Yet another Australian creature introduced to me through song, again from the animated “Dot” series. At least this time it sort of makes an appearance, although they left out the part about drowning fishermen, magic, and the sexy lady minions.

There are as many interpretations of the “bunyip” as there are Aboriginal peoples (read:lots), but we think the name comes from western Victoria and the Wemba Wemba and Wergaia, who spoke of an amphibious bamib spirit. Cavorting in swamps and screeching are about the only things it has in common across the board, because it’s not always called a “bunyip” either.

To the Gamilaraay, it’s Garriya, and it spends its days in a lagoon eating human flesh. Despite its fearsome fangs and lightning speed, it has but one fear: its mother-in-law, in the form of a bambul tree. Seeing her wasn’t enough to chase it away from the lagoon, but at least we can point and laugh at its family politics.

Don’t get too cocky though, or you might get turned into an evil slave. Just as wise leader Biami became a good spirit, a tribe member he banished became an evil one, and, calling himself “Bunyip”, he terrorised lakes and waterholes. When a handful of daft young women went to “test his power”, he transformed them into water sprites, using them to lure fishermen to their deaths. Poor fishermen always seem to cop it, but on some occasions they don’t exactly help themselves.

In one story from New South Wales, one of them hooked a bunyip cub, and despite the mother’s screams, refused to let go and ran back to the village with his trophy. Mum took off in hot pursuit, following up with a tidal wave that turned all incriminated parties into black swans. Baby and Mum went happily home, while the black swans enjoyed speaking in the tongue of man in the dead of night forever more. I’m not sure which would be more terrifying, that or the fact that there’s more than one bunyip.  But, as you can see, it’s sometimes sympathetic.

It’s also been pictured with everything from feathers to a human head, so you can forgive the odd cat-seal hybrid (or attempt there at).

Another fable sees it snubbed by a group of koalas because they’re afraid humans will start to hate them by association. A female, who spent many happy nights talking with the beast, is bewitched so she can no longer prize her baby off her back to join him. She learns to shun him and put the community first, and they all keep face markings from the magic as a reminder.

Reminders of the bunyip itself have disappeared over the years, like the 2.7 m/9 foot-long outline by the Djapwurrong people at Fiery Creek in Victoria, or the strange one-eyed “bunyip skull” in the Australian Museum in 1847, but it might have been an errant seal or dugong (like a manatee), coupled with the strange, low-frequency booming of the Australian bittern. Either way, it’s an enigma, a handy bogeyman, and a beloved part of Australian culture.


What? A strange amphibious monster, who may or may not eat you

Where? Australia, specifically in swamps and lagoons

How big? It depends on the legend, but an outline by the Djapwurrong people was 2.7 metres / 9 feet long

Probable motto: [Otherworldly screeching, with a spot of booming]

Just to prove I’m not fibbing (about the mythology anyway!)

Aboriginal stories“. No date. National Library of Australia/Pandora: Australia’s Web Archive.

The bunyip was rarely found in traditional Aboriginal art. Surely this omission is highly significant?” No date. National Library of Australia/Pandora: Australia’s Web Archive.

Clarke, Philip A. 2007. “Indigenous spirit and ghost folklore of ‘settled’ Australia“. Folklore 118(2): 141-161.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Bunyip“.

Naish, Darren. 2013. “Tales from the Cryptozoologicon: Bunyip“. Scientific American.

Were skulls physical proof that bunyips existed?” No date. National Library of Australia/Pandora: Australia’s Web Archive.

Featured image credit: “Bunyip” by Marina Krivenko