The serpent, whose shape mimics both the typically long body of the snake and the curved design of a rainbow, is often described as having the head of a kangaroo and the tail of a crocodile.

According to legend, when a rainbow is present in the sky the snake is traveling between watering holes, keeping them flowing even when drought parches the land. Some natives believe that the rainbow serpent blesses the fertility of women who wade in the water visited by the snake. Others credit the serpent for the growth of crops, while others believe it is responsible for ruling over communities and keeping harmony.

As you can see, the rainbow serpent is important in Australian culture as a protector, giver of life and watchman over nature and humanity. Yet, it also has a dark side, showing its destructive nature if the people fail to give it the proper respect. The rainbow serpent is believed to be behind storms and floods, sent as punishment when needed.

The Rainbow Serpent

There are numerous stories that feature the rainbow serpent at the center. One, titled The Rainbow Serpent, is an old aboriginal tale passed down through the generations. It centers on how the rainbow serpent came to be, told by an older tribesman to a younger, more inquisitive one. Here's how the story goes.

Years ago, a group of hunters had decided to rest for the night. As they were sitting around a fire, one of them spotted a rainbow in the sky. Another told the group it was a serpent moving between waterholes. This frightened some of the hunters, who didn't think too fondly of a giant serpent near the area they'd decided to make camp for the night.

After the trip, one of the younger hunters asked an elder of his tribe about the rainbow serpent and why some in his camp had been so frightened. The wise old man told the younger fellow that the serpent was a god who had helped form the earth. What started out as flat land became shaped - mountains and valleys - by the movement of the serpent. The serpent's power is vast, the older man continued, containing the ability to give life or dish out punishment upon the earth. After forming the earth, the serpent found a waterhole, where he rested after his work shaping the earth. Other animals who would encounter the waterhole would be careful not to disturb the serpent as they traveled past.

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