The bunyip is a large mythical creature from Australian Aboriginal mythology, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes.
The origin of the word bunyip has been traced to the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Aboriginal people of Victoria, in South-Eastern Australia. But the figure of the bunyip was part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, while its name varied according to tribal nomenclature. In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations of the creature known as the bunyip across Aboriginal Australia. Europeans recorded various written accounts of bunyips in the early and mid-19th century, as they began to settle across the country.
The word bunyip is usually translated by Aboriginal Australians today as “devil” or “evil spirit”. This contemporary translation may not accurately represent the role of the bunyip in pre-contact Aboriginal mythology or its possible origins before written accounts were made. Some modern sources allude to a linguistic connection between the bunyip and Bunjil, “a mythic ‘Great Man’ who made the mountains and rivers and man and all the animals.” The word bunyip may have first appeared in print in English about the mid-1840s.
By the 1850s, bunyip was also used as a “synonym for impostor, pretender, humbug and the like” in the broader Australian community. The term bunyip aristocracy was first coined in 1853 to describe Australians aspiring to be aristocrats. In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Paul Keating used this term to describe members of the conservative Liberal Party of Australia opposition.
The word bunyip can still be found in a number of Australian contexts, including place names such as the Bunyip River (which flows into Westernport Bay in southern Victoria) and the town of Bunyip, Victoria.
Descriptions of bunyips vary widely. George French Angus may have collected a description of a bunyip in his account of a “water spirit” from the Moorundi people of the Murray River before 1847, stating it is “much dreaded by them …It inhabits the Murray; but …they have some difficulty describing it. Its most usual form …is said to be that of an enormous starfish.” Robert Brough Smyth’s Aborigines of Victoria (1878) devoted ten pages to the bunyip, but concluded “in truth little is known among the blacks respecting its form, covering or habits; they appear to have been in such dread of it as to have been unable to take note of its characteristics.” Common features as reported in many 19th-century newspaper accounts include a dog-like face, a crocodile-like head, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns, or a duck-like bill.
The Challicum bunyip, an outline image of a bunyip carved by Aborigines into the bank of Fiery Creek, near Ararat, Victoria, was first recorded by The Australasian newspaper in 1851. According to the report, the bunyip had been speared after killing an Aboriginal man. Antiquarian Reynell Johns claimed that until the mid-1850s, Aboriginal people made a “habit of visiting the place annually and retracing the outlines of the figure [of the bunyip] which is about 11 paces long and 4 paces in extreme breadth.” The outline image no longer exists.
Debate over origins of the bunyip
Non-Aboriginal Australians have made various attempts to understand and explain the origins of the bunyip as a physical entity over the past 150 years. Writing in 1933, Charles Fenner suggested that it was likely that the “actual origin of the bunyip myth lies in the fact that from time to time seals have made their way up the Murray and Darling (Rivers)”. He provided examples of seals found as far inland as Overland Corner, Loxton, and Conargo and reminded readers that “the smooth fur, prominent ‘apricot’ eyes, and the bellowing cry are characteristic of the seal”, especially southern elephant seals and leopard seals.
Another suggestion is that the bunyip may be a cultural memory of extinct Australian marsupials such as the Diprotodon, Zygomaturus, Nototherium, or Palorchestes. This connection was first formally made by Dr George Bennett of the Australian Museum in 1871. In the early 1990s, palaeontologist Pat Vickers-Rich and geologist Neil Archbold also cautiously suggested that Aboriginal legends “perhaps had stemmed from an acquaintance with prehistoric bones or even living prehistoric animals themselves …When confronted with the remains of some of the now extinct Australian marsupials, Aborigines would often identify them as the bunyip.” They also note that “legends about the mihirung paringmal of western Victorian Aborigines …may allude to the …extinct giant birds the Dromornithidae.”
In a 2017 Australian Birdlife article, Karl Brandt suggested Aboriginal encounters with the southern cassowary inspired the myth. According to the first written description of the bunyip from 1845, the creature, which laid pale blue eggs of immense size, possessed deadly claws, powerful hind legs, a brightly coloured chest, and an emu-like head, characteristics shared with then undiscovered Australian cassowary. As the creature’s bill was described as having serrated projections, each “like the bone of the stingray”, this bunyip was associated with the indigenous people of Far North Queensland, renowned for their spears tipped with stingray barbs and their proximity to the cassowary’s Australian range.
Another association to the bunyip is the shy Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus). During the breeding season, the male call of this marsh-dwelling bird is a “low pitched boom”; hence, it is occasionally called the “bunyip bird”.
Early accounts of European settlers
During the early settlement of Australia by Europeans, the notion became commonly held that the bunyip was an unknown animal that awaited discovery. Unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of the island continent’s peculiar fauna, early Europeans believed that the bunyip described to them was one more strange Australian animal and they sometimes attributed unfamiliar animal calls or cries to it. Scholars suggest also that 19th-century bunyip lore was reinforced by imported European folklore, such as that of the Irish Púca.
A large number of bunyip sightings occurred during the 1840s and 1850s, particularly in the southeastern colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, as European settlers extended their reach. The following is not an exhaustive list of accounts:
Hume find of 1818
One of the earliest accounts relating to a large unknown freshwater animal was in 1818, when Hamilton Hume and James Meehan found some large bones at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales. They did not call the animal a bunyip, but described the remains indicating the creature as very much like a hippopotamus or manatee. The Philosophical Society of Australasia later offered to reimburse Hume for any costs incurred in recovering a specimen of the unknown animal, but for various reasons, Hume did not return to the lake. Ancient Diprotodon skeletons have sometimes been compared to the hippopotamus; they are a land animal, but have sometimes been found in a lake or water course.
Wellington Caves fossils, 1830
More significant was the discovery of fossilized bones of “some quadruped much larger than the ox or buffalo” in the Wellington Caves in mid-1830 by bushman George Ranken and later by Thomas Mitchell. Sydney’s Reverend John Dunmore Lang announced the find as “convincing proof of the deluge”, referring to Biblical accounts of the Flood. But British anatomist Sir Richard Owen identified the fossils as the gigantic marsupials Nototherium and Diprotodon. At the same time, some settlers observed that “all natives throughout these …districts have a tradition (of) a very large animal having at one time existed in the large creeks and rivers and by many it is said that such animals now exist.”
First written use of the word bunyip, 1845
In July 1845, The Geelong Advertiser announced the discovery of fossils found near Geelong, under the headline “Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal”. This was a continuation of a story on ‘fossil remains’ from the previous issue. The newspaper continued, “On the bone being shown to an intelligent black, he at once recognised it as belonging to the bunyip, which he declared he had seen. On being requested to make a drawing of it, he did so without hesitation.” The account noted a story of an Aboriginal woman being killed by a bunyip and the “most direct evidence of all” – that of a man named Mumbowran “who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal”.
The account provided this description of the creature:
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.
Shortly after this account appeared, it was repeated in other Australian newspapers. This appears to be the first use of the word bunyip in a written publication.
Australian Museum’s bunyip of 1847
In January 1846, a peculiar skull was taken by a settler from the banks of Murrumbidgee River near Balranald, New South Wales. Initial reports suggested that it was the skull of something unknown to science. The squatter who found it remarked, “all the natives to whom it was shown called [it] a bunyip”. By July 1847, several experts, including W. S. Macleay and Professor Owen, had identified the skull as the deformed foetal skull of a foal or calf. At the same time, the purported bunyip skull was put on display in the Australian Museum (Sydney) for two days. Visitors flocked to see it, and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that many people spoke out about their “bunyip sightings”. Reports of this discovery used the phrase ‘Kine Pratie’ as well as Bunyip. Explorer William Hovell, who examined the skull, also called it a ‘katen-pai’.
In March of that year “a bunyip or an immense Platibus” (Platypus) was sighted “sunning himself on the placid bosom of the Yarra, just opposite the Custom House” in Melbourne. “Immediately a crowd gathered” and three men set off by boat “to secure the stranger” which “disappeared” when they were “about a yard from him”.
William Buckley’s account of bunyips, 1852
Another early written account is attributed to escaped convict William Buckley in his 1852 biography of thirty years living with the Wathaurong people. His 1852 account records “in …Lake Moodewarri [now Lake Modewarre] as well as in most of the others inland …is a …very extraordinary amphibious animal, which the natives call Bunyip.” Buckley’s account suggests he saw such a creature on several occasions. He adds, “I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey color. 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.” Buckley also claimed the creature was common in the Barwon River and cites an example he heard of an Aboriginal woman being killed by one. He emphasized the bunyip was believed to have supernatural powers.
Stocqueler’s sightings and drawings, 1857
In an article titled, ‘The Bunyip’, a newspaper reported on the drawings made by Edwin Stocqueler as he travelled on the Murray and Goulburn rivers: ‘Amongst the latter drawings we noticed a likeness of the Bunyip, or rather a view of the neck and shoulders of the animal. Mr. Stocqueler informs us that the Bunyip is a large freshwater seal, having two small padules or fins attached to the shoulders, a long swan like neck, a head like a dog, and a curious bag hanging under the jaw, resembling the pouch of the pelican. The animal is covered with hair, like the platypus, and the colour is a glossy black. Mr. Stocqueler saw no less than six of these curious animals at different times; his boat was within thirty feet of one near M’Guire’s punt on the Goulburn, and he fired at the Bunyip, but did not succeed in capturing him. The smallest appeared to be about five feet in length, and the largest exceeded fifteen feet. The head of the largest was the size of a bullock’s head, and three feet out of water. After taking a sketch of the animal, Mr. Stocqueler showed it to several blacks of the Goulburn tribe, who declared that the picture was “Bunyip’s brother,” meaning a duplicate or likeness of the bunyip. The animals moved against the current, at the rate of about seven miles an hour, and Mr. Stockqueler states that he could have approached close to the specimens he observed, had he not been deterred by the stories of the natives concerning the power and fury of the bunyip, and by the fact that his gun had only a single barrel, and his boat was of a very frail description.’
The description varied across newspaper accounts: ‘The great Bunyip question seems likely to be brought to a close, as a Mr. Stocqueler, an artist and gentleman, who has come up the Murray in a small boat, states that he saw one, and was enabled to take a drawing of this “vexed question,” but could not succeed in catching him. We have seen the sketch, and it puts us in mind of an hybrid between the water mole and the great sea serpent.’ ‘Mr. Stocqueler, an artist, and his mother are on an expedition down the Murray, for the purpose of making some faithful sketches of the views on this fine stream, as well as of the creatures frequenting it. I have seen some of their productions, and as they pourtray localities with which I am well acquainted, can pronounce the drawings faithful representations. Mother and son go down the stream in a canoe. The lady paints flowers, &c.; the son devotes himself to choice views on the river’s side. One of the drawings represents a singular creature, which the artist is unable to classify. It has the appearance in miniature of the famous sea-serpent, as that animal is described by navigators. Mr. Stocqueler was about twenty-five yards distant from it at first sight as it lay placidly on the water. On being observed, the stranger set-off, working his paddles briskly, and rapidly disappeared. Captain Cadell has tried to solve the mystery, but is not yet satisfied as to what the animal really is. Mr. Stocqueler states that there were about two feet of it above water when he first saw it, and he estimated its length at from five to six feet. The worthy Captain says, that unless the creature is the “Musk Drake” (so called from giving off a very strong odor of musk), he cannot account for the novelty.’
Stocqueler disputed the newspaper descriptions in a letter; stating that he never called the animal a bunyip, it did not have a swan like neck, and he never said anything about the size of the animal as he never saw the whole body. He went on to write that all would be revealed in his diorama as an ‘almost life size portrait of the beast’ would be included. The diorama took him four years to paint and was reputed to be a mile (1.6 km) long and made of 70 individual pictures. The diorama has long since disappeared and may no longer exist.