Malicious Myths: The Bunyip

We’re heading Down Under for our latest instalment of Malicious Myths and delving into the murky history behind a mythical creature from Indigenous Australian folklore known as the Bunyip. Don’t let its adorable name fool you. After all, Australia has a long and noble history of giving ridiculously cute names to incredibly dangerous things, such as the dugite, a type of venomous snake whose bite can be lethal; the bluey, a slang term for the floating sacks of death that are the Portuguese Man o’ War; and the gympie gympie plant, whose sting is so painful that it drives people to suicide. In a country where even the plants are capable of waging psychological warfare and everything appears ergonomically designed to reduce the human population, you have to do something pretty special to stand out. So, if the Bunyip is capable of striking fear into the heart of a hardened Australian, you know it’s serious.

3124398The Bunyip is an amphibious lake monster that is said to inhabit swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, waterholes, and even household wells. It lays in wait at night for unsuspecting prey to pass by its territory and will happily devour any animal or person, although it has a particular fondness for the flesh of women and children. In other words, you may be the first one on the list to get a lifeboat, but you’re also top of the menu for the Bunyip. When the Bunyip approaches a hapless victim, it lets off a series of haunting howls to warn them of their imminent doom before swooping in for the kill. This is perhaps why the Bunyip is often less than successful in its ambush attempts, since announcing your presence to your prey is generally considered bad practice among apex predators. According to certain legends, the Bunyip is said to be very aggressive, very hairy, and has supernatural powers. Kind of like your mother-in-law, only not quite as terrifying.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, they took accusations of the Bunyip very seriously and early European settlers regarded them as just another strange animal to add to the roster. When you’re confronted with tiny creatures that poop out cubes (just Google “wombat poop”) or spiders the size of a household clock, you start to radically adjust your perception of “normal”. Some historians believe that, during the 19th century, these European settlers actually infused the indigenous Bunyip lore with that of the Irish Púca, a shape-shifting spirit found in Celtic folklore. In true colonial fashion, these settlers took it upon themselves to culturally appropriate even the unsavoury elements of Indigenous Australian mythology.

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Credit: Ben Ward

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Bunyip sightings became widespread throughout Australia and, in July 1845, the first written use of the word “bunyip” was made in a newspaper known as The Geelong Advertiser, which proudly announced that a collection of fossils found near Geelong belonged to a deceased Bunyip. From then on, the people of Australia were gripped by Bunyip fever. In January 1846, a peculiar skull found by the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales was declared to be that of a Bunyip and was put on display in the Australian Museum for two entire days before mysteriously disappearing. The fact that this skull had already been identified as that of a deformed foal or calf by several experts apparently mattered to no one.

People flocked to the museum in droves to see the skull and finally speak out about their own personal experiences of the Bunyip, resulting in the formation of support groups like Bunyip’s Anonymous. Okay, so that last part might be a lie, but for a long time people truly believed that the Bunyip was real. In March of the same year, three men set out on a boat to capture a Bunyip that had been sighted sunning itself opposite the Custom House in Melbourne, only to discover with profound disappointment that it was actually just a large Platypus. Fast forward to the 1950s and the term “Bunyip” had largely lost its sting, being instead used as an Australian slang term to mean “imposter” or “humbug”. While the obsession with the Bunyip may have died down over the years, one thing has remained unchanged: if you go to Australia, something is gonna try to kill you at some point.

Appearance

Bunyippic1In spite of its tendency to warn its victims of its impending approach, the Bunyip leaves relatively few survivors, so descriptions of this mysterious creature vary widely and are largely quite piecemeal in nature. Writings by George French Angus indicate that, according to the Moorundi people of the Murray River, the Bunyip looked just like an enormous starfish, although this is by far the most unusual description. Most accounts list a number of common features of the Bunyip, including a canine face, a crocodile-like head, large glowing eyes, jet-black fur, an equine tail, and flippers or thick legs.

In some instances, it also boasted tusks like a walrus and a bill similar to that of a duck, with scales or feathers covering its body instead of fur. In many ways, the Bunyip can be perceived as uniting the characteristics of the emu and the crocodile, two of the most formidable animals that are native to the Australian outback. But emus are harmless, we hear you cry! They eviscerate people. Seriously. Look it up. We weren’t kidding. Everything in Australia will try to kill you, even the koalas.

When in the water, the Bunyip is said to swim like a frog, but chooses to stand on its hind legs and walk erect when on land, towering in at about 12 to 13 feet in height. In fact, some accounts state that the Bunyip was so colossal in size that it could easily pull trees out by their roots and carry one in each arm. While its paws are furnished with long claws, its preferred method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. Because nothing quite compares to the soft caress of a Bunyip as you slowly suffocate.

Origins

The word “bunyip” is thought to have originated from the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Indigenous Australians living in southeastern Australia, although the legend of the Bunyip appears to be widespread among Indigenous Australian communities throughout the country. It roughly translates to mean “devil” or “evil spirit”, because apparently the name “hugging beast” was already taken.

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Who wouldn’t want a hug from such a majestic beast?

In 1933, the geographer and author Charles Fenner posited that Bunyips were actually just sightings of Australian fur seals, which were known to make their way up rivers and could often be found very far inland. After all, these seals have smooth fur, prominent eyes, and they are known to bellow loudly when trapped inland. Plus everyone knows seals subsist off a diet of fish and human children. The howl of the Bunyip has also been attributed to a bird known as the shy Australasian bittern or “Bunyip bird”, which emits a low-pitched booming sound during mating season. It might be shy, but it wants you to know when it’s horny.

Another theory suggests that the legend of the Bunyip evolved from the cultural memory of extinct Australian marsupials like the DiprotodonZygomaturusNototherium, or Palorchestes. Since Zygomaturus was quite difficult for people to pronounce, they opted for the far more accessible “Bunyip” instead. In-keeping with this theory, it is possible that the Indigenous Australians could have come across fossils of prehistoric creatures such as the Procoptodon, a gigantic kangaroo, and that may be how the legend of the Bunyip was born. Honestly, we’re not sure what’s more terrifying: a crocodile-emu hybrid with magical powers; or a 7-foot-tall kangaroo. Remind us never to go to Australia.

Modern-Day Usage

While the Bunyip might seem like a relatively obscure mythical creature, it has remained a staple part of popular culture in Australia for many years and can be found in media throughout the world. Here are just a few references to this cuddly child-eating critter:

  • The National Library of Australia continues to sponsor a traveling exhibition on the Bunyip and several Bunyip-related folk-tales can be found on the Australian government’s website. There was even an official set of four postage stamps that was issued with different artist renderings of the Bunyip.
  • The “Bunyip Aristocracy” was a derogatory term coined in 1853, which was used to lambast the attempts of certain individuals to establish an aristocracy in the Australian colonies.
  • A variety of names throughout Australia contain the word “Bunyip”, such as the Bunyip River, the town of Bunyip in Victoria, and a now disbanded Christian community in Clifton Hill that was delightfully named the House of the Gentle Bunyip.
  • Several children’s books contain references to the Bunyip, including The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek and The Ballad of the Blue Lake Bunyip. Hopefully they left out the part about it loving the taste of child flesh.
  • A number of novels also include Bunyips, such as Naomi Novik’s Tongue of Serpents and C. Robert Cargill’s Queen of the Dark Things.
  • During the 1950s, a horrifying puppet known as Bertie the Bunyip appeared as a
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    By far the most terrifying of them all: Bertie the Bunyip

    popular character on the children’s TV show Philadelphia.

  • In the video game Chrono Cross, the Bunyip is a boss monster that guards the Black Crystal in Another World’s Fort Dragonia.
  • The video game Final Fantasy X features enemy creatures known as Bunyips, which appear on the Djose Highroad.
  • The Bunyip is a character in the video game RuneScape and, as an homage to its origins, it speaks with a thick Australian accent.
  • Bunyips are portrayed as mystical and peaceful elders who inhabit a world known as “The Dreaming” in the video game series Ty the Tasmanian Tiger.

 

 

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Malicious Myths: The Bunyip

Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

To most people, the beginning of a New Year promises a fresh start; a chance to right the wrongs of the previous year (of which there are, undoubtedly, many) and become the person you’ve always dreamed of being, albeit after you’ve gotten over that horrific hangover. But it’s important to remember that not all New Year’s celebrations are full of such hope. The Chinese may not celebrate New Year at the same time as us, but that’s not the only thing that sets them apart.

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Every year, when winter ravages the land and there is nothing left to eat, a terrifying beast rises up out of the sea and prowls the Chinese countryside in search of prey. It terrorises villages, kills livestock, razes farmer’s crops, feasts on the villagers themselves, and has a horrifying preference for child meat. After all, nothing goes down smoother than a ten-year old vintage. And by “ten-year old vintage” we mean your son. This ferocious beast travels from village to village, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. Its Chinese name of “Nian Shou” (年兽) literally means “The Year Beast”, and its presence has become synonymous with that of the New Year itself. So, while the rest of the world is popping bottles of champagne and drunkenly regaling their friends with their 2015 woes, the people of China are huddled up in their homes waiting to be devoured. Or are they?

It turns out that the Chinese preference for the colour red isn’t just a tribute to their Communist leaders (or should we say overlords). This love of all things scarlet dates back thousands of years, to when the Nian first began raiding the villagers’ pantries for long grain rice and supple young boys. In spite of its enormous size and brute strength, the Nian is deathly afraid of three things: loud noises, bright lights, and anything red. It might look like a fearsome lion, but it’s really more of a scaredy-cat.

legend_nian2Thus during the New Year or Spring Festival period, Chinese people make more noise and create more commotion than a busload of preteens at a One Direction concert. They beat drums, set off fireworks, burn firecrackers in the street, and (from personal experience) do everything in their power to assault your eardrums on an almost hourly basis. Seriously, it’s a small wonder that the entire population hasn’t gone deaf by now. At night, paper lanterns are crafted, lit, and paraded through the streets, while red decorations and couplets of auspicious sayings are hung from the doorways of houses. People will often stay up late or even all night long on New Year’s Eve simply to ward off any sneaky demons lurking nearby.

The tradition of the Nian has become so ingrained in the culture that, rather than a cheery “Happy New Year”, people will greet one another with the phrase “Guo Nian” (过年), which means “the passing of Nian” or “surviving the Nian”. And we thought New Year’s Resolutions were bad. So you may have to start a diet and give up smoking, but at least you didn’t ring in the New Year by congratulating yourself on not being eaten.

Appearance

nianDepictions of the Nian vary depending on which part of China you’re in, but generally speaking it is immense in size and has a jaw so wide that it can scoop up several people in a single go. Remember that time you ate a whole can of Pringles and then cried bitterly about what a fat waste of space you had become? Well imagine doing that with a can full of small children, and that’s how the Nian rolls. It is often portrayed with a single horn or several large horns on its head, which it uses to skewer youngsters before toasting them over a fire like fleshy marshmallows.

In some instances it is said to have the powerful body of an ox and the head of a lion, but in other cases it appears as a half-dragon half-unicorn hybrid. The former usually depicts it with a snub-nose or relatively flat-face, while the latter portrays it with a much longer snout. In any case, it has large sharp teeth capable of tearing through even the strongest of children’s clothes. That is, until Matalan finally brings out their “flesh-eating monster friendly” range.

Origins

The story of the Nian dates back thousands of years, to a period that the Chinese refer to as “Shang Gu” (上古) or “the Ancient Times”. Long before the human race had achieved such heights of civilisation as the shotgun and the indoor toilet (both of which are still very hard to find in China), farmers were being terrorised by the ravenous Nian. It was supposedly so formidable that even other demons and beasts dared not get on its bad side, for fear that it would straight up murder them and feast on their tasty organs. At one point, to prove it was the baddest of the bad, it even killed every wild beast in the mountains and drove several species to extinction just to win a bet. Move over Chuck Norris, we got a serious badass over here.

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If I fits, I sits

On the run-up to New Year, villagers from across China would flee into the mountains and hide from the creature. That was until one year, when the people of Peach Blossom Village were preparing for their annual fleeing. As Hallmark always says, nothing brings a family together quite like fleeing for your life. Suddenly an old beggar entered the village, his hair a silvery white and his eyes a bright blue. Everyone was too busy making preparations to pay him any mind, but an elderly woman approached him and gave him some food.

She beseeched him to follow them into the mountains, as the Nian was fast approaching and would surely devour him if he stayed. The beggar promised that he could drive the monster away and would do so on one condition: the elderly lady must let him stay in her home for one night. But it wasn’t kinky geriatric sex that was on his mind. In spite of the woman’s entreaties, the beggar would not be moved and she was forced to head up into the mountains alone.

9753b31f15dd7a88d4f2e91b0add00baNight fell and the dreaded Nian dashed into the village, searching for a couple of kidlets to whet its appetite. It was furious to find that the village had been abandoned, but soon noticed that the candles in the old lady’s house were still lit. Approaching with caution, it was horrified when it saw a piece of red paper stuck to the door. Loud sounds like thunder began emanating from the house and the beast was paralysed by fear. At that moment, the beggar burst out of the house wearing a red robe and, with its enormous tail between its legs, the Nian bolted into the darkness.

The next day, the villagers returned and were amazed to find that their homes, livestock, and grain stores were still intact. The beggar was gone, but inside the elderly woman’s house they found the remnants of his nightly activities: a few candles, some used firecrackers, and reams of red paper. They realised that the beggar was actually a celestial being who had been sent to teach them how to ward off the Nian. Overjoyed at the prospect of a casualty-free New Year, they all dressed up, set about preparing a huge banquet, and then travelled to nearby villages in order to inform others of the incident.

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Rawr

From that day onwards, during the New Year period, people would stick red paper couplets to their doors, keep their homes well-lit, set off firecrackers, and violate all fire-safety laws known to man. The next day would be spent visiting friends and relatives to congratulate them on having survived the night and not blown themselves up. Seriously, it’s a miracle so few people end up blowing their hands off.

Modern-day Usage

Wherever there are knock-off martial arts games or TV shows, there will always be the Nian. After all, cultural appropriation is totally okay so long as you keep it factual, right? Right?! With that said, here are a few modern-day references to our leonine leviathan:

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  • A Chinese animated comedy film called Mr. Nian (年兽大作战) follows the story of a hapless and bumbling Nian.
  • There is a two-headed canine beast in the online game World of Warcraft called a Nian. During an annual event called The Lunar Festival, a boss version of this monster appears called Omen.
  • In the online role-playing game Guild Wars, the Nian is part of an event called the Canthan New Year Celebration.
  • There is a monster in the mobile strategy game Game of War called the Nian Lion whose appearance is clearly based on the Nian.
  • Nian or “The Year Beast” features as an event boss as part of the New Bloom Festival in the online video game DOTA 2.
  • In the video game World of Kung-Fu, the Nian features as a mount.
  • In the online game Perfect World: International, there are creatures known as Nienbeasts that are available as mounts and were visually based on the Nian.
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Ride ’em Cowboy
  • The Nian makes an appearance in an episode of the animated sitcom Three Delivery entitled “Night of the Nian”.
  • There is a television series called Spirit Warriors which feature Nian as characters, although they are portrayed as humanoid rather than bestial.
  • In 2013, McDonald’s launched this amazing advert where a man refuses to give his hamburger to the Nian.

 

 

Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)