Rainbow Snake, Symbolic Culture, and Gender Relations

This essay attempts to explain how the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake personifies gender relations within Aboriginal Culture as well as how this relates to symbolic culture in general.  The Rainbow Snake is an integral part of Australian Aboriginal society and is often described as the ‘’principle culture hero among the Aborigines of north Australia’’ (Cowan 1994).  Considered to be both male and female, it incorporates aspects of the mother (possessing a womb) and the father (having a phallus).  This sexual duality according to Cowan leads it to be known in many regions of the country to be known as the Great Mother or Kunapipi.  Furthermore, it influences many activities that take part on a day to day basis.  This can include but is not limited to ritual, coming of age ceremonies, hunting, taboos, and women’s fertility rites.  Although the myth of Rainbow Snake may vary and change over the spread of the country, many of the core beliefs and ways in which it affects Aboriginal peoples lives are the same or very similar, it is interesting how a myth has become so widely spread with such a big impact on the society by word of mouth and storytelling.  This essay argues how the very nature and understanding Australian Aborigines have of the Rainbow Snake is relevant to the gender relations within these particular societies and what this means for the society as a whole as well as the impact this has on symbolic culture. 

In the first section, I will give an overview and explanation of what the Rainbow Snake is, how it is understood and treated in Aboriginal culture and unravel the myth and mystery behind it.  In the second, I will discuss how the Rainbow Snake is related to both genders in Aboriginal society, and how it affects gender relations as well as particular behaviours and taboos.  Lastly I will conclude what has been discussed previously and note how this kind of research is interesting and why it is important to carry out similar research and fieldwork in this area in the future.

In order to grasp this subject fully, an appropriate explanation of what exactly Rainbow Snake is would be paramount to lead to an adequate understanding on this topic.  Radcliffe-Brown proceeds to give us an indication to the extent in which the Rainbow Snake has an influence on Australian Aboriginal culture when he says ‘’There is found in widely separated parts of Australia a belief in a huge serpent which lives in certain pools or water-holes.  This serpent is associated with quartz-crystal, doubtless from the prismatic colours visible in the latter.  Now rock-crystal, in a great number of Australian tribes, is regarded as a substance of great magical virtue, and is constantly made use of by medicine men.  Hence the rainbow- serpent may come to occupy an important place in the beliefs and customs relating to medicine- men and the practice of magic.’’ (Radcliffe-Brown 1926 p.19).  This link with quartz-crystal and rainbows seems to be very prominent in Aboriginal culture as Roth notes that the Proserpine River blacks also had a belief in rain being made from quartz-crystal obtained at a spot where the rainbow touched the earth (Roth 1903, p.10).  Some medicine men are said to ‘’even obtain their powers through the instrumentality of Kanmare, a huge supernatural water-snake with a mane-like head of hair.’’ (Roth 1897, p.153).  These two quotes show how big a part of the culture Rainbow Snake is and how much it influences the everyday life of Australian Aborigines.  By the very nature of storytelling among aboriginal peoples in Australia, the myth of Rainbow Snake is said to have adapted and changed due to being interpreted in varying ways across the country and from person to person, much like the way in which Chinese whispers work where the resulting phrase you end up with is slightly different to the original one uttered by the first person.  Nevertheless the main lessons or beliefs from the stories may remain the same and some tribes such as the ones residing in Cape York just have one detail that is different, in this case the rainbow is not understood as a snake, but as a huge fish that lives far out at sea. (Roth, 1903, p.10).  Cowan says ‘’As the regenerative source of life, the Rainbow Serpent is responsible for the renewal of all creatures, great and small.  It lives in waterholes, and is also responsible for the creation of rivers at the same time as the Dreaming.’’  (Cowan 1994).  The Dreaming for Aboriginal Australians is ‘’a metaphysical condition wherein the world was created.’’ And it is believed that the Rainbow Serpent acts as a bridge to the realm of the Dreaming itself (Cowan 1994).  The idea that the Rainbow Serpent was around and had influence at the time of creation, as well as acting as a bridge to creation/the universe shows just how much of an impact Rainbow Snake has to Aboriginals.  Cowan also notes how the Rainbow Serpent is revered more than any other spirit-being, from this it can understood the extent to which the Rainbow Snake is admired with having such great power and influence over all living things on earth and playing a role in creation, moreover it explains why the Rainbow Snake is worshipped and portrayed in artwork and images by the Aborigines so frequently. 

However, there have been many recorded forms of the Rainbow Snake, or rather the ‘divinity’ or ‘ritual power’ which the Rainbow Snakes represents, this includes images such as the moon, snakes, tidal forces, waterholes, rainbows, mothers, fish and a variety of others.  In his book ‘Blood Relations’, Chris Knight presupposes that due to these endless variations, the Rainbow Snake and the understanding the Aborigines have of the underlying notions associated with these myths is not really to be conceptualised as a ‘thing’ at all, rather it should be considered as a ‘’cyclical logic which lies beyond and behind all the many concrete images’’ (Knight 1995, p.455) and that this plethora of concrete images are just ways to partially describe the divinity within the universe.  Additionally Maddock (1974, p.121) goes on to say ‘’that what is called the Rainbow Serpent is but a visually striking image of force or vitality, a conception that cannot adequately be given figurative expression’’ this divine force, or rainbow is attributed to many major events and also ailments, such as a scar on the head or a miscarriage (Radcliffe-Brown 1926, p20).  The cyclical nature of all Aboriginal thinking could possibly be ascribed to how this concept materialised into the form of a snake Maddock claims, and another specialist in Mountford gives weight to this claim when he describes the importance of cycles to Aboriginal culture: ‘’The aborigines are not interested, as we are, in episodes of the past.  The important things to them are the cycles of life: the development of the individual from infancy to old age; the path of the initiates from ignorance to knowledge; the yearly round of the seasons; the movements of the celestial bodies; and the breeding time of the creatures.  These cycles are full of meaning to the native people, but to them the remote past, the present and the future are and will be changeless.’’ (Mountford 1965, p.24).  From this quote as I interpret it, this could be the reason many things of a cyclical nature could possibly be sacred and special in Aboriginal culture, the shape of a snake, the waxing and waning of the moon, the menstruation cycle, these are all cyclical in nature and therefore as a result are associated with the central aspect of Aboriginal philosophy, culture and life.  This cyclical centrality to native thought may explain why Rainbow Snake takes many forms as I mentioned earlier such as the moon, snakes, tidal forces, waterholes and so on.  Knight continues along this vein of thought and comments on how many paintings and depictions of Snake/Rainbow/Dreaming recurrently take the form of circles and concentric circles (Knight 1991, p.456), further proof that this way of thinking could be the origin of the Rainbow Snake myth.

Next, Knight questions what exactly this cyclical ‘power’ or ‘Snake’ is and if Rainbow Snake is a representation of culture, Chris Knight says that if we take the concept that ‘’culture was created by menstrual solidarity’’ (Knight, 1991 p.456) to be true, this brings an interesting notion to that of the Rainbow Snake.  Knight continues on and hypothesizes that the very term ‘Rainbow Snake’ would have to be taken to be the Australian Aborigines way of referring to menstrual solidarity itself.  Therefore if this is taken to be the case, it would be assumed that everything said of menstrual solidarity could in turn be applied to the Snake, leading the Snake to be conceptualized not as a reptile at all, rather it should be ‘like’ the tides and ‘like’ the rainbow, however it should be more than these things too.  Taking us back to what Cowan mentioned about the sexual duality of the Rainbow Serpent resulting in it being called the ‘Great Mother’ in many regions, the linkage of the Rainbow Snake and synchronised, cyclical menstruation of women leading them to being treated as sacred and the influence it has over the elements such as floods and tides etc. could be responsible for it being conceptualised as a ‘mother-of-all’ and a collective mother to everyone.  Knight then explains to the reader how menstrual solidarity should ‘carry away’ or ‘engulf’ those falling under its spell, therefore this menstrual blood (taken to be ‘wet’ in this case), should be depicated as a snake-mother’s or rainbow’s drawing of women into a watery world, linked with pools, streams, marshes, rains, storms, wet season and so on, and the opposite, the ‘dry’ regurgitation to be linked with fire, dry earth, sun, dry season etc. (Knight 1991, p.458).  This would relate to the cyclical nature of Aboriginal thinking as women would be spending half of their time in the wet, and half in the dry, Knight says that this would lead women to be known as ‘snake-women’ and due to being related to the Rainbow Snake, or Great Mother, they would accordingly acquire snake power, which would coincide with the menstrual sex strike.  This would come on in the darkness of night and be felt by the flow of blood, then disappear under the bright light of the midday sun or full moon.  Under the spell of menstruation, it should become impossible to cook: all meat should resist fire, conjoin with blood or water (anti-fire) and stay raw.  This power would also punish those who attempt to eat their kills or cook meat whilst out secretly in the bush.  Knight further says that it should be impossible for humans to ritually embody this power without menstruating, this in turn should make women the natural possessors of this power and it should be impossible for men to monopolise or give expression to this power independently of women, unless men found a way to menstruate in synchrony themselves.  ‘’If men were to monopolise snake power at women’s expense, despite all the obvious difficulties, they would have to prohibit menstruating women from associating with one another.  Then, to enhance hunting luck and general health and well-being in something resembling the traditional ways, these men would have to organise a menstrual ‘sex strike’ of their own.  To be consistent in supplanting women’s roles, moreover, men would have to go so far as to ‘give birth’, sit at a symbolic ‘home base’ and receive gifts of meat for themselves and for their dependants’’ (Knight 1991, p.459).  This demonstrates the relationship between the genders and especially how each are treated at the time of menstruation due to the Rainbow Snake being used as a cultural symbol for menstrual solidarity.           

This interpretation of Rainbow Snake as a symbolic representation of menstrual solidarity is an example of the way in which the Australian Aborigines have, as well as use, symbolic culture.  ‘’Symbolic culture….requires the invention of a whole new kind of things, things that have no existence in the ‘real’ world but exist entirely in the symbolic realm. Examples are concepts such as good and evil, mythical inventions such as gods and underworlds, and social constructs such as promises and football games’’. (Chase 1994, p.628).  This quote to me sums up what the Rainbow Snake is and how it is by definition symbolic culture, it is not a material ‘thing’, but a representation of a concept and a way of understanding the world and cultural values within it.  It is a myth used to simplify many complex beliefs and understandings of the world around the Aboriginal Australian.

What the Rainbow Snake can teach us about symbolic culture is that a concept does not have to be represented by the same thing or be in the same form to hold its value, it can develop and change form through story-telling and across vast areas, yet fundamentally still be understood and show the same concept.  This is evident by the fact that the same idea can transform into many different portrayals, as Chris Knight points out when he mentions how the moon, snakes, tidal forces, waterholes, rainbows, mothers and fish are all used as a figurehead for the same concept and philosophy of thinking.     

This type of research is very interesting and important because it is extremely constructive in assisting people to understand the relations between the genders in Australian Aboriginal society and therefore help anthropologists and others relate to them and their rituals in a much more sincere and enlightened way.  Also, many people argue on drawing the line as to when exactly modern humans acquired symbolic culture, working with the Aborigines and other native groups and analysing their rock art and other forms of story-telling may help us identify when the stories began and thus approximately how long ago symbolic culture began to emerge.

Bibliography 

Chase P.G. (1994). On symbols and the paleolithic.  Current Anthropology.  Chicago: Chigo University Press. p.627-629.

Cowan, J. (1994).  Kun-Man-Gur.  The Rainbow Serpent.  Boston and Bath: Barefoot Books.  31.

Knight, C. (1991). Blood Relations. Menstruation and the Origins of Culture.  New haven and London: Yale University Press.  p.449-480.

Maddock, K. (1974).    The Australian Aborigines.  A portrait of their society.  Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mountford, C.P. (1965).  Ayers Rock.  Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Radcliffe-Brown A.R. (1926). The Rainbow Serpent Myth of Australia. In: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 56. London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. p.19-24.

Roth, W. E., and Robert Etheridge. (1897). Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines. South Africa: Government Printer.  p.153.

Roth, W. E. (1903). North Queensland Ethnography. Bulletins 1-5. Brisbane: Government Printer.

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