Bunyips, yowies and the Mulyawonk

Back on the 1st April 1977, I took a school mate to the Australian Museum in Sydney. We saw a bunyip skull in one of the display cases, which I thought was hilarious. However, my mate was convinced it was real—its April Fools Day, I said but he could not believe that a serious institution like the AM would try to deceive him. I was a country boy and we had grown up with stories about bunyips and yowies, so was not taken in.

However, in 1846, the Australian Museum had seriously exhibited a bunyip skull The artefact found on the Murrumbidgee River aroused the popular imagination. The skull was later identified as having been from a deformed horse.

Bunyips in Australian mythology

During the early European occupation of eastern Australia, First Nations people warned the Europeans of the dangers of swimming in the rivers and billabongs. Certain areas were prohibited by First Nations people, and if you didn’t heed the warnings you would fall victim to a bunyip.

Bunyips have been described quite differently by different people. They are water-dwelling creatures and have been described as having a dog-like face, a long neck, and large flippers. Like dinosaur fossils inspiring dragons, there is a theory that bunyips may have been interpreted from diprotodon fossils. Diprotodons were the largest marsupials to have ever lived. They grew as large as 1.8m at the shoulders and over 4m from head to tail, and weighed several tonnes. They became extinct about 40,000 years ago, probably due to over-hunting by the First Nations arrivals. There is also a theory that seals and sea lions that had swum up the rivers might have convinced swimmers they were seeing bunyips.

Word origin of bunyip

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 there were about 300,000 First Nations people in Australia, of 600 tribal groups, each with about 500 members. Each tribal groups had its own “dialect” and some clan groups within the tribes had their own dialects. Although known as dialects there were about 250 distinct languages, as different as English is from German, French, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Hindi.

In the first 100 years of European settlement about 400 words were borrowed into Australian English from 80 languages. The borrowings were usually from languages spoken near European settlements.

The origin of “bunyip” (also “bunyup”) has been traced to the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Victoria. It is usually translated by First Nations Australians as “devil” or “evil spirit”.

Other names for the bunyip

The Dharawal people of the southeastern coast called it “gu-ru-ngaty” and the Wiradhuri, nearby, knew it as “mirree-ulla”.

The Gurungaty is a water-monster of the Tharawal and Gandangara people. It was believed to reside in deep waterholes. The Gurungaty would drown and eat strangers, but would not harm its own people.

The Dharuk have oral traditions of the Mirreeulla as a large reptilian water monster living in the Hawkesbury River (just north of  Sydney). The word means giant water serpent. Cave art along the river shows the Mirreeulla. It was described as having a snake-like head, long neck, large body, two sets of flippers and an eel-like tail.

However to the Ngarrindjeri people of southern South Australia the bunyip is known as the Mulyawonk (pronounced as Mool-ya-wonk) that lives in a river cave near Tailem Bend on the Murray.

In times long ago there lived a Ngarrindjeri Korni (man) who was greedy, catching far too many fish than he needed to. The Elders were not happy with him for not respecting their fishing laws. So to punish him they turned him into the Mulyawonk—a half-fish-half-man creature and banished him to the river forever. Ngarrindjeri children are told never to swim alone or to take more fish than you can eat from the river and lakes or the Mulyawonk will get you.

The yowie

The yowie is believed to be derived from “yuwi”, a “dream spirit” of the Yuwaalaraay people in north-eastern NSW. Yowies are not related to bunyips. It has been described as a “hairy man” the equivalent of America’s bigfoot and the Yeti of the Himalayas. The Yeti is also commonly referred to as the Abominable Snowman.

Modern bunyips

In the 20th century bunyip “lost their teeth”. They were commodified (according to academic, Christine Judith Nicholls, of the Australian National University). Bunyips have “shifted from a flesh-curdling horror that feasted on children to a friendly fellow that entertained them”. This may be seen as cultural misappropriation of the First Nations people’s aquatic bogeyman transforming it into an amiable star of children’s books and television programs.