Our Work is Our Play!
This week in Myth Madness, we take a long look at what is perhaps the most positive myth pertaining to a serpent figure: the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent.
The Rainbow Serpent goes by an extraordinary number of names across the vast continent; to name a few, Julunggul, Ungud, Wollunqua, Kalseru, Dhakhan, Yingarna, Almudj, and Binbeal. The Serpent also is known as multiple genders, described as male, female, both, and neither in multiple myths from various tribes across Australia. It is also known as one of the oldest continuing religious symbols in the world today, with rock art depictions of a female Rainbow Serpent dating back to about 8,000 years ago.
The origins of the Rainbow Serpent vary, but one of the most popular myths states that the great serpent descended from the darkest swath of the Milky Way, revealing itself to the peoples of this world as a massive, multicolor rainbow in the sky, heralding the coming of rain. On a continent that is primarily arid desert land, where the average rainfall equates to approximately 6.5 inches per year, water is a precious commodity, rain even more so. Another common myth is that, during the Dreamtime, an alternate universe connected to our own where past, present, and future exist as one being, the Rainbow Serpent rose from beneath the surface, creating mountains, gorges, valleys, and ridges as it passed by, before finally creating water, considered by the tribes to be life’s most precious resource – thus beginning life as we know it. It is said that without the Rainbow Serpent, all of the water on the planet would disappear, leaving everything to wither and die.
The Rainbow Serpent is known for having many abilities, including dominion and control over all water and air, creating storms, massive influence on fertility in all life forms, and an incredible sway over the health of living beings, having the power to completely cure a person at the point of death or to blight them with crippling illness. Its multicolor form travels in great arches across the sky and deep below the sea or waterways, thus creating the image of the rainbow often ending in the water. This also helped to explain watering holes that never seemed to dry up when drought season came – it was so the Rainbow Serpent could travel in and out of that particular area with ease in its preferred method of getting around. The serpent was also known for living in watering holes such as these, when not traversing the planet.
The serpent’s connection to the human body is also strong – which, considering that the human body is over 55% water, isn’t all that surprising. Besides the Rainbow Serpent’s incredible healing and smiting capabilities, it is also connected to human blood and fertility, particularly the menstrual cycle when the snake is gendered as female in certain tribes. Menstruation is considered sacred in many tribes, as it is a time when women are capable of creating and sustaining new life, raising their status to that of the serpent itself.
Even today, the Rainbow Serpent is worshiped and honored in Australia, with such examples as the Rainbow Serpent Festival (an annual electronic music festival), as well as the adoption of the Rainbow Serpent as a symbol for many LGBTQIA youth, given the serpent’s varying states of gender throughout mythology. The Rainbow Serpent is also popular in art communities as a central thematic subject, frequently portrayed in thousands of different ways in both the classroom and art galleries.