Koalas in Aboriginal Mythology

Mythical Tales About the Koala Bear

Koala Photo

When the Aboriginals came to Australia the koala was already living in the trees of the land, but that didn’t mean that stories of the koala weren’t passed down from generation to generation by the village storytellers.

The Aboriginal people of Australia have found a way to incorporate all of the different aspects of the land and animals into their colourful oral histories, here I’m going to tell the three stories about the Koala that I have discovered from Aboriginal mythology.

If you look at the koala you’ll see that this tree dwelling marsupial has no tail to help him balance, the Aboriginal storytellers have passed a story on down through the generations about how the koala lost his tail.  

How the Koala Lost it’s Tail

An Aboriginal Tale

Let’s start the tale as all good stories start – once upon a time……..

Koalas used to have beautiful bushy tails even more beautiful than a foxes tail it’s rumoured although the foxes didn’t make it to Australia until the 1830s so we can’t know for sure.   Anyway back to the story, koala was great friends with a young tree kangaroo and one day he went and talked to his friend.

Their home was suffering from a severe draught, the leaves were even shrivelling up on trees and dying and none of the animals had been able to find water.   As koala was talking to the tree kangaroo about the dry state the tree kangaroo recounted a story from his childhood.

When tree kangaroo was still a joey in his mother’s pouch there was a similar drought and everyone thought they would end up dying, but his mother was not going to accept that and set off to find water.   She bounded through the bush for a couple of days before finding some water which the joey believes saved his life.

“Wow,” said Koala, “what a great story, do you think there’s a chance you’d remember where the water was?”

Tree kangaroo thought about it for a minute before answering Koala, “I think so, in fact I’m pretty sure.”

Colorful Koala and Kangaroos Poster

The two friends set off on their journey, but when they finally got to the spot there was no water.   “Are you sure this is the right spot?” Koala asked his friend and tree kangaroo nodded emphatically, “well maybe we should dig and see if we hit water, “ the Koala suggested.

They decided that the tree kangaroo should start to dig first and then the koala would have a turn.   Unfortunately that isn’t what happened, first the koala claimed to still be too tired, then he said he’d go and look for food, but actually hid behind a tree before ‘coming back’ empty handed, yet tired.   A couple of times the tree kangaroo looked over at him and saw he was asleep so didn’t disturb him.

Finally tree kangaroo found water, she turned around to tell koala, but before a word could be uttered the koala was in the hole pushing his friend out of the way and drinking deeply from the water.    Tree kangaroo was furious, first the koala hadn’t helped with any of the digging and then he’d pushed the kangaroo out of the way to be the first to drink.  

Now you really don’t want to get a kangaroo angry, the tree kangaroo stamped his foot and then bit off the koala’s tail in rage.    That is why koalas have no tail, it’s a reminder to them not to be selfish.

The Koala and the Bunyip

A Mythological Tale About The Koala

Bunyip Shirt

Bunyips are terrifying mythical creatures that haunt watering holes, creeks, rivers, swamps and billabongs.   They are nocturnal and will eat any animal or human (especially women and children) who try and take a drink from ‘their water’.   They have a terrifying, blood-curdling cry and are the stuff that nightmares are made of.

Personally I think it could’ve been a tale originally told to keep children from wandering off and down to the water unaccompanied at night, but who really knows.    Now what has the koala got to do with the bunyip?

Apparently the koala’s markings and the way that a koala’s young clings so tightly on their backs is all because of the bunyip.   Want to know more?

Once upon a time there was a koala who lived on the top of a mountain and who had a baby,   Every night this koala would come down to a waterhole to have a drink, leaving her baby on the mountain.   One day she met the bunyip who lived in the deepest, darkest part of the swamp, even though the bunyip are ‘supposed’ to eat anyone drinking from the waterhole the koala wasn’t scared.

Instead the koala spoke to the bunyip and they became friends trading stories of ancient times and drinking the water side by side.   The other koalas didn’t like this friendship because they were afraid of what could happen, after all humans were scared of the bunyips and thought they were the devil however they loved the koalas – could this friendship change things?

The leader of the koalas stirred the other koalas up with a speech where he talked about how man hunted and ate the kangaroos, wallabies, lizards etc, however man loved the koala and they were never hunted and their flesh never eaten.   Imagine if man found out that a koala was friends with the bunyip – they might start eating koalas.

They told the koala that she shouldn’t go down to meet the bunyip and that she was putting all of the koalas at risk, but she enjoyed her friendship and continued – it was time for a plan.

The koalas thought about the one they called featherfoot (the aboriginal’s tribal doctors) who danced around and performed magic – he used to put yellow and white clay on his face before dancing and talking to the spirits.   The plan was forming.

That evening the koalas copied the clay markings onto their leader and he waited for the koala to go and meet with the Bunyip.   He found the baby koala waiting for his mother and picked it up before standing before koala and whispering in her baby’s ear ‘hang on tight and never let go’, he then placed the baby onto the koala’s back and the magic of the clay worked as the baby koala held on really tightly.

Koala tried and tried to shake her baby off, but to no avail and finally Bunyip stopped waiting for koala to leave her baby and come to talk to him and instead went back into the swamp that was his home.

To this day koala’s young hold onto their mothers really tightly and are hard to dislodge.   With the success of their plan the elders decided that all koalas would carry these marks for all of eternity and that’s why koalas are no longer completely grey bears.

Koobor the Koala

An Ancient Tale About Koalas

Koala Image

The Aboriginal story titled Koobor the Koala explains why the koala doesn’t need water to stay alive and also why the Aboriginals do not kill the koala for it’s fur (unlike the European settlers used to do).

Let’s begin with those classic words once again –

Once upon a time there was a little orphan boy called Koobor who was taken in by relatives who lived in a very dry part of Australia.   Water was only given to the family in the evening as it was scarce and all of Koobor’s relatives drank the water first so that when it came to him he never had enough and was always thirsty.

Koobor complained about always being thirsty which angered his relatives and they told him he was ungrateful – they had given him a home after all – and if he complained too loudly they beat him.   During the day if his relatives had to go and look for food they would hide all of the water buckets so that Koobor couldn’t still them.

Koobor needed water and so he learnt how to get moisture from the leaves of the gum tree, but he still felt like he was always thirsty.   Things were about to change dramatically one day however …..

Koobor’s relatives went hunting for food one day and forgot to hide their water buckets, Koobor could hardly believe his luck.   He grabbed the buckets and drank and drank and drank until his stomach was sore and swollen and couldn’t hold any more water.   When Koobor looked around himself he realized that he no longer felt thirsty.

As the sun began to set Koobor knew that his relatives would be home and discover that he’d drunk all the water.   Koobor wondered to himself, ‘how hard will they beat me for doing this,’ and he also knew that they’d take the rest of the water and leave him thirsty again.   No more he decided and formed a plan.

He quickly gathered up all of the water buckets and climbed a small tree, sitting in the middle of the tree Koobor started to sing a special song in his soft voice and the spirit in the tree heard the song and stretched it’s limbs and grew.   As Koobor continued to sing, so the tree continued to grow until it was the tallest tree around.

Koobor’s relatives returned home to find that both Koobor and their water buckets were gone, then one of them spotted a bucket hanging from a tall tree and as they looked up they spotted the rest of their buckets along with Koobor.

“Koobor, you ungrateful child, get down here with our water buckets right now,” they called up to him.   Koobor refused to come down and so men of his family started climbing the tree as Koobor threw buckets at them to keep them from getting him.   Finally two of his family members made it to where he was sitting and started to beat him for stealing their water and being disobedient.

Then the story is a little fuzzy as some say that they three Koobor out of the tree and some say that Koobor fell, but whatever the action was Koobor’s crumpled body lay on the ground momentarily dead until something amazing happened.

Koobor the orphan child turned into Koobor the Koala.

Koala Photograph

As his stunned family watched the koala got up and went over to a gum tree, he climbed up the tree and started to munch on some gum leaves before turning to address his family. 

“Listen well as this is my law and if my law is broken then I will return and dry up all of the rivers and lakes and you will all feel thirsty, are you listening?”

The relatives nodded and so Koobor told them his law, “From this day forward you may only kill me if you need food, but you must cook my body before you take off any of my skin or break any of my bones.   Is that clear?”

This is what’s known as Koobor’s law and is why koalas don’t need water to keep alive and it is also why if Aboriginals do cook a koala they always do so in this way.

Which is Your Favorite Koala Story?

These are the three Aboriginal myths about koalas that I know of, which one is your favourite story?

Koala Photos - The Credits

The photographs I've used in this article actually aren't mine, but are used with permission.

Introduction image | Koala and Baby Photo | Koala Photo from Koobor the Koala Story | Second Koala Picture from Koobor the Koala Story.

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Comments

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50 leaves
162 forum posts
belinda342 on said:
What lovely tales! I've always loved the Koala bear. A funny story, my boss recently returned from Australia and brought me back a tiny stuffed Koala. The front of the tag is an Australian flag. On the back it says "Made in China." But I still love my little "Australian" souvenir!
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7 leaves
36 forum posts
Butterfly on said:
I've always loved Koalas! These tales are new to me. What a treat to read!
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8 leaves
41 forum posts
How the Koala lost its tail is an interesting myth
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70 leaves
420 forum posts
What fun stories. It was hard to pick one, but I finally did.

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