AUSTRALIA

THE MAKING OF A BUNYIP - A MYTH

           

 

Long ago, when the world was nearly new, marvellous inexplicable things were taking place. In the Land of Perfection, where barren wastelands were unknown and lush vegetation reigned supreme, "the sun was concentrating her rays upon the water of the earth, and was bringing forth life in forms most strange to behold. Among these was Moolgewanke, the bunyip".

From such miraculous beginnings the bunyip emerged to tantalise the wits of aboriginal tribes roaming the Lake Alexandrina district of South Australia. As Moolgewanke, the bunyip had a dual role to play, for by the 1870s his long-term career as both respected ghost-figure and actual water-monster was assured. Moolgewanke provided ritual material in the form of a fearful devil-spirit, while his earthly presence caused the Narrinyeri tribesmen of that region to tremble with terror. Narrinyen people regarded Moolgewanke as a water-spirit who took the form of man and fish combined, wore a garment of matted weeds and boomed in the night like canon blasts. Worst of all, Moolgewanke the bunyip caused rheumatism, although nobody seems to know how or why this accusation came about.

Likewise, nobody can say how many of the dozen or so major tribes that inhabited the south-eastern corner of Australia relied on the bunyip as their main source of devil-omen. We do know that in aboriginal ritual and legend the bunyip takes an emulated place among assorted lesser and superior spirit-figures, however. For example, in his detailed account of aboriginal tribal law and custom, W. Ramsay Smith (1930), p.349 explains how girls of an undisclosed tribe endured the tests of adolescence. After long fasting, the removal of their front teeth by force, and a night spent lying on ant-nests (as introductory steps in their trial by ordeal), the girls' final fear-conquering challenge was as follows:

"On a fresh camping-ground in the dark night, with the campfires gleaming on the trees, and casting dark, gloomy shadows, the elders told them tales about the bunyip and the muldarpe. The latter is a spirit which assumes many shapes. It may come as a kangaroo, or a wombat, or a lizard. The girls were told fearful stories of these dreadful beings, and of ghosts, to which they listened tremblingly. The more highly strung among them could scarcely refrain from crying out. they found themselves looking over their shoulders, and imagining that the dark shadows were the bunyip ior the muldarpe or other spirits. For hours they listened, until it was time to go to bed .... They lay down to sleep, resolved not to be afraid of any ghosts or spirits".

The account is one of many which point to the bunyip as a separate, unidentified species rather than a spirit-form of something else. Certainly, whatever form he chose to adopt during his spontaneous personal appearances, the bunyip rated high in the terrorism stakes. The bunyip of Mt William swamp caught intruders in his mouth and devoured their entrails. The grey-haired, sabre-toothed Bunyee-Bunyee, "four times the size of the biggest dogs", didn't eat tribesmen, but rounded them up for the crocodiles.

The bunyip which frequented the waters of Lake Buninjon in the Maroona area was considered "more into the watery depths. the rainforest bunyip, however, could change his form in order to trick people into doing things for him - as in the case of Tia Gam, the little boy who wandered off into the forest and became bunyip's lifelong slave. Perhaps the most grim, hideous and bloodthirsty of all bunyips was Euro, the creature feared by tribes of Victoria's Western District. Euro's reputation in legend was as a partly divine being - a moaning, groaning guardian of the waterholes.

Aboriginal tribes in Port Fairy in south-western Victoria knew the bunyip as Tunutpan, a bullock-sized, horse-featured, seal-flippered, blackfellow-eating and egg-laying creature with the head and neck of an emu. Those of the Port Phillip district in Victoria and the Great Lakes district of Tasmania called the calf-sized monster which frequented their waterholes a native word probably meaning "devil-spirit" - ie. Bunyip. A variation on this was "Bunyil", meaning inexplicable, therefore supreme, being. This feathered devil-spirit was said to exert supernatural power over his victims - usually aborigines or fish - prior to dining on them. He covered himself with reeds in order to camouflage himself while carrying out his habitual hunting excursions.

Said to be "the most dreadful creature in existence", the huge six-legged, goanna-like Whowie inhabited the sandy caves and hills which bordered the Murray River in Victoria's Riverina District. The Whowie had a large frog-shaped head and although slow moving, was particularly cunning when it came to securing a meal. The water-rat tribe of that area revealed that this beast could devour between thirty and sixty people at a time by sneaking up on them as they slept. It is easy to see why  children of that tribe stayed on their best behaviour when threatened with this dragon-sized bunyhip. Whatever his shape, size and colour, the bunyip inspired a wealth of literary storylines for aboriginal people of east-coast Australia. No doubt each tribe had its favourite tale, complete with spine-chilling descriptions of bunyip's dastardly deeds and a moral of suitable enormity.

Take the case of Totyerguil, the mighty aboriginal hunter. It seems Totyerguil one day speared a huge codfish named Otchout which squirmed and thrashed about so much a vast channel was eventually churned up. this turned into al new waterway of great length and depth. Otchout refused to die, so Totyerguil the hunter was forced to spear him again and again. Each time one of his spears sank into Otchout's back, the codfish writhed about some more, until finally the Murray River rushed in from the ocean, forming numerous large streams at this spot on the earth. Unfortunately Totyerguil had a spiteful mother-in-law who was jealous of her daughter's husband. Some time after it became known that Totyergul was responsible for the spines on the codfish's back (each spine representing one spear thrown by the mighty hunter), this mother-in-law happened to spy a bunyip moving about in a deep, dark waterhole.

She covered the waterhole with armloads of leaves and grass; then pretending it was a bandicoot's nest, she sent Totyerguil to catch the beast for their supper. Alas, the mighty hunter was dragged beneath the water, never to be seen again. That very night a new star appeared in the sky, and Totyergul's tribes-people named it Altair in memory of their friend who had caused the Murray River to be created. One other reference source talks of Totyargeil, who was killed by bunyips while swimming in a lagoon and who became part of the galaxy made up of smoke from tribal fires and "the two Mindi or bunyip-snakes which made the Murray River".   

Another tale recorded in aboriginal mythology tells how, while out hunting near the big river, the young men of a mountain tribe once speared an enormous fish. Unhappily, when dragged shore this fish turned out not to be a fish at all, but a strange seal-like calf. it was, in fact, the thing all aborigines fear most - the bunyip. Yet somehow this particular bunyip appeared smaller than the one their aboriginal ancestors had taught them to fear. The reason was soon to become clear to the huntsmen. This was a baby bunyip. Soon one man with more courage than all the rest decided he would take it back to the camp and give it to the girl he loved. He hoisted it onto his shoulders, but to the dismay of his companions there came a frightening wailing and roaring from the depths of the nearby water. The Great Mother Bunyip emerged from the river, her eyes flashing with rage and her body thumping about with such force that huge mountainous waves rose up all around her. 

Despite his companions' please to throw back their catch, this brave young man started to run, his shoulders bent almost double under the creature's weight. the baby bunyip's long, thick tail waves about helplessly as the tribesmen fled towards the safety of their caves in the hills. But as they ran across the flat plain the sky grew dark and there suddenly came the sound of advancing flood waters. Looking back they saw whole trees disappear beneath a glistening, moving sheet of water; and as they started to scramble up to where their women and children sat awaiting their return, the water followed.

"Drop the bunyip", ordered the men, women and children in one voice as they fled to a safe spot higher up the cliff face. By this time the water was lapping at their feet. The young tribesman released his grasp on the baby bunyip. too late! With one final swirling movement the silvery water whisked him off his feet, and along with his family and friends he was forced to swim for his life. Then it is told how this young man felt a strange desire to glide - a new kind of weightless, floating sensation. And when he looked down he saw he now had webbed feet, feathered wings and all the features of a large black bird. Angry because her baby had been kidnapped, Great Mother bunyip had turned the brave hunter and every member of the tribe into black swans. Needless to say, no aboriginal tribe ever went near that spot in the river again .

A third story tells how another bunyip stole the wife of a duck-hunter as she sat by the edge of a large billabong. Quick as a flash this bunyip reached out his long hairy arm and seized his unsuspecting victim around the waist. Before she could call out for help he had carried her off into the dark tangle of weeds below. Now the duck-hunter had seen the bunyip's huge grey body moving through the water. the man sprang forwards, just in time to see the bunyip disappear, his wife tightly clenched under his arm. The duck-hunter, being renowned for his ingenuity in moments of crisis, went to work straight away. First he collected several long, thin sticks which he sharpened at one end. After attaching a frog to each, he held the sticks out over the reeds where the bunyip had hidden himself away.

Because bunyips are attracted to anything that moves, it was not long before this one loomed up out of his grassy retreat to snatch at the wriggling, croaking morsels of food. With that, the duck-hunter aimed his throwing stick at the bunyip, hitting him hard in the left eye, whereupon the creature roared out in pain so terribly that the leaves shook from the trees for many kilometres around. In his half-blind fury, the bunyip rushed headlong into a large gumtree which he climbed until his weight bent the trunk almost double. So angry was the bunyip that he cast a powerful spell over the duck-hunter and his wife causing them to follow him up the gumtree. There he turned them both into statues, and it was not until fifty years later when the gumtree blew down in a storm that the spell was broken and the couple reunited.

It is said that some Murray River tribes still leave frogs at the water's edge to appease the same bunyip. And in the legend it is told that the eye of the bunyip which stole the duck-hunter's wife eventually became the bright, shining moon. According to aboriginal legend, the koala was not immune to the bunyip's advances either. One young koala had never heard any of the stories related about this wicked, ugly creature of the swamps. It seems this koala one day invited the bunyip to visit his family at their treetop home on the mountainside. Naturally the bunyip was delighted to accept, and so one afternoon he made his way up the steep slope towards the koala's tree. Bushes snapped asunder and huge rocks rolled away down the hill as the bunyip approached. The earth shuddered under the weight of his footsteps, the bush creatures fled.

The koalas huddled together in the highest branch of their gumtree; except for the young koala who slid down the trunk and rushed to greet his large hairy friend. Afterwards, when the bunyip had returned to his favourite swamp, the koalas held a meeting to decide the most suitable punishment for their wayward young friend. From that day on he and his family were made to wear painted taboo colours as a warning that anyone who values life should not associate with bunyips! Such colourful tales from the culture of the aborigines have served as useful background in our search for an explanation of the bunyip. there are many more, dealing with mythical monsters the size of a hippopotamus or the shape of an immense serpent. Inevitably, these creatures were also as fierce as a crater full of dinosaurs, as cunning as Satan himself.

Theories about the bunyip's alternative identity as a giant sea or land serpent or crocodile have been largely dispelled by the weight of scientific opinion, yet the legends live on regardless. Drawings of a "monster turtle-fish" about ten metres long and featuring dome-shaped body, fishlike tail and a fine set of teeth resulted from a sighting in June 1890 by a schoolteacher, Miss S. Lovell. In her description of this creature, Miss Lovell wrote: "Natives call it the Moha Moha, and say they like to eat it". Miss Lovell's sea monster at Great Sandy Beach on Queensland's Great Barrier Ref has been dismissed as an exaggerated version of the Australian oar-fish which grows to a length of ten metres or more, has a shining silver skin and horse-like head. since its existence was accounted for by natives not too terrified to devour its flesh, it is doubtful whether the Moha Moha was ever really mistaken for a bunyip.

The dreaded mindi (Myndie) described by the early Yara Yarra tribe were said to be Bunyip-snakes with magical powers granted to them by the mighty Bun-jil (alternatively Pund-jil or Pun-jil, meaning "god of things as they are"). With the aid of his lesser Mindis, the huge Bunyip-snake could spread disease, poison his enemies, or merely frighten them into submission. Two Bunyip-snakes n in New South Wales, ate native fishermen who ventured into its lagoon or the numerous waterways churned up during its travels. In addition, a gigantic, bright-coloured snake known by the Central Australian aborigines as Wanambi came complete with emu-like head, a mane, beard and all the terrible  mystique of a bunyip.

Although he appears throughout aboriginal folklore in a multitude of forms, the bunyip has managed to maintain his designation as a symbol of warning to could-be sinners. he rates in local history as a "sort of Australian bogie", yet we will never know whether his rather comic features derive more from folk-tales carried down through ages of telling or from descriptions of an actual animal recently seen. 

ABORIGINAL BUNYIPS

 

NAME LOCATION CHARACTERISTICS
     
BUNJIL Grampians, Victoria Large cave-dwelling creature with a man's shape.
BUNNYAR Western Australia Unknown.
BUNYIL Port Phillip district (ie. Victoria before 1851. Inexplicable, therefore supreme, being.
BUNYIP Port Phillip district; also Great Lakes, Tasmania Generally, size of full-grown calf or larger, covered with feathers or reeds and believed to have supernatural power over humans' inhabits swamps and lagoons eating fish or natives.
DONGUS Undisclosed Unknown.
EURO Geelong, Victoria Haunts inland swamps and lagoons making an unearthly sound, half moan, half roar.
KATENPAI Murrumbidgtee R., N.S.W. Unknown.
KAYANPRATIE, KAJANPRATIE, KINE PRATIE Lakes Paika and Tarla, N.S.W. Great water-spirit.
MOCHEL-MOCHEL Darling Downs, Qld. large water creature; otter-like, with bald, whiskered head and shaped like a "low set sheep dog"; platypus coloured.
MOOLDABBIE Encounter Bay, S.A. Evil water spirit, like gigantic starfish.
MOOLGE-WANKE or MULGE-WANKE Lake Alexandrina, S.A. Half man, half fish; with hair like a wig of reeds; rumbled like a cannon and gave the listener rheumatism.
MUNNI Queensland Unknown.
NGANNO Adelaide, S.A. Great sea monster
NOOCON-AH South Australia Giant black fellow who devours children.
OORUNDOO Murray River Dragon in aboriginal myth who constructed Lakes Victoria and Albert to drown his wives in.
TOOROO-DUN Undisclosed Unknown.
TUNATPAN, TUNAPATUM Eumeralla river, Port Fairy and Port Phillip district. Big as a bullock, with emu's head and neck, horse's mane and tail, seal's flippers, laid turtle eggs in platypus nest and ate natives.
TUNATABAH Edward River, N.S.W. Unknown.
TUMBATA Undisclosed Unknown.
WAN-GUL North-western Australia. Aquatic monster with supernatural power; kills and eats natives, usually females.
WEE-WAA Narrandera and other lagoons, N.S.W. Like a retriever dog, covered with shiny, long black hair; round head with tiny ears.
WHOWIE Riverina District, Vic. Large cave-dwelling and man-eating monster with frog-like head.
WOUWAI Lajke Macquarie, N.S.W. Ugly, steals lubras and is said to have transformed two women into rocks.
YAA-HOO Hunter River, N.S.W. Resembled humans, but with frightful features and feet turned backwards.
Bunyip Sightings - In Search Of An Origin

 

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