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Rivers, Lakes And Swamps

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.

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 Aboriginal 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.

The bunyip

  • Australian Aborigines 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

Fascinated by Australian stories of the bunyip, some. 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.

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."

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


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

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. 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.

When old stories enter the modern world, many once-frightening legends are softened, reflecting the modern desire to preserve childhood innocence. Mythic animals that once were scary may become cute and cuddly. In Japan, for instance, a creature called the kappa was long known for pulling children underwater and drowning them. Today, Japanese children are more familiar with a cute, friendly kappa that appears in consumer products such as toys, movies and children's books.

A kappa once sat on a big stone near a pond in Japan. Pretending to be a human child, it invited people to pull its finger as a game. But when they took his hand, the kappa pulled them underwater and ate them. Many people died this way. At last a young man decided to stop the kappa's killing spree. He rode a strong horse to the pond. When the kappa grabbed his hand, he rode off, dragging the kappa behind him. The kappa begged for his freedom, offering to teach the man to heal broken bones if he let him go. The man agreed, and using the kappa's secret, he became a famous surgeon.

—Adapted from a traditional Japanese folktale

A kappa

  • the size of a child but stronger than a man.
  • water carried in a bowl-shaped dent in its head is the source of its power
  • Children in Japan were once taught to be careful when swimming in rivers and ponds, lest a kappa drag them underwater.
  • Loves to eat cucumbers. Parents used to write their children's names on cucumbers and throw them in the water as gifts, so the kappa would not drown the children when swimming.
  • Face like a monkey, but with a beak
  • Green, scaly skin and a shell like a turtle
  • Webbed hands and feet
  • Smells like fish

When a kappa leaves the water, its strength depends on the water it carries in a bowl-shaped dent on its head. When bothered by a kappa, a person should bow to it. Forced by politeness to bow back, the kappa will spill the water on its head and lose its power, forcing it to run back to its river or pond.

Crying at night like a baby, the doglike creature called Ahuizotl ("ah-wee-ZO-tul") >was said to lure people to their deaths. The Aztecs of Mexico told of how Ahuizotl lived at the bottom of deep pools of water. It had hands and feet like a monkey, and a long, coiled tail with a hand on the end. When people responded to the cries of the weeping child, Ahuizotl grabbed them with the hand on its tail and pulled them down into the water. A few days later, the victim's body would float to the surface, missing only the eyes, teeth and nails.


  • Aztec stories of Ahuizotl ("ah-wee-ZO-tul") describe the creature as the size of a dog, with pointed ears.
  • hands and feet like a monkey or raccoon
  • long, flexible tail with a hand on the end
  • pulls people underwater and kills them
  • cries like a baby to lure people near

In 1529, the Spanish monk Fra Bernardino da Sahagun went to Mexico to convert the Aztecs to Christianity. He kept detailed records of Aztec stories, including a long description of Ahuizotl. His goal was not to preserve these stories, but to stamp out the beliefs associated with them: "For how are we priests to preach against idolatrous practices, superstitious observances, abuses and omens, if we are not acquainted with these?"

The creature has apparently become extinct - in Mexico, anyway. A similar creature was described by Christopher Columbus, in a letter sent from Jamaica to the King and Queen of Spain on July 7, 1503: A cross-bowman slew a beast that resembled a large cat, but was much bigger and had a face like a man. He transfixed it with an arrow from the breast to the tail. Nevertheless it was so fierce that he had to cut off an arm and a leg. When a wild boar, which had been given to me as a present, caught sight of this beast its bristles stood on end and it fled with all speed ... [the animal] immediately attacked the wild boar, encircled its mouth with its tail and squeezed vigorously. With the one arm it had left, it throttled the wild boar's throat as one strangles a foe.

The folklore and traditions of the Aztec people has its roots in that of the American Indians of the southwestern states and the Great Plains. We would expect to find relatives of the Ahuizotl here, if it was a widespread animal. And indeed we do. The Hopi Indians of Arizona and New Mexico tell of creatures called pavawkyaiva (water-dogs). These creatures figured prominently in the Hopi creation myth; originally, so the story goes, the Hopis were a nomadic tribe. In a striking parallel to a famous Aztec myth in which the sun-god Huitzilopochtli tells the Aztecs to wander until they found an eagle eating a snake, the Hopis were told by a god to wander until they found "the lake where the Pavawkyaivas played," and then to settle there.

The Shasta Indians of northern California also have legends of a "water-dog," although this creature seems to have been larger than the Ahuízotl: They live in dangerous whirlpools in the river, and appear like huge spotted dogs. They cause the death of persons by drowning. The bodies of those drowned thus are, it is thought, always found covered with spots similar to those of the "water-dog" itself.

Similar creatures are found in the folklore of lands south of Mexico. The Sumu Indians of Nicaragua tell of a "water-tiger" which dwelt among the rocks of large rivers. The animal will "devour anyone swimming in the neighborhood or falling into the water". The Pokemon character Aipom looks like an Ahuizotl, but it is cute and friendly, not a killer. Many old stories, including the classic European Grimm's fairy tales, have been stripped of violence, becoming safe and nonthreatening when they enter the world of contemporary children's movies, books and toys.

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