The Rainbow Serpent A Sacred Symbol

I felt to explore the rainbow serpent as it is mentioned in literature about indengious people in Australia. However, I’d first like to look into the serpent mythology as I saw serpents all over Chichen Itza the Mayan Pyramid site in Mexico. I just found out in West Africa they have the rainbow serpent mythology. Many ancient cultures depict this symbol, how is it so many had mythologies when they were not in communication. What is the common thread I wonder.

So here is an overview from Wikipedia.

Serpent is a word of Latin origin (from serpens, serpentis “something that creeps, snake”)[1] that is commonly used in a specifically mythic or religious context, signifying a snake that is to be regarded not as a mundane natural phenomenon nor as an object of scientific zoology, but as the bearer of some potent symbolic value. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind.

The serpent is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. Considerable overlap exists in the symbolic values that serpents represent in various cultures. Some such overlap is due to the common historical ancestry of contemporary symbols. Much of the overlap, however, is traceable to the common biological characteristics of snakes.

In some instances, serpents serve as positive symbols with whom it is possible to identify or to sympathize; in other instances, serpents serve as negative symbols, representing opponents or antagonists of figures or principles with which it is possible to identify. Serpents also appear as ambivalent figures, neither wholly positive nor wholly negative in valence. An example of a serpent used as a positive symbol is Mucalinda, the king of snakes who shielded the Buddha from the elements as the Buddha sat in meditation. An example of a serpent used as a negative symbol is the snake who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as described in the Book of Genesis.

…Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. This connection may be grounded in the observation that when threatened, some snakes (such as rattlesnakes or cobras) frequently hold and defend their ground, first resorting to threatening display and then fighting, rather than retreat. Thus, they are natural guardians of treasures or sacred sites which cannot easily be moved out of harm’s way.

At Angkor in Cambodia, numerous stone sculptures present hooded multi-headed nāgas as guardians of temples or other premises. A favorite motif of Angkorean sculptors from approximately the 12th century A.D. onward was that of the Buddha, sitting in the position of meditation, his weight supported by the coils of a multi-headed naga that also uses its flared hood to shield him from above. This motif recalls the story of the Buddha and the serpent king Mucalinda: as the Buddha sat beneath a tree engrossed in meditation, Mucalinda came up from the roots of the tree to shield the Buddha from a tempest that was just beginning to arise.

The Gadsden flag of the American Revolution depicts a rattlesnake coiled up and poised to strike. Below the image of the snake is the legend, “Don’t tread on me.” The snake symbolized the dangerousness of colonists willing to fight for their rights and homeland. The motif is repeated in the First Navy Jack of the US Navy.
[edit] Poison and medicine

Serpents are connected with poison and medicine. The snake’s venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi[3][4][5] that have the power to either heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication. Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine. Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.

Cosmic serpents

The serpent, when forming a ring with its tail in its mouth, is a clear and widespread symbol of the “All-in-All”, the totality of existence, infinity and the cyclic nature of the cosmos. The most well known version of this is the Aegypto-Greek Ourobouros. It is believed to have been inspired by the Milky Way as some ancient texts refer to a serpent of light residing in the heavens. The Ancient Egyptians associated it with Wadjet, one of their oldest deities as well as another aspect, Hathor. Vishnu resting on Ananta-Shesha, with Lakshmi massaging his “lotus feet”.

In Norse mythology the World Serpent (or Midgard serpent) known as Jörmungandr encircled the world in the ocean’s abyss biting its own tail.

In Hindu mythology Lord Vishnu is said to sleep while floating on the cosmic waters on the serpent Shesha. In the Puranas Shesha holds all the planets of the universe on his hoods and constantly sings the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths. He is sometimes referred to as “Ananta-Shesha,” which means “Endless Shesha”. In the Samudra manthan chapter of the Puranas, Shesha loosens Mount Mandara for it to be used as a churning rod by the Asuras and Devas to churn the ocean of milk in the heavens in order to make Soma (or Amrita), the divine elixir of immortality. As a churning rope another giant serpent called Vasuki is used.

In pre-Columbian Central America Quetzalcoatl was sometimes depicted as biting its own tail. The mother of Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec goddess Coatlicue (“the one with the skirt of serpents”), also known as Cihuacoatl (“The Lady of the serpent”). Quetzalcoatl’s father was Mixcoatl (“Cloud Serpent”). He was identified with the Milky Way, the stars and the heavens in several Mesoamerican cultures.

The demi-god Aidophedo of the West African Ashanti is also a serpent biting its own tail. In Dahomey mythology of Benin in West Africa, the serpent that supports everything on its many coils was named Dan. In the Vodou of Benin and Haiti Ayida-Weddo (a.k.a. Aida-Wedo, Aido Quedo, “Rainbow-Serpent”) is a spirit of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a companion or wife to Dan, the father of all spirits. As Vodou was exported to Haiti through the slave trade Dan became Danballah, Damballah or Damballah-Wedo. Because of his association with snakes, he is sometimes disguised as Moses, who carried a snake on his staff. He is also thought by many to be the same entity of Saint Patrick, known as a snake banisher.

The serpent Hydra is a star constellation representing either the serpent thrown angrily into the sky by Apollo or the Lernaean Hydra as defeated by Heracles for one of his Twelve Labours. The constellation Serpens represents a snake being tamed by Ophiuchus the snake-handler, another constellation. The most probable interpretation is that Ophiuchus represents the healer Asclepius.

The Rainbow Serpent


The Rainbow Serpent (Snake) is an important part of the beliefs and culture of the people of western Arnhem Land. Today the Rainbow Serpent is associated with ceremonies about fertility and abundance, as well as the organisation of the community and the keeping of peace. The Rainbow Serpent is also part of the beliefs of Aboriginal people in other parts of Australia, but is best known from Arnhem Land.

The Rainbow Serpent has been described by George Chaloupka, the foremost expert on the rock art of Arnhem Land, as follows:

“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.” (from page 47, “Journey in Time”, Reed 1993).

Rock Art of the Rainbow Serpent

Paintings of the Rainbow Serpent first appear in Arnhem Land rock art more than 6000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 8000 years before the present, as the seas rose after the last Ice Age.

The most recent image was painted on rock in 1965, and the tradition has continued in work on bark and more recently on paper. The Rainbow Serpent is called Almudj by Gundjehmi and Mayali speakers and Ngalyod by Kunwinjku speakers.

Among the Kunwinjku speaking people of western Arnhem Land, and many of their neighbours, numerous Rainbow Snakes are said to populate the landscapes that make up their homelands. Two types of Rainbow Serpents consistently turn up in their oral history, mythology, ceremonies and painted art: Yingarna, the female Rainbow Serpent, is the mother, the original creator being; and the male Rainbow Serpent, Ngalyod, is the transformer of the land. They often live in deep waterholes below waterfalls.

The Rainbow Snake is depicted as a long mythical creature made of the parts of different animals – kangaroo’s or flying fox’s head, crocodile’s tail – joined along the body of a huge python decorated with water lilies, yams and waving tendrils.

Mohandas Gandhi

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”