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
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 Ngalyod by 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
|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
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
Source: Paul S.C. Tacon, Meredith Wilson and Christopher
Chippindale 1996: "Birth of the Rainbow Serpent in Arnhem land
rock art and oral history" Archaeology in Oceania 31 (1996)