Welcome to our second episode of the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales in our journey Around The World in 80 Dragons (or so)! We’ll be exploring the dragon mythology of Australia. Grab your MythsterMap and markers and follow along! Don’t have a MythsterMap? You can grab yours by signing up to our newsletter.
Welcome to Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. Join us as we roar the heavens and swim the seas in search of the spectacular and magical. Like the Hydra of Greek lore, our teeth can raise the dead, bringing lost skeletons back to life for an episode or two. But unlike our three-headed friend, we’re not guarding the door to the underworld. No. We’re blasting it wide open, and asking you to come explore with us.
Jaz: Hello Mythsters, and welcome to episode two. Before we kick off, I have one tiny thing to say: The three of us would like to thank our very first patron for his support. Andrew, you are a king among kings. Now, with that off my chest, let’s talk dragons.
Anike: When you look at dragons across the world, some are monsters, others are gods, demigods, or resemble more of a genus loci. Some even play a major part in their native creation mythology. But one thing they all have in common is their serpentine or otherwise reptilian appearance.
Jaz: The serpent seems to be the most archetypal form of the dragon. This becomes fairly obvious in the second culture we visit: The Aboriginals of Australia, and their Rainbow Serpent.
Anike: As far as we could find, the first paintings sporting a serpent motif go back as far as 6000 to 8000 years ago, after the last ice age. To this day, Aboriginal people still paint the motif on bark, as well as more contemporary media. That makes theirs the longest uninterrupted cultural tradition in the world.
Jaz: Now, before we dig into the good stuff, we’ve got a few things worth mentioning. It can be difficult to collect myths for many reasons, including cultures changing over time, or cultures wanting to protect themselves from outside influence. While we tried to draw from a variety of sources and find confirmation for the things we learned from different references, any conclusion we come to in this episode, or on our blog, can only be hypothetical and based on our own interpretations of the source material we found. In no way do we claim to present an accurate description of Aboriginal spirituality and mythology.
Anike: Historically, many anthropologists have interpreted local myths according to their own belief systems. In the case of Christian Europeans going to Australia, this may mean a distortion of dragons as evil or sinister despite the original local beliefs, since Christianity sees the serpent and its cousin the dragon as evil because they got Adam and Eve booted from paradise. But that’s a story for another episode.
Jaz: While the Mythsterhood tries to source our mythology ethically, we are not immune to making mistakes and we always welcome people to write in with additional information or tales to share. The same goes for pronunciations. We want to apologise ahead of time for butchering words or names in any languages unfamiliar to us, and welcome anyone willing to teach us to do better.
Anike: With that out of the way, let’s get cracking.
Jaz: The rainbow serpent figures heavily in creation myths across the Australian continent, and is a strong recurring theme in the stylised artwork of the various tribes.
Anike: Now, while the symbolism and motif occurs across the continent, I’m pretty sure they are not the ones to come up with the name Rainbow Serpent.
Jaz: In fact, the term Rainbow Serpent was coined by anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown after noticing a similarity in the various descriptions. So, while the use of the capitalised name Rainbow Serpent implies that there is one such creature, known throughout Aboriginal culture, it would be more precise to refer to them as plural, since each tribe has its own names for “their” serpents.
Anike: While names and details vary as we look at different tribes, they all seem to have a strong connection to water. It is believed that a rainbow is actually a rainbow serpent travelling from one waterhole to another, and it’s seen as an explanation to why some of them never run dry.
Jaz: As such, the rainbow serpent is a life-giving force, but it has a potential for great destruction as well. Very much like the rain and water it stems from. Both the serpent, and rain and water themselves carry this duality. We need them to survive, but too much of a good thing…
Anike: As the saying goes. This is a theme we see in many religions with a strong affinity to nature. Divinity in its various forms unites the potential for renewal and growth as well as death and decay, thus keeping the world balanced. The serpent giveth, and the serpent taketh away.
Jaz: One very striking image can be found in the tribes native to Arnhem Land, where the serpent is portrayed as a hybrid creature: with a kangaroo’s head, a crocodile’s tail, and the body of a huge snake. In one creation myth we find in Arnhem Land, the world is flat, cold, and barren during the time before creation. The serpent slumbers underground and holds the animal tribes in her belly, ready to give birth.
Anike: And when the time comes, she creates the sun and fire, gives birth to the animals, and shapes the land, creating mountains, valleys, hills, rivers, streams, billabongs, and lakes. Though I don’t think she does it in that order. I mean, the land would have to come first. Otherwise the animals would have nothing to walk on.
Jaz: Do note that we tell this story in the present tense. Often, we find stories about rainbow serpents told in past tense, as is the norm in Western storytelling traditions. For the Aboriginal tribes, however, this convention does not apply. Their myths don’t belong in the past, but play an important part in their past, present, and future. They have this beautiful concept that I think we can only translate to English as everywhen.
Anike: Most people refer to this concept as The Dreaming, or The Dreamtime. But like the term rainbow serpent, it seems to be a concept coined by anthropologists..
Jaz: Right again. The term Dreamtime was originally used by Francis Gillen and later picked up by his peers.
Anike: One of the words used by Aborigines is Tjukurrpa, as said in the language of the Pitjantjatjara. But of course each tribe has their own name for this concept, which, to them, is as real as the ground we stand on.
Jaz: One quote I found on the website for the Western Australian Museum, does a great job of explaining it:
In the Tjukurrpa, the Dreaming, the ancestors created the world and laid down the laws for people’s behaviour. Tjukurrpa refers to origins and powers embodied in country, places, objects, songs and stories. It is a way of seeing and understanding the world and connects people to country and to each other through shared social and knowledge networks.
Tjukurrpa is the past, but timeless.
Tjukurrpa is the present. Certain repeated actions, such as ceremonies, songs or use of ritual objects, affirm a connection to the past.
Tjukurrpa is the future. It continues to provide substance and meaning to peoples’ lives.
Anike: That is lovely. But we digress. Let’s get back to our serpent myths. Ngalyod, as the rainbow serpent is known in the Kuninjku language of Arnhem Land, is female. But some other serpents are male. And in yet others, the gender is ambiguous or even clearly hermaphroditic.
Jaz: Some suggest that the rainbow serpent is a phallic symbol. Which would be consistent with its important role in fertility myths and rituals. We found one mention of a rainbow serpent leaving spirits behind in waterholes and rivers, that then impregnate women as they swim in the water.
Anike: And when the serpent is female, it is sometimes depicted as having breasts. Which may again reflect its role as a nourishing deity, though we found no official mention of it.
Jaz: One possible explanation for the wide variety in rainbow serpent stories, which we found on Wikipedia, and which does make sense, is the variations in topography. People have always used religion and mythology to explain the world around them and find an interpretation for otherwise inexplicable phenomena. So if you live in a desert, your creation myths are going to be very different from a tribe living in the highlands or in a densely forested region.
Anike: And say, if your environment is arid and dry, a benevolent deity would make it rain. But if you live in a swampy area, you’d rather have them stop it from raining. One myth from Arnhem Land tells of Julunggul, a fertility goddess associated with the weather, rivers, waterfalls, and oceans. And in this aspect, she appears to be associated with both fresh and salt water pearls.
Jaz: Another aspect of her revolves around rebirth. Now, since snakes, when shedding their skin, can be seen as renewing themselves, rebirth is a pretty logical association. And I already look forward to discovering how other cultures see their serpent myths.
Anike: As do I. As a rebirth deity, Julunggul also oversees the rites of passage when boys are initiated into maturity and manhood. She swallows the child, and regurgitates him, transformed into a man. In this role, she is one of those serpents often depicted with human breasts.
Jaz: Speaking of rites of passage and initiation, let’s get our hands bloody for a bit. And I mean literally. Because if there’s one thing that marks rites of passage for women, it’s blood. I want to talk about the rainbow serpent and its connection to menstruation and childbirth.
Anike: All over Australia, there are variations on the myth of the Wawilak sisters, also known as the Wagilag sisters, who wander the desert. One pregnant, both having been thrown out of their tribe for committing incest. The myths, as anthropologists first heard them, consisted of the two women tempting a rainbow serpent from the depths of its pool with blood from the birth of the child and the menstruation of the other sister. And with some dancing. The two women are then swallowed up, carried into the sky, and eventually regurgitated as stone pillars. We’ve found references suggesting this serves as an admonishment for women to stay away from each other while menstruating or giving birth.
Jaz: However, more recent interpretations show that the original myth may have been twisted to disempower women. Personally, I find it hard to believe that a culture so attuned to the land and to nature would be so unbalanced in its views of gender.
Anike: Let’s remind ourselves of what we already said in the beginning of the episode. Many of the sources available to us were recorded by Western observers who would, as a result of their own culture at the time, subconsciously impose their own bias onto the conclusions of their research. What’s more, rather than viewing and interpreting the culture, the presence of an outside observer could be enough to influence the object of their studies. By focusing their attention on the men and treating the women as inconsequential for instance, their bias could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leading to a shift in balance in this ancient culture.
Jaz: Interestingly, we still see this with contemporary anthropologists, wphere they assert their own cultural norms onto the studied culture, unintentionally in some cases while intentionally in others. Like we already discussed at the beginning of the episode, we cannot claim to be perfectly objective ourselves. We too, view the source material we found through the filter of our own beliefs and experiences.
Anike: Exactly so. But back to the mythology. More than one source shows that, while men and women often had different roles in society, different rituals and religious practices, different sacred spaces even, they were not seen as unequal. So if being devoured by a serpent was a transformative event for men, it seems reasonable to us that it was the same for women, rather than a form of punishment.
Jaz: Perhaps the calling of the great rainbow serpent showed the power of women’s blood. Especially when women bleed together.
Anike: This could be why men undergo ceremonies like the Murngin interclan circumcision ceremony. Where they cut their arms and bleed, covering initiates in their blood, representing a second birth of a man into the tribe. In other tribes, men cut their penises which could serve to mimic menstruation while dancing to call on the strength of the serpent, as in the tale of the Wawilak sisters.
Jaz: In one tale, the dragon seems to be used as a punishment, warning women that they must give birth on their own. This may detract from any feelings of connectedness and unity between women or women and uninitiated boys. But in the same tribes, the men mimic menstruation and childbirth as a group, calling on the very dragon that women and children are supposed to fear.
Anike: So perhaps it’s not so much meant as a way to isolate women, but to give the young mother some time to rest and recover without being overwhelmed. Misinterpretations like these are not impossible and could be the result of a biased anthropologist. Or they could have stemmed from attempts made by the tribe to mislead the observers in order to protect their sacred stories and rituals.
Jaz: In Cape York, among the Wik-murgkan, the rainbow serpent is thought to cause menstruation. In fact, the red streak in the rainbow is meant to symbolize the dragon bleeding, in a cyclical fashion, as it streaks across the sky.
Anike: Bloody awesome, mind the pun. And a far cry from the beastly virgin-eaters of Western Europe. What do you think, Jaz? Would you classify rainbow serpents as dragons?
Jaz: Well, they’ve got the right anatomy for it. And while I didn’t find any reference to fire-breathing, they control the weather, in the form of rain and thunder. I’d say that counts.
Anike: I concur. One spectacular category of dragons, intimately tied into the spiritual life of one of the oldest cultures known to us.
Jaz: Hell yes. Now, I don’t know about you, but this week’s topic was a rabbit hole of epic proportions for the three of us. Show notes can be found on our website and will contain links to all of our source material. Furthermore, check out this episode’s complementary blog post for more rainbow serpent awesomeness!
Anike: Don’t want to wait for our next episode? We’ve got you covered. Patrons receive early access to all our episodes, as well as other Mythsterhood awesomeness. Like cross stitch and crochet patterns, colour by numbers printables, etc. Visit patreon.com/mythsterhood for more details.
Jaz: But even if financial support isn’t an option, there are many ways to support the Mythsterhood. Please consider giving us a rating and review on the platform of your choice. It shows you appreciate our work and helps new listeners to discover us.
Anike: If you enjoyed an episode, blog, tweet, or talk about it. Any form of signal-boosting is huge to an initiative like ours.
Jaz: Now, until next time: See you later, Mythsters!
Anike: Until then, bye!
Want to find out more about the dragons of Australia? Keep an eye out for our blog post next week!
Blust, Robert. “The Origin of Dragons.” Anthropos, vol. 95, no. 2, 2000, pp. 519–536. JSTOR
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. “The Rainbow-Serpent Myth of Australia.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 56, 1926, pp. 19–25. JSTOR
National Geographic – Rainbow Serpent
Mythological Girls: Julunggul, the Rainbow Serpent, by Devon Allen in Girl Museum
Japingka, Aboriginal Art – Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story
Aboriginal Art Store – Aboriginal Words Glossary, Tjurkurrpa
Western Australian Museum – Tjukurr(pa) – The Dreaming
Claudia Nussbaumer, Gender roles in Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Stand Oct 25, 2018
Knight, Chris. “Levi-Strauss and the Dragon: Mythologiques Reconsidered in the Light of an Australian Aboriginal Myth.” Man, vol. 18, no. 1, 1983, pp. 21-50. JSTOR
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License