As an Australian I live and work on Aboriginal land. I grew up on the land of the Gulidjan people (Colac Otway region), but currently, I’m living on Wurundjeri land and this week, the first week of July we’re celebrating and acknowledging NAIDOC week, a week filled to the brim with celebrations about the achievements, contributions, history and culture and the strength of Aboriginal and Torres strait Islanders of Australia.
In honour of #NAIDOC17 Mythology Monday is going to be unearthing a little bit about one of Australia’s most well-known mythical figures; the Bunyip.
It’s important to note that not only is Australia’s mythology one of the oldest existing on the planet, but that this kind of mythology is very much living, as I touched on with discussing Jesus for a Mythology Monday in April—Aboriginal mythology or the Dreaming of Aboriginal people is still very much a part of their everyday lives, and of modern society. So, in discussing the Dreaming of Aboriginal people in a mythological context we will only be talking about it within the framework of narrative, character and story (or rather, more comparatively less so analytically) and not with any sort of authority or assumption.
The Dreaming itself is history for Aboriginal peoples and is known across Australia by a number of names in various Aboriginal languages. For example: it is known as Ngarrang-garni by the Gooniyandi people of southeastern Kimberly, Djang by the Kunwinjku people of western Arnhem and, Wongar by the Yolngu people of northeastern Arnhem land, Bulurru by the Djabugay people of northeastern Queensland and Yemurraki by the Wemba Wemba people of northeastern Victoria.
Bunyips’ come about as a primarily southeastern creature. They are a species of water spirit that early European colonizers grew to fear. I say species instead of, say, one individual types of figure as the descriptions of Bunyips’ overall, within Aboriginal communities, tribes and European colonists varied so greatly; some were described as looking like large water-bound emus, other’s ferocious seals, crocodiles, serpents, while others were like hairy wet humans (the latter of which seemed to relate them to Yowie’s—apelike creatures from the same areas).
The descriptive differences of Bunyips’ are not only accounted for by the cultural differences between Aboriginal groups as a lot of variation occurred within the same regions where Bunyips’ were sighted. For instance, in the 1840’s along the Murray River in South Australia, it was recorded that many in tribe accounts of the Bunyip shifted drastically. Given that many figures of Aboriginal culture have the ability to shape shift or change their shape or use sorcery, the Bunyips’ every-changing appearance could be explained by this. Leading us to class the Bunyip, rather than a single entity, as more of a species of spirit based around permanent inland water bodies (lakes, rivers, creeks etc.)
Records show that some Aboriginal groups within the Kulin nation (here in Melbourne) believed that the Bunyip appeared to have dusky grey feathers, and be the size of a calf. It was considered to have magical powers over humans, causing them a lot of stress and misfortune. They ate eels and on occasion, lured women to their death by distracting them with large catches of eels. It is considered immensely bad luck to kill or injure a Bunyip.
The best kept recording so Bunyips’ are from the land of the Ngarrindjeri people (lower Murray region of South Australia), here the Bunyip is known as Mulgyewonk and has some humanlike features. It is said to have the body of a seal, a bearded face like a man and very long, trailing hair that looks like waterweed. The Mulgyewonk was generally thought to be a threat to people, hurting people with sorcery, while the booming noises it made were thought to cause rheumatism.
Here, the Mulgyewonk would lie submerged in the shallow water near the edges of lakes, when children washed their hands or came to sit/play by the water the Mulgyewonk would be attracted. Ngarrindjeri people claimed that someone was able to save an abducted child from the Mulgyewonk by rubbing a magical substance all over their body, and descending (while tied to the shore) to the bottom of the lake. They would then drag the child out from amongst the sleeping Mulgyewonk and get back safety.
Ngurunderi, the main Dreaming creator of the Lower Murray region, also had a run in or two with the Mulgyewonk. One instance recalls how one Mulgyewonk tore holes in Ngurunderi’s net which prevented him from catching fish for his family to eat.
Other tales lay claim to Bunyips causing mysterious bubbles and unexplained ripples that sometimes and randomly appear on the surfaces of still lakes. The Ngarrindjeri people claimed that whirlpools were Bunyips cleaning out their homes.