The bunyip is a mythical creature — a lake monster — from Australian folklore; the word itself means “devil” or “spirit.” According to Aboriginal legend, the bloodthirsty bunyip inhabited swamps, riverbeds, billabongs (the stagnant backwaters of a river), and even wells, and lay in wait at night to devour any animal or person lurking nearby — although it was said to have a particular fondness for the sweet flesh of women and children.The legend also held that the bunyip was a very aggressive hairy animal with supernatural powers.
Not one to surprise unsuspecting interlopers, the bunyip warned its victims of their imminent doom with terrifying howls. Some Aborigines (today the more commonly accepted term is Indigenous Australians) avoided swampy areas out of fear of being grabbed and eaten.
If one were able to quiz members of early Aboriginal tribes, one would soon realize that although there was general agreement as to the cryptid’s habitat and preferred diet, the natives’ descriptions of their physical attributes varied wildly, almost seeming to be of completely different monsters. For example, early Aboriginal drawings depicted a creature with a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns.They were described in the legend variously as being feathered or scaly like crocodiles. Sometimes the bunyip was enormous, other times the size of a large dog. According to some, the bunyip looked like an oversized snake with a beard and a mane or a huge furry half-human beast with a long neck and bird-like head. At times it was reported to have a long body and horse-shaped head. Some researchers believe that the bunyip category may have included more than one cryptid, and are of the opinion that without an organized body of data the reports can never be substantiated.
In the mid-1800s, an unidentified skull was found along a river bank in New South Wales that seemed to prove the existence of bunyips. Many observers were not convinced, and believed the skull discovery was a hoax. Research was halted because the skull mysteriously disappeared after a few days on exhibit at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Coincidentally, reports of bunyip sightings increased dramatically during this time.
Although legendary bunyip sightings have emanated from throughout Australia, 19th century occurrences centered especially on Lake George and Lake Bathurst.Later reports described the once-carnivorous monster as a harmless grazing herbivore. The first sightings were reported in the early 1800s; the last recorded sighting was in 1890.
Researchers have offered their own possible scientific bases for the bunyip folktales. Depending on the researcher, the bunyip lake monster could be:
- Related to the doyarchu, also called the “Irish Crocodile,” a known aquatic man-killer
- A giant otter
- An undiscovered aquatic marsupial
- An undiscovered variety of freshwater seal
- A Diprotodon, extinct for some 20,000 years, which is known to have terrified early Australian settlers
- An Australian Fur Seal, which emits a loud cry similar to the bunyip when it is trapped inland by flooding
- Based on fossilized animal skeletons that the Indigenous Australians came across, such as of the prehistoric giant kangaroo, the Procoptodon, whose fossils indicate they weighed more than 5.8 kg or 500 pounds.
Even though today most Australians consider the bunyip to be mythical, they have not dismissed its lore. In fact, the National Library of Australia sponsors a traveling exhibition on bunyips, and several folk-tales appear on the government’s Web site. In addition, a set of four postage stamps has been issued with different version of its likeness to commemorate the legendary bunyip.