This article is about a mythical creature. For the town in Australia, see Bunyip, Victoria. For the Gawler newspaper, see Bunyip (newspaper). For the 1959 trimaran sailboat, see Bunyip 20.
Drawing of a bunyip in 1890
Country Australia
Region Throughout Australia
Habitat Water

The bunyip is a large mythical creature from Australian Aboriginal mythology, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes. The origin of the word bunyip has been traced to the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia.[1][2][3] However, the bunyip appears to have formed part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, although its name varied according to tribal nomenclature.[4] In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations for the creature known as the bunyip across Aboriginal Australia.[5] Various written accounts of bunyips were made by Europeans in the early and mid-19th century, as settlement spread across the country.


The word bunyip is usually translated by Aboriginal Australians today as "devil" or "evil spirit".[6] However, this translation may not accurately represent the role of the bunyip in pre-contact Aboriginal mythology or its possible origins before written accounts were made. Some modern sources allude to a linguistic connection between the bunyip and Bunjil, "a mythic 'Great Man' who made the mountains and rivers and man and all the animals."[7] The word bunyip may not have appeared in print in English until the mid-1840s.[8]

By the 1850s, bunyip had also become a "synonym for impostor, pretender, humbug and the like" in the broader Australian community.[1] The term bunyip aristocracy was first coined in 1853 to describe Australians aspiring to be aristocrats. In the early 1990s, it was famously used by Prime Minister Paul Keating to describe members of the conservative Liberal Party of Australia opposition.[9][10]

The word bunyip 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 (1935), artist unknown, from the National Library of Australia digital collections, demonstrates the variety in descriptions of the legendary creature.

Descriptions of bunyips vary widely. George French Angus may have collected a description of a bunyip in his account of a "water spirit" from the Moorundi people of the Murray River before 1847, stating it is "much dreaded by them ... It inhabits the Murray; but ... they have some difficulty describing it. Its most usual form ... is said to be that of an enormous starfish."[11] Robert Brough Smyth's Aborigines of Victoria of 1878 devoted ten pages to the bunyip, but concluded "in truth little is known among the blacks respecting its form, covering or habits; they appear to have been in such dread of it as to have been unable to take note of its characteristics."[12] However, common features in many 19th-century newspaper accounts include a dog-like face, a crocodile like head, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns or a duck-like bill.[13]

The Challicum bunyip, an outline image of a bunyip carved by Aborigines into the bank of Fiery Creek, near Ararat, Victoria, was first recorded by The Australasian newspaper in 1851. According to the report, the bunyip had been speared after killing an Aboriginal man. Antiquarian Reynell Johns claimed that until the mid-1850s, Aboriginal people made a "habit of visiting the place annually and retracing the outlines of the figure [of the bunyip] which is about 11 paces long and 4 paces in extreme breadth."[14] The outline image no longer exists.[15]

Debate over origins of the bunyip

Non-Aboriginal Australians have made 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 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",[16] especially southern elephant seals and leopard seals.[17]

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,[18] but in the early 1990s, palaeontologist Pat Vickers-Rich and geologist Neil Archbold also cautiously suggested that Aboriginal legends "perhaps had stemmed from an acquaintance with prehistoric bones or even living prehistoric animals themselves ... When confronted with the remains of some of the now extinct Australian marsupials, Aborigines would often identify them as the bunyip."[19] They also note that "legends about the mihirung paringmal of western Victorian Aborigines ... may allude to the ... extinct giant birds the Dromornithidae."[19]

Another connection to the bunyip is the shy Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus).[20] During the breeding season, the male call of this marsh-dwelling bird is a "low pitched boom";[21] hence, it is occasionally called the "bunyip bird".[7]

Early accounts of settlers

An 1882 illustration of an Aboriginal man telling the story of the bunyip to two white children

During the early settlement of Australia by Europeans, the notion that the bunyip was an actual unknown animal that awaited discovery became common. Early European settlers, unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of the island continent's peculiar fauna, regarded the bunyip as one more strange Australian animal and sometimes attributed unfamiliar animal calls or cries to it. It has also been suggested that 19th-century bunyip lore was reinforced by imported European memories, such as that of the Irish Púca.[7]

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. The following is not an exhaustive list of accounts:

Hume find of 1818

One of the earliest accounts relating to a large unknown freshwater animal was in 1818,[22] when 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. The Philosophical Society of Australasia later offered to reimburse Hume for any costs incurred in recovering a specimen of the unknown animal, but for various reasons, Hume did not return to the lake.[23] It might be noted that Diprotodon skeletons have sometimes been compared to the hippopotamus; they are a land animal, but have sometimes been found in a lake[24] or water course.[25][26]

Wellington Caves fossils, 1830

More significant was the discovery of fossilised bones of "some quadruped much larger than the ox or buffalo"[27] in the Wellington Caves in mid-1830 by bushman George Rankin and later by Thomas Mitchell. Sydney's Reverend John Dunmore Lang announced the find as "convincing proof of the deluge".[28] However, it was British anatomist Sir Richard Owen who identified the fossils as the gigantic marsupials Nototherium and Diprotodon. At the same time, some settlers observed "all natives throughout these ... districts have a tradition (of) a very large animal having at one time existed in the large creeks and rivers and by many it is said that such animals now exist."[29]

First written use of the word bunyip, 1845

In July 1845, The Geelong Advertiser announced the discovery of fossils found near Geelong, under the headline "Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal".[30] This was a continuation of a story on 'fossil remains' from the previous issue.[31] The newspaper continued, "On the bone being shown to an intelligent black (sic), he at once recognised it as belonging to the bunyip, which he declared he had seen.[30] 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".[30] The account provided this description of the creature:

The Bunyip, then, is 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 twelve or thirteen feet in height.[32]

Shortly after this account appeared, it was repeated in other Australian newspapers. However, it appears to be the first use of the word bunyip in a written publication.

Australian Museum's bunyip of 1847

The purported bunyip skull

In January 1846, a peculiar skull was taken from the banks of Murrumbidgee River near Balranald, New South Wales. Initial reports suggested that it was the skull of something unknown to science.[33] The squatter who found it remarked, "all the natives to whom it was shown called [it] a bunyip".[34] By July 1847, several experts, including W. S. Macleay and Professor Owen, had identified the skull as the deformed foetal skull of a foal or calf.[35] At the same time, however, the purported bunyip skull was put on display in the Australian Museum (Sydney) for two days. Visitors flocked to see it, and The Sydney Morning Herald said that it prompted many people to speak out about their "bunyip sightings".[36] Reports of this discovery used the phrase 'Kine Pratie' as well as Bunyip[37] and explorer William Hovell, who examined the skull, also called it a 'katen-pai'.[38]

In March of that year "a bunyip or an immense Platibus" (Platypus) was sighted "sunning himself on the placid bosom of the Yarra, just opposite the Custom House" in Melbourne. "Immediately a crowd gathered" and three men set off by boat "to secure the stranger" who "disappeared" when they were "about a yard from him".[39]

William Buckley's account of bunyips, 1852

Another early written account is attributed to escaped convict William Buckley in his 1852 biography of thirty years living with the Wathaurong people. His 1852 account records "in ... Lake Moodewarri [now Lake Modewarre] as well as in most of the others inland ... is a ... very extraordinary amphibious animal, which the natives call Bunyip." Buckley's account suggests he saw such a creature on several occasions. He adds, "I could never see any part, 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 ... I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail."[40] Buckley also claimed the creature was common in the Barwon River and cites an example he heard of an Aboriginal woman being killed by one. He emphasized the bunyip was believed to have supernatural powers.[41]

The word bunyip has been used in other Australian contexts, including The Bunyip newspaper as the banner of a local weekly newspaper published in the town of Gawler, South Australia. First published as a pamphlet by the Gawler Humbug Society in 1863, the name was chosen because "the Bunyip is the true type of Australian Humbug!"[42] The word is also used in numerous other Australian contexts, including the House of the Gentle Bunyip in Clifton Hill, Victoria.[43]

Numerous tales of the bunyip in written literature appeared in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the earliest known is a story in Andrew Lang's The Brown Fairy Book (1904).

Alexander Bunyip, created by children's author and illustrator Michael Salmon, first appeared in print in The Monster That Ate Canberra[44] in 1972, Alexander Bunyip went on to appear in many other books and a live-action television series, Alexander Bunyip's Billabong. A statue of Alexander was opened in front of the Gungahlin Library in 2011.[45] The artwork by Anne Ross, called 'A is for Alexander, B is for Bunyip, C is for Canberra' was commissioned by the ACT Government for Gungahlin's $3.8 million town park.[46]

The Australian tourism boom of the 1970s brought a renewed interest in bunyip mythology.

Bunyip stories have also appeared outside of Australia.

In the Australian film Frog Dreaming (1986), the story centres around the search for a bunyip called Donkegin.

In the 21st century the bunyip can be considered part of the international consciousness.

See also


  1. 1 2 Hughes, Joan, ed. (1989). Australian Words and Their Origins. Oxford University Press. p. 90. ISBN 0-19-553087-X.
  2. Butler, Susan (2009). The Dinkum Dictionary: The origin of Australian Words. Text Publishing. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-921351-98-3.
  3. Holden 2001, p. 15.
  4. Wannan, Bill (1976) [1970]. Australian Folklore. Landsdowne Press. p. 101. ISBN 0-7018-0088-7.
  5. Holden 2001.
  6. See for example, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)'s story in Stradbroke Dreamtime.
  7. 1 2 3 Davey, Gwenda; Seal, Graham, eds. (1993). The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore. Oxford University Press. pp. 55–56. ISBN 0-19-553057-8.
  8. See Geelong Advocate 2 July 1845 at Peter Ravenscroft's Bunyip and Inland Seal Archive
  9. "Parliamentary decorum".
  10. McGillivray, Don (15 August 1994). "But those names will never hurt them". Windsor Star.
  11. George French Angus(1847) Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Vol 1, p.99. London. Reprinted 1969 Libraries Board of South Australia.
  12. Smyth cited in Holden 2001, p. 175
  13. For numerous examples see Peter Ravenscroft's survey of nineteenth century newspaper accounts of the bunyip at Bunyip and Inland Seal Archive
  14. Johns cited in Holden 2001, p. 176
  15. Holden 2001, p. 176.
  16. Fenner 1933, pp. 2–6.
  18. Holden 2001, p. 90.
  19. 1 2 Vikers-Rich, Pat; Monaghan, J.M.; Baird, R.F.; Rich, T.H., eds. (1991), Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia, Pioneer Design Studio and Monash University, p. 2, ISBN 0-909674-36-1
  20. Fenner 1933, p. 6.
  21. Simpson, Ken; Day, Nicolas; Trusler, Peter (1999), Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Viking Books, Australia, p. 72, ISBN 0-670-87918-5
  22. Holden 2001, p. 86.
  23. See minutes cited (19 December 1821) in Peter Ravenscroft's Bunyip and Inland Seal Archive
  24. Price, G. J. (August 2006). "Taxonomy and palaeobiology of the largest-ever marsupial, Diprotodon Owen, 1838 (Diprotodontidae, Marsupialia)". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 153 (2): 369–397. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2008.00387.x.
  25. Musser, Anne (8 April 2013). "Diprotodon optatum". Australian Museum. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
  26. "Tambar Springs Diprotodon". Retrieved 1 January 2014. Cites Australian Museum and Coonabarabran Visitor Information and Exhibition Centre as source of information.
  27. Ranken, George cited in Holden 2001, p. 86
  28. Lang cited in Holden 2001, p. 86
  29. Cited in Holden 2001, p. 88
  30. 1 2 3 "WONDERFUL DISCOVERY OF A NEW ANIMAL.". Geelong Advertiser and Squatters' Advocate (Vic. : 1845 – 1847). Vic.: National Library of Australia. 2 July 1845. p. 2. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  31. "No Title.". Geelong Advertiser and Squatters' Advocate (Vic. : 1845 – 1847). Vic.: National Library of Australia. 28 June 1845. p. 2. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  32. The Geelong Advertiser 2 July 1845 in Peter Ravenscroft's Bunyip and Inland Seal Archive
  33. "PUBLIC THOROUGHFARES.". Geelong Advertiser and Squatters' Advocate. National Library of Australia. 12 January 1847. p. 2 Edition: EVENING. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  34. Cited in Holden 2001, p. 91
  35. Holden 2001, pp. 92–93.
  36. National library of Australia. Bunyips – Evidence
  37. "THE BUNYIP, OR KINE PRATIE.". Sydney Chronicle. National Library of Australia. 23 January 1847. p. 2. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  38. "ORIGINAL CORRESPONDENCE.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 9 February 1847. p. 3. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  39. "PORT PHILLIP.". The South Australian. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 2 March 1847. p. 7. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  40. Tim Flannery(Ed.)(2002): The Life and Adventures of William Buckley; 32 Years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored country around Port Phillip, now the Province of Victoria by John Morgan. First published 1852. This edition, Text Publishing, Melbourne Australia. p.66. ISBN 1-877008-20-6
  41. Tim Flannery(Ed.)(2002) The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. pp. 138–9
  42. "The Bunyip". Home Page. The Bunyip, (Gawler's Weekly Newspaper). 2000. Archived from the original on 21 July 2006. Beneath the nineteenth-century dignity of colonial Gawler ran an undercurrent of excitement. Somewhere in the mildness of the spring afternoon an antiquated press clacked out a monotonous rhythm with a purpose never before known in the town. Then the undercurrent burst in a wave of jubilation—Gawler's first newspaper, "The Bunyip", was on the streets.
  43. The 1860s house was saved from demolition by community action and redeveloped as a home for low income people.
  44. Salmon, Michael. The Monster That Ate Canberra. ISBN 0-9579550-4-9.
  45. Bunyip coming to Gungahlin. Australia: WIN News. 4 September 2009. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  46. Griffiths, John, The Bunyip unveiled, RiotACT, archived from the original on 24 May 2013
  47. "What to See & Do in Murray Bridge". Murray Bridge Tourism Information. Adelaide Hills On-Line. Archived from the original on 11 May 2013. Retrieved 26 May 2007. When a coin is inserted in the machine the bunyip raises from the depths of its cave, booming forth its loud ferocious roar.
  48. Wagner, Jenny. The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek. ISBN 0-14-050126-6.
  49. Dot and the Kangaroo (1977), Sweet Soundtrack, archived from the original on 23 November 2013
  50. Jenkins, Graham. The Ballad of the Blue Lake Bunyip. ISBN 0949641030.
  51. Wilkinson, Gerry, Bertie The Bunyip on Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, archived from the original on 31 July 2013
  52. "Bunyip". Chrono Wiki. 2014-03-27. Retrieved 2016-09-19.
  53. Pinkwater, Daniel (2009), The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization (Kindle AZW file), HMH Books for Young Readers
  54. Novik, Naomi (2010). Tongues of Serpents. Ballantine Books. ISBN 9780345496904.


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bunyip.
  • Holden, Robert (2001), Bunyips: Australia's folklore of fear, National Library of Australia, ISBN 0-642-10732-7 
  • Fenner, Charles (1933), Bunyips and Billabongs, Sydney: Angus and Robertson 
  • Tim the Yowie Man (22 November 2013). "Tim the Yowie Man: The bunyip hunt". The Canberra Times. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 23 November 2013. 
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