February 21, 2010

The Gorbey - Pluck at Your Own Risk


A gorbey, or gray jay.

Although it was warm (in the 40s!) this weekend, I hear more snow is due this week. We're not done with winter yet. Or is that the other way around? Anyway, here's some wintry weirdness!

The gorbey, or gray jay, is a small lively bird that haunts the secluded pine forests of northern New England. Gorbeys often become tame in lumber camps, and will eat food from the loggers' plates. The name gorbey is derived from the French word corveaux (crow), and it was the French Canadian lumbermen of New England who first whispered it was bad luck to injure or drive away a gorby. Because although it looks like an ordinary bird, a gorbey may actually be the soul of a lumberman in ornithomorphic, or bird-like, form.

The risk of harming this innocent seeming bird is shown in a story about a logging camp foreman named Esau. Esau was a large, brutally strong man, who ruled over the other loggers by fear. He had copious amounts of hair on his head, chin and body, and told the other loggers his hair was a sign of his great strength. Needless to say, everyone in the camp hated his guts.

One snowy winter night, a small gorbey flew into the bunkhouse. The loggers refused to harm the bird, thinking it might be the soul of a friend who had died. Esau laughed, and called them superstitious. Catching the gray bird in one giant hairy hand, he said "This bird has the eyes of Frenchy Aucoin, who died a few weeks ago. I didn't like him when he was alive, and I like him even less now that he is dead." With a brutish laugh, Esau plucked the feathers from the bird's body, and tossed it out the window into the storm. The other men looked on with fear, but didn't intervene.

When Esau awoke the next morning, he was horrified to see that his head, chin and body were completely hairless. His great strength was gone as well. The other loggers were also freaked out, and knew his transformation was caused by his cruelty to the gorbey. Worried his supernatural misfortune might be contagious, they forced him out into the snow. Esau was never able to work at another lumber camp, and eventually got a job catching stray horses. No man ever shared a table or roof with him again, and Esau was always followed by storms for the remainder of his cursed life.

I found this story in Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore, but he got it from Gerald Averill's Ridge Runner. The Story of a Maine Woodsman. It's a good one! I like its odd combination of Biblical themes, New England lore and supernatural theory. Esau is Jacob's hairy brother in Genesis (even his name means "hairy" in Hebrew), and the story of Samson and his ill-fated haircut is also an influence. It's definitely set in New England and deals with local wildlife and occupations.

But it's all tied together by the old belief that human souls can appear outside the body in animal form. Known in occult lore as the fetch or fylgia, this animal soul can appear outside the body of a living person, not just a dead one. Unfortunately for Esau, he didn't have this piece of arcane knowledge. If he did, he would have realized the gorbey wasn't the soul of Frenchy Aucoin, but was actually his own.

For some similar stories, see my post about Graycoat the rattlesnake or witches and black cats.

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