We’re heading Down Under for our latest instalment of Malicious Myths and delving into the murky history behind a mythical creature from Indigenous Australian folklore known as the Bunyip. Don’t let its adorable name fool you. After all, Australia has a long and noble history of giving ridiculously cute names to incredibly dangerous things, such as the dugite, a type of venomous snake whose bite can be lethal; the bluey, a slang term for the floating sacks of death that are the Portuguese Man o’ War; and the gympie gympie plant, whose sting is so painful that it drives people to suicide. In a country where even the plants are capable of waging psychological warfare and everything appears ergonomically designed to reduce the human population, you have to do something pretty special to stand out. So, if the Bunyip is capable of striking fear into the heart of a hardened Australian, you know it’s serious.
The Bunyip is an amphibious lake monster that is said to inhabit swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, waterholes, and even household wells. It lays in wait at night for unsuspecting prey to pass by its territory and will happily devour any animal or person, although it has a particular fondness for the flesh of women and children. In other words, you may be the first one on the list to get a lifeboat, but you’re also top of the menu for the Bunyip. When the Bunyip approaches a hapless victim, it lets off a series of haunting howls to warn them of their imminent doom before swooping in for the kill. This is perhaps why the Bunyip is often less than successful in its ambush attempts, since announcing your presence to your prey is generally considered bad practice among apex predators. According to certain legends, the Bunyip is said to be very aggressive, very hairy, and has supernatural powers. Kind of like your mother-in-law, only not quite as terrifying.
When Europeans arrived in Australia, they took accusations of the Bunyip very seriously and early European settlers regarded them as just another strange animal to add to the roster. When you’re confronted with tiny creatures that poop out cubes (just Google “wombat poop”) or spiders the size of a household clock, you start to radically adjust your perception of “normal”. Some historians believe that, during the 19th century, these European settlers actually infused the indigenous Bunyip lore with that of the Irish Púca, a shape-shifting spirit found in Celtic folklore. In true colonial fashion, these settlers took it upon themselves to culturally appropriate even the unsavoury elements of Indigenous Australian mythology.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Bunyip sightings became widespread throughout Australia and, in July 1845, the first written use of the word “bunyip” was made in a newspaper known as The Geelong Advertiser, which proudly announced that a collection of fossils found near Geelong belonged to a deceased Bunyip. From then on, the people of Australia were gripped by Bunyip fever. In January 1846, a peculiar skull found by the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales was declared to be that of a Bunyip and was put on display in the Australian Museum for two entire days before mysteriously disappearing. The fact that this skull had already been identified as that of a deformed foal or calf by several experts apparently mattered to no one.
People flocked to the museum in droves to see the skull and finally speak out about their own personal experiences of the Bunyip, resulting in the formation of support groups like Bunyip’s Anonymous. Okay, so that last part might be a lie, but for a long time people truly believed that the Bunyip was real. In March of the same year, three men set out on a boat to capture a Bunyip that had been sighted sunning itself opposite the Custom House in Melbourne, only to discover with profound disappointment that it was actually just a large Platypus. Fast forward to the 1950s and the term “Bunyip” had largely lost its sting, being instead used as an Australian slang term to mean “imposter” or “humbug”. While the obsession with the Bunyip may have died down over the years, one thing has remained unchanged: if you go to Australia, something is gonna try to kill you at some point.
In spite of its tendency to warn its victims of its impending approach, the Bunyip leaves relatively few survivors, so descriptions of this mysterious creature vary widely and are largely quite piecemeal in nature. Writings by George French Angus indicate that, according to the Moorundi people of the Murray River, the Bunyip looked just like an enormous starfish, although this is by far the most unusual description. Most accounts list a number of common features of the Bunyip, including a canine face, a crocodile-like head, large glowing eyes, jet-black fur, an equine tail, and flippers or thick legs.
In some instances, it also boasted tusks like a walrus and a bill similar to that of a duck, with scales or feathers covering its body instead of fur. In many ways, the Bunyip can be perceived as uniting the characteristics of the emu and the crocodile, two of the most formidable animals that are native to the Australian outback. But emus are harmless, we hear you cry! They eviscerate people. Seriously. Look it up. We weren’t kidding. Everything in Australia will try to kill you, even the koalas.
When in the water, the Bunyip is said to swim like a frog, but chooses to stand on its hind legs and walk erect when on land, towering in at about 12 to 13 feet in height. In fact, some accounts state that the Bunyip was so colossal in size that it could easily pull trees out by their roots and carry one in each arm. While its paws are furnished with long claws, its preferred method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. Because nothing quite compares to the soft caress of a Bunyip as you slowly suffocate.
The word “bunyip” is thought to have originated from the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Indigenous Australians living in southeastern Australia, although the legend of the Bunyip appears to be widespread among Indigenous Australian communities throughout the country. It roughly translates to mean “devil” or “evil spirit”, because apparently the name “hugging beast” was already taken.
In 1933, the geographer and author Charles Fenner posited that Bunyips were actually just sightings of Australian fur seals, which were known to make their way up rivers and could often be found very far inland. After all, these seals have smooth fur, prominent eyes, and they are known to bellow loudly when trapped inland. Plus everyone knows seals subsist off a diet of fish and human children. The howl of the Bunyip has also been attributed to a bird known as the shy Australasian bittern or “Bunyip bird”, which emits a low-pitched booming sound during mating season. It might be shy, but it wants you to know when it’s horny.
Another theory suggests that the legend of the Bunyip evolved from the cultural memory of extinct Australian marsupials like the Diprotodon, Zygomaturus, Nototherium, or Palorchestes. Since Zygomaturus was quite difficult for people to pronounce, they opted for the far more accessible “Bunyip” instead. In-keeping with this theory, it is possible that the Indigenous Australians could have come across fossils of prehistoric creatures such as the Procoptodon, a gigantic kangaroo, and that may be how the legend of the Bunyip was born. Honestly, we’re not sure what’s more terrifying: a crocodile-emu hybrid with magical powers; or a 7-foot-tall kangaroo. Remind us never to go to Australia.
While the Bunyip might seem like a relatively obscure mythical creature, it has remained a staple part of popular culture in Australia for many years and can be found in media throughout the world. Here are just a few references to this cuddly child-eating critter:
- The National Library of Australia continues to sponsor a traveling exhibition on the Bunyip and several Bunyip-related folk-tales can be found on the Australian government’s website. There was even an official set of four postage stamps that was issued with different artist renderings of the Bunyip.
- The “Bunyip Aristocracy” was a derogatory term coined in 1853, which was used to lambast the attempts of certain individuals to establish an aristocracy in the Australian colonies.
- A variety of names throughout Australia contain the word “Bunyip”, such as the Bunyip River, the town of Bunyip in Victoria, and a now disbanded Christian community in Clifton Hill that was delightfully named the House of the Gentle Bunyip.
- Several children’s books contain references to the Bunyip, including The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek and The Ballad of the Blue Lake Bunyip. Hopefully they left out the part about it loving the taste of child flesh.
- A number of novels also include Bunyips, such as Naomi Novik’s Tongue of Serpents and C. Robert Cargill’s Queen of the Dark Things.
- During the 1950s, a horrifying puppet known as Bertie the Bunyip appeared as a
popular character on the children’s TV show Philadelphia.
- In the video game Chrono Cross, the Bunyip is a boss monster that guards the Black Crystal in Another World’s Fort Dragonia.
- The video game Final Fantasy X features enemy creatures known as Bunyips, which appear on the Djose Highroad.
- The Bunyip is a character in the video game RuneScape and, as an homage to its origins, it speaks with a thick Australian accent.
- Bunyips are portrayed as mystical and peaceful elders who inhabit a world known as “The Dreaming” in the video game series Ty the Tasmanian Tiger.