The bunyip is a mythological creature whose origins date back to Australian Aboriginal lore. Stories of the bunyip captivated the early European settlers of Australia. Today myths of this fearsome beast, with a name that translates as spirit or devil still exist and are a part of Australian heritage.
According to most legends, the bunyip is a water monster, with a significant penchant for bloodthirstiness. It is described as having the tusks of a walrus, the tail of a horse, and flippers. It is said to lurk at night around lakes, rivers, streams, water holes and possibly even wells. It is at night when those encountering the bunyip are in the most danger. If they approach the lurking place of a bunyip, they will hear frightening cries of the monster, and are likely to be devoured by it.
When Europeans first settled in Australia, many believed that bunyips actually existed. There were so many strange and unique animals in the country that it didn’t stretch credibility greatly to think that a water monster such as this could exist. In the mid-19th century, a skull was found that seemed to indicate the real presence of bunyips. This was likely a hoax, or a fossil, and strangely, the skull disappeared after a few days exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Hoax or not, people in the 19th century fairly regularly reported sightings of bunyips, keeping the legend going.
There are several creatures upon which this legendary creature may be based. First, from time to time, Australian Fur Seals get trapped inland when flooding occurs. They do make a cry similar to that ascribed to the bunyip. Another possibility is that bunyips are based on fossilized animal skeletons, such as the prehistoric kangaroo relative, Procoptodon. Procoptodon fossils suggest these creatures were extremely large, over 500 pounds (226.8 kg) in weight, and that they could have been able to lift their arms above their heads.
Since 2001, the National Library of Australia has had a traveling exhibition on bunyips. Visited by adults and children alike, this exhibition weaves in practical science, with Aboriginal tales of the bunyip, and inspired illustrations. A website created by the Australian government gives details of the exhibition and has several tales reprinted. Though you’re not likely to encounter one of these creatures anywhere in Australia, such exhibitions and history do show how a mythical creature can take on symbolic importance to a nation.