January 30, 2009

Grandmother Woodchuck

One thing I love about Algonquin mythology is how the natural world and the human world interact in one big social system. A woman marries a bear and gives birth to his son, who turns out to be human. Two weasel sisters (who live as if they were human) accidentally marry two stars. A powerful wizard, who is a partridge, battles the evil porcupine sorcerers who killed his water-spirit wife. Underlying these myths is the assumption that all creatures are basically the same, and therefore deserving of our respect.

One of my favorite beings in these stories is Grandmother Woodchuck. She's the grandmother of Glooskap, a culture hero among the Wabanaki tribes. Glooskap reminds me a little bit of Hercules, since he's always fighting monsters and making the world safe for humans. There's a little bit of Merlin in him as well, because he's a powerful magician. But really he's a unique being in his own right. Unlike Hercules or Merlin, he's a trickster, purely good-hearted, and more than a little naive. Despite all his powers, he often makes dumb mistakes.

Grandmother Woodchuck is always there to help him fix those mistakes. In one story, Glooskap ties up the giant eagle who creates the world's winds, and doesn't untie him until his grandmother points out that the world will become hot, stagnant and uninhabitable without wind. In another, Glooskap captures all the world's animals in a magic bag woven from woodchuck hair. He only lets them go when Grandmother Woodchuck points out that everyone else will starve to death with no game to hunt.

As we approach Groundhog Day, it's nice to know that other cultures recognize the wisdom of this magical creature, because woodchuck is just another name for a groundhog. The word comes from the Algonquin word "wojak."

January 26, 2009

Young Raccoons in Love

Everyone deserves to be loved!

I was looking through the 2009 edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac, and came across a startling piece of news. According to the Almanac, raccoons will begin mating on January 28, which is this Wednesday.

Poking around on the Web, I read that raccoon mating season begins in late Janauary, and ends in early March. If they really do begin mating on January 28 (which may just be an approximation by the Almanac writers), it should be a national holiday. Raccoon Love Day?

With Groundhog Day fast approaching, this is clearly a very special time for our furry friends.

January 16, 2009

Prince Hall's Funeral Monument

In honor of Martin Luther King Day and Barack Obama's impending inauguration, I'm posting these photos of Prince Hall's funeral monument at Boston's Copp's Hill Burying Ground.

When I think of Olde Colonial Bostonians, I tend to picture white people wearing wigs and tricorn hats. This is not an accurate image! There were lots of black people as well (probably also wearing wigs and tricorn hats). In fact, more than 1,000 African-Americans from Boston's early years are buried at Copp's Hill, mostly in unmarked graves.

One African American with a well marked grave is Prince Hall (1738 - 1807, but his grave marker says 1748 - 1807). As you can learn on the Web, or if you visit Copp's Hill, Prince Hall was a prominent black citizen of Boston, and probably fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He also was an abolitionist, civil rights activist, and educator.

However, he's most famous for being one of the first black Freemasons in America, and was named Grand Master of the African Grand Lodge of North America (later renamed the Prince Hall Lodge). In 1895, the Masons erected an enormous monument to recognize his contributions. Prince Hall lodges still exist around the world.

How is this folklore? Well, there's a lot of mysterious lore about the Masons - secret conspiracies, the eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill, etc. I think it's pretty exciting that we have an important one buried right here in Boston.

January 11, 2009

Attacked by Magical Little People?

The Boston Phoenix has an article about local crypozoologists, people who study mysterious creatures like Bigfoot, the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster.

New Enlgand has plenty of monsters lurking around, including the Lake Champlain monster and the Dover Demon. The various Algonquin tribes also have a tradition of troll-like little people who like to cause trouble.

The Web site Massachusetts Paranormal Crossroads has an article about these creatures in southern Massachusetts, calling them pukwudgies, and warning of their evil powers. On YouTube, you can see a short video of someone apparently being attacked (or possessed?) by a pukwudgie.

According to anthropologist William Simmons book Spirits of the New England Tribes, the first account of these little people in southern New England was recorded in 1903 by Frank Speck. A Mohegan woman named Fidelia Fielding talked about the muhkeahweesug, little forest-dwelling men who beg at houses for food, and invisibly steal things if you refuse to give them what they want. In general, they were friendly to humans. Many stories of similar creatures were recorded in northern New England in the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, Thomas Weston used the Ojibwa word pukwudgie instead of muhkeaweesug to describe local little people in his book History of the Town of Middleboro, Massachusetts. In 1934, Clarence Wixon (Chief Red Shell, historian of the Nauset Wampanoag tribe) also borrowed the word pukwudgie to name the little people. It seems as though pukwudgie is slowly replacing muhkeaweesug, maybe because it is easier to pronounce.

I can understand how the muhkeaweesug became pukwudgies, but not how they changed from relatively friendly spirits to malevolent monsters. Maybe they're unhappy at being videoed? Maybe the investigators are categorizing them according to a good/evil dichotomy that doesn't exist in the original folklore?

If you want to see a more positive view of the muhkeaweesug, the Mohegan tribe has clips from a nice video based on a legend (available on their Web site ).

January 04, 2009

Cannibal Giants of the Snowy Northern Forest

A wendigo from a BPRD comic.

The holiday season has come and gone, but we still have two months of winter to get through. What better symbol of the coming cold months than the cannibal giants of Algonquin mythology?

Many people have heard of the wendigo, the cannibal monster found in American Indian folklore across much of the northern US and Canada. Wendigos have been featured in movies, comic books and TV shows. In northern New England, the five Wabanaki tribes talk about a similar creature, known either as the chenoo, the giwakwa, or the kiwakwa. You should avoid it no matter what it's called!

According to Frank Speck's 1935 article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in The Journal of American Folklore, the word "kiwakwa" means "going about in the woods." If you don't want to see one of these monsters stay out of the woods during the winter.

The chenoo/giwakwa/kiwakwa is a human being who has been transformed through dark magic into a cannibalistic giant. Much like the Incredible Hulk, they get larger as they get angrier, and often tower above the tallest tree. Unlike the Hulk, they are emaciated, have enormous fangs, and often have eaten their own lips in hunger. They are always hungry, and their scream will kill any human who hears it. Sometimes, a dead shaman of great power may return from his grave as a chenoo. Chenoos usually appear in the winter.

Chenoo get their evil powers from a lump of human-shaped ice in their stomach. There are several tales where clever people make a chenoo vomit up the ice lump, which returns it to human form. In some stories, making a chenoo eat salt will melt the lump.

Chopping a chenoo into many small pieces is the only way to be certain it won't regenerate, and even after it's killed people will avoid the spot where it died.

There are many chenoo legends online. The Girl Chenoo tells how a young woman is turned into a monster by a rejected suitor; it's a downer! A story with a similar title but happier outcome is The Girl and the Chenoo, which tells how a wife saved her family from being eaten.