Bunyip: Australia’s Mysterious Amphibian Monster6 min read
The Bunyip, also known as the Kianpraty, is a creature from the aboriginal mythology of southeastern Australia, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes.
The origin of its name has been traced to the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of the Aboriginal people of Victoria, in South-Eastern Australia, and it is usually translated by Aboriginal Australians today as “devil” or “evil spirit”.
Some modern sources allude to a linguistic connection between the bunyip and Bunjil, “a mythic Great Man who made the mountains, rivers, man, and all the animals”.
Either way, the word “Bahnyip” first appeared in the Sydney Gazette in 1812, and It was used by James Ives to describe literally “a large black animal like a seal, with a terrible voice which creates terror among the blacks“.
It has been described as amphibious, almost entirely aquatic, and its physical descriptions vary widely, from a “water spirit” to that of an enormous starfish, scaly, furry, big, small, skinny, beefy and so on.
Bunyips, according to Aboriginal mythology, can swim swiftly with fins or flippers, have a loud, roaring call, and feed on crayfish, though some legends portray them as bloodthirsty predators of humans, particularly women and children, and their eggs are allegedly laid in platypus nests.
The Bunyip, then, is also 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 3,5 or 4 meters in height.
The Bunyip has many descriptions. Some say it has a dog-like face, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill. Others think the creature has an appearance similar to a snake with a man and a beard. This creature is described to gobble up children and livestock in several Aboriginal bedtime stories if they come to close to the water’s edge. The Bunyip is also said to prey upon the women and children of aboriginal tribes during the night.
It is hard to tell what the bunyip looks like because of its claims of variations but all sightings agree that it is definitely an aquatic mammal.
One popular legend says that a man named Bunyip broke the Rainbow Serpent’s greatest law by eating his totem animal. Banished by the good spirit, Biami, the man became an evil spirit that lured tribesmen and their livestock into the water so he could eat all of them.
There have been 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 also 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.
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”.
Historically, 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 continent 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.
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.
One of the earliest accounts relating to a large unknown freshwater animal was in 1818, when explorers 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.
More significant was the discovery of fossilised 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 scottish explorer Thomas Mitchell.
In July 1845, The Geelong Advertiser announced the discovery of fossils found near Geelong, under the headline “Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal”.
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, with the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator.
Shortly after this account appeared, it was repeated in other Australian newspapers.
It was January 1846, when a peculiar skull was taken by a settler from the banks of Murrumbidgee River near Balranald, New South Wales, and first 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 a bunyip”.
By July 1847, several expertshad identified the skull as the deformed foetal skull of a foal or calf but, at the same time, the purported bunyip skull was put on display in the Australian Museum of Sydney for two days with visitors flocked to see it.
By the 1850s, word bunyip was also used as a “synonym for impostor, pretender, humbug and the like”, although this use of the word is now obsolete in Australian English, but the word 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.
Bunyip is also a summonable creature in the Scribblenauts games.
An Australian horror movie titled Bunyip is about a group of city folk who decide to hike in the Australian wilderness but end up getting lost and have to survive against the legendary monster while, another Australian horror movie titled Red Billabong, pits two brothers who uncover their family’s secrets and realize that their friends go missing but don’t realize that the legendary Bunyip is to blame and now is stalking them.
In the Australian children’s book the Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek, the Bunyip tries to figure out what Bunyips look like. The other animals describe Bunyips as horrible creatures, so the Bunyip decides to live alone where he can be “as handsome as he likes”.
In Melbourne, there is a statue of the Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek, carrying his bindle stick.
Also Dingodile, from the Crash Bandicoot series, may have been inspired by the Bunyip.
Images from web – Google Research