By Sara Fawley and Leisa Knox Papin
terThe Bunyip is one of the most fascinating of the water cryptids. This is not necessarily because of any special abilities or features it has but because the descriptions of the creature are so varied, Although Aboriginal accounts of the creature date back to the early 1800’s, the descriptions are all remarkably different even among the Aboriginal tribes from region to region.
Bunyip translates to “devil” or “spirit”. Judging by Aboriginal accounts of the creature this is fitting. In legend it is said to be a ferocious creature that will sneak up on unsuspecting people and devour them. It is said to emit terrifying, bloodthirsty howls before pouncing on it’s hapless victims. On the other hand, modern accounts of the creature report it as being docile and shy of humans, often retreating quickly when spotted and apparently an herbivore as it has been spotted graingon grasses and trees along the shoreline.
Physical descriptions of the animal vary even more. The descriptions of size range from enormous to being the size of a large dog, and everything in between. It is either smooth skinned, covered in hair or has feathers. Reports of it’s body range from like a hippopotamus to an ox to a dog. The head has been described as like a dog with large protruding tusks, the head of a horse and even a head and neck like an emu. It’s habitat varies from swamps to lakes to inland. The only thing really tying all of these sightings together is that the bulk of the reports are from the area around Lake George and Lake Bathurst., although a few do come from other areas.
In 1848, an unnamed Aboriginal from the Murray River region drew a picture of the Bunyip. The picture depicted a large animal with the body of a hippopotamus and the head of a horse. In that same time period another Aboriginal, this gentleman from the Victoria area also drew a picture. His picture showed a large animal with the head and neck of an emu.
One incident of note is that in 1847 a skull was found an reported to be that of a Bunyip. It was displayed at the Australian Museum in Sydney. The exhibit lasted a mere two days before quietly being shut down amid controversy surrounding it’s authenticity. At this same time an article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the skull. After the appearance of the article , people stepped forward in droves to report their own terrifying encounters with the creature.
How can one creature that has been reported over centuries have such a widely varied description? There are a couple of theories on that. One is that any unidentified animal spotted in proximity to these areas is being reported as a Bunyip. Many of these cases are most likely misidentification of known animals. Some could be seals, alligators, possibly even an actual dog taking a swim, or any other number of local animals whose sudden appearance in the water, at a distance could fool someone who wasn’t used to seeing it into thinking they had witnessed something remarkable.
Another theory, this one mainly dealing with the Aboriginal tales and variances in description is that it could be “cultural memories”. As with any indigenous peoples the Aboriginals have strong cultural practices which include the passing down of lore and legend through word of mouth stories. Thousands of years ago before the first outside settlers arrived, the indigenous peoples of Australia shared the outback with Mega fauna such as the Diprotodon, a giant wombat like creature that could weigh up to 2 tons. Stories of the Diprotodon and other mega fauna passed down through story and song could be the basis for the rarely seen Bunyip of Aboriginal legend and could explain the differences in descriptions. Tribes in different areas would not necessarily have the same creatures to deal with.
Other possible theories as to what the creature could possibly be include the doyarchu (Irish Crocodile), giant otter, undiscovered aquatic marsupial, an undiscovered species of freshwater seal, an Australian fur seal ( which is known to emit a loud cry like that attributed to the Bunyip), the Procoptodon (a giant kangaroo whose fossils have been found in the area) and the above mentioned Diprotodon,
So what is the answer? With so many widely varying descriptions it is impossible to say for sure. Most likely there is some truth in most, if not all of the theories. Sightings have tapered off over the years and while most Australians keep the Bunyip in the category of myth and legend that does not mean it has been forgotten. The National Library of Australia sponsors a traveling exhibition on Bunyips, there are several stories on the government websites about the creature and a set of four postage stamps commemorating this long time Australian legend have been issued. While it may never be proved it will ever live in the memories and folklore of Australia.