Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Great Serpents - Rainbow Serpents                                                                                                                                            

There are stories of great snakes from the Dreamtime throughout Australia. The giant serpent of northwest Australia is known by 2 different names to different tribes. The country of this legendary snake is the northern areas where the torrential downpours of the wet season swell the rivers, sending them rushing through the gorges they have cut on their way across the plains to the sea. The sinuous tracks of these rivers, such as the Alligator River and the Liverpool River. These rivers and deep waterholes are believed to be the abode of the great serpents, in particular, the powerful Rainbow Serpent. It is associated with the wet season storms that bring so much water to the rivers, changing dry river beds to raging torrents.

The Gunwinggu call the Rainbow Serpent Ngalyod, while the Miali call it Borlung. Whatever its name, it is believed to inhabit deep permanent waterholes. Some groups say it is male, others that it is female, still others say it is male with the breasts of a woman. It is greatly revered and feared, being spoken of in lowered voices. There are not many stories of great deeds performed by the Rainbow Serpent, those there are mostly tell of its physical attributes and the ways it uses when it seeks vengeance on anyone who makes it angry.

The Ubar ceremonies of western Arnhem Land were associated with the Rainbow Serpent, the cylindrical wooden drum being beaten rhythmically to represent the voice of Waramurungutidji, mother of the serpent. One of the stories of the Ubar ceremonies associated with the Rainbow Serpent is that is of Yirawadbad, who is sometimes said to be the husband of Waramurungutidji. In this story the serpent is a male.


To the Gunwinggu, the Rainbow Serpent is Ngalyod, the great creation mother from whom the first people were born. She is the great creator, ever since the Dreamtime, because she brings the Wet Season after the long Dry, which rejuvenates the land with plants and animals flourishing. After rain she stands on her tail to reach high into the sky.

Ngalyod is a harsh mother, punishing severely those breaking her taboos or failing to observe the rituals associated with her Dreaming sites. She gave the people their laws and taught them the ceremonies they must perform, punishing any law breakers, becoming furious and keen on vengeance if the laws and ceremonies are not observed.


Borlung is always male, and sometimes he is referred to as the son of Ngalyod. As with Ngalyod, he is seen as a rainbow in the sky, sometimes over water, and even in the spray from a waterfall. The Dalabon believe there are many Borlung, and they believe the Borlung are strongly linked to fertility. The borlung snakes are common in waterholes, and one must enter a woman is she is to conceive. When a person dies, the spirit will change back to a Borlung and return to the waterhole to await another woman it can enter as the spirit of the baby. In central Arnhem Land, west of Maningrida, the Rainbow Serpent is usually called Borlung.

Among the people of this area, in the Goregun, the beginning of time, there was Jingana, the Mother. Jingana grew 2 large eggs in her belly, one becoming the male serpent Borlung, the other a female, Ngalkunburriyaymi, had an appearance more like that of a fish. When represented in paintings, Ngalyod and Borlung are usually given snake forms, Jingana usually has a composite hermaphroditic appearance, having a head ornament of white cockatoo feathers, a beard, a serrated back like a crocodile, and her chest has a prominent bulge like a brisket bone.


The Mirning people were the occupiers of the Nullarbor Plain, mostly in the south near the coast. They are not thought to have moved far into the central parts of the plain. The deeper caves were believed to be the home of Jeedara, a water serpent. According to their Dreamtime stories he was chased by Yugarilya, the Pleiades, pushing up the Bight cliffs and hiding in the caves. The air rushing in and out of blowholes was said to be his breath. They feared the places where he lived because he seized anyone he found in his territory. Evidence of their presence in some caves is seen in caves such as Koonalda Cave.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Jennifer Isaacs, Australia Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 21/10/2016


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