The myth of the Rainbow Serpent

Fascinating Indigenous Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals

Australia is home to various indigenous groups, whose lives are governed by their connection to their land. From this connection arises their spiritual and mythical beliefs. ‘Dreamtime’ is the term commonly used to describe the important features of the Aboriginal communities’ beliefs. According to the Aboriginals, the Dreamtime occurred a long time ago, at the very beginning. Their land and people were the creation of spirits. It was the spirits that gave the people their hunting tools and land for each tribe.

Dreamtime serves as the foundation of the Aboriginal culture and religion. Dating back to more than 65,000 years, Dreamtime narrates stories of how the universe came to be, how things happened and how people were created. According to the Aboriginals, Dreamtime was a beginning that doesn’t have an ending. Making up the past, present and future, the spirits disappeared from the sight of mortals but continued to reside in secret places. Some of them inhabit the tribe’s territory in trees, water holes and rock crevices. Others travelled up to the sky as heavenly bodies. Others transformed into natural forces like rain, wind, thunder and lightning. This blog explores some of the indigenous myths of the Australian Aboriginals.

Rainbow Serpent

According to indigenous myth, the Rainbow Serpent came from underground and was responsible for creating mountains, gorges and large ridges as it pushed upward. A creature of gigantic proportions, the Rainbow Serpent resides in deep permanent waterholes. It is the Rainbow Serpent that controls one of life’s most precious resources, water. Among some of the Aboriginal communities, the Rainbow Serpent is believed to be the ultimate creator of the universe.

Art depicting the myth of the Rainbow Serpent.
Art depicting the myth of the Rainbow Serpent. Credits@ WilderUtopia

Different communities attach different significance to the entity. Some of the communities believe that the Rainbow Serpent is female, while others believe it is male. Yet others consider it to be ambiguous or hermaphroditic or bisexual. Some of the beliefs also connect this entity with fertility myths and rituals. The serpent also appears as a scorpion or another creature or animal. Some of the stories associate it with a bat and often refer to it as a flying fox which is engaged in some rivalry over a lady. In some narratives, the serpent appears as a crocodile, bird or lizard. Whatever be the form, the entity is associated with water. The Rainbow Serpent is often identified with a terrifying, waterhole dwelling creature known as the bunyip.

It is the Rainbow Serpent that replenishes the earth’s water resources, forming deep channels and gullies as it moves across landscapes. According to indigenous myth, without this creature, the earth would receive no rain at all. When the serpent is angry, that’s when thunder and lightning arise. Other cultures believe that the Rainbow Serpent stops rainfall. Besides its identification with the rainbow, the Rainbow Serpent is also connected with the prismatic halo around the moon. To please the entity and bring rain, some cultures perform rituals with seashells and quartz crystals.

The Three Brothers

The Three Brothers Mountains are mountains of the Mid North Coast region in South Wales. Lying between the villages of Laurieton and Moorland, the mountains are of spiritual significance to the Aboriginals. They believe that some of their ancestors reside there, and the mountains protect them. According to indigenous myth, legend has it that three brothers were murdered by a witch known as Widjirriejuggi. They were then buried where the mountains stand today. Legend has it that the brothers belonged to the Biripi tribe and lived near the Camden Haven River. The story, passed down from generation to generation, has been altered over the years. Different storytelling has led to several different versions.

The indigenous myth of the three brothers
The indigenous myth of the three brothers. Credit@ Eyes of Wonder

One version that stuck around for a long time is that the three brothers had undergone their initiation ceremony. It was required that they live in the bush for many months before going back to their tribe. Being isolated, the siblings started worrying about their parents. The youngest one volunteered to go check on them. Upon leaving, he spotted an old witch near their camp. And upon returning from his parents’ camp, he saw that the witch had devoured his brothers. Seeing that he was the next victim, he whacked her on the head and killed her. He gathered his brothers’ bones and buried them where the two of the mountains, the North Brother and Middle Brother Mountains, stand today. The South Brother Mountain is where he went and killed himself out of shame of not protecting his brothers.

Emu and the Jabiru

The story of the emu and jabiru, depicted in Dreamtime art.
The story of the emu and jabiru, depicted in Dreamtime art. credit@ Roadhouse

The story of Emu and the Jabiru is an Australian indigenous myth. The myth narrates the story of greed between two brothers-in-law. Through their fighting, they were transformed into the land’s first emu and jabiru (a large stork).

The legend starts with a man named Gandji and his children, who were fishing for stingrays. After catching quite a lot, they return from their fishing trip and offer a part of their catch to Wurrpan, Gandji’s brother-in-law and his children. However, Wurrpan finds out that Gandji had saved the best fish for his own family. A fight breaks out, and Wurrpan is attacked by Gandji, who throws stones at him. And fearing what Wurrpan would do to retaliate, he begins jumping and flying around until he transforms into a jabiru, minus the beak. He gets the beak only when Wurrpan spears him and it turns into the beak. As for Wurrpan, he and his family turn into emus so that they can run faster and flee. According to indigenous myth, that was how emus and jabirus came to their land.  

Why the crocodile rolls

Ever wondered why crocodiles roll and drag down their victims before devouring them? Well, the Aboriginals have an explanation for it. According to indigenous myth, everything was well and good in the Aboriginal settlements. The people were happy, prosperous and there was no end to food and other resources. The little girls played together, the women prepared the meals and the men trained the boys to take up tribal duties. But village life wasn’t enough for one girl, Min-na-wee, who would constantly pick fights with the other girls and boys. According to legend, her face developed into a hard, scaly one and the elders would always predict that something nasty was going to happen to her.

Dreamtime Art of the myth of the crocodile
Dreamtime Art of the myth of the crocodile. Credit@ Wordz

And apparently, it did. When Min-na-wee grew up, no one would marry her as she was a trouble maker. After another horrendous fight, the elders decided that some punishment should be meted out to Min-na-wee. And to prevent being caught, Min-na-wee started rolling on the ground, calling on the evil spirits to transform her into an animal so she could seek vengeance. The spirits turned her into a crocodile, and to this day, the Aboriginals believe that it is Min-na-wee’s actions that now cause crocodiles to roll their victims before eating them.

Black Mountain

The Black Mountain is tucked away in Queensland. The Aboriginals call the mountain Kalkajaka, a traditional name that means the place of the spear. The Black Mountain was the sacred site of many bloody battles between the Dreamtime spirits and the warring ancestral clans. For the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal community, the mountain is an important meeting place. It is also a source of various Dreamtime legends.

Kalkajaka or the Black Mountain
Kalkajaka or the Black Mountain. Credit@ Ancient Origins

But the Black Mountain is more notorious for another reason. The mass of enormous granite boulders that looms over the landscape is intimidating enough. Compared to the green savannah below, the mountain is a rather formidable sight. The Black Mountain is an eerie place with its own mystery. While for the indigenous tribes it is a sacred site, outsiders have dubbed it the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of Queensland. There are many stories of early explorers, cattle and horses who vanished into the boulders of the mountain without a trace, never to resurface again. According to indigenous myth, the mountain is a haunted site and home to many evil spirits and demons.

How the water got to the plains

A long time ago, when the universe was first created, the Aboriginals settled in the mountains. Rainfall was scarce and the natives grew concerned. When it did rain, the rain would just run down the mountainside into the sea, which was far away from any of the settlements. On the other side of the mountain, there were some dry plains where nothing could be cultivated. Water was dwindling in the settlement well. Two men named Weeri and Walawidbit decided to steal what remained of the water and leave the settlement.

So they made an enormous water carrier in secret, calling it an eel-a-mun. Upon nightfall, when everyone was asleep, the two men stole the water up to the last drop. Come the next morning, everyone was shocked and panicked at the sight of no water. The elders of the settlement, upon calling a meeting, saw that the two young men were missing. Tracking the two men proved easy because their footprints were quickly found. The warriors of the clan set off and found the men at a distance.

As for Weeri and Walawidbit, it wasn’t easy carrying the heavy water-carrier. The load slowed them down. And the warriors were experts at tracking and hunting, so it wasn’t a surprise at how quickly they were caught up. The warriors started throwing all the spears they had at the two men. One of them hit the water carrier, which dropped off. Unfortunately, it pierced a hole in the carrier. In their eagerness to catch the thieves, the warriors didn’t notice the leaking water either, until the can was almost empty. So the two thieves were taken back home and were decided to be punished for not just stealing, but also for putting themselves first and not the community. So Wonmutta, a wise old man in the tribe, turned Weeri into an emu who ran to the plains. As for Walawidbit, he was turned into a blue-tongued lizard who crawled away into the crevices of the rocks.

However, according to indigenous myth, the water which had leaked from the carrier had turned into a watering hole. The dry arid plains had turned into lush green landscapes where life thrived. And according to the Aboriginals, that was how water came to the plains.

Devil’s Pool

The Devil’s Pool is a naturally existing pool on a particularly treacherous stretch of Babinda Creek. The creek bed is filled with huge granite boulders. While it is one of the main attractions of the scenic Babinda boulders reserve, the pool is also notorious for the many lives it has claimed. Aboriginals claim the pool is a site of legends, and the deaths at the pool are tied to the legend.

Devil's Pool in Australia.
Devil’s Pool in Australia. Credit@ Top Tenz

The indigenous myth narrates the story of a young woman named Oolana, who was from the Yindinji Tribe. Oolana was promised to a respected elder in the tribe. But she met a young warrior named Dyga, who, as so often happens, was from a different tribe. So they fled from their tribes into the forest to be together. But according to legend, the elders caught them and dragged Dyga away. Oolana escaped and jumped into the Devil’s pool in despair. Legend has it that her anguished wails turned into pool torrents. According to indigenous myth, her spirit haunts the Devil’s Pool and drowns any unwitting person who goes swimming. Locals have put up a sign that warns anyone about swimming in the pool, especially where the water is deep and the current is dangerous.

Indigenous myths about the crow

According to Australian indigenous myths, the crow stars as a trickster, an ancestral being and a cultural hero. Legends concerning the crow are different among the different cultures across Australia.

One common legend narrates how the crow played an important role in bringing fire to humans. According to the tale narrated by the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, at the time of the creation of the universe, the fire was closely guarded by the seven Karatgurk ladies who resided near the Yarra River (where present-day Melbourne stands). The women carried lit coals on the end of sticks and cooked yams. The crow wanted the fire, but the women refused to share it. So the crow turned trickster to rob the women-he hid some snakes in an anthill and called the women over. He claimed there was some food hidden inside, which the women started digging. Only it was snakes that sprang at them. The women started hitting at them, causing the lit coals from their sticks to fly. This was enough for the crafty crow to swoop in and steal them.

According to another indigenous myth, the crow was flying across the Murray River when he came across Swamp Hawk. To play a trick on the bird, the crow planted echidna quills in an empty nest of a kangaroo rat and lured the Swamp Hawk to jump into it. Although the bird ended up with quills on its feet, it was pleasing to find it could catch food more easily.


It is easy to see that the Aboriginals have a deep connection to their land. Any phenomena that occur on their land are explained as the activities of spirits. While non-natives may attribute scientific explanations to the myths, the myths are part of the Aboriginals’ Dreamtime. To this day, the myths and legends form a core part of the Aboriginal clans’ beliefs.

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