Journey of the Rainbow Serpent, by Nartana Premachandra

Anonymous / Aboriginal

Oceans of time support the earth; and deep within this space-filled sea, in a moment as incredulous as one’s own birth, the universe began cooling.

The genesis of everything had just begun, three-hundred-and-eighty-thousand years previously, in a feverish instant, and now, finally, the heat of creation began to abate. The miasma of plasma started clearing, allowing photons, those massless catalysts of vision, to make their way through the tangled afterbirth of existence.

Light appeared. The universe, finally, saw itself.

Eyes opened. Color bravely spoke its voice into the void, creating a twisting, turning creature which found itself shaped by the push and pull of new molecules. A creature which would spark both terror and temptation, both faith and fealty, within the humans yet to make their beings known in this tumultuous explosion of matter and anti-matter. 

The Rainbow Serpent.

Adorned in scales of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, it churned its anaconda essence into existence, its luminescent tongue pulsing in and out, in, and out.

The world was beginning. And a pulsar of a python was born.

It snaked through the dreamtime quietly at first, observing the smoke-like appearance of ancestors. The parents of far-away stars appeared—how astonishing to see that even the Sun was but a great-great-great grandson—followed by the nebulous progenitors of the planets. Soon the predecessors of other motley celestial objects materialized as well: comets, quasars, and those eternal outcasts, black holes. 

The Rainbow Serpent longed for a home in which to belong. So it made a wish for a world where its spectral being would dazzle all who lived within. 

And an ocean-filled world just three steps from the sun took form. The celestial snake dove in, flicking its tail, arching back its hood, emitting a song of fiery radiance, before landing upon plains of rocky crimson and burned gold.

For a while, it simply watched this new world, while avoiding the venomous volcanoes and clouds of toxins within.

Millennia passed, before phantasmagoric, monstrously large creatures appeared. (But for our mega-viper crafted of ageless light, it felt a few instants.) This was followed by avian ancestors of all kinds: owls and eagles, penguins, and warblers.

Soon, birdsong draped the planet with sweet cheer.

The Rainbow Serpent was pleased; all seemed to go well with the first animals. Even when one misbehaved, by acting too greedily, for example, others knew how to rectify the transgression.

In one instance an ancestral amphibian, the tiddalik frog, found himself deathly thirsty. So he drank from a lake. And drank. And drank. 

Soon the lake from which he imbibed fresh water dried out. Then he sucked in liquid from nearby pools, and even the sea, but all bodies of water emptied.

The other animals by this time were thirsty, and had no water to drink. Some managed by drinking the delectable nectar from mangoes, papayas, and coconuts, but soon these trees were barren as well, lacking the sustenance of water.

The Rainbow Serpent watched these creatures avidly: what would they do in this situation?

All the animals gathered together for a conference. It was led by that master of avian wisdom, the owl.

“One of our own has drunk all the water there is to drink,” she declared. “Any suggestions on what to do?”

A lion grumbled: “I’ll eat him!” 

“You will do no such thing,” replied a lioness.

A koala muttered, its eyes half closed, “Let’s sleep on it.”

“You’ve already slept twenty hours today!” exclaimed an emu, “By the time you wake up there will be no eucalyptus trees for you to eat!”

The koala ignored him and nodded off.

Suddenly a kookaburra laughed. “This is such a crazy situation! Silly frog!” 

“That’s it!” said the owl suddenly. “Kookaburra, you’ve given me an idea. We’ll make the tiddalik frog laugh, and he’ll release all the water he has inside him. He couldn’t possibly have digested all that water!”

The kookaburra laughed louder and all the animals concurred on this plan of action. So an eel appeared in front of the frog, twisting and turning itself into odd squeezy shapes to make the tiddalik laugh. But the frog just stared at the eel in a drunk-on-water stupor.

The emu stretched its long neck out in bizarre poses but that did nothing for the frog. Then a kangaroo and its kid started hopping up and down, flapping their tails, but the frog remained as sober, as well… an ugly toad.

Finally, unaware of this meeting of neighborhood fauna, a duck-billed platypus trundled by. The kookaburra laughed at this odd creature, and a Tasmanian devil shouted, “Do something funny in front of the frog!”

“What do I do?” asked the platypus.

“Just be yourself!” cried the owl.

So the platypus waddled in front of the tiddalik, danced a bit, stuck its strange flat nose into the air, and then danced some more.

All of a sudden, water started squirting out of the tiddalik’s nose. A river suddenly began running from its mouth.

All the other animals backed away.

“He’s getting ready to laugh! Get ready to drink!” cried the Owl.

And suddenly the tiddalik opened its mouth, guffawed in deep froggy mirth, and released all the water it had been drinking. Great gushes of sweet and salty water flooded the forest.

“It’s a deluge!” cried a dingo.

The Rainbow Serpent smiled; it was pleased with these animals, and marveled, How incredible that in a universe of exploding matter something as ethereal as laughter can solve conflict. To show its approval it rose, mountainous against a sky just cleared of storms, its rainbow-body glittering like jewels in the evening light.

“What’s that?” asked a wombat.

“A huge snake!” cried a turtle, sneaking its head back into its shell.

“Don’t be afraid,” reassured the owl. “This is a Rainbow Serpent. It belongs to the Dreamtime, like we do, and was created when light first appeared in the universe. I think it’s pleased with us.” 

After a moment, the owl spoke once more, and declared, like a good teacher should, “I hope we have learned something from this. Namely that none of us should be greedy and that we should share what we have with each other.”

The lion grumbled miserably, while the kookaburra laughed. “Sorry for the laugh, I can’t help it. But I do agree with what you say.”

And the Rainbow Serpent shone in silence and wonder for a good long while.

The Rainbow Serpent traveled from water-hole to water-hole around the earth for years observing the inhabitants of this gem-strewn world. 

She—no longer an “it,” as she felt mother to this most astonishing of worlds–was most fascinated with beings whose essence she recognized: snakes, that is. From cobras to rattlesnakes, cottonmouths to copperheads, she couldn’t help but feel kin with her own kind. 

In the early days, when the monstrously huge beasts reigned over the earth, many snakes ran across the world with two legs. The Rainbow Serpent was mesmerized by this, as she herself did not have two legs. But one day, she happened to look into the sky for a while, and when she looked back she noticed all the snakes had lost their legs. 

Time has passed, she thought. Soon after that the prismatic sky-serpent noticed other beings running through the planet on two legs. Humans. 

Humans began viewing the snakes in different ways, depending on when and where they lived upon the one planet they all shared. Here, one said, “Never touch a snake. Evil will befall you when you least expect it.” There, another prayed, “Please, king cobra, bless me with children.’” In one land, saints wore snakes around their neck, while in another, snakes represented the devil.

Some worship snakes because they fear them. Some think serpents are gods of abundance, and others think the exact same sidewinders deliver the tempting certainty of sin. This is a planet of tangled truth, the Rainbow Serpent couldn’t help but think. Sometime later, as she began noticing life evolve and change upon the earth, she wondered, Are we still in the Dreamtime? As humans began building stronger ships that sailed the skies as well as seas, taller buildings which scratched the surface of clouds, and more and more fire-breathing…machines of a kind which seemed to have no organic ancestors, the serpent ribboned with light of lavender, topaz, and sapphire started thinking, We have entered a strange new reality. This is a planet of sin and sanctity.

And then one day, everything changed.

The Rainbow Serpent was traveling across the seas, when suddenly, not so far away, she glimpsed a blinding flash of light, an enormous roar, and then, to her surprise, what looked like streaks or clouds of bright red and orange in the sky.

Has the sea exploded? she wondered. Are oceans falling from the heavens? Has the world turned upside down?

But she knew that none of this had happened. Instead a fire-breathing weapon—whose essence, in spite of being dragon-like, the Rainbow Serpent did not share—screamed and detonated rapaciously into the world.

The Rainbow Serpent backed away, not knowing what to think nor feel. Only one sentence passed through her being: The scorching heat of the singular burst at the moment of the universe’s creation felt nicer than whatever this is, and went into hiding, deep into the muddy soil, and shifting soul, of the earth.

She traveled a long while until she reached the planet’s core, where finally the Rainbow Serpent rested, imprisoning herself far away from the tangled truths above. As she coiled herself into a ball within the molten heart of the earth, she decided, Finally I am in a place where humans can never reach me. I will remain here until the day the earth returns to its source and becomes one with the universe once more. And in the meantime if I shake and shudder at the horror I’ve seen, causing an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, so be it.

The disheartened beast of spectacular luminosity spiraled into herself, and slept.

Once in a while she trembled at her remembered trauma, shifting plates above, causing death and misery among mankind, but the serpent slept on.

Once in a while she entered a strange state of being where she entered the dreams of many creatures at once. So many people—and animals—are asleep and dreaming along with me. Some night-journeys were redolent with hope and enchantment, while others were diseased by fear and pockmarked by despair. Many others rumbled with complete confusion and senselessness. 

This world is a maze of holiness and holes.

The serpent slept on. 

One day, she awoke, an idea shining in her being.

Rather, her very being shone.

I will astonish people, she decided. I will rise and encircle the entire earth with an enormous necklace of incessant rainbows. Not one place will be bereft of my reflected radiant light.

What will people do when they see my entire being blossoming? They will be awe-struck by my light! They will wonder at the universe, and know not to destroy each other nor the life upon this gem of a planet.

The Rainbow Serpent did not know what made her feel this way. She didn’t stop to question herself because if she did she knew she would never leave her safely carved space of a hole.

She slithered up from the planetary core, rose through many layers of living, and reached her head into the sky.

Musical scales of color played in an orchestra of sea-breezes as she entwined the earth within her entire body, her tail looping and corkscrewing around continents and clouds. 

Shadows of radioactive reds, ultra-wild violets, electric green, and wine-dark indigo swept across oceans and skyscrapers, highways and factories, mountains and mines.

The Rainbow Serpent flicked her tail, looked up into the sky, arched her head back, opened her black hole of a mouth, and shot out her tongue of vividly intense, burning light.

Now all she had to do, was wait. 

The belief in the Rainbow Serpent is found among many Aboriginal communities in Australia. Some traditions view her as mother of the world.

The Dreamtime is an Aboriginal concept of the epoch where the ancestors of all things and creatures existed. 

Incredibly, some species of snakes, like boas and pythons, did indeed have legs one-hundred million years ago.

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2023 issue of Parabola, SAINTS & SINNERS. You can find the full issue on our online store.