It’s interesting how you somehow assume that everyone you meet has learned similar things in their upbringing. This is usually true; until you get to university you’re generally only interacting with people who went through a similar schooling system with a somewhat consistent curriculum. Unless you move overseas, you’re rarely going to meet someone of the same vintage that didn’t learn similar things.
This only really hit me when I was talking to someone from overseas who had no idea what to do if you were bitten by a snake. Ever since primary school we had people show us how to apply a pressure bandage to prevent the spread of venom, as well as basics of snake and spider identification. To me, it’s second nature, but I can also see why this information wouldn’t be so helpful in places without a few hundred species of animals that would want to kill you.
What’s this got to do with the Rainbow Serpent?
Well, as with many countries, Australian students are taught about Aboriginal history as part of the school curriculum. So when you meet an Australian, they will usually have at least a basic knowledge of the Rainbow serpent. But this isn’t something that you’re likely to hear about if you’re not one of the lucky 25 Million people that can call themselves Aussies.
At the start of the Historia project, I wanted to base this story – very loosely – around some kind of existing legend. I had already had some parts of the story worked out (e.g. how the “monster” would attack, what it would do etc), but having some kind of legend to relate to would also be interesting to me. Kind of like how Saber from Fate is King Arthur. I’m pretty sure they had her character at least sketched out before settling on a legendary figure.
In any case, when I was going through my head for legends about monsters and dragons (our main antagonist was going to be a dragon), the story of the Rainbow Serpent came to mind. It’s something taught to Australian kids but probably not that common outside the great southern land.
And to be fair, that’s what I wanted. Historia isn’t the story of the Rainbow Serpent. It’s the story about the high school kids that are fighting against it.
I get that, but what is a rainbow serpent?
The Aboriginal legends all occur in a time called the Dreamtime. This is the “land before time” that you get in a lot of legends, and for the Aboriginal stories it occurs when the world was flat, barren and full of magical creatures. There creatures are usually treated like people, so there are conversations and such. Also, humans can generally interact with them.
As Australia is huge, and the Aboriginals were nomadic tribes, there are many different variations on the Dreamtime stories, but there are some figures that repeat across a number of them – and the Rainbow Serpent is probably one of the most common.
The overall basic story is that the Rainbow Serpent was a massive snake that crawled around the country, carving out rivers and mountains into the landscape. In most versions of the story, it will mainly stay away from humans, but for some reason it eats a few children. The warriors of the tribe chase it off, and it hides itself – usually as an island. Sometimes it will fight with other legendary creates, such as goanna, or there will be a strong warrior who is able to hurt it, but it it almost always immortal.
In other variations, it is more benevolent, acting as a creator of all life. People who obey its laws will be rewarded, those who don’t are turned to stone.
In all variations, the Rainbow Serpent is the “creator” of the Australian landscape, and its disappearance usually marks the end of the Dreamtime. Given the correlation to water and waterways, tribes near the coast assume that the serpent is sleeping as an island, but those inland usually refer to it disappearing into the ground.
It’s hard to pin down a single story – or even a single name. But the general story – about a giant magical snake that carved out the rivers and landscape of Australia, is common. It’s one of the oldest creation stories in the world, and uniquely Australian.
Instead of co-opting some legend that I’ve only learned second hand, such as a Chinese or European dragon, I wanted to bring a story forward that will be common to anyone that went through similar schooling as I, but hopefully alien enough to everyone else.