Mutating Myths

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

What happened to the stories of Native people when Europeans arrived?

When European settlers came to Australia and the Americas, they brought stories, and learned new ones from the people already there. The newcomers heard of frightening monsters and powerful spirits. Some scoffed at these stories while others told and retold the stories themselves.

People's beliefs are often changed by contact with other cultures. Missionaries, for instance, work to convince others to give up their previous beliefs. But old stories don't just disappear. More often, they survive and blend with new ideas and sometimes it is the newcomers who adopt local beliefs.

© AMNH / Denis Finnin


According to legend, a man-eating monster called the bunyip once lived in the rivers, lakes and swamps of Australia. Its howl carried through the night air, making people afraid to enter the water. At night, the bunyip prowled the land, hunting for women and children to eat.

Over time, as European settlers retold this First Nations story, it became less frightening and its meaning changed; in the 1800s people used the word as an insult meaning "imposter." The bunyip became a plant-eater, not a man-eater, and it is now a friendly creature in children's books.

At a Glance: Bunyip

  • Australian First Nations once told of bunyips with sharp tusks that eat people. But as fear of bunyips lessened, they were often described as grazing animals.
  • Shaggy fur, but some are described with scales or feathers
  • Size of a small cow
  • May have flippers for swimming, which change to legs to walk on land at night

Bunyip or Not?

Fascinated by Australian stories of the bunyip, in 1846, the Australian Museum in Sydney exhibited a "bunyip" skull found at the Murrumbidgee River. The discovery so stirred the popular imagination that, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, "almost everyone became immediately aware that he had heard 'strange sounds' from the lagoons at night, or had seen 'something black' in the water." The skull was later determined to have come from a deformed horse.

So They Say

In 1847, the Sydney Morning Herald reported an eyewitness encounter between a herdsman and a bunyip. The man said it was as big as a calf, with "large ears which it pricked up when it perceived him; had a thick mane of hair from the head down the neck, and two large tusks. He turned to run away, and this creature equally alarmed ran off too with an awkward shambling gallop."

Bunyip Sculpture

Many First Nations stories of the bunyip describe the creature as a sharp-tusked man-eater. But in a 1934 sculpture by the Australian artist Gerald Lewers, the bunyip is a mysterious, but not necessarily terrifying, presence. It resembles a grazing animal, recalling a reconstruction of the extinct Diprotodon, a grazing marsupial that lived in Australia until about 10,000 years ago. Fossils of Diprotodon were sometimes interpreted as the remains of bunyips.


"While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspire awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf: they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail."
–French missionary Jacques Marquette, 1637

At a Glance: Mishepishu

Though known primarily among the Ojibwa and Cree, the story of a powerful water panther is told among many Native people living around the Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada.

  • Catlike face resembling a lynx
  • Body and scales of a sea serpent
  • Sometimes lets people cut copper from its horns--but punishes those who collect copper nuggets without permission
  • Some say the spikes on Mishepishu's back show the power radiating from its body
  • Lives at the bottom of lakes and rivers, often in a cave

A Story in Pictures

To cross the water safely, Ojibwa travelers sometimes offer tobacco from their canoes to prevent Mishepishu from stirring up storms with its tail and sinking their boats. A picture of Mishepishu, painted before 1850, is one of the most famous rock paintings in Canada. It tells the story of a war party of five canoes that made a dangerous four-day journey across Lake Superior.

Mishepishu Meets the Dragon?

When buying guns in the 1700s and 1800s, Native people north of the Great Lakes in Canada strongly preferred guns with brass sideplates depicting European dragons, which they likely considered to be images of Mishepishu. Hunters often sought help from Mishepishu using charms made of copper, a metal thought to come from the creature. These charms were often ritually destroyed when they were no longer in use. Similarly, many dragon sideplates appear to have been removed from guns and carefully broken, indicating they were used the same way.

The Mishipashoo

"This is a dream I'm telling you. I am walking through the bush....and out comes a Mishipashoo. A voice speaks to me, like vibrations in the mind, 'Norval, my son... Do you see the Mishipashoo?'  I said, 'Yes.'  He said, 'Are you afraid of them?'  I said, 'Yes.' He said again, 'Norval, I am just testing you. From now on I am going to protect you.' ...So the dream was a religious experience, and it is what has given me a much stronger and stauncher belief."

–Norval Morrisseau, Anishnaabe Ojibwa artist