RAIN SERPENTS IN NORTHERN
AUSTRALIA AND SOUTHERN
A COMMON ANCESTRY?
In the late 1980s, geneticists announced that we evolved in Africa
close to 200,000 years ago (200 ka), with a tentatively inferred initial
migration between ~50 ka and ~100 ka. Palaeolithic archaeologists
immediately recognized that these ﬁndings made the long-established
consensus that there was no compelling evidence for symbolic
behaviours pre-dating ~40 ka (treated as a cognitive Rubicon) look
decidedly anomalous. How could the fundamental trait distinguishing
our species from earlier hominins postdate our dispersal? New research
in Africa was initiated, as a result of which it is now widely accepted
that symbolic culture was in place by ~100 ka (d’Errico and Stringer
2011). The evidence includes habitual use of red ochre (closely
associated with the dispersal), geometric engravings on ochre, beads
(some with ochre residues), and (in the Levant) male burials with parts
of game animals (indirectly associated with ochre). In southern Africa,
the most intensively studied portion of the continent for the relevant
period, it seems that ubiquitous use of red ochre can be inferred from
~170 ka, suggesting that symbolic culture correlates with our
speciation (Watts 2014). Use of red and glittery pigments in southern
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 249
Africa from ~500 ka has been interpreted as the earliest evidence for
collective ritual (Watts, Chazan and Wilkins 2016). At ﬁrst sight, a
speculative case might be made for a gradual evolution of collective
ritual, out of which was forged a template of symbolic culture, at least
three elements of which might be inferred by the time of dispersal
beyond Africa – belief in ‘other’ worlds (associating the dead with game
animals), cosmetic ‘skin-change’, and some form of ‘blood’ symbolism
(see Knight and Lewis, this volume; Power, this volume).
For reasons concerning the history of the discipline (Knight 1991,
Ch.1; Barnard 2012), social anthropologists have been slow to
respond to the possible implications of our recent dispersal out of
Africa. Among the ﬁrst to do so was Alan Barnard, who made a case
for why Bushmen, rather than Australian Aborigines, are more
appropriate for thinking about early human society, identifying six
areas of difference where parsimony suggested this was the case –
essentially that the Australian world-view was too ‘structurally
evolved’ (1999: 60). Within the ﬁeld of belief, he considered that
Australian Aborigines differed from ‘all other modern hunter-
gatherers … (in) their belief in the Rainbow Serpent and the Dreaming’
(ibid.). He went on to note: ‘Although Rainbow Serpent-type creatures
feature too in African mythology and rock art, they do not carry this
symbolic weight; and that there is no African equivalent to the
Dreaming’ (ibid.). The Dreaming is a parallel but ontologically prior
world where the distinction between animals and humans is not ﬁxed;
other Bushmen specialists do see an equivalence (Guenther 1999: 8),
so Barnard’s assertion is debateable. Regarding Rainbow Serpent-type
creatures, a more interesting issue than their relative symbolic weight
in the two regions is the implicit question about the nature of the
identity, and whether this should be attributed to trivial (Mundkur
1983) or non-trivial factors (Knight 1991).
Rainbow Serpent-type creatures are representative of the wider set
of dragons, serpents and rain-animals widely distributed in world
mythology. The set has primarily been based on a number of recurrent
themes, prominent among which have been control of water, an
intimate relationship to women, transformative power (including
‘death’, healing and ‘resurrection’), movement between ‘worlds’, and
an antithesis to cooking and exogamous sex/marriage. They have
fascinated European commentators since anthropology’s emergence
as a distinct discipline (e.g. Maehly 1867; Fergusson 1868; Lubbock
1870: 174–178; Wake 1873; Hahn 1881: 78–80; Elliot-Smith 1919;
Radcliffe-Brown 1926, 1930; Ingersoll 1928; Propp 1958 ;
Hambly 1931; Baumann 1935, 1936; Segy 1954; see Knight 1991:
250 Ian Watts
483 for further references). Initially, building upon an earlier,
theological research agenda (Deane 1833), attention largely focused
on ‘serpent worship’ in state societies. Even as the scope of inquiry
broadened, it remained a search for fixed meanings. A notable
exception was Vladimir Propp’s formalist approach, which recognized
that all magical tales were uniquely constrained; he concluded that
Eurasian fairytales could be treated as variants of one tale only, in
which a dragon kidnaps a princess. Only with the influence of
structuralism in the 1970s did researchers begin to focus on the
underlying logic informing such supernatural beings.
Radcliffe-Brown (1926) first noted possible parallels between
Australian Rainbow Snakes and Bushman belief in snakes protecting
waterholes, but without comment or citing any African literature.
The issue remained dormant until a preliminary treatment by Knight
(1991: 483–487), drawing on rock-art studies and limited
ethnographic material (predominantly from Khoe-speaking,
historically pastoralist cultures) to compare the logic of belief with
that he had identiﬁed in greater detail in Australia. In the most recent
and exhaustive evaluation of Khoisan Rainbow Snake-type creatures,
Sullivan and Low (2014: 235) end by quoting Knight’s conclusion
about Australian Rainbow Snake myths. To give the full quote, ‘what
all these myths are referring to is not really a “thing” at all, but a
cyclical logic which lies beyond and behind all the many concrete
images – moon, snakes, tidal forces, waterholes, rainbows, mothers
and so on – used in partial attempts to describe it’ (1991: 455).
Sullivan and Low’s own conclusion is that the Khoisan material
‘afﬁrms in all its detail and particularity the broad contours of this
“logic”’ (2014: 235).
So what is this cyclical logic? Knight had proposed a model of the
origin of symbolic culture in which evolving women, faced with the
costs of giving birth to and rearing larger-brained, more dependent
offspring, needed to secure unprecedented levels of male investment
(see Finnegan, this volume). To achieve this, they had, through
collective ritual action, made themselves periodically sexually
unavailable, declaring themselves ‘sacred’ and ‘taboo’ until men
surrendered the product of a collective hunt. This was achieved by
exploiting the signalling potential of menstruation. The evolutionary
logic was more precisely speciﬁed by Knight, Power and Watts (1995),
identifying menstruation as a valuable cue to males of imminent
fertility. The posited strategy was that the most reproductively
burdened females prevented would-be philanderer males from
targeting an imminently fertile menstruant at the expense of other
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 251
females, forming a ‘picket-line’ around her, sharing the blood around
or using blood substitutes to scramble the information, thereby using
cultural or cosmetic means to ‘synchronize’ bleeding, while at the
same time advertising her attractive qualities. These female cosmetic
coalitions inverted standard fertility signalling, ritually pantomiming
‘Wrong species, wrong sex, wrong time’. The economic logic was the
imposition of a rule of distribution dissociating people from their own
produce, whether the product of hunting labour (a hunter’s ‘own kill
rule’), or reproductive labour (incest prohibitions). Synchronizing
‘strike’ action across communities required an environmental cue of
appropriate periodicity. Collective spear-hunting of medium to large
game – liable to take several days and nights – needed to optimize
available natural light, making the days and nights immediately
before full moon ideal, implying that the ‘strike’ began at dark moon.
The cyclical logic is the movement from blood-defined kinship
solidarity to ‘honeymoon’, from temporary death (to marital relations)
to resurrection, from ritual power ‘on’ to ritual power ‘off’. If lack of
meat motivates the sex strike, it should also be a cooking strike, and if
women’s blood marks them as periodically taboo, then killed and
bloody game animals should also be taboo, until they are surrendered
and the blood removed through cooking. Treating metaphor as the
underlying principle of symbolic culture (Knight and Lewis, this
volume), the fundamental metaphor is that women’s blood be equated
with that of game animals. What kind of phenomena might be
suitable for elaborating the logic informing this metaphor? Anything
that could represent periodicity, movement between worlds,
association with wetness, ambiguous sex, minimal morphological
differentiation, skin-change, and transformative powers (e.g. death
dealing) would be appropriate. Rainbows meet some of these
requirements, and for a tropically evolved species, pythons would also
be particularly good to think with (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1966).
In this chapter, I compare aspects of Yurlunggur (the Yolngu
Rainbow Snake of Arnhem Land, northern Australia) and !Khwa (the
Rain Bull of the /Xam Bushmen in the Upper Karoo, South Africa).
Following Knight, I focus on the relationship of these supernatural
beings to menstrual blood, hoping to show how this throws their logic
and structural role into sharpest relief.
252 Ian Watts
The study of Rainbow Snakes in Australia can be divided into two
main phases: an initial period identifying and describing the
phenomena in the late 1920s; and structuralist inﬂuenced work in
the 1970s and early 1980s (e.g. Hiatt 1975; Buchler and Maddock
1978; Knight 1983). Some Aboriginal cultures permitted relating the
mythological entity to ritual practice (e.g. Warner 1958 ). The
second phase recognized the Rainbow Snake as perhaps the ultimate
symbolic representation of paradox and transformation.
The Yolngu live in northeast Arnhem Land, in the Australian tropics.
Seasonal ﬂooding and a difﬁcult landscape made the area unattractive
to Europeans, allowing the Yolngu to keep their culture relatively intact
well into the twentieth century. The myth of how, as a result of the
actions of the two Wawilak Sisters, Yurlunggur created the present
world is the most extensively recorded and thoroughly analysed of
Australian Rainbow Snake myths (e.g. Warner 1958; Berndt 1951;
Lévi-Strauss 1966; Knight 1983, 1987, see p. 242 for citations of other
versions), allowing me to present an abridged version here.
A history of research on Khoisan Rainbow Serpent-type creatures
in southern Africa is beyond the scope of this paper (see Schmidt
1979, 1998; Morris 2002; Sullivan and Low 2014). Sufﬁce it to say
that they have been indigenously described as ‘Watersnakes’, ‘Great
Snakes’, eland-bulls, ‘Rain Bulls’, and indeterminate large quadrupeds.
Such creatures are considered to lie at the heart of ‘a dynamic
assemblage of extant cognitive associations between snakes, rain,
environmental/landscape dynamics, water, fertility, blood, fat,
transformation, dance and healing’ (Sullivan and Low 2014: 218,
emphasis in original).
The /Xam were Bushmen of the Upper Karoo, the interior, semi-arid
region south of the Orange River. Because they were killed or brutally
assimilated into the colonial frontier economy of the late eighteenth
and ﬁrst half of the nineteenth centuries, virtually everything we
know about them is through the remarkable linguistic endeavours of
Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd in the 1870s, and the
equally remarkable co-operation of a succession of /Xam prisoners
released into their custody, several of whom stayed well beyond their
prison terms. This vast corpus of material (Skotnes 2007) included
information on ritual and an extensive body of mythology. The myths
can be supplemented by Gideon Retief von Wielligh’s Afrikaans
narratives, recorded from /Xam farm workers in the 1880s (von
Wielligh 1919), while Ansie Hoff’s salvage anthropology among
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 253
contemporary descendants of the /Xam provides valuable fragmentary
details concerning ritual and belief (Hoff 1997, 2007).
Linguistically, the /Xam belonged to the southern group of three
Khoisan language families (Barnard 1992). There is considerable
overlap in beliefs between historically pastoralist Khoe-speaking
cultures and historically hunter-gatherer (Bushmen) Khoe and San
speakers (ibid.). Bushman religion is best characterized in terms of
ﬂuidity and ambiguity, both within and between linguistic groups, but
menarcheal ritual and healing dances are remarkably uniform in
their performative structure and associated beliefs (ibid.; Guenther
1999). Both are means of entering into what the Ju/’hoan call First
Creation, where the distinction between animals and people is not
ﬁxed (Keeney and Keeney 2013; see Guenther 1986 for similar Nharo
The Wawilak Sisters
This summary is largely taken from Warner (1958):
Two Dreamtime sisters of the Dua moiety, the elder carrying a baby boy,
the younger pregnant, are crossing the land. They carry stone-tipped
spears, bush-cotton and hawk’s down. During their travels, they kill
iguana, opossum and bandicoot, giving them the names they bear
today, saying that they will become maraiin (sacred), in the meantime
putting them in their dilly bags. The younger sister gives birth during
their travels. They intend to circumcise the boys. They meet classiﬁcatory
brothers and have sex with them. They ﬁnally arrive at the big waterhole
near the coast, Mirrimina (‘snake swallows’) or Ditjerima (‘menstruation
blood’). The older sister tries to cook the animals they’ve caught, but
each time one is placed on the ﬁre, it comes back to life and jumps into
the waterhole. A drop of her menstrual blood falls into the water (in
another version, this ‘pollution’ is ascribed to the younger sister and
occurs before the animals are placed on the ﬁre [Chaseling 1957: 141–
142]). Lying at the bottom of the waterhole, Yurlunggur, also of the
Dua moiety, smells the blood, and rises to the surface, drawing the
water level up with ‘him’ or ‘her’ (the seasonal ﬂooding that’s such a
determinant factor to life in Arnhem Land). He spits water into the air,
to become a small, black cloud. The sisters, alarmed by the growing
black cloud that came from nowhere, start to sing and dance,
performing increasingly sacred songs; in some versions, the younger
sister starts to bleed. It is at this point that Yurlunggur entrances them,
licks them, bites their noses to make them bleed, swallows them alive
and rises up into the sky, where he is joined by other snakes (all Dua
moiety, each speaking a different language). Regretting their different
tongues, Yurlunggur calls upon them to sing out together, making an
254 Ian Watts
unprecedented noise and creating a common ceremony. Confronted
over his incestuous cannibalism, he regurgitates the sisters and their
children onto an anthill, to dry. They are revived by Yurlunggur’s
trumpet and the biting ants. The swallowing and regurgitation are
repeated (only the sisters are regurgitated again, it being legitimate to
consume ﬂesh of the opposite moiety – the sons), Yurlunggur ﬁnally
returning the sisters to Wawilak country.
Meanwhile, two Wawilak men saw the lightning and heard the
thunder accompanying all this commotion and tracked the sisters to
Mirrimina, where they ﬁnd their blood and scoop it up, gather hawk’s
down and bush cotton, and fall asleep. The sisters appear in their
dreams and recount everything that happened, instructing them in the
songs and how to perform male circumcision ceremonies. They sang
Yurlunggur and Muit (another name for Yurlunggur, with a proposed
Kareira root meaning: ‘blood & red & multi-coloured & iridescent’, von
Brandenstein 1982: 58). ‘You must dance all the things we saw and
named on our journey, and which ran away into the well’.
The myth of the Wawilak Sisters is re-enacted in various male
initiation rituals, notably the interclan Djungguan ritual, when boys
are circumcised. The day before, initiated men are blown over by the
Yurlunggur trumpet, and produce arm blood to hold the hawk’s down
and bush-cotton on the dancers’ bodies and the Muit emblems. That
night, the neophytes are shown the snake for the ﬁrst time, two padded
poles ‘with the rock pythons painted in blood on white surfaces
gleaming in the light of the many ﬁres’ (Warner 1958: 304). The men
say they stole this power from women. As an informant told Warner:
The cycle of the seasons with the growth and decay of plants,
copulation, birth and death of animals as well as men, is all the fault of
those two Wawilak Sisters. If they hadn’t done wrong in their own
country and copulated with Dua Wongar men and then come down to
the Liaaloamir country and menstruated and made that snake wild,
this cycle would never have occurred. (Warner 1958: 385)
Aspects of Bushman Cosmology
Before turning to Bushman myths bearing on Rainbow Serpent-type
creatures, comment is needed on the connection between eland and
snakes, and on the place of menarche in Bushman cosmology.
Eland and Snakes
The eland, the largest and fattest of African antelope, has been
described as the Bushman ‘animal de passage’ (Lewis-Williams 1981:
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 255
72). The connection with snakes has largely been etically derived
(Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981), drawing primarily on rock
art (e.g. antelope-headed snakes) and interpretation of the testimony
of Qing, a Bushman of the Maloti Mountains (Lesotho), to Joseph
Orpen in 1873 (Orpen 1874; McGranaghan, Challis and Lewis-
Williams 2013). When apparently explaining a painted scene in one of
the rock shelters they had visited (but see Challis, Hollman and
McGranaghan 2013), Qing referred to a large quadruped being
charmed out of the water by Bushmen as a ‘snake’. Explicit emic
support consisted of little more than two ethnohistorical accounts of
Sotho and Nama (Khoe pastoralist) beliefs that a snake resided in the
red forelock of the eland (Arbousset and Daumas 1846: 46; Hahn
1881: 81). A third nineteenth-century account, previously
unremarked, suggests that the belief extended further east, to the
Swazi and/or Zulu (Montague 1894: 66).1 Vinnicombe (1976: 233)
implied that this was also a Bushman belief, something only recently
conﬁrmed by Low among the Hai//om (2008: 240). Low adds an
insight that helps to explain the association: ‘Tixai Gkao, a Ju/’hoan
Bushman, described to me that the Eland and the Python are the same:
“the eland gets that fat from the python into him. It just comes with the
wind”’ (2008: 240–241). Low interprets this as implying an ontological
primacy of the python over the eland (2012: 89). Python fat, in
addition to being symbolically potent (see Sullivan and Low 2014 in
relation to healers), is physiologically so (Riquelme et al. 2011).
Similarly, the eland’s red forelock is particularly appropriate for
symbolizing eland potency: bulls rub their forelocks in their own
urine, and forelock size provides a reliable agonistic signal in inter-
male competition (Bro-Jørgenson and Dabelsteen 2008). The forelock
is thought to provide the model for the red pigment motif painted on
the brow of the Ju/’hoan menarcheal girl (Keeney and Keeney 2013:
73), and again at marriage (Marshall 1959: 356–359); a boy paints
the same pattern on himself using ash when he has shot his ﬁrst eland
(Lewis-Williams and Biesele 1978: 125). A later, collective part of this
initiation ritual involves lighting a medicine ﬁre by the forelock, so
that in future encounters the boy’s face will be brilliant, causing the
eland’s face to split (Lewis-Williams 1981: 70). The Ju/’hoan term for
brilliance in this context (//hára) is identical or very similar to the /
Xam term for glittery specularite (ibid.: 60). Given the linguistic
distance between the two cultures, this suggests an ancient ritual
substrate and associated constructs informing etymology (Biesele,
pers. comm. July 2012). Moreover, for Bushmen of the Maloti
Mountains, Lewis-Williams has proposed an etymological link
256 Ian Watts
between another term for specular-haematite (qhang qhang) and the
trickster, Qhang (Cang, /Kaggen) (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2004:
106). Like the snake in the forelock, /Kaggen also sits between the
horns of the eland, protecting his favourite animal from hunters
(Wessels 2009: 101). /Kaggen and !Khwa appear radically different,
but here their attributes seem to merge.2 I suggest that the eland’s red
forelock was the original form of the brilliant blaze, light, glistening
stone or diamond on the brow of the Watersnake or Rain Bull (von
Wielligh 1919: 75; Laidler 1928; van Vreeden 1955; Carstens 1975;
Hoff 1997; Schmidt 1998). In any event, the forelock is a symbolic
nexus, bringing together the potency of eland and snakes, adolescent
male and female initiates, redness and brilliance, !Khwa and /Kaggen.
Bushman Menarcheal Ritual
A Ju/’hoan circumlocution for ﬁrst menstruation is ‘She has shot an
eland’ (Lewis-Williams 1981: 51; see Knight and Lewis, this volume);
the Eland Bull dance is one of the most widespread features of
Bushman menarcheal ritual. At the ﬁrst sign of blood, the girl is
sequestered by older female kin and all the women of the band
pantomime eland courtship behaviour.3 She is paradoxically identiﬁed
with the eland bull and as a hunter, an epitome of ‘wrong species,
wrong sex, wrong time’ (Power and Watts 1997; see Knight and
Lewis, this volume). Her food is restricted, but she bestows the beneﬁt
of ‘fatness’; she must be kept away from water, but she controls water.
After the girl’s emergence from seclusion, timed in relation to the
moon, ritual acts performed often included a reintroduction to water
(Fourie 1927: 58; Guerreiro 1968: 227–278; Hewitt 1986; Hoff
1997; Le Roux and White 2004: 101), or she might be taken to run
through a symbolic shower of rain (Silberbauer 1963: 22).4 Where
reintroduced to a water source, this may be personiﬁed as a Rain Bull
or a Watersnake (Hoff 1997; for more detailed accounts from extant
or historically Khoe-speaking cultures, see Schmidt 1998: 272 with
refs.; Hoff 1995; Waldman 2003: 665).5 She is believed to help to
ensure fertilizing, soft ‘female’ rain, and success in forthcoming hunts.
In this last capacity, both the overall ritual and speciﬁc acts upon her
emergence (Power and Watts 1997 with refs) can be seen as a
Bushman counterpart to Pygmy women’s ‘ritual hunting labour’
(Finnegan, this volume).
The /Xam guardian of menstrual observances was !Khwa, the
Rain Bull or Rain Animal, who sometimes appeared as a bull eland.
!Khwa was also the term for water, rain and – in at least one instance
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 257
– menstrual blood (Hewitt 1986: 40, 284). !Khwa dwells in waterholes
and controls lightning, thunder, whirlwinds and rain. He is strongly
attracted by the scent of the girl, which is given as an explanation for
her seclusion and the extensive use of buchu, an aromatic bush, which
paradoxically both arouses and paciﬁes !Khwa and is used to raise and
calm energy or potency as required in context (Sullivan and Low
2014: 223). Buchu may mask the smell of the blood, but by association
it may also be indexical of blood. The menstrual hut was referred to as
the ‘house of trembling’, which has been connected with the somatic
experience of trance, the potency in both contexts being essentially
identical (Lewis-Williams 1981; Keeney and Keeney 2013; see also
Low, this volume). Upon her emergence, the new maiden sprinkled
buchu and red ochre on the waterhole in current use, reintroducing
herself to !Khwa (Hewitt 1986).
The Bushman Myths
The Smell of the Girl’s Blood Conjures !Khwa
The following /Xam tales of girls at menarche can be compared with
the Australian material:
The Rain formerly courted a young woman, while the young woman
was in her hut because she was still ‘ill’ (on account of her blood, either
post-partum or menstrual). The Rain scented her and went forth on
account of it; as the Rain came forth, it became misty. He trotted up to
her hut and courted the young woman on account of her scent. … And
she lay, smelling the Rain’s scent, and the place was fragrant. She rode
away on the Rain Bull, but rather than be taken down into the
waterhole, she put him to sleep with buchu so she could return to her
child and kin. (Paraphrased from Bleek and Lloyd 1911: 192–198,
A menarcheal girl, who had not yet been reintroduced to the water, and
still had the smell of buchu on her, went into the veld to dig for bulbs,
against her mother’s advice. She saw a ‘little waft of mist’ but ignored
it; next time she looked up, it had become a great cloud directly
overhead, covering the whole sky, ‘like a beast of prey’. She dropped her
bag and ran for home, but too late: the lightning cleaved the ground
and ‘the earth ascended with the maiden; it became a whirlwind’. The
maiden’s mother, seeing this from the camp, spoke: ‘You see the earth
rising over there? It rises from the place where !Khwa struck.
[untranslated line] It rises over there; it is the earth. The maiden truly
became dust, while she felt that she was a snake. Whirling, she
ascended’. And the sorcerers sang: ‘!Khwa is now the one who takes
her away, she becomes a snake’. Lucy Lloyd noted that the narrator,
258 Ian Watts
Dia!kwain, said that this was ‘A large snake, whose name was feared’, as
portrayed in a rock-art copy sent by George Stow to Wilhelm Bleek. The
snake was known as //kheten (//xeiten) or !nuin.6 (Paraphrased from
Lewis-Williams 2000: 273–276)
The preliminary manifestation of !Khwa as a small, but rapidly
growing cloud, is strikingly similar to the preliminary manifestation
of Yurlunggur; but it is the operational identity that is signiﬁcant. In
both cases, the girl’s blood conjures this ‘snake’ from the water and is
responsible for her either being swallowed by – or morphing into – a
snake. This is the only point in the Bleek and Lloyd narratives where
either !Khwa or the menarcheal girl is identiﬁed with a snake, but it is
an identity conﬁrmed by von Wielligh (1919: 59–66, 95–100) and by
/Xam descendants (Hoff 1997).
In recounting this story (heard from his mother), Dia!kwain
commented: ‘when she is a maiden, she has the rain’s magic power’
(Lewis-Williams 2000: 273). She is responsible for the redness of the
rain, a deep structure in Khoisan cosmology (Power and Watts 1997:
546 with refs). Paradoxically, the ontological transformation of the
new maiden, her entry into First Creation, and her ability to take the
whole community with her (Guenther 1999: 176; Keeney and Keeney
2013), occurs irrespective of whether she complies with or breaches
correct behaviour; only the positive or negative valence of
transformation changes. It is this same potency that some men (and
fewer women) might train for years to harness, as rain shamans,
game-shamans or healers (Lewis-Williams 1981; Hoff 2007).
Although this could be acquired naturally (Low, this volume), it is the
new maiden’s as of right, accorded by a culturally constructed
‘nature’. The !Kung and the /Xam regarded a new maiden to be ‘the
source of n/om (or /k’ode), the healing potency normally associated
with the male trance healers’ (Guenther 1999: 175, citing Lewis-
Williams 1981: 51–52). This challenges the use of Bushman
ethnography to support the thesis that early religion was shamanistic
In the Wawilak Sisters’ story, the fact that the animals come alive
upon being placed in the ﬁre can be ascribed to the sisters’ bloody
state, and to the fact that they had declared that the animals would
become sacred totems, of the same ﬂesh (moiety) as the sisters
themselves. The following is another /Xam myth about a new maiden:
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 259
A girl is in her seclusion hut; she peeps out to make sure nobody is
about, and goes down to the waterhole. Sitting on the bank, she splashes
the water: ‘Ripples, twirl the water’. A ‘waterchild’ (resembling a calf)
sprang out; she nabbed it, banged it on the head, ﬂung it over her
shoulder, and jogged back to camp. There she hastily made a ﬁre, cut up
the ‘waterchild’, roasted it, and ate it all. She then burnt the bones to
ashes, tidied up the ﬁre, swept away her footprints, and returned to the
‘house of trembling’. This is repeated over several days. On the ﬁfth day,
the waterchild did not come out easily; it was a male, horned rain child.
When she had cut it up and placed it on the ﬁre, the ﬁre hissed and
spluttered, water came out of the ground, extinguishing the ﬁre, as it
felt that !Khwa was angry with the girl. A cold whirlwind whisked her
up and dropped her into the waterhole as a frog. The same happened to
her kin out on the veld, while organic cultural artifacts reverted to their
original, natural state. (Paraphrased from Bleek and Lloyd 1911: 197–
205; Hewitt 1986: 80–85)
A second anti-cooking narrative is the only !Khwa story in the Bleek
and Lloyd collection not concerned with menarcheal observances:
A man out hunting mistook a manifestation of !Khwa for an eland and
shot it. Later, following the spoor with companions, they found the eland
and set about butchering it and cooking the meat. To their consternation
the meat kept disappearing from the ﬁre. They and their temporary
shelter were surrounded by water; they were turned into frogs and
hopped away. (Paraphrased from Lewis-Williams 2000: 222–223)
There is no obvious reason to take misidentiﬁcation as the true cause
of the misfortune; it seems more likely that !Khwa was angered by the
attempt to cook eland meat on the hunting ground, rather than being
surrendered as the ideal form of bride-service (Lewis-Williams 1981:
70); such men were called ‘decayed arm’ (ibid.: 63).7
Returning to menarcheal observances, among all Bushmen groups
the girl is placed under strict dietary restrictions; among the /Xam,
her immediate kin also ate less (Hewitt 1986: 280–281). Viegas
Guerreiro (1968: 221) was told that the !Xû of southern Angola
extinguished all cooking ﬁres at the onset of a girl’s ﬁrst menstruation.
Anti-cooking also ﬁgured prominently in one of Qing’s narratives:
A young woman arouses the jealousy of the young men in her
community by taking up with a mature bachelor, Qwanciqutshaa, the
son of Cagn (/Kaggen), previously spurned by all women – including
herself. The young men applied snake fat to the meat the old man was
roasting. As he tried to eat the meat it repeatedly fell out of his mouth
and he bled profusely from the nose.8 He threw his possessions into the
sky and himself into the river, transforming into a snake. (Paraphrased
from Orpen 1874: 6–7)
260 Ian Watts
An important theme in the full narrative is that Qwanciqutshaa, in
human or snake form, stands in antithesis to marriage.
The following plot outline is taken from von Wielligh’s recording of a
/Xam myth about the creation of the moon:
/Kaggen made for himself a pair of shoes. But the right shoe chafed his
foot, so he instructed his daughter, the Hammerkop, to soften it by
throwing it into the waterhole. At the bottom of the waterhole, the
Watersnake was enraged by the polluting shoe and causes the water to
freeze. When the Hammerkop retrieved the shoe, it came out with a
piece of ice attached. In turn angered, /Kaggen threw the ice-bound
shoe into the sky, where it became the moon. Ever since, people had
light at night, enabling them to hunt porcupines and to wait for game
at waterholes.9 The jealous Sun shot the shining ice with hot arrows,
causing it to melt and Moon to die. The people were distraught. The
Watersnake intervened, creating a fountain on the moon so it would be
reborn. (Paraphrased from von Wielligh 1919: 95–100, translated by
Jeanine van Niekerk)
Whatever else the shoe may signify (see Vinnicombe 1975: 386), it
is necessarily dirty, and in this sense polluting. The fact that it chafed /
Kaggen’s foot suggests it may have been bloodied. Other versions
specify that the shoe was red owing to the dust of the Karoo (Bleek
1924: 5). Blood would probably have been emically inferred – another
of the Hammerkop’s roles was to inform the Watersnake if ‘young
maids’ polluted the fountain in any way (von Wielligh 1919: 110).
The interaction of blood, or the smell of blood, and the Watersnake is
ultimately responsible for lunar periodicity, just as it is responsible for
seasonal periodicity in Arnhem Land.
This story relates to a larger myth concerning /Kaggen’s creation
of the eland from his son-in-law’s shoe, where the conﬂict between kin
and afﬁnes substitutes for the theme of pollution (Lewis-Williams
1997). This also concludes with the creation of the moon, but the
reason for the creation is not addressed by Lewis-Williams. According
to Knight’s template, the conﬂict is cyclically created and resolved
through lunar periodicity. Throughout the waxing moon, ‘afﬁnes’ are
an out-group to be exploited by uterine kin; at full moon they
The ‘Snake’ as New Maiden
Among more northerly groups of Bushmen, equivalents to !Khwa – in
terms of punishing breaches of menstrual observances – receive less
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 261
elaboration in mythology, but may take the form of ‘underground
snakes’ (Silberbauer 1965: 83; Valiente-Noailles 1993: 95).10 In the
Ju/’hoansi creation mythology, the archetypal ‘new maiden’
is G!kon//’amdima or Python Girl,11 shimmering, sparkling like the
sun, gliding like a grand person, having plenty of fat (Biesele 1993:
G!kon//’amdima is already married and pregnant. Tricked by Jackal,
her younger sister, to climb onto the branch of a berry-tree overhanging
the waterhole, she falls into the deep well. Her seclusion at the bottom
of the well becomes a birth seclusion. The negatively coded aspects of
menarcheal seclusion are ludically transferred to Jackal (see Guenther
1999), who deceitfully assumes G!kon//’amdima’s place as Kori
Bustard’s wife. Meanwhile, various animals try to rescue Python Girl;
only the giraffe, with his long legs, succeeds. She re-emerges with her
newborn (implying that post-partum blood is in the waterhole). In
most versions, she emerges as beautiful as ever, but in Richard Lee’s
version, her father, the Elephant is heartbroken that ‘she no longer
sparkles as before’ and declares that henceforth, the animals will be
animals. (Paraphrased from Biesele 1993: 124–133, 137–138)
The male initiatory counterpart to the well of creation is the
branding ﬁre of creation, where animals are given their distinctive
markings, henceforth remaining as animals. This is where
G!kon//’amdima acquired her beautiful shining stripes (1993: 121).
Both myths are interpreted by Biesele as a fall from grace, when
attributes become ﬁxed (1993: 138).
We saw that the myth of the Wawilak Sisters underwrites Yolngu
male initiation, where men bleed together (as initiated men in the
preparation of ritual paraphernalia and as novitiates undergoing
circumcision when they are introduced to Yurlunggur). The template
for men’s synchronous bleeding was the blood of that Wawilak sister
entering the well and arousing Yurlunggur, and then both sisters
bleeding prior to being swallowed, through synchronized menstruation
brought on by dancing the most sacred dances (Knight 1983), and/or
by being bitten on the nose by Yurlunggur. We have also seen how the
blood of the new maiden in southern Africa arouses the Rain Animal/
According to /Kunta Boo (the principal informant about healing
for Biesele and the Keeneys), on the occasion of a Ju/’hoan girl’s ﬁrst
menstruation, ‘everyone must bleed in order to be assured full entry
262 Ian Watts
into First Creation’ (Keeney and Keeney 2013: 73). This is achieved by
making cuts on the ears of everyone present, with drops of blood
falling to the ground. First Creation is characterized by a constant
morphing of identities between animals and people, with no illness or
death. The act of naming (or painting) the animals, establishing
constant forms, is – according to the Keeneys – ‘The Great Turning’ or
‘Second Creation’ (Keeney and Keeney 2013: 67). The price of
establishing permanent forms was sickness and death.
It is perhaps not surprising that a male healer should emphasize his
role (making the cuts) in bringing about synchronized bloodﬂow to
help ensure safe movement to First Creation. It might appear that
such a detail is without parallel in wider Bushman menarcheal ritual.
But, symbolically, it compares with the /Xam maiden giving her
blessings to the whole community upon her transformation,
distributing red ochre to the women of the band, and painting ‘zebra’
stripes with ochre on the legs of young men to protect them from
!Khwa while out hunting, and sprinkling ochre on the current water-
source to appease !Khwa (Hewitt 1986).
We have here a set of highly suggestive cross-cultural symbolic
similarities, all unfolding from a brute fact of nature, that women
1) A girl menstruates for ﬁrst time, conjuring a symbolic construct of
2) This construct is not something outside of herself, but her own
ontological transformation into an animal (snake or eland),
acquiring male attributes (having them from the outset in the
3) Transformation to the ‘wet’;
4) She takes her kin, particularly female kin, with her, with suggestive
and sometimes explicit indications of synchronous bleeding (see
also Knight, Power and Watts 1995: 92 with refs)
5) In this ‘other’ world, mundane activities like cooking or mundane
states (being ‘married’) are negated (the snake’s antithetical
relation to marriage was scarcely touched on here, but see Carstens
1975, Knight 1991);
6) Periodicity is thereby established (whether seasonal or lunar) and
the ‘right’ way of doing things.
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 263
These correspondences certainly accord with the cyclical logic
outlined by Knight. There is, however, a striking difference between
the two sets of data. The myth of the Wawilak Sisters sanctions the
ritual practice of senior male relatives grabbing hold of boys,
establishing an ingroup/outgroup boundary between initiated and
non-initiated, and subjecting a collective of novitiates to an artiﬁcial
second birth that involves inverting their ontological status, with men
admitting that they stole the language of this ritual power from
women. The /Xam myths sanction the ritual practice of senior female
relatives grabbing hold of a girl at menarche, establishing an ingroup/
outgroup boundary between uterine kin and men as ‘husbands’, and
inverting her (and their own) ontological status. The similarities
suggest a common origin or process, but the opposite outcomes in
terms of gender hierarchy and ritual power would seem to call for a
What is going on here? The fundamental narrative is about women,
and how they are simultaneously biologically and symbolically
constituted. Becoming a woman is mythologically constructed as the
ultimate empowering experience, such that other culturally
constructed transformations – becoming an initiated man in Australia,
becoming an initiated hunter in southern Africa, and apparently
becoming a healer – are modelled on the process. Rainbow Serpent-
type creatures provide an appropriate vehicle and logic for this
In the introduction it was suggested, on archaeological grounds
alone, that as some modern humans left Africa, they took with them a
template of symbolic culture, which included belief in ‘other’ worlds
(associating the dead with game animals), ritual practice of cosmetic
‘skin-change’ and an associated ideology of ‘blood’. A more precise
delineation of such a template, derived from Knight’s model, was then
summarized. Knight had initially tested his model against the Yolngu
myth of the Wawilak Sisters and their relation to Yurlunggur. Barnard
had proposed that such supernatural creatures presented an area of
difference between Bushman and Australian Aboriginal beliefs, but
the difference identiﬁed was quantitative rather than qualitative,
begging the question why there should be any similarity. Through a
preliminary examination of the nature of the similarities, informed by
Knight’s model, I hope to have shown how and why they are similar.
We may conjecture that something like a Rainbow Serpent-type
creature was also part of the symbolic template of early Homo sapiens,
an elaboration of the logic informing the world’s ﬁrst metaphor –
equating women’s blood with the blood of game animals.
264 Ian Watts
Rhino Cave is a narrow ﬁssure in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana. In
2011, archaeologists reported findings which suggest that
supernatural snakes might extend back in the order of 60,000 to
100,000 years (Coulson, Staurset and Walker 2011). The site is
difﬁcult of access and hidden from general view; its most striking
feature is an almost freestanding rock that resembles the head and
forebody of a giant snake emerging from the back of the ﬁssure.
The resemblance is naturally enhanced by a crack resembling a
mouth and a depression resembling an eye, and artiﬁcially enhanced
by ground cupules covering the entire ‘body’, like scales. A spalled
fragment from the cupuled surface and grinding stones with width
dimensions similar to the cupules were recovered from Middle Stone
Age (MSA) deposits below the ‘snake’. These deposits, also containing
abundant stone points and a ground piece of specularite (a glittery
form of haematite), could not be directly dated, but the points
resembled those from dated contexts in neighbouring and regional
sites. The focus of the report was on how the points, in their sheer
quantity, exotic procurement, selection of bright colours, and
deliberate burning without use, provided compelling evidence for
complex ritualized behaviour.
Figure 10.1: Rhino Cave, Botswana. Carved rock panel on the south
wall in afternoon light. Photo courtesy of Sheila Coulson, Dept of
Rain Serpents in Northern Australia and Southern Africa: a Common Ancestry? 265
Archaeologists would wish for more secure evidence linking this
apparent zoomorph to the MSA and for absolute dating estimates. A
cautious attitude is certainly required; the ‘snake’ may prove to be
much younger. But, in view of the evidence marshalled here, I would
argue there are strong theoretical and empirical grounds for
anticipating that the temporal association will prove valid.
1. Montague claimed to have seen ‘a small green snake which sometimes
takes up his residence there (in the forelock of an eland bull)’ (parentheses
added). This directly follows his reporting a ‘Caffre’ (probably Swazi or
Zulu) belief concerning a ‘maggot’ in the brain of wildebeest. Montague
possibly took the snake/forelock association from Arbousset (changing
the colour from yellow to green), but I found nothing else to suggest he
plagiarized the extensive southern African travel literature.
2. A deep, if masked, relationship between /Kaggen and !Khwa would be
consistent with a wider pattern, where Bushman tricksters, in their ritual
personae, oversee adolescent initiation (e.g. Guenther 1986); tricksters
may assume the persona of the great watersnake (e.g. Valiente-Noailles
3. In drier regions, gemsbok may replace eland (Heinz 1994). The fact that
the girl is identiﬁed with both fatness and rain accounts for why one of
the menarcheal dances performed among the G/wi and //Gana is named
after and mimics the nuptial ﬂight of a species of termite These also
epitomize fatness and their nuptial ﬂights occur at the start of the rains
(see Mguni 2006: 62, citing Nonaka 1996: 31).
4. For lunar scheduling, see Watts 2005: 100–101, see also Imamura
5. The widespread (but not ubiquitous) reintroduction to water is a feature
missing from Guenther’s characterization of the ritual (1999: 167). It was
present among the Nharo, Guenther’s own study group, the girl slapping
the water with a branch (Le Roux and White 2004: 101), consistent with
hints of a former belief in the Rain Bull (D. Bleek, A3.11, pp. 27–28;
A3.18, p. 422 rev.) and possibly the Watersnake (A3.20, p. 592).
6. //xeiten or //kheten, a supernatural snake associated with rain and
whirlwinds, is comparable to Khoe Keinaus or Kaindaus (Morris 2002;
Low 2012), and an aspect of the G/wi and //Gana trickster !Koanxa
(Valiente Noailles 1993: 196–197).
7. This term of abuse for selﬁsh – not to say ‘incestuous’ – behaviour by
hunters (see Knight 1991: 88–121) suggests a link between the fate of
these men and the fate of men (including /Kaggen) out on the hunting
ground tricked into massaging the neck of the menorrhagic tortoise
(grandmother or older sister to the males); their arms decayed (see Watts
266 Ian Watts
2005: 101 with refs). Tortoises were also one of the Rain’s creatures
(Hewitt 1986), and among the Griqua (of Khoe descent), who share very
similar beliefs and practices with the /Xam, they provide a metaphor for
vaginas (Waldman 2003: 665).
8. Bleeding from the nose is one of the key motifs associated with entering
into trance (Lewis-Williams 1981). This is also the state in which the
Wawilak sisters were swallowed by Yurlunggur.
9. Ambush hunting by waterholes at night, restricted to dry-season nights
leading up to full moon, was one of the most productive forms of
Bushman hunting (Watts 2005: 105 and note 27 with refs). In the MSA
it would have played a critical role, as one of the few techniques where
hunters could get close enough to use a spear with much chance of
success. In southern Africa, eland are the only herbivores to regularly use
waterholes at night (Hayward and Hayward 2012: 120); they dominate
the large mammal assemblages of many MSA sites (Faith 2008; Weaver,
Steele and Klein 2011).
10. See also Hoernlé (1987: 130) for a similar Nama belief. Conversely,
among the Ju/’hoan, correct observance on the part of the girl was
believed to protect the band from snakes (Lewis-Williams 1981: 52).
Given the habitual use of metaphor, circumlocution and respect words
for animals of exceptional potency (Biesele 1993), I suggest that the
Ju/’hoan explanation for why the new maiden hits the young hunters
with an ochre-covered wand – to protect them while out hunting from
being pricked by a stick (Lewis-Williams 1981: 77) – is a metaphor for
being bitten by a snake, as in G/wi and //Gana belief. Similarly, the /Xam
new maiden painted haematite stripes on the young hunters to protect
them from !Khwa’s lightning while out on the veld. Damara and Hai//om
equate lightning strikes with the bite of a snake (Low 2008).
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Ian Watts is an independent researcher living in Athens. He has been
publishing on the early record of pigment use in southern Africa for
twenty years, integrating the insights gleaned into evolutionary
accounts of ritual and symbolic culture. More occasionally, he has
also published on aspects of African hunter-gatherer cosmology.