Monster Monday #31: Rainbow Serpent
Updated: Mar 4
We've once again reached that time of the week, and I've decided to focus on a creature from Aboriginal mythology, an area of folklore that I haven't really touched upon in previous posts. The Rainbow Serpent, or Rainbow Snake, is commonly worshipped as a creator deity, and there are a variety of tales and stories involving this creature throughout Aboriginal folklore. It is heavily associated with water, and seen mostly as a giver of life, though can become quite destructive if angered.
Dependant on the Aboriginal culture, the Rainbow Serpent has many names. For example - for the Yolngu people its name is the Yurlunggur; those that reside near the Pennefather River in North Queensland refer to it as the Andrénjinyi; the Noongar people refer to it as Wagyl; and the Waramungu people call it Wollunqua. Despite these differences, the creature itself shares many common characteristics. I have already mentioned its association with water, and this comes in many forms - it causes rainstorms, floods, and cyclones, replenishes stores of waters, creates rivers and gullies, and is usually found inhabiting deep waterholes. In its anger it is associated with lightning (giving it the name Lightning Snake), and has also been connected with fertility, the menstrual cycle, healing, and gender ambiguity. The 'rainbow' portion of its name most likely comes from the way that light diffracts from bodies of water, and it is often seen as a rainbow in itself and associated with certain crystals and seashells as a result.
There are a lot of similarities between the Rainbow Serpent of Aboriginal myth, and the Quetzalcoatl or Feathered Serpent of Mesoamerican religions. This creature is also a creator deity, with the ability to fly thanks to the feathers that grow alongside its scales, and mastery over the winds, rains, and waters. It was also known as Kukulkan or Q'uq'umatz, and has links to fertility through vegetational renewal. The Tewa people, Native Americans whose homelands are found in New Mexico, worship a water deity named Awanyu. It is depicted as a horned or plumed serpent that zig-zags in the way that a bolt of lightning or flowing river might, and is a protector, a harbinger of storms, and guardian of the waterways. In fact, a Horned Serpent is a common motif within Native American mythology, and heavily associated with both water and storms. Interestingly - the association of snakes or snake-like creatures within water is exceptionally common worldwide, and can be found in the form of various Sea Serpents depicted globally - Jörmungandr of Norse myth, the Leviathan of Christian legend, and the Greek Hydra (which I have an article on here) or Scylla. These depictions contain the same elements of chaos and lack of predictability, though are generally seen as villainous monsters for heroes to slay.
In modern media and culture, the Rainbow Serpent has become something of a phenomenon. It is often associated with the arts, and social movements. For example, the androgynous nature of the deity has made it something of a symbol for Transgender and other LGBTQIA+ movements! It has also been the subject of many books such as The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey, or video games such as the Persona and Megami Tensei series (in the form of 'Yurlungur'). I also can't help but think of the River Spirits in popular Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away. This dragon-like, flying serpent is no doubt inspired by the Japanese Dragon deities such as Mizuchi or Watatsumi, and these are commonly linked to rivers and water just like the Rainbow Serpent.
So now it is time for some stat blocks! This is always my favourite part as I love deep-diving into the various different directions that such a monster could go!
So starting with Wizards Of The Coast, let me begin (as I always do) with an obvious snake representation - the Giant Constrictor Snake (Basic Rules, page 131).
Whenever I encounter a mythical creature that closely resembles a beast, I always like to look at that Beast's stat block. This one is a CR 2 which is actually a bit of a challenge for lower tier play (it is after all the amped up version of the Constrictor Snake (Basic Rules, page 122), and I really like that it is a Huge size category because of this), and it has some obvious snake-like abilities - Bite and Constrict - as well as a Swimming speed, and Blindsight. Nothing special though, and certainly nothing that screams 'deity'. For extra fun snake-like abilities, I might also suggest the Large CR 1/4 Giant Poisonous Snake (Basic Rules, page 134) - though would note that a poisonous bite is not necessarily associated with the Rainbow Serpent - or the Large CR 4 Giant Coral Snake (Ghosts Of Saltmarsh, page 236) that has the ablity to stun and inflict short-term madness. I also really like the Large CR 1/2 Jaculi (Tomb Of Annihilation, page 225) for its ability to Spring and Camouflage.
My next suggestion I really think has a lot of what I'd want from a Rainbow Serpent in my game - the Couatl (Basic Rules, page 269).
This Medium CR 4 Celestial DOES have a couple of boxes that it doesn't tick - I think that a CR 4, though great for lower timers of play, probably doesn't suit a deiity. Nor does a Medium size category, as I would personally probably place the Rainbow Serpent as Huge or Gargantuan. But it is a Celestial, which works AMAZINGLY, and has the abilities and actions I'd expect. First up - Innate Spellcasting! There are some great choices for a deity - dream (that heavily references the Aboriginal belief in the Dreamtime, and compliments its Bite ability that can render a creature Unconscious), create food and water (to be honest, I'd probably add a lot more in the way of water-themed and lightning-themed spells to a Rainbow Serpent stat block), and healing spells such as cure wounds (restoration and rejuvenation were associated with the deity). Magic Weapons and Shielded Mind make a lot of sense, as does its shape-changing ability as this deity sometimes appears in the form of a man or woman. This gave me a really sweet idea of using the CR 1/8 Flying Snake (Basic Rules, page 128) as some form of baby Couatl, or a familiar/pet reward for that has been blessed by one in some way.
So what next? Well I thought I'd look at a stat block that works well for a more appropriate tier of play when it comes to deities. Check out the Elder Tempest (Monsters Of The Multiverse, page 121).
Look at that STUNNING art, now THIS is giving me the vibes I want from a deity. This Gargantuan CR 23 Elemental perhaps focuses a little too hard on the Rainbow Serpent's storm related abilities, and I would probably re-flavour some of the attacks to Cold or Bludgeoning damage and change Air Form to Water Form. Mixing it up with the Leviathan (Monsters Of The Multiverse, page 171) could be fun! This Gargantuan CR 20 Elemental may not have the Intelligence score I'd expect of a deity, but it has a lot of abilities and actions associated with the water, such as Water Form and Tidal Wave! I would probably replace the Acid damage dealt by its Tail and Slam attack with Lightning to give a nod to the lore surrounding its abilities to control storms if using that stat block alone. You could also try a Huge CR 8 Young Sea Serpent (Fizban's Treasury Of Dragons, page 219), or a much tougher Gargantuan CR 14 Ancient Sea Serpent (Fizban's Treasury Of Dragons, page 219) for a similar vibe.
Okay, so now hit is time to have a look at Kobold Press's offerings. They have a fair few to choose from, but by far the best one they have its the Andrenjinyi (Tome Of Beasts, page 17).
This particular Gargantuan CR 15 Celestial stat block is clearly entirely based on the Rainbow Serpent. The lore posits them as an ancestor of the deity with extraordinary powers that link closely to fertility, water, life, transformation, and gender fluidity. They have Innate Spellcasting which includes create water, control weather, and plant growth. I liked the action Rainbow Arch a lot, and was very interested in the way that Swallow Whole and Transmuting Gullet work! Other cool serpents within Kobold Press's book pages included the Gargantuan CR 12 Titanoboa (Tome Of Beasts, page 382) which takes the Giant Constrictor Snake to a new level and has Sparkling Scales; or the Large CR 2 Scitalis (Creature Codex, page 321) which has Stunning Scales that shimmer like a rainbow and could work as a minion for a higher stat block.
Okay so now it is time to think about plot hooks! How can we get this magnificent creature into our game?
The party stumble across a community whose crops appears to be flourishing far more than other settlements in the area, and that is receiving a healthy amount of rain. The civilians attribute this to their worship of a serpent water deity, though have some very odd customs that must be followed in order to not invoke its wrath.
The party meet a new NPC that lives in a hut near a body of water, and seems to have a thing for exceptionally sparkly snakes. They appear to the party interchangeably as a woman and a man, and are actually a disguised Rainbow Serpent testing the party for some higher purpose.
While traversing the wilderness, the party spot what looks to be a rainbow, but upon closer inspection realise that it is moving. They watch it land distantly and could choose to follow it, potentially receiving a boon...or making it angry.
A Rainbow Serpent in distress reaches out to the path telepathically for aid, as its scales are exceptionally valuable and it is being pursued by hunters. It becomes a valuable ally if rescued.
Violent storms have become far too frequent to be natural, and the kingdom's ruler believes them to be the work of an angry creature or deity. The party must figure out what is behind it, and how to calm it down.
II hope you liked this article on the Rainbow Serpent! It is a really interesting creature with a lot of threads to worldwide mythology. Would you include it in your next adventure? Let me know!