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Courtesy Library of Mitchell
A New Exhibition, Bun yips, opens at The National Library
Robert Holden explores Australia's fascinating folklore of fear
n 1972 there appeared a children's book by Michael Salmon which told of a bunyip rampaging through Canberra and wreaking havoc on the nation's capital. The cover of The Monster That Ate Canberra depicted Alexander Bunyip outside one of the city's bestknown landmarks, the National Library. Today that bunyip is part of a host of other creatures, drawn from centuries of legend, fantasy and superstition, which enliven one of the Library's most engaging exhibitions. Bunyips celebrates the evolution of a unique Australian folklore of fear. After its launch at the Library on Australia Day 2001, this exhibition will tour nationally. Throughout the following year Australians will thus be introduced to such colourful characters as a mermaid supposedly caught off the far north coast of Australia in the eighteenth century, a 'Wild Man, or monstrous giant, brought from Botany-Bay' (1790), yowies, quinkins, hobyahs, banksia men and, of course, numerous bunyips-a wonderfully diverse menjlgerie derived from Aboriginal as well as white legend. The exhibition has been specifically designed to travel and requires no onsite or visiting curatorial input or stringent environmental standards for its staging. As such, Bunyips is ideal for smaller country towns and locations, which are normally outside the scope of travelling exhibitions. Instead of presenting rare and valuable books, paintings and artefacts which would require a controlled environment and expert handling for their preservation and presentation, Bunyips consists of 22 large screens whose brief text is enlivened by a host of illustrations drawn from the National Library's extensive Collection. The exhibition opens and closes with panels that recount Aboriginal legends of the bunyip. In this way the whole progression from bunyips to banksia men, from Indigenous to European imaginings, is encapsulated within an Aboriginal voice. In chronological terms, the exhibition ranges from Aboriginal dreamtime to contemporary Australia. Even before 1788, Terra Australis had been the site of imaginary European visits. Authoritative maps from past centuries, like Ortelius' world map of c.1570, depicted a great Southland as a huge counter-balance to the continents of the Northern Hemisphere. Ortelius and other cartographers at the time also unleashed their imagination when they embellished their maps of distant lands with bizarre inhabitants and pictured foreign seas teeming with terrifYingmonsters.
(left) Typus Orbis Terrarum A. Ortelius 1570? hand-coloured map
Early maps showed terrifYing monsters inhabiting the seas near the unexplored 'great Southland' (below)
The Bunyip Reproduced from the Illustrated Australian News, 1 October, 1890 (Melbourne: David Syme & Co., 1890)
Any intrepid traveller using these maps was thus confronted at every step with the visible threat of meeting with a nightmare, a total inversion of the natural order. However, when the great voyages of the eighteen th century daringly brought exotic foreign flora, fauna and even living natives back to Europe, fact often proved as strange as any fiction. For example, at the very end of the seventeenth century, Dutch voyagers to the west coast of Australia discovered an exotic anomaly-the black swan. This was a classic example of something which, from the time of Ovid, was believed could not exist all swans had to be white. Yet on 7 January 1697, Willem de Vlamingh's men caught black swans on the Swan River. Three specimens were taken back to Batavia and were surely the first Australian wildlife to be exported. Understandably, two years later, William Dampier expected to see wonders in the same area and imagined he found the head and bones of a hippopotamus in the maw of a shark! (What he found was actually a dugong.) Similar experiences that combined increasing rationalism with exaggeration continued to circulate. Some were published and reached well beyond the small coterie of a reading public to enter oral culture.
Sheet music cover Reproduced from The Bunyip, Characteristic Australian Novelty by Herbert Daynes Wood (London: Opus Music, c.1911)
Of course, live natives from the South Seas could prove as novel as any imagined wonder. Imagine the reception in 1705 when a ship from the Dutch East India Company captured four natives from New Guinea and sent three of these 'exotics' back to Amsterdam. Thus, by the time the First Fleet sailed, centuries of folklore, speculation and tall tales had sowed the seeds of fear and wonder, so that Terra Australis loomed large and forbidding in the imagination of many Englishmen. One of the earliest graphic fantasies, specifically sited where the First Fleet would make its initial
Australian landing, was the 'wonderful large wild man, or monstrous giant, brought from Botany-Bay'. A bizarre attraction was advertised in these very words and exhibited in England around 1790 when public fears for the fate of the First Fleeters were at their most extreme. No one knows, of course, just when Europeans first heard stories of the bunyip. Because Aboriginal people relied on an oral transmission of their folklore and legend we first hear of the bun yip and other such nightmares through the words of white commentators. One such early nineteenth-century account was
gathered from a tribe in the Port Phillip area:
The natives here have a tradition that a big black fellow, far higher than the ordinary size, walks about duting the night, his object being to destroy good black fellows and their children ... and they will sometimes show a footprint, in size about three times as large as an ordinary foot, and in a shape resembling the print of a man's step.
In the opinion of this colonial reporter trying to cross a cultural barrier, it seemed that this fearsome being was 'identical with the bunyip of the Port Phillip district'.
The traditional creatures of British folklore did not survive the long voyage to Australia and Europeans confronted folklore here that was far older than their own. This folklore captured the very spirit of the new land and its primitive allure took them into a new realm of strange imaginings. Their most overriding fear was of being lost in the bush and of being confronted by something monstrous there. The bunyip, in fact, becomes the very embodiment of the white settlers' fear of the unknown. Here was a land, which did not yet have the comfort of history or heritage, or of family ties which created a sense of belonging. It is hardly surprising perhaps that parents embraced a folklore of fear to deter their children from straying into this alien bush and being lost or drowned in the billabong, as we read in Edward S. Sorenson's Life in the Australian Backblocks (1911):
The average bush youngster has a horror of darkness, and talks in awe struck whispers of hairy men, ghosts and bunyips. This fear is inculcated from babyhood. The mother can't always be watching in a playground that is boundless, and she knows the horrors that wait the bushed youngster.
Colonial mothers thus used their own garbled versions of Aboriginal lore as a cautionary device: 'there is a bunyip in the lagoon ... and beyond that hill there, and in yonder scrub, there is a "bogyman"'.
At the beginning of white settlement the bunyip established a pre-eminent place in an evolving folklore of fear. However, as the nineteen th century progressed, various factors contributed to a dilution of this fear, not the least of these being the failure to capture any such creature. On the one hand there were scientific scoffers who attempted to rationalise 'sightings' of the bunyip into bitterns, seals and other less exotic creatures. On the other there was a very marked strategy to trivialise this fear by ascribing it to the naive imaginings of susceptible and credulous settlers easily duped by Aboriginal folklore. The bunyip eventually retreated into Australia's creative literature, usually depicted as an object of comedy, or as a melodramatic pantomime figure on the stage. Most often the bunyip was reduced to the level of a stock literary device, an elaborate practical joke often played on a new chum. From the 1880s the place of the bunyip in our folklore of fear was supplanted by the yowie or wild hairy man of the Australian bush. Even today this ubiquitous anomaly still sj,ufaces in reports from startled bushwalkers or isolated farmers on the east coast of Australia. Perhaps its final apotheosis came when May Gibbs introduced the Banksia Man as the most threatening entity in the otherwise innocent world of the gumnut babies. As recently as 1973, as if to demonstrate the ongoing allure of this
A mermaid, one of the 'extraordinary creatures' supposedly discovered off Australian shores Reproduced from Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l'on trouve autour des Isles Moluques ... (Amsterdam: Louis Renard, 1718)
Courtesy of Mitchell Library
folklore, the town of Murray Bridge erected a statue of a reptilian-looking bunyip as a tourist attraction. This European concept was, however, dismissed by the local Aboriginal community as entirely inaccurate. According to them the creature should have been more like a giant ape, three metres tall, with 'long black hair, dark red eyes, large teeth and webbed feet and hands'. We can only conclude that a deep seated folklore of fear is still a potent part of Australia's national psyche, black or white, and that Bunyips will engage a cross cultural audience of all ages. And who knows-if you are out alone one night, surrounded by the eerie sounds of the bush, you just might confront a bunyip lurking in the billabong! ROBERT HOLDEN is curator of the National Library's travelling exhibition Bunyips, which is at the National Library until 7 February before beginning a national tour. He has also written the accompanying book, Bunyips: Australia s Folklore of Fear
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