The Rainbow Serpent

The Rainbow Serpent is often described as the primary figure in the chronicle of Creation. In this myth, she creates many natural features and human beings and establishes the foundation of totemism.


Bark Painting of the Rainbow Serpent by Aboriginal Artist Jimmy Njiminjuma Courtesy of Songlines Aboriginal Art Gallery
In the Dreamtime all the earth lay sleeping. Nothing grew. Nothing moved. Everything was quiet and still. The animals, birds, and reptiles lay sleeping under the earth’s crust. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent awoke from her slumber and pushed her way through the earth’s crust, moving the stones that lay in her way.

When she emerged, she looked about her and then traveled over the land, going in all directions. She traveled far and wide, and when she grew tired she curled herself into a heap and slept. Upon the earth she left her winding tracks and the imprint of her sleeping body. When she had traveled all the earth, she returned to the place where she had first appeared and called to the frogs, “Come out!”

The frogs were very slow to come from below the earth’s crust, for their bellies were heavy with water which they had stored in their sleep. The Rainbow Serpent tickled their stomachs, and when the frogs laughed, the water ran all over the earth to fill the tracks of the Rainbow Serpent’s wanderings – and that is how the lakes and rivers were formed.

Then the grass began to grow, and trees sprang up, and so life began on earth. All the animals, birds, and reptiles awoke and followed the Rainbow Serpent, the Mother of Life, across the land. They were happy on earth, and each lived and hunted for food with his own tribe. The kangaroo, wallaby, and emu tribes lived on the plains, the reptile tribes lived among the rocks and stones, and the bird tribes flew through the air and lived in the trees.

The Rainbow Serpent made laws that all were asked to obey, but some grew quarrelsome and were troublemakers. The Rainbow Serpent scolded them, saying, “Those who keep my laws I shall reward well, I shall give to them a human form. They and their children and their children’s children shall roam this earth forever. This shall be their land. Those who break my laws I shall punish. They shall be turned to stone, never to walk the earth again.”

So the law breakers were turned to stones, and became mountains and hills, to stand forever and watch over the tribes hunting for food at their feet. But those who kept her laws she turned into human form, and gave each of them his own totem of the animal, bird, or reptile whence they came. So the tribes knew themselves by their own totems: the kangaroo, the emu, the carpet snake, and many, many more. And in order that none should starve, she ruled that no man should eat of his own totem, but only of other totems. In this way there was food for all.

So the tribes lived together in the land given to them by the Mother of Life, the Rainbow Serpent, and they knew that the land would always be theirs, and that no one should ever take it from them.



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