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The great copper python of the Murngin in northern Australia. Once two young women who had slept with men from a forbidden clan arrived at the auwa, the sacred place belonging to Yurlungur. It was a water hole called Mirrirmina, ‘rock python's back’, and in the deep subterranean waters below this water hole dwelt the ancestral snake spirit. When the older girl started to cook the animals they had caught, these creatures leapt out of the fire and ran to the sacred water hole and jumped into it. Next the older girl went out to gather bark for the younger girl's new-born baby. She approached the Mirrirmina well, and it happened that her menstrual blood fell into the water hole and was carried down to the abode of Yurlungur. The head of ‘great father snake’ was lying quietly on the bottom of the pit, but he opened his nostrils and smelled hard as the polluted blood drifted downwards. Yurlungur then raised his head and slowly crawled upwards. As he rose up from the bottom of the pool the well water rose too, and flooded the land. Yurlungur saw the two young women, his descendants. Although the young women chanted in order to prevent the flood from swallowing them, the ancestral snake spirit pursued and caught them. He licked them, bit their noses, and swallowed the women and the baby. Later there was a conference of snakes, each one standing very straight, and Yurlungur confessed that he had eaten his kin. So it was that he agreed to regurgitate the two young women and the new-born child.

Yurlungur is ‘the great father’. His voice is thunder, and the water of the well in which he lives, shines like a rainbow. He is the ‘rainbow serpent’, a potent deity in aboriginal religion. Association with the weather, especially rain clouds, is found wherever tribes worship the python. Yurlungur is plainly the focus of a fertility cult: the wet season, when the waters rise and snakes come out of the ground like the new shoots of plants. One tradition has a rain chief, Ataintjina, use a serpent for rain-making. On a distant western shore, Ataintjina feeds a ‘young rain man’ into the jaws of a sea serpent. Inside the belly of this creature the victim lives for two years and gathers into his body ‘shining shells’, before he is spat out on the beach. Ataintjina then has the ‘young rain man’ thoroughly smoked by women: as in Murngin initiation rites, this is to make him ‘strong’. Preparations are complete when the victim uses the takula, ‘shining shell’, to transform himself into a cloud. Rising into the sky, the ‘young rain man’ stands on his head and unties his hair, out of which rain pours to the earth. Whenever he drops a takula there is a flash of lightning. A rainbow, the watchful soul of Ataintjina, follows close to the rain-maker, who usually fastens it to his own head. The ‘young rain man’ having fulfilled his task, returns to the distant western shore and seeks to transform himself back into a human being. Sometimes Ataintjina obstructs this operation, inadvertently causing a drought. Otherwise the rain chief keeps ready for use his ‘young rain men’ and sends across the Australian continent numerous great clouds.


Subjects: Religion

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