A book I’m currently reading makes reference to the Bunyip of Australian mythology, so I thought it would be worth further investigating this creature. The name sounds pretty tame to me as an English speaker, perhaps a combination of “bunny” and “yip,” like a rabbit that sounds like a small dog. But no, it’s said to be one of the most terrifying legendary animals of Australia, and that’s saying something on a continent where every animal is deadly to humans. Well, at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten as an outsider, but Australians also like to tell outsiders that there are carnivorous koalas that drop onto people’s heads, so who knows? The thing is that there really doesn’t seem to be any consistent description other than that it’s nasty, eats people, has a loud bellowing cry, and lives in the water.
The name is said to derive from the Wemba-Wemba language of southeastern Australia, and mean “evil spirit.” The creatures are often said to be mammalian, resembling a hippopotamus, manatee, or large seal.
Indeed, leopard seals apparently make bellowing cries like those the monster is supposed to make. The first written use of the term “Bunyip,” from an 1845 newspaper, describes it as having a body like an alligator and a head like an emu, hence presumably not a mammal at all.
As per this account, it has claws, but usually crushes its victims to death. It swims like a frog and walks on land with its head erect. An earlier account of a spirit in the Murray River, not specifically identified as a Bunyip but matching some of the mythology, describes it as resembling a giant starfish. Apparently at least one description makes it a snake with a beard.
Several folk tales revolve around the Bunyip. One that I’ve come across a few places says that Bunyip was originally a man who killed and ate his totem animal, very much a no-no in indigenous Australian religion. The good spirit Biami banished him from the tribe, and he become a monster who lures humans and livestock to his lair so he can eat them.
This story, which appeared in Andrew Lang’s 1904 Brown Fairy Book, has a young man killing a Bunyip cub, and its mother retaliating by flooding the village and turning its inhabitants into swans. More recently, the Bunyip has been used in video games, including Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy X.
Also RuneScape, but I can’t say I know anything about that one. A few years ago, Drew Mackie wrote about the Bunyip in the context of an animated film called Dot and the Kangaroo, which I haven’t seen. The creature is featured in a song, the accompanying animation showing an upright spotted monster, although at one point it turns into a bird.