Uniting the world through Serpent story
Many Australians have heard some variation of the Rainbow Serpent story from across the continent. With more than 250-400 vastly different tribal Nations and language groups extending across this huge mass of land, all interconnected and inter-related by stories in the sky which capture movements and cycles of celestial bodies, along with the Songlines on land which map the Country with knowledge through song and story, and the underground water systems flowing deep beneath the soil which sustain our rivers and waterways, it is important to understand the cultural, linguistic and conceptual diversity of these stories.
From a Gamilaraay perspective, the Serpent is less like a snake and said to be more like a crocodile with beautiful scales that shimmer in the sunlight, giving an iridescent effect, while he tucks his arms and legs tight into his body as he swims, giving a ‘serpent-like’ demeanour. He lives in water and carves out channels, rivers and creeks. He grows big and old in the summer and travels around through the underground water systems which we now call the Great Artesian Basin. We might disrupt him at our own peril.
Due mainly to the diversity of First Nations in Australia, we will see up to 400 other versions of this story across Australia, many with similarities, and even some with incredible contradictions. However, it was well known within Indigenous contexts that no one story was wrong and that each could co-exist harmoniously alongside the others without war or conflict.
No tribe or Marii (Indigenous person) ever went to battle because they felt their story was more important than the others, or that their story was so great that they had to violently assimilate those around them into their version of it.
This was so because each tribe or person knew that every other story outside of their own was just important as theirs and that no one person or community held all of the truth about their existence, but all groups held some of the truth.
Where my story may speak about how the sunlight shimmers off his scales, another story might tell us of the shape and colour of his eyes, or the design(s) on his belly, or the length of his tail, or the shape of his footprints, or the smell of his scent, or how his eyes reflect the camp’s fire in the darkness of the warm summer night time.
Whether we take all of this literally or metaphorically to mean something entirely different, we will all have different interpretations of the same thing. We might find greater truth in the aggregation of the stories or else find no truth at all.
This has been the same for all Indigenous people and communities across the globe. At Chinese New Year we see the great Loong (Dragon/Lion/Serpent) who is associated with water and thunder and represents power, strength, life and renewal. Medieval dragons also feature prominently in European stories with cultural memories and fragments still present, for example, the Welsh flag, along with stories such as the Loch Ness “monster”. I was told the creation story for Onguiaahra (Niagara Falls) in 2017 which was almost identical to the ones I heard growing up in Australia.
Almost all stories despite their differences, seem to overlap in some way. They all seem to revolve around water and the consequence, property, value or characteristics of water; otherwise, the sounds, smells, the seasonal relationships with thunderstorms, typhoon, or other natural disaster. Some even capture the reproductive cycles of amphibians or fish. Some cultures also use water as a metaphor for emotions or the unconscious. One could suggest that this level of overlap and inter-relatedness, is because each series of stories and narratives were designed by those communities to capture elements of the fundamental properties of all life of Earth. A rainbow is defined scientifically as “a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky”. Therefore, from this perspective (which is not an exclusive one), a rainbow is a synthesis of momentary elemental interaction between water and light, which is observable from certain vantage points at a given place and time.
If we break these properties down to their subatomic and macromolecular scales, we see water as a dynamic element with memory and the ability to shift and alter its form according to its conditions; and light which despite its properties and dualistic interpretation between wave and particle, travels in a way that very much resembles a snake, serpent or crocodile.
Were they (all cultures and peoples) describing the same phenomenon? Maybe there is something we can learn from this process which could be deemed as more important than what it is or how it is defined: that when two different properties interact with each other, they can synthesise and produce something beautiful, which is more than the sum of its parts.
Is that the truth that we are all seeking? I don’t know. Perhaps we can find out together.