Rainbow Serpent

Semimythical giant SNAKE of Australia.

Variant names: Almudj (Gunwinggu/Australian), Dhakkan, Galeru, Julunggul, Kalseru, Ngalyod (Gunwinggu/Australian), Takkan, Wagyl, Wollunqua, Wonambi, Yingarna (for the female), Yurlunggur (Bindubi/Australian).

Physical description: Horselike head. Horns or ears. Skin glistens like a rainbow. Tail pointed or spiked. Sometimes a composite creature, with a kangaroo's head and a crocodile's tail joined by a python's body.

Behavior: Responsible for rain and floods. Turns boats over but doesn't attack people. Oviparous.

Habitat: Rivers and estuaries. Distribution: Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Significant sighting: Rock art depicting Rainbow serpents appeared in Arnhem Land as early as 4000 B.C.

Possible explanations:

(1) A surviving Pleistocene madtsoiid snake, the Giant Australian python (Wonambi naracoortensis), known from fossil deposits in South Australia. It ranged from 10 to 20 feet in length. it may have persisted until 40,000 or 30,000 years ago, or roughly the age of rock-art depictions of the Rainbow serpent by Aborigines.

(2) After a statistical analysis of 107 rock-art images, Paul Tacon, Meredith Wilson, and Christopher Chippindale determined that the closest physical match is the foot-long Ribboned pipefish (Haliichthys taeniophora), found off Irian Jaya, Indonesia, and the coast of northern Australia from Shark Bay to the Torres Strait. Changes at the end of the last Ice Age would have resulted in incursions of the sea into traditional hunting grounds. This bizarre-looking marine fish, though small, could have symbolized the new lifestyles generated by earth changes and flooding.

Sources: John Mathew, Two Representative Tribes of Queensland (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1910), p. 171; Gilbert Whitley, "Mystery Animals of Australia," Australian Museum Magazine 7 (1940): 132-139; Charles Barrett, The Bunyip and Other Mythical Monsters and Legends (Melbourne, Australia: Reed and Harris, 1946), pp. 35-45; Charles P. Mountford, Brown Men and Red Sand: Wanderings in Wild Australia (Melbourne, Australia: Robertson and Mullens, 1948), p. 135; James Vance Marshall, A Walk to the Hills of the Dreamtime (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), p. 156; Rod Ansell and Rachel Percy, To Fight the Wild (Perth, W. Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre, 1980), p. 135; W. S. Ramson, ed., The Australian

National Dictionary (Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 518; George Chaloupka, Journey in Time (Chatswood, N.S.W., Australia: Reed, 1993); Paul S. C. Tacon, Meredith Wilson, and Christopher Chippindale, "Birth of the Rainbow Serpent in Arnhem Land Rock Art and Oral History," Archaeology in Oceania 31 (1996): 103-124.

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