What is a Bunyip?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Bunyip is said to lurk around lakes at night.
Bunyip is said to lurk around lakes at night.

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.

Stories of bunyip captivated the early European settlers of Australia.
Stories of bunyip captivated the early European settlers of Australia.

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I think that it is true what they say about the bunyip.


I don't agree that the Australian bunyip is a complete myth. I think there really was such an animal that lived in Australia a long time ago. I mean alligators live in swamps and can attack people too. I don't think it's a very far off thought that there was an animal who did that.

It must have become extinct but the stories were probably passed on from generation to generation and lives on as legend. I do agree that there is some exaggeration with it but I also think that most Australians are very much aware of this and know that it is just a story.


I think mythological characters are really interesting. I think more than anything, it shows how superstitious a culture is.

I heard that people who've claimed to have seen a bunyip never gave the same account of its physical characteristics. They all said it looks like something else. Some say a duck, some say a cow!

This reminds me of a movie I saw about superstition in India. A man was attacked and claimed that it was done by a monkey that was as large as a human. People immediately believed him because moneys are common in India, they roam around free in many places and tend to be a bit mischievous. But it didn't end there! Every time there was an attack, a theft, a crime of some sort, it was blamed on the monkey who with time attained electrical lights on his chest and the power to jump over buildings.

I think this is probably what happened with bunyips. Every time someone saw an animal, they probably said it was the bunyip. If someone drowned or was hurt in water, it was probably blamed on him.


When I was little, zombie films were a hit and now vampires seem to be the popular thriller. The bunyip might have started out as a mythological character in Australian legends, but from what I read, it also has a big place in popular culture.

There were even children's shows and children books that tried to show a more fun and kinder bunyip. But that hasn't taken away the fear that's associated with him. My Australian friend says he was very frightened from bunyip stories as a child. When I asked him if he really believes in it, he stalled for a minute. He says he's not sure!

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