Interpretations of Dreaming stories in text

Interpretations of Dreaming stories in text

The Rainbow Serpent is an Aboriginal ancestral cultural being that feature in many Aboriginal peoples’ cultural stories and songs. It has also been interpreted and represented in different ways in a number of contemporary texts.

Traditional stories connect places across the landscape

Songs and stories are part of a rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander oral tradition. Many important places in the Australian landscape are named in traditional narratives. Significant places are often rocks and other landforms, water bodies, specific trees or vegetation communities. They mark the location where ancestorsare atrest or where they undertook significant acts that transformed the land. Some, but not all, of these sites are identifiable by the presence of rock art, scars on trees or other evidence of traditional practices. These sites are subject to cultural protocols that govern their care, including restrictions on food, hunting and visitation activities, requirements to observe customs such as announcing one’s presence and speaking to the ancestors, and the enactment of ceremonies and songs[1].

Many sites are connected by sacred ancestral pathways or ‘dreaming tracks’[2]and song series (or ‘song lines’),[3]which are narrative forms that link significant places into an extensive network of cultural and ecological knowledge. These narratives include the information required to move safely through country.[4]They also provide a way of structuring social relations between and within different cultural groups, including through codifying practices around exchange and ceremony, and through designating meeting places and seasonal travel routes.[5] Some stories have multiple versions, or have multiple parts, with multiple family or cultural groups the custodians of different parts of the story.

Water and the Rainbow Serpent

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, water is not only a resource for all living things, it is also an important element of social, cultural and spiritual life. Permanent and ephemeral water bodies like billabongs, creeks, rivers, lakes, and lagoons are often sites of significance that are represented in songs and stories. Different stories emphasise different relations with water, which can be associated with rain, the giver of life, but is also something strong and potentially destructive, to be feared and respected[6]. The Rainbow Serpentis usually (but not always) associated with water.

The Rainbow Serpent is a shared ancestorfor many Aboriginal groups in different regions of Australia. It is an ancestor with multiple names, and it can be both great father and great mother, and it can give life and take it. If it is angered it can be heard in thunder, lightning and cyclones. It is important too that peace is maintained with the Rainbow Serpentin order to avoid water scarcity and the drying out of the earth[7].

In the Keep River region of the Northern Territory, the Rainbow Serpent is associated with the black-headed python, where its name is also that ofa significant rock art site dated by archaeologists as at least 18000 years old. This site is an important meeting, camping, and teaching place for traditional custodians, and is part of a sacred ancestral pathway thatextends south and east to the border of Queensland. Along this track, another significant rock art site can be found within Queensland’s Boodjamulla National Park, where an enormous depiction of the Rainbow Serpentcan be seen high up on the escarpment. The story and its dreaming trackmakes a link between two traditional groups, which would have come together for ceremony and trade[8].

Interpretations of the Rainbow Serpent

The Rainbow Serpentstory has been represented in different ways in contemporary children’s books. Dick Roughsey (1920-1985), a Lardil artist and writer from Mornington Island, Queensland, published a version of the traditional story (originally published in 1975). In this illustrated children’s book, Roughsey depicts how the Rainbow Serpent, here namedGoorialla,created landforms, plants and animals[9]. Whereas non-Indigenous author Pamela Lofts (1949 – 2012) published a collaboration with students from the Lajamanu school, located in the Northern Tanami region of the Northern Territory, that documents a contemporary version of the story[10]. This version shows how the Warnayarra or Rainbow Snakecan be a force of destruction. It also shows the resilience of the Warlpiripeople, who were forcibly relocated from their countryto settlements and have refashioned and adapted this story to reflect events in their contemporary life.

Classroom activity - English Year 4

In Aboriginal culture, the Rainbow Serpent is a spiritual being associated with significant water places and represented in rock art. In these classroom activities students investigate, analyse and compare different depictions of the Rainbow Serpent story to evaluate the techniques used, their purpose and effectiveness. Students closely observe the character of the Rainbow Serpent and produce a character portrait. Students share views and discuss their observations using appropriate metalanguage.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Understand how texts vary in complexity and technicality depending on the approach to the topic, the purpose and the intended audience (ACELA1490)
  • Make connections between the ways different authors may represent similar storylines, ideas and relationships (ACELT1602)
    • comparing different authors’ treatment of similar themes and text patterns, for example comparing fables and allegories from different cultures and quest novels by different authors
  • Use metalanguage to describe the effects of ideas, text structures and language features of literary texts (ACELT1604)
    • examining the author’s description of a character’s appearance, behaviour and speech and noting how the character’s development is evident through his or her dialogue and changing relationships and the reactions of other characters to him or her
    • sharing views using appropriate metalanguage (for example ‘The use of the adjectives in describing the character really helps to create images for the reader’)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 4 in English:

  • students understand that texts have different text structures depending on purpose and context
  • explain how language features, images and vocabulary are used to engage the interest of audiences
  • express preferences for particular types of texts, and respond to others’ viewpoints
  • listen for and share key points in discussions
  • understand how to express an opinion based on information in a text
  • create texts that show understanding of how images and detail can be used to extend key ideas

Inquiry-based learning questions

What do different versions of the Rainbow Serpent story express about important places in the landscape? Consider how places such as water bodies and landforms have social, cultural, and ecological significance for Aboriginal people.

Consider how traditional stories like the Rainbow Serpentare able to communicate moral lessons. What underlying messages are being expressed in different versions of the story?

Reflect on the place of narrative traditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Consider the importance of songlines and dreaming tracks in past  and present Aboriginal cultures.

Activity 1 – Comparing different interpretations of the Rainbow Serpent

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: hard copies of the ‘The Rainbow Serpent’ by Dick Roughsey[11]and ‘Warnayarra: the rainbow snake’ by Pamela Lofts[12](if hard copies can’t be obtained there are YouTube videos of the book being read aloud). 

Students can listen to the teacher reading the story aloud or watch a video recording of the story being read aloud. In small groups students can discuss the visual and written techniques used in the two versions of the story, noting differences and similarities between the narrative style and content. They can also consider the different methods of authorship (single author and collaboration) and the effect this has on the text, and on the audience’s perspective.

Activity 2 – Character portrait of the Rainbow Serpent

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: same as Activity 1

Students can read a version of the Rainbow Serpentstory, or students can listen to the teacher reading the story aloud or watch a video recording of the story being read aloud. Students can then write a passage describing the character of the Rainbow Serpent. Students can describe the appearance and behaviour of the Rainbow Serpent, and its significance and the role it plays in water within the story. Students can describe the way the people in the story respond to the Rainbow Serpent, and how their relationship with it changes as the story progresses.

Extension: In pairs students can swap their character portrait with another student. Students can read each other’s work and then write a paragraph using metalanguage to express observations about how their partner described the Rainbow Serpent. For example, ‘Your use of the adjectives “large and colourful” help the reader to imagine what the Rainbow Serpent looks like’.


[1] Tacon, P. (2005 January). Chains of connection. Griffith Review. Retrieved from:

[2] see glossary for definition of ‘dreaming’

[3] see glossary for definition of ‘song series’ and ‘song lines’

[4] see glossary for definition of ‘country’

[5] Tacon, P. (2005 January).

[6] National Museum of Australia (n.d.) Australia’s water story [exhibition]. Retrieved from:

[7] National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (2019) The Rainbow Serpent. Retrieved from:

[8] Tacon, P. (2005 January).

[9] Roughsey, D. (2011). The rainbow serpent. North Ryde: Collins Angus & Robertson

[10] Lofts, P. (2004). Warnayarra: the rainbow snake - told by the senior boys class, Lajamanu School. Sydney: Scholastic Press

[11] Roughsey, D. (2011).

[12] Lofts, P. (2004).

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.