Fantastic 13th – A Chronicle of Magical Creatures: Bunyip

 

 

bunyip-h-j-ford-1904
The Bunyip by H.J. Ford, published in 1904 as part of The Brown Fairy Book.

 

WHAT IS IT

 

This month’s creature comes from the Down Under – it’s the fearsome bunyip! Depictions of the bunyip vary from story to story, so there’s no clear way to explain what the creature looks like. That being said, all the tales said the same thing: the bunyip is a river monster that does not like people.

The differences could easily be attributed to how the tales varied from tribe to tribe. In one story, a group of warriors find a small bunyip and take the tiny creature hoping to train it as their own personal war animal. When the mother bunyip discovers her baby has been kidnapped, she leaves the lake, tracks down the warriors’ village and destroys everything. The few tribespeople that survived are turned into waterfowl, cursed to live the rest of their lives on the lake where the bunyip resides. (You can read the whole fable here.)

Other myths are the generic, water monster eats person in lake or river. Some tales detail the bunyip as part beaver, part saber tooth tiger. Other myths have the creature as a weird worm monster that makes me never want to go outside ever again.

 

bunyip_1935
Bunyip (1935), Artist Unknow.

 

But for real, if I saw this, I’d run all the way back to America.

ORIGIN

The bunyip is 100% an Aboriginal myth coming from the Indigenous Australians who have lived there for almost 50,000 years. Almost all the history around the creature I could find credited the Aboriginals as warning white settlers about this deadly beast.

The earliest written examples of bunyips began in the 1840s, but a timeline is hard to establish since no one knows what a bunyip actually looks like and it’s portrayed so differently in each myth. Traveler George French Angus makes a note of a river monster the Moorundi tribe feared in his journal, dated 1847, and an Australian newspaper published an article about bunyips in 1851, but I couldn’t find a concrete date of when the first bunyip myth was written.

 

bunyip-diprotodon-skeleton
A complete skeleton on a Diprotodon on display.

 

An interesting theory as to the origin of the bunyip myth was first suggested by museum founder Dr. George Bennett and later tentatively supported by Palaeontologist Pat Vickers-Rich and Geologist Neil Archbold. The theory states that when the very first Aboriginal people migrated to Australia, they came across large beasts like the Diprotodon (skeleton pictured above) – a six-foot tall, ten-foot long herbivore that had two gigantic protruding teeth. Since the beast would have towered over the people, it would have made for quite a frightening sight. Something that could easily become legend.

However, this theory is not widely accepted. I just thought it was interesting enough to include.

 

bunyip-childs-book
A page from Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, published in 1977 features a half-chicken, half-monkey looking bunyip talking to an emu.

 

MODERN USE

Unsurprisingly, most of the modern bunyip use comes from Australian media including a children’s book by Jenny Wagner titled The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek (pictured above). It’s a story of a bunyip who doesn’t know what he is, so he travels the Australian countryside asking the wildlife if they know what kind of creature he is. Since none of the animals know what a bunyip looks like, it takes a whole book for him to discover his species.

The other major Australian media that featured a bunyip was Alexander Bunyip’s Billabonga kids’ show that ran from 1978 to 1988 featuring a bunyip and his friends. There’s an episode you can watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVIEhhnKClA

Besides fiction, the word bunyip has taken on an exciting new life as an insult in Australian slang. Since the bunyip is fictional, calling someone a bunyip means they’re so detached from reality they might as well be fictional. I love it!

 

bunyip-stamps
Stamps with two different looking bunyips

 

 

UNIQUE IDEAS

Because the bunyip’s appearance is unknown, a writer could use that mystery to drive a story. Picture it: the main character needs part of a bunyip to complete a spell – the struggle of finding something unknown could act as a good central conflict with the main character completing little quests in search of answers. Maybe they meet a helpful stranger who just happens to have an important secret *hint hint*.

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