The Rainbow Serpent myths are some of the most important stories in Aboriginal culture. These stories are part of 'Dreamtime' or 'The dreaming', they are the creation myths of the aboriginal people. Dreamtime (Tjukurrpa) stories tell of great spirits in animal and human form who sculpted the featureless earth.
Stories have been passed down the generations for thousands of years and are the basis of Aboriginal spirituality - they are often humorous, and sometimes rather dark! Rock art of the serpent myth found in Arnhem land has been dated at over 6000 years old, making these tales amongst the longest surviving continuing beliefs in human history.
The Rainbow Serpent is known by different names in different Aboriginal tribes and there are innumerable stories associated with it. The snake lives in waterholes and travels between them, either underground or within clouds when a rain storm is moving, and when a rainbow is appears in the sky, it is said to be the Rainbow Serpent moving from one waterhole to another.
The mythology is often linked to water and the telling of the Serpent story is influenced by environmental differences. Aboriginal tribes in areas that experience monsoons depict the serpent with power over life and death in the desert and it is believed that the power of the rainbow Serpent is so great that he can whip up a storm, high winds and driving rain.
Such is the power of the myth in Aboriginal cultures that the serpent also plays an important part in tales about land, life, relationships and fertility. The Rainbow Snake is viewed as a giver of life because of his ability to renew by shedding its' skin and emerging anew, he is central to ceremonies and stories about the transition from adolescence to adulthood. In these tales young boys are swallowed by the snake only to be regurgitated and transformed into men.
Wanampi Tjukurpa. The Mythical Rainbow Snake Creation Story by Tiger Palpatja
In many Aboriginal cultures the serpent is seen as a deity, but in others it is told as a malevolent spirit. This features in works by Tiger Palpatja who paints sacred stories from his tribes' dreaming, often featuring Wanampi (water serpents) who are his family's ancestors who formed the country. One of my favourite paintings by Tiger depicts a creation story featuring the rainbow snake and the vengeful creation of the bloodwood trees in Piltatic where Tiger was born. This is the story that inspired the painting above:
'Two Snake brothers and their wives lived near Piltati, every day the women went out hunting and brought home Kuka (meat for cooking) for the men, who didn't do anything except perform ceremonies. The sisters became fed up with the men's laziness so they decided to teach them a lesson - they ate all of the food and left the men to fend for themselves. The brothers became very angry and turned themselves into a Wanampi to frighten and taunt their wives. The sisters tried for days to catch the snake until they were exhausted. On one occasion one of the sisters nearly caught him but was frightened by his huge coils that were being wrapped around her feet, so she threw a sharp stick and pierced his side. The Wanampi left the burrow and chased and swallowed the younger sister and then the injured snake caught, killed and ate the elder sister. The older brother is now said to be a bloodwood tree with a dry limb stick out at one side and the trunk is covered with lumps and excrescenses, and this is said to be the body of one of the women still showing through the skin of the snake.'
Tigers' paintings are known for their bright colours as opposed to the traditional natural ochre colours which appeared in earlier art committed to canvas. Tiger only started painting in 2004 less than eight years before his death, but quickly became recognised by critics and emerged as one of the Western Desert's most significant and collectible artists.
Up until relatively recently these sacred myths were not told beyond the tribes, and it still often remains the case that only senior members of the tribes are entitled to tell or paint the stories. Through the work of the Aboriginal tribes themselves, art communities and anthropologists we are now privileged to learn more about this complex ancient culture and begin to understand more about their relationship with a land that has ensured their survival - and the survival of their culture - for millennia.
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