My copy of Patricia Wrightson's famous children's novel An Older Kind of Magic (1972), in which I first learnt of nyols, net-nets, and several other examples of Australia's ancient, traditional mini-humanoid entities that she incorporated into her story; its front cover illustration in this Puffin paperback edition features nyols and net-nets (cover illustration © Jack Newnham/Puffin Books)
"Beneath the earth are older things than perhaps we understand: as old as the ground in which they live, and part of it. Every so often, when the time is right, they appear again above the earth to visit the world that once was theirs alone."
Patricia Wrightson – An Older Kind of Magic
The following ShukerNature article was originally inspired in no small way by the above book, which was a favourite of mine as a youngster.
According to the traditional beliefs of the native Australian (Aboriginal) peoples, Alcheringa - the Dreamtime - was the Time of Creation. As described by Mudrooroo Nyoongah in Aboriginal Mythology (1994), it "symbolizes that all life to the aboriginal peoples is part of one interconnected system, one vast network of relationships which came into existence with the stirring of the great eternal archetypes, the spirit ancestors who emerged during the Dreamtime".
In the Dreamtime, all of today's Australian animals existed in human form, as kangaroo-men, emu-men, koala-men, even starfish-men, and so forth, only later transforming into animals. However, there were also many much stranger beings - some monstrous, some humanoid or part-humanoid. These are discounted as fictitious by westerners and are largely unknown outside Australia. However, this vast continent's indigenous nations firmly believe that they still exist even today, and can occasionally be seen - if you know where, and how, to look for them...
THE SHADOW PEOPLE - FROM NYOL TO NINGAUI
According to the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales's central west, the elders always tell their children to count their shadows when playing, and be sure to tell them if they count an extra one - for that will surely mean a winambuu or a yuuri is playing with them.
Roughly equivalent to the Little People elsewhere in the world, the winambuu and yuuri (pronounced ‘yawri’) resemble small dwarf-like beings, only 3 ft tall and hairy. They can be benevolent or antagonistic, depending upon their prevailing mood and the manner in which they are treated by humans, often acting as tricksters, but serving as guardians of certain localities too. Also spoken of in New South Wales, but this time by the Gumbangirr people, are the bitarr, who derive great pleasure from playing with Gumbangirr children.
An antagonistic human bamboozled by mischievous nyols, as illustrated in Patricia Wrightson's children's novel An Older Kind of Magic (illustration © Noela Young/Puffin Books)
Concealed to all but the sharpest of native eyes in the eastern Australian state of Victoria as they play amid the shadows of dusk are the nyols. These small humanoid entities have stony-grey skin, and spend their daytime underground like Antipodean gnomes, inhabiting subterranean caverns in deep rocks. According to Kurnai tradition, they can be good or evil, and will sometimes steal the memory of humans that they encounter.
The net-nets also hail from Victoria and inhabit rocky caverns, but mostly above-ground, and have brown skin with long claws instead of nails. In some ways the Australian counterpart of leprechauns, net-nets tend to make nuisances of themselves with humans – stealing things, and deceiving human hunters. Further details of nyols and net-nets can be found in Massola Aldo's book Bunjil's Cave (1968) – a fascinating collection of traditional folklore drawn from Victoria's Aboriginal nations.
Bunjil's Cave (© Massola Aldo/Lansdowne Press)
Ask any zoologist what a ningaui is, and if they are well-informed they will reply that it is a tiny shrew-like form of Australian marsupial mouse, the first known species of which were formally documented by science as recently as 1975.
To the native Australian Tiwi people, conversely, ningauis are much more ancient, familiar entities - and it is from these that the ningaui marsupial mice derive their name. In traditional Tiwi Aboriginal lore, the ningauis (‘short ghosts’) comprise a hairy race of 2-ft-tall Dreamtime beings with short feet and a passion for eating raw food, as they have no knowledge of how to make fire. They are active only at night, and inhabit dense mangrove swamps on Melville Island, off Australia's northern coast. The ningauis assisted in the earliest Kulama ceremonies, which are initiation rites into religious cults and feature the special preparation for eating of an otherwise poisonous yam known as the kulama.
A southern ningaui Ningaui yvonneae, one of three species of marsupial mouse named after the mythical humanoid ningauis (© miss.chelle.13/Wikipedia)
JUNJUDDIS AND THE GREY PEOPLE
Some investigators claim that there are undiscovered tribes of Aboriginal pygmies inhabiting remote regions of Australia, such as the Cairns rainforest, smaller than the short-statured tribes already known to have once existed there.
Amateur historian Frank O’Rourke of Bloomfield, Queensland, has been actively researching reports of pygmies in the Cairns outback for many years, having amassed records dating back to the times of first European settlement. He has even unearthed some long-forgotten photographs from the 1880s depicting extremely small Aboriginal people little more than 3 ft tall, from the Bloomfield region, found among documents housed in Brisbane’s John Oxley Library.
Moreover, fellow Queensland investigator Grahame Walsh has long been on the prowl through the rugged bush terrain around Carnarvon Gorge in search of junjuddis – very small ape-like entities only 3 ft or so tall, with hairy humanoid bodies but long ape-like arms, and a somewhat odiferous presence. A former Carnarvon National Parks and Wildlife officer, Walsh has no doubt that these weird mini-beings are real, and has even encountered their tracks, preserved by him afterwards as plaster casts – which he likens to the footprints that a 5-year-old child would make. During the 1970s, there was a spate of junjuddi sightings, but fewer in recent times, because people rarely traverse the wildernesses nowadays. Similar pygmies are claimed to exist in the mountains of Arnhem Land north of the Roper River in the Northern Territory, where they are called the burgingin.
A junjuddi (© Tim Morris)
In late October 2002, announcing her then-forthcoming Quest Trek 2002 expedition in search of putative surviving thylacoleonids or marsupial lions in the Flinders Range region of South Australia, Aussie cryptozoologist Debbie Hynes also referred to a much less familiar crypto-subject, the Grey People. This is the name given by Westerners here to a mysterious race of very small, furry, black-skinned humanoids, which walk upright but are only 3-4.5 ft tall, with sloping brows, pronounced eyebrow ridges, and ape-like faces. Long spoken of in the local desert Aboriginals’ legends, they also have their own Aboriginal name, and they appear in ancient rock art, but are still being reported today too.
According to Debbie, in 2001 an American back-packer startled one of these beings when he returned to his camp and discovered it stealing his belongings. Debbie’s own guide for her expedition was a trapper back in the 1950s and 1960s, who mentioned to her that on one occasion he’d been followed by some Grey People, hoping to steal rabbits from his traps, and during that trip he’d found one sprung trap containing a fresh human-like fingernail but no bigger than the nail of a young child’s little finger; he assumes that in springing it, a hand of one such entity had been caught by the trap.
How extraordinary it would be if the preternatural gnomes and dwarfs of Australia’s Dreamtime proved to be bona fide (albeit exceedingly elusive) pygmy tribes still evading formal scientific recognition. After all, certain strange Dreamtime entities, once deemed entirely fabulous, have since been shown to have been inspired by erstwhile native species of animal – so perhaps Australia’s s shadowy Little People may also have an origin in reality instead of reverie.
STICK MEN AND NIGHT SPIRITS
Stranger in form than the Aboriginal Little People are the various 'stick beings' of Dreamtime tradition. They include the desert-dwelling mimi of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Said to have sported human form before the coming of the first Aboriginals, these spirit people are nowadays tall but exceptionally thin, resembling animated sticks, and are thus able to live inside the narrowest rocky crevasses and amid the densest bush or scrub. Many ancient but finely-executed rock paintings exist in this region that depict mimi, portraying them dancing, running, hunting various creatures, and are usually painted only in red ochre. According to Aboriginal lore, these are the work of the mimi themselves, i.e. self portraits. Furthermore, it is the mimi who supposedly taught the first Aboriginal people in northern Australia how to paint, as well as how to hunt and cook kangaroos and other animals.
Nevertheless, mimi are not always benevolent, and today they are feared by native people here, because their diet not only includes yams, of which they are exceedingly fond, but also any unwary humans that they may choose to seize with their skeletal hands, especially if provoked. Consequently, when passing through mimi-frequented territory, it is best to choose a windy day. This is because these weird-looking entities are frightened to venture forth in such weather, in case their fragile thread-like necks should be broken by the blustery power of the wind.
A mimi in Aboriginal art (click here for my source of this image)
An even more malevolent race of stick beings are the vampire-like gurumukas, frequenting Groote Eylandt ('Great Island') in the Gulf of Carpentaria. These spindly nocturnal spirits have long projecting teeth, and if one of them should encounter a native Australian walking alone at night, it will bite the back of his neck, causing him to die in great pain unless rescued and swiftly tended to by a medicine man.
Equally malign are the nadubi of Arnhem Land, which are equipped with barbed stingray-like spines projecting from their elbows and knees. These bizarre spirit beings also seek solitary humans, and if they should find one and succeed in stabbing a spine into his body, he will surely die unless the spine is removed immediately by a wise shaman.
A quinkin (© Tim Morris)
The largest and most famous of all spirit stick men, however, are the quinkin, from Queensland's Cape York Peninsula. These giant entities represent the embodiment of human lust - on account of their excessively large (and often grotesquely-shaped) male sexual organs. As with the mimi, there are many prehistoric cave paintings depicting the quinkin, in Cape York's Laura rock galleries.
NEITHER MAN NOR BEAST - CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND
The most frightening monsters in any culture are those that appear partly, but not entirely, human, and this is certainly true of the Australian Dreamtime beings.
The yara-ma-yha-who is a truly grotesque spirit entity, which has red hair, red skin, huge eyes, lives in fig trees, and superficially resembles a small, toothless old man. However, it is also equipped with some decidedly non-human attributes. There are suckers on the ends of its long fingers and toes through which it sucks the blood of any unsuspecting human that it can leap upon. Its incredibly flexible jaws are not hinged at the back, hence they can open so wide that it can swallow its human victim whole. And its massive stomach is so obese that it can readily hold its victim until he is totally digested! Sometimes, however, it does not digest its victim, but regurgitates him and reswallows him several times. Each time, its victim becomes smaller, and redder - until at last he has transformed into a yara-ma-yha-who.
A yara-ma-yha-who (© Tim Morris)
The Aboriginals' ancestors travelled to Australia from southern Asia, which is home to several species of small, tree-dwelling, carnivorous/insectivorous primate known as tarsiers. Although harmless to humans, tarsiers do have enormous eyes and suckers on the ends of their fingers, and can look very unnerving at times! Cryptozoologists have speculated that perhaps the yara-ma-yha-who is a distorted, much-exaggerated folk memory of a tarsier, passed down from the Australian Aboriginals' Asian ancestors.
Tarsiers can look very unnerving at times, especially when aggressive like this particular individual. So don't make them angry – you wouldn't like them when they're angry! (© Serafin "Jun" Ramos, Jr/Wikipedia)
Similarly, just as there are many reports in southern Asia of giant bat-like entities - referred to in Java, for instance, as the ahool, and in Seram as the orang bati ('flying man') - native Australian lore also contains legends of veritable 'bat-men', known as the keen-keeng. Long ago, this tribe of half-humans inhabited a huge cave on the Western Australian border, and worshipped a fire god, to whom they sacrificed living humans. In their normal state, the keen-keeng were outwardly human, which greatly assisted them when luring victims to their cave, but they could be distinguished by their hands, which lacked the first two fingers of human hands. Their greatest difference, however, was their magical aerial ability - for whenever they chose, the keen-keeng could raise their arms above their heads and instantly transform them into a pair of large, powerful wings. This talent enabled these eerie entities to travel great distances when seeking potential sacrifice victims, but they were finally destroyed by two wise medicine men known as the Winjarning brothers.
A keen-keeng abducting the Winjarning brothers, as depicted by Alice Woodward upon the front cover of the 2003 Courier Dover edition of W. Ramsay Smith's classic book Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines, first published in 1932 (© Alice Woodward/Courier Dover Publications)
Another semi-human monster vanquished by the Winjarnings was Cheeroonear, who lived with his wife and dogs in a dense forest near Nullarbor Plain, which overlaps the present-day Australian states of South Australia and Western Australia. According to William Ramsey Smith's Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals (1930), Cheeroonear was:
"...a being with ears and face like a dog, but without a chin. From the lower jaw there hung a flesh-like bag, shaped like the pouch of a pelican, and leading into the stomach. The ribs did not join in the centre to form a chest with one cavity, but were arranged so as to make two compartments. The compartment on the left side contained the lungs, and the one on the right side held the heart and its vessels, leaving the throat like a wide sack between the two, so that when it held water or food it looked like a tube...He stood eight feet high. His arms reached below his knees to his ankles. When he stretched or opened his fingers he could touch the ground. He could pick up objects from the ground without stooping."
Responsible for the disappearance of several people from human camps around the edge of the forest, Cheeroonear was finally ambushed by the Winjarnings, with the assistance of a dense fog sent by the God of the Dewdrops, and duly slain with their warrior boomerangs.
A potkoorok (© Tim Morris)
Happily, not all semi-human Dreamtime entities are dangerous or evil. The potkoorok of Victoria, for instance, is a shy, inoffensive man-frog, resembling a small human but with a wet pear-shaped body, long mobile fingers, and huge webbed feet. Highly reclusive, it actively hides away from human eyes in deep pools and rivers.
Nyol, net-net, and ningaui, yuuri and yara-ma-yha-who, quinkin, mimi, potkoorok, and many more too - distant denizens of the Dreaming, but for whom there no longer seems to be any time in today's 'civilised', westernised world. Yet time is never still, and one day theirs too may come again.
This ShukerNature article is a greatly-expanded, updated version of a chapter section from my book Dr Shuker's Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008).