The average bush youngster has a horror of darkness,
and talks in awe-struck whispers of hairy men, ghosts, and
bunyips. This fear is inculcated from babyhood.
The mother can’t always be watching in a playground
that is boundless ... so she tells them there is a bunyip in the lagoon.
Life in the Australian Back-Blocks, 1911
The bunyip is a dragon or water monster in Aboriginal mythology. The name comes from an Aboriginal word meaning 'devil' or 'spirit'. Acording to legend, the bunyip lurks in the calm waters of swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes in Australia, eating crayfish and making loud, terrifying noises during the night. It subsists on crayfish unless none are available, at which time it emerges from the waters to drown and eat humans, preferring women and children. It is sometimes credited with causing diseases. Belief in the bunyip continues today, with the addendum that Europeans (and presumably those of European descent) cannot see the dragon, and it has become somewhat popular in children's literature.
The monster is described with a wide variety of appearances ranging from animal to spirit. Some say that it is roughly the size and shape of a calf, with large horns, the head of a bulldog and the tail of a whale. Other descriptions include gorilla-like: covered in fur and man-shaped, half-animal and half-man, purely ethereal or reptilian. Tribes in central Australia claim the bunyip (which they call wanambi) is a huge, brightly colored snake with a mane and beard. The people in Coorong, in southern Australia believe that the bunyip is again huge, but also has a long neck, the head of a bird and a fur-covered body that has both human and animal characteristics. The bunyip of the Coorong people lays enormous eggs and lives near water, not in it.
The two well-known legends of the bunyip both feature children, which may indicate that the monster was/is used as a scare-tactic by Aboriginal parents to make children behave. One tale tells of a young boy capturing a baby bunyip. The bunyip's mother was furious and flooded the land until the baby was set free. Though the waters subsided, the young boy and his friends swam away, having become black swans. In the second tale, a bunyip was chasing three girls. To save them, their father turned them into rocks with a magic stick, and then turned himself into a lyre bird. He could not hold the stick as a bird, however, and so was not able to turn his daughters back into human form. The three rocks can still be seen today and are called the Three Sisters.
The bunyip is also of interest to cryptozoologists, as it was used to name mysterious water-dwelling creatures seen by white settlers. They were warned by nearby Aboriginal tribes of the strange man-eating monsters that lived in calm waters. But, through various sightings and hoax or unusual skulls, no real evidence has ever been found. In 1821, Hamilton Hume reported seeing an unusual animal in Lake Bathurst, New South Wales that was assumed to be a hippopotamus. He was given a grant by the Philosophical Society in order to obtain a specimen of the animal and later that year, in a letter to the Sydney Gazette, he described an animal with a head like a bulldog that made noises like a porpoise. Later, in 1852, an account of an actual bunyip sighting by William Buckley (an escaped convict) was published. He said:
"I could never see any part of the bunyip except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky-grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full-grown calf … When alone, I several times attempted to spear a Bun-yip; but had the natives seen me do so it would have caused great displeasure. And again, had I succeeded in killing, or even wounding one, my own life would probably have paid the forfeit; they considering the animal … something supernatural."
No physical evidence of the animal has ever been found, but some scientists speculate that the stories of the bunyip might be based on the extinct Diprotodon, an plant-eating marsupial the size of a rhinocerous. The first Diprotodon bones were found in 1830 and in 1893 a large number of bones were discovered in a dry lake bed in south Australia. Diprotodon died out about 40,000 years ago*, long after the Aboriginals came to Australia, and it may be that stories of the creature passed from one generation to the next, evolving into stories of man-eating monsters. Two other explanations are that the bunyip sightings are actually only seals that have ventured away from the coast via rivers and that the fearsome noises attributed to the bunyip are simply the calls of Brown Bitterns.
Other bunyip legends can be found at:
* Aboriginals may have hunted Diprotodon for food. Recently, a skull that was evidently pierced by a spear was found.