In this article:
- The bunyip is a legendary beast from Australian Aboriginal mythology that lurks in bodies of water and preys on unsuspecting or careless humans.
- There are many different descriptions of the monster, ranging from a giant starfish to a long-necked bird, to a giant aquatic dog.
- The story was passed from the Aboriginals to the European settlers that started arriving in 1788 and many of the archaeological findings discovered by these Europeans were believed to be bunyip remains.
- Over the years, many have attempted to come up with logical explanations for the legend, stating that seals, birds, or extinct marsupials may have been mistaken for bunyips.
The vast, arid interior of Australia, known as the Outback, is one of the most fascinating natural landscapes in the world. While many imagine it to be a giant windswept desert that’s completely uninhabitable, the area is actually home to a multitude of species on land, in the air, and in the water.
Kangaroos, the poster child for Australian wildlife can be found hopping across the plains of the Outback in their familial troops. You might see vibrant pink cockatoos or brightly-colored galah flying overhead. And, if you find yourself near a body of water, you may even have the unfortunate experience of running into the fearsome saltwater crocodile.
However, to native Australians, the crocodile actually isn’t the scariest thing lurking in the waters of the Outback. That award goes to the bunyip.
The legend of the bunyip was first told by the Aboriginal people of Australia, instilling fear in the hearts of those who believed in it when they walked near a river, creek, or billabong.
While there are many different versions of the legend and different accounts that have described this horrid animal very differently, most of the accounts have some general things in common: the bunyip is a howling monster that lurks in the waters of Australia waiting to devour human flesh.
Today, the bunyip has become a popular myth that has inspired popular culture in and out of Australia. In fact, there was even a children’s television series called Alexander Bunyip’s Billabong that featured a goofy, kid-friendly version of the monster.
It even made an appearance as a kaiju monster in the 2019 film Godzilla: King of the Monsters. And while sincere belief in the bunyip has waned in the modern era, there are still those out there that believe that this hideous creature is lurking in their local billabong.
What Is a Bunyip?
The name “bunyip” is usually translated today by Aboriginal Australians to mean either “devil” or “evil spirit” and is believed to have been created by the Wemba-Wemba people of modern-day Victoria.
However, the form that this devil takes can vary between different versions of the story. In every version of the story, though, the creature is described as being amphibious or almost entirely aquatic, rarely ever showing its head above the surface of the water.
It terrorizes the lakes, riverbeds, creeks, and billabongs around Australia, waiting for the chance to attack unsuspecting passersby.
One of the more outlandish descriptions of the bunyip comes from the Moorundi people, a tribe living near the Murray River in New South Wales. According to their version of the story, it’s a gigantic starfish that grasps its victims with its enormous arms, brings them to the mouth in the center of their body, and devours them whole.
Most other versions of the legend, however, describe the beast as a bit more mammalian.
For instance, one of the most common descriptions of the bunyip is that it looks like some sort of hybrid between a seal and a dog. It has thick, brown fur and is about four to six feet long.
Some even say that this dog-seal variety has a round head like a bulldog, no tail, and whiskers like an otter.
Other accounts of the bunyip have described the monster as having an extremely long neck and a small head like that of a horse or emu. In this version of the story, it may range between five and 15 feet long. It has large ears, small tusks, a mane, and a horse-like tail.
According to Aboriginal myths, bunyips have tails or fins that allow them to swim extremely fast and track down their prey with ease.
They have a loud, howling call that can alert you to the presence of the creature from miles away. Most of the time, they feed on crayfish. However, their preferred snack is a human being when they can hunt one down. Bunyips are also believed to lay their eggs in platypus nests.
Scaring European Settlers
The very first major European expedition to Australia was led by Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788. From then on, more and more Europeans began to make their way over to Australia, many of them with no idea what to expect.
These European settlers were astonished by the foreign flora and fauna that they encountered. Indeed, none of them had ever seen or heard of a kangaroo, koala, or platypus before.
Thus, when the Aboriginal people that they came in contact with told them the legend, there was no reason not to believe that this strange creature was out there waiting to be discovered.
Over the years that the Europeans were making their way into Australia, rumors of the bunyip circulated.
But, the first known use of the word bunyip in print was in an 1845 edition of The Geelong Advertiser, which stated, “On the bone being shown to an intelligent black, he at once recognized it as belonging to the bunyip, which he declared he had seen.”
The article went on to offer a full description of the beast, claiming that it shared characteristics with both a bird and an alligator. The article also claimed that the man who had discovered the bones of the “bunyip” had also seen an Aboriginal woman devoured by the monster.
Belief in the bunyip among Europeans skyrocketed in 1846 when a strange skull was discovered on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.
The skull was then shown to local Aboriginal people, all of which identified it as the skull of a bunyip. And, while some experts have speculated that it was the deformed fetal skull of a foal or calf, the skull was later displayed at the Australian Museum and referred to as a bunyip skull.
Over the years, there have been many other fossils found throughout Australia that were believed to be those of a bunyip. And, even to this day, people claim that they’ve seen the bunyip lurking in swamps, bogs, and billabongs.
Possible Explanations for the Bunyip Legend
Since the bunyip myth originated hundreds of years ago, many people have tried to offer possible explanations for the many reported sightings of the beast.
Some believe that sightings of the bunyip could be attributed to seals that have made their way inland to bodies of water where they are not often found.
In fact, many descriptions of the bunyip claim that it appears very similar to a seal. Also, researchers have found seals that have made their way as far inland as the Murray and Darling Rivers.
Others have claimed that the legend of the bunyip may be a cultural memory passed down through generations of Australian Aboriginals of extinct marsupials that used to live near their homes.
Certain extinct marsupials that lived during the Pleistocene, such as the Diprotodon, the Zygomaturus, or the Palorchestes, are believed to have shared characteristics with the mythical bunyip and may have inspired the legend.
In an article from 2017, a scientist by the name of Karl Brandt suggested that the legend of the bunyip may have been inspired by the southern cassowary (also known as the double-wattled cassowary).
This large bird possesses many of the same characteristics as some of the first descriptions of the bunyip. It lays pale blue eggs, has deadly claws, has powerful hind legs, and possesses a head similar to that of an emu.