Australian Folklore – The Bunyip

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The Bunyip is a legend which was first told by Indigenous Australians. It was one of the few Dreaming Stories to have been told in some form by all Indigenous nations. Whilst the stories, and the name, often varied it was most commonly said to be an evil water spirit who could either turn humans to stone, or otherwise, enslave them in a zombie style fashion. One original story of the Dreamtime tells of Bunyip using three beautiful women under his power to entice men into his lake.

The first European settlers having encountered many strange creatures in Australia, when told of The Bunyip, believed it to be an actual creature. These early Colonials even claimed sightings, and discoveries of skeletons. Today, Bunyip is a story known by Australians of all heritages, and is so well known that it is a part of Australian culture.

Contemporary legends have changed from that of The Dreamtime. Now, Bunyip is said to be a primarily nocturnal animal that eats children and lurks in swamps, lakes and billabongs. This change, together with more detailed physical descriptions are largely due to parents in outback regions using the fictional creature as a means to keep children from playing outside at night. “The Bunyip will eat you.”

Descriptions of Bunyip can change drastically. Generally, the creature is described as being larger than a cow, with a head shaped like that of a dog but, with tusks like a walrus and fur like that of a seal. There are many additions that are sometimes added to this description. Some of these include; duck bills, normal feet, clawed feet, webbed feet, hooves, platypus tails, kangaroo tails, horse tails, horns, and flippers. Both original and contemporary legends speak of the “horrible” or “dreadful” crying sound that Bunyip makes.

With the exception of a 9 metre outline dug out in the ground by the Djapwurrong People, the Bunyip was notably never depicted in Aboriginal art, and the descriptions of Bunyip above have developed primarily from the fears and imaginations of early colonials unsure of their environment. Through lack of annual attention, the original outline has now been reclaimed by nature, but in 1840 a sketch was made of the outline where a Bunyip was said to have died. The white people who sketched it, named the outline made by the Djapwurrong People, the Challicum Bunyip.

Dreamtime stories usually tell of real creatures, and it is this fact which now leads some scientists to believe that the Bunyip may be a “cultural memory,” of mega-fauna encountered by the first Indigenous people to come to Australia. These scientists believe that Bunyip may be either the “Diprotodon” or the “Palorchestes.”

For all the widespread speculation about Bunyip, one thing is certain – For over 50,000 years, Bunyip has been a fantastic story.

More Australian Folklore 

Series Introduction and Contents

The Bunyip is part of an ongoing series looking at Australian Folklore. Find links to more on the Table of Contents in the series introduction page.

*This article has previously appeared on other sites.


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