The Bunyip is from Aboriginal mythology. It is a large creature that lives in the swamps, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes of South Eastern Australia. However, stories of the Bunyip have been told throughout Australia. Written accounts of the creature were made by European settlers in the mid-nineteenth century as they colonized across the country.
Today’s translation of the word Bunyip in the Aborigine language means “devil” or evil spirit. The actual word Bunyip didn’t appear in English print until the mid-1840s. In the 1850s, Bunyip became a synonym for imposter or pretender in the Australian society.
In southern Victoria, the Bunyip River flows into Westernport Bay, and there also is a town named Bunyip, in Victoria.
The description of the Bunyip varies from story to story. The Moorundi people of Murray River fear the creature and have told it lives in the river, but they have difficulty describing the Bunyip because they live in such fear of it. In a nineteenth century newspaper, the Bunyip was described as having a dog-like face, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks or horns, and a duck-like bill.
An outline of a Bunyip is carved into the bank of Fiery Creek near Ararat, Victoria.
An 1851 newspaper article reported the Bunyip was speared after killing a man. The Aboriginal people return annually to retrace the outline of the Bunyip. It is said to measure about 25 feet long and 10 feet high.
Attempts have been made over the last 150 years to explain the creature’s existence. One suggestion from a Charles Fenner writing in 1933 stated it may have been seals that made their way up the Murray and Darling Rivers. The smooth fur, color of the eyes and the cry of the seal are also some of the same characteristics described as a Bunyip.
Another suggestion states it may be a memory of an extinct marsupial, or a prehistoric animal. When presented with the remains of some extinct Australian marsupials, the Aborigines often named them as a Bunyip.
During the 1840s and 1850s, a large number of Bunyip sightings around Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia were reported as European settlers expanded out over Australia. An early report of the Bunyip was in 1818 when Hamilton Hume and James Meehan found some bones at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales. They didn’t call it a Bunyip but described the bones as similar to a hippopotamus or manatee. The Philosophical Society of Australia asked Hume to return and recover the bones of the unknown animal at the society’s expense, but Hume refused to return to the area.
In the mid-1830s, fossilized bones that were larger than an ox or buffalo were discovered in the Wellington Caves. Later these bones were identified as a gigantic marsupial.
The first written account of the Bunyip was in July 1845 in the Geelong Advertiser. Fossils were discovered near Geelong and the article stated them as belonging to a Bunyip. The report also stated an account of a woman being killed by the Bunyip and a man named Mumbowran having several wounds on his chest made by the creature.
The creature was described as followed:
“The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.”
In January 1846 on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, a skull was found of an unknown animal. When shown to the natives of the area, it was identified as a Bunyip. Later, experts identified the skull as being a deformed foal or calf. The skull was displayed in the Australian museum for two days. While on display, many visitors would tell stories of their own sighting of a Bunyip.
In 1852, an escaped convict named William Buckley released a biography of his thirty years of living with the Wathaurong people. He writes of an encounter with what the natives call a Bunyip. “I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf… I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail.”
The word Bunyip is used numerously around Australia. A newspaper in the town of Gawler, is called the Bunyip. House of the Gentle Bunyip, in Clifton Hill, and a coin-operated Bunyip at Murray Bridge are other uses of the word.
The Bunyip is also featured in literature: a story within Andrew Lang’s 1904 book, “The Brown Fairy Book,” and a children’s picture book, “The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek.” It also appears in the novels Tongues of Serpents, Chander Pahar, and a short story Bunyip’s Gift.
A character created by Michael Salmon named Alexander Bunyip appeared in a book: “The Monster That Ate Canberra,” in a television series: “Alexander Bunyip’s Billabong,” and a statue of him is planned to be erected at the Gungahlin Library.
Another character named Bruce Bunyip is in the book, “The Neddiad,” and is described as large, having tiny eyes, eyebrows grown together, and that he is a monster like his father.
Image Caption: (ABOVE/LEFT BELOW) One artist’s account of what the Bunyip looked like (ca. 1935). Credit: Wikipedia (public domain) (RIGHT BELOW) An artist’s account of what the Bunyip looked like (ca. 1890). Credit: J. Macfarlane/Wikipedia