Australian Aboriginal Tales of the Dreaming…

The goanna feature prominently in Aboriginal culture, from dreaming stories to food and medicine. In many parts of Australia, the goanna coexist with the perentie and as such, when Aboriginal people talk generally about goannas, they may be talking about any one of the genus Varanus that includes the goannas, monitors and perenties.

Aboriginal people are fully aware of the different species and some of their stories relate specifically to certain species. When depicting the goanna in paintings, some Aboriginal artists will paint stylised and decorative goannas, whilst others will paint a specific specie, the clue being in how they depict the skin of the goanna. In reality and most notably, the goanna and the perentie have difference patterns on their skin.

There are stories about the goanna, in Aboriginal art it is often titled “Goanna Dreaming”. A story from the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia describes how the Goanna and Perentie got their looks.

The story can be found published in the ‘Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History’, Jennifer Isaacs, Lansdowne Press, Sydney 1980, originally published by C P Mountford in ‘Nomads of the Australian Desert’, Rigby, 1976.

In the following artwork by Trephina Sultan Thanguwa, she paints the story of ‘How the Perentie and Goanna got their Colours’.

The Goanna and the Perentie © Trephina Sultan Thanguwa
The Goanna and the Perentie © Trephina Sultan Thanguwa

The Australian Perentie and Goanna have strikingly different markings.

Following is the story of the Perentie and the Goanna…

The Perentie (Nintaka) and the Goanna (Milbili), agreed to decorate each other for a ceremony. The Perentie was a good artist who took great care with his work. So he painted the Goanna with great care and skill. He painted fine lines and dots over the Goanna’s body. When the paint had dried, he turned the Goanna over and using the thinnest of brushes and the greatest of care, painted extremely fine lines on his belly.

Now it was the Goanna’s turn to paint the Perentie. The Goanna however was lazy, and because it took so long for the Perentie to paint the Goanna, and the time for the ceremony was drawing near, the Goanna quickly painted the Perentie with crude splashes of yellow dots, which he applied with pieces of rolled-up bark. When the Goanna had finished, the Perentie asked how he looked. The Goanna lied and said he looked beautiful. However, on the way to the ceremony, the Perentie walked passed a waterhole and saw his reflection in the water. The Perentie was angry about how he looked, and rushed to attack the Goanna, but the Goanna escaped by climbing to the top of a Gum tree.

The Perentie cursed the Goanna and said that from now on he must live in the branches of trees and take shelter in the tree hollows, while he would use the rocks as his home and shelter.

Today, you can see the two keep to their own habitats, still wearing the designed on their bodies. The Goanna with a delicate lace-like pattern on its back, while the Perentie’s dark brown skin is covered with large yellow dots of irregular lines.


Check out our Fauna – Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii) and Perentie (Varanus giganteus