Folktale Friday: Um, Is That A Bunyip?

Photo by Rene Riegal on Unsplash

An elusive resident of outback Australia fond of hanging around swamps, waterholes and billabongs, the bunyip is simultaneously dangerous and nebulous.

Dangerous, thanks to its penchant for chowing down on men, women and children foolish enough to wander by waterholes alone, and nebulous because no one can decide what the folklore fiend actually looks like.

Traditionally a creature from ‘the Dreaming’ (the mythology and creation stories of the Aboriginal people), the Bunyip remains ill defined even among its culture of origin. And, thanks to the myriad languages within that culture, its name even differs from region to region.

Photo by Pixabay on

Bunyip FAQS

“So how can I be sure I’m looking at a bunyip?”

No idea.

Over the last two hundred years the bunyip has been described as looking like everything from a large ox with an elongated neck, to a bigfoot-like giant:

hairy and furry with big red eyes, big teeth, real sharp claws but also web hands, feet like a duck and his colour is like the green brown colour of the Murray River.

Aboriginal education worker, Shane Karpany, ” Watch out for the bunyip”

Why all the confusion?

First of all there’s that language difference thing. Then there’s communication breakdowns between early European settlers and Indigenous people, as well as the habit of the new settlers mistaking all the unique wildlife they were stumbling on as monsters.

Which wasn’t entirely wrong…

“How’s it going?”
Photo by Thomas Couillard on Unsplash

Much like characters in a story by HP Lovecraft, European settlers in the early 1800s were being confronted by beings beyond their comprehension on a daily basis. So it’s no wonder that they struggled to put what they saw into coherent descriptions.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The media of the time wasn’t exactly helping the situation. Newspapers printed accounts of bunyip “sightings” like the article written for the Geelong Advertiser and republished in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1845. In it the bunyip is said to have: “a brightly coloured chest, thick, powerful hind legs, sharp claws and an emu-like head.”

It is also, according to the article, covered in feathers, taller than a man, a strong swimmer and lays colourful eggs twice the size of an emus.

All of this indeed sounds mythological, unless you know about the elusive, enormous Southern cassowary.

“What did you say about my sister, mate?”
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

A tall, hefty bird with a lethal dagger-like claw on each of its feet, the Southern cassowary is fond of a swim, lays giant blue eggs and has the reputation for being aggressive when it or its babies are cornered.

It also, as evidenced by this video, has a flying kick more impressive than any Tekken character.

“It’s okay, I have a rake.”

“Ah, so that’s the bunyip?”

Eh, maybe.

See, while the Southern cassowary has a reputation as ‘the deadliest bird in the world’ and while it is threatening, weird-looking and fond of lurking by waterholes, it’s only found in the tropical rainforests of one state in Australia (Queensland) and bunyip sightings have occurred nationwide.

Also, other sightings describe the bunyip as resembling a large black dog, a seal and even a starfish.

“I’ll kill you and everyone you’ve ever cared about.”
Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

So what have we learnt?

The bunyip is an enigmatic, possibly shape-shifting, creature from Australian indigenous folklore that, like the Kappa of Japan, probably originated as a cautionary tale about the dangers of visiting waterholes and billabongs alone.

And while its appearance is a puzzle, perhaps the bigger mystery is why a country with killer birds, saltwater crocodiles, great white sharks, box jellyfish, snakes and spiders that spring from secret underground burrows to ambush their prey ( aka Trapdoor spiders) would feel it necessary to invent a monster.

“I know, right’?”
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash,prey%2C%20especially%20women%20and%20children.


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