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Beware The Bunyip
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With sharp teeth, long reaching hands and the desire to grab anybody foolish enough to visit the waters edge alone, the Bunyip is one of the few Aboriginal spirit creatures that has become part of everyday Australian Culture.

Non-Aboriginal Australians have made various attempts to understand and explain the origins of the bunyip as a physical entity over the past 150 years with many different theories being put forward.

Head of Anthology for the South Australian Museum, Phillip Clarke says that initially Europeans explorers were unsure if the bunyip was a real or mythical creature...

"The word bunyip in many parts of Australia became sort of the pigeon word meaning Aboriginal spirit connected with waterways. So although we're dealing with many different language terms, in Australian English we tend to refer to all of those water spirits, particularly the bad ones, the ones that are bad for people perhaps causing drowning and things as bunyips."

So What is a Bunyip?

A bunyip is generally accepted to be a mythical creature, the term originating from the Australian indigenous people.  In traditional Aboriginal culture, the bunyip is known Australia wide by a variety of different names and guises. The name means “evil spirit” in the Aboriginal language and  is also called Moolgewanke, Tuntabah, Tunatpan, and Wee-Waa.

Beware The Bunyip
“Bunyip” (1935), artist unknown, from the National Library of Australia digital collections.

This fierce, bellowing Water-Monster is said to dwell at the bottom of still swamps, lakes, rivers, creeks, water holes, and billabongs of the Australian Outback.  Their blood-curdling cries are said to be heard at night as they attack and devour any poor creatures that venture near their watery abodes.

Generally described as being about the size of a calf, and resembling a dark, hairy seal or hippo - sometimes with long arms and enormous claws - the Bunyip has also been depicted with walrus-like tusks, fins, scales, flippers, wings, a long, horselike tail, and/or feathers. In Tasmania, it is called the Universal Eye, and is portrayed as a snake and is feared greatly as a man-eater.

Beware The Bunyip
Beware The Bunyip

Local Aboriginal education worker, Shane Karpany, said that in the local Ngarrinderi Aboriginal culture, the bunyip is know as the Mulgewanki.

"What I was taught what he looks like was he's half man and half fish, he's got a lot of the ribbon weed on him, he's twice the size of the average man. He's still a bit 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 River."

Bunyip or Mulgewanki
Mulgewanki (Pronounced Moolyawonk) the bunyip is a dreamtime creature who watches over the River Murray. (Sarah Possingham)

Bunyip sightings have historically been reported to newspapers in many and varying descriptions.

There were even a series of postage stamps released 1994. The Australian Postal Service issued a series of four highly popular stamps featuring different concepts of the Bunyip.

Bunyip Postage Stamps
1994 Australian Postal stamps depicting images of the Bunyip.

During the early European settlement of Australia, when its unique creatures were still being discovered, it was generally assumed that the Bunyip was just another unknown but ordinary animal. Unfamiliar and unidentifiable nocturnal cries were attributed to the Bunyip. In 1846, the discovery of a bizarre skull on the banks of Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales—an area associated with such Bunyip calls—seemed to provide tangible evidence of the Bunyip’s existence. Several experts rashly concluded that it was something unknown to science, and in 1847, the alleged “Bunyip skull” was exhibited in the Australian Museum in Sydney. Unfortunately, the mysterious skull was later identified as that of a deformed horse or calf.

The word carries on in use today: from the small town of Bunyip in Victoria to the Bunyip River (also located in Victoria) even to Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in the 1990s describing the opposition party as bunyips!




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