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The Rainbow Serpent and the Dreamtime

The Rainbow Serpent and the Dreamtime

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Published by Boris Petrovic

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Published by: Boris Petrovic on Nov 22, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Rainbow Serpent
The Rainbow Serpent (Snake) is an important part of the beliefs and culture of thepeople of western Arnhem Land. Today the Rainbow Serpent is associated withceremonies about fertility and abundance, as well as the organisation of thecommunity and the keeping of peace. The Rainbow Serpent is also part of thebeliefs of Aboriginal people in other parts of Australia, but is best known fromArnhem Land.The Rainbow Serpent has been described by George Chaloupka, the foremostexpert on the rock art of Arnhem Land, as follows:"The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness inpropoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It isa creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits toall the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms andfloods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the lawor upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turninto stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow himwith magical powers, or leave 'little rainbows', their progeny, within his body which will make himail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the maincharacter in the region's major rituals." (from page 47, "Journey in Time", Reed 1993).Rock Art of the Rainbow SerpentPaintings 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 onbark and more recently on paper. The Rainbow Serpent is called
by Gundjehmi and Mayalispeakers and
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, ceremoniesand painted art:
, the female Rainbow Serpent, is the mother, the original creator being;and the male Rainbow Serpent,
, is the transformer of the land. They often live in deepwaterholes below waterfalls.The Rainbow Snake is depicted as a long mythicalcreature made of the parts of different animals -kangaroo's or flying fox's head, crocodile's tail - joinedalong the body of a huge python decorated with water lilies, yams and waving tendrils. See, for example, theprint on the right by Bardyal Nadjamerrek.Daughter of the original female RainbowSerpent,
A Scientific InterpretationThe 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 theAustralian National University. After using statistical methods to analyse 107 images, they saythey have found convincing evidence that the first snake images were inspired directly by climatechange 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 thetime of the Yam period identified by George Chaloupka, beginning around 6000 years ago, andthat these set the pattern for all following images: a snake-like body, curved horse-like heads, atleast 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 atthe Australian Museum, they settled on another, though related animal model - the ribbonedpipefish,
Haliichthys Taeniophora,
which is found around Irian Jaya and the coast of northernAustralia from Shark Bay in Western Australia to the Torres Strait.The researchers matched features of likelyanimals that may have served as models for theimages, and found that the ribboned pipefishmatched most closely, over and above those of crocodiles, snakes and kangaroos and other creatures. A related pipefish, the GhostPipefish, 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 toclimate, hunting and traditional patterns of life. Traditional food plants and animals dwindled andwar increased as groups of people from diverse language and cultural groups were forced toshare the diminishing landscape.Because of this stress, the reasearchers reasoned, the serpent became a symbol of unity andpeaceful cooperation, as well as of creation and destruction. From this they conclude that theRainbow Serpent represents the world's oldest continuous religious tradition.Source: Paul S.C. Tacon, Meredith Wilson and Christopher Chippindale 1996: "Birth of theRainbow Serpent in Arnhem land rock art and oral history" Archaeology in Oceania 31 (1996) 103-124

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