May 30, 2010

Now for Some Gothic Entertainment

A playbill for The Castle Spectre, from Wikipedia.

"Plays were sucked out of the Devil's teats to nourish us in idolatrie, heathenrie and sinne." (A Puritan clergyman quoted in Bruce Daniels' Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England.)

The Puritan hierarchy that dominated New England, and the Puritan mentality that lingered after it was gone, frowned upon entertainment and spectacle. As readers of this blog know, holidays were one battle zone between the Puritan ethic and more uninhibited human expression. The theater was another.

Theatrical productions were unknown in Boston until the late 1780s, although they had appeared in more liberal Rhode Island before the Revolutionary War. When they finally did appear in Boston, they confirmed the Puritans worst fears.

The most popular plays performed in Boston were Gothic spectacles like Bluebeard, The Castle Spectre, A Tale of Mystery, or The Wood Demon. As the titles indicate, the scripts featured castles, ghosts, monsters, women in danger, and manipulative villains. The audiences wanted to see sex, the supernatural and violence, and the theater companies obliged. Apparently the audiences didn't want to see good acting, as most reviews from the time complain that the productions emphasized lurid Gothic spectacle over decent performances.

The spectacle in the seats rivaled that on the stage. In between drinking, smoking and eating, the audience members would scream at the stage and pelt it with rotten food if they were displeased. Much like today, the pricier seats were at the front of the house, but happily theater goers today don't need to worry about being showered with moldy cabbage. The upper balconies and boxes were much cheaper, and were often used by prostitutes to conduct business.

I'm one of those people who gets annoyed by people who talk during movies, so I'm glad I didn't have to sit through a production of Bluebeard in 1804. (I got this information from M. Susan Anthony's book Gothic Plays and American Society, 1784 - 1830.)

May 22, 2010

He Created Mankind Out of Wood

Knocking on heaven's door - the sun setting in the southwest.

Last week, I posted about Hobbomok, the southern Algonquian deity Puritans associated with the Devil. Today, let's talk about Cautantowwit, the one they equated with their Christian god.

According to the various Algonquian tribes of Southern New England, Cautantowwit is the manitou who created mankind, and all the other manitous. He also made mankind. He first tried to populate the world with a man and woman made of stone, but was unhappy with the result. For his second try he crafted a man and woman from wood. He liked these people better, and this couple became the ancestors of mankind. Cautantowwit is also responsible for instituting agriculture, sending his messenger the crow with corn, squash and beans to give to humanity.

Cautantowwit lives in a heavenly realm in the southwest, the direction from which the most pleasant weather reaches New England. (Notice how he's diametrically opposed to Hobbomok, who lives in the northeast). The souls of virtuous people are received into Cautantowwit's realm after death; the evil are refused entry, and wander the world as restless ghosts. In 1624, Edward Winslow recorded this belief among the Wompanoags of Cape Cod:

This his habitation lieth far westward in the heavens, they say; thither the bad men go also, and knock at this door, but he bids them quatchet, that is to say, walk abroad, for there is no place for such; so they wander in restless want and penury.

Cautantowwit and his heavenly realm are also associated with the thunderbird, a sacred, beautiful bird, often represented in art as a winged human. Belief that the thunderbird brings thunder was found among the Narragansett well into the 19th century. (The thunderbird deserves his own post - maybe in August when the weather is more appropriately charged!)

Unlike Hobbomok and many other powerful manitous, Cautantowwit did not appear in dreams and visions. The various Algonquian groups honored him with ritual feasting and dancing; the Narragansett of Rhode Island were particularly exemplary in the honor that they accorded him.

Cautantowwit is also known by other names and spellings, including Cautantouwit, Keihtan, and Kiehtan. Other manitous are mentioned (Tantum, Woonand, and Mannitt) who might also be Cautantowwit by other names.

It's easy to see why the Puritans thought Cautantowwit was the same god as Jehovah. They both live in the sky, created mankind, and rule over the virtuous dead. The Algonquians weren't monotheists, though, which screws up the whole Cautantowwit = God (and Hobbomok = the Devil) equation. Roger Williams and other early New England chroniclers wrote that the local Indians knew many gods, including gods for the sun, the moon, and the ocean. The Puritans were just trying to understand a poytheistic system in monotheistic terms. It makes me a little sad that we don't know more about the Algonquian belief system.

My sources for this week's post are William Simmons' Spirit of the New England Tribes, Kathleen Bragdon's Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650, and Roger Williams' A Key Into the Language of the Americas.

May 16, 2010

Hobbomok and Shamanic Power

You never know who's waiting in that swamp...

In my recent post about devil-sex, I mentioned that Elizabeth Goodman of New Haven was accused of having sex with Hobbamocke, an Indian deity the Puritans equated with the Christian Devil. I thought I'd write a little more about this interesting entity.

First of all, Hobbamocke is spelled many ways (Hobamock, Hobbomok, Hobbomock, etc.), and is also known by different names, like Abbomocho, Chepian, Chepi, and Cheepi. His multiple names reflect his slippery nature - he's elusive and hard to pin down.

As a deity (or manitou), he's associated with death, the color black, the northeast (the direction from which the worst weather reaches New England), swamps, and dense woodlands. I can see why the Puritans claimed Hobbomok was the Christian Devil in disguise, but the Algonquians took a more balanced view of this deity. For example, although he was sometimes harmful, Hobbomok could also heal disease and convey invulnerability to weapons.

Hobbomok was also the manitou who helped the most powerful shamans, and the Algonquians of southern New England often sought visions of him. To see Hobbomok, young men would spend the night in a desolate place, drinking a mixture of potent herbs including the hallucinogen white hellebore. The herbal concoction caused vomiting, but the initiates would drink their own vomit (often mixed with regurgitated blood) until the mixture remained in their stomachs. (Note: Don't ever try this!) Receiving a vision of Hobbomok during the ordeal conveyed shamanic power. He would also appear in dreams of his own accord, an occurrence which would make the dreamer a shaman from that time forward.

There were two important types of shamans, both having strong relationships with Hobbomok: the pniese, who was immune to weapons, and the powwow, who could heal heal his clients or harm his enemies using his spirit allies. (The word powwow now means an American Indian gathering, but originally meant shaman). In times of trouble, such as war, shamans would often lead their people into the swamps, where they could communicate more easily with Hobbomok or other watery, underworld spirit allies.

Hobbomok appears in dreams in many forms, including a deer, a man, or an eagle, but his favorite forms are the eel and the snake. Terrifyingly, Hobbomok also sometimes appears as a European, as John Josselyn recorded in 1674:

"Another time, two Indians and an Indess, came running into our house crying out they should all dye, Cheepie (Hobbomok) was gone over the field gliding in the air with a long rope hanging from one of his legs: we askt them what he was like, they said all wone Englishman, clothed with hat and coat, shooes and stockings."

I found this Hobbomok information in two places: William Simmons' Spirit of the New England Tribes, and Kathleen Bragdon's Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650.

May 09, 2010

Hannah Duston Part II - Was She Helped by a Fairy?

OK, here's the follow up to my initial post about Hannah Duston.

One of the big mysteries surrounding Hannah is how she managed to murder and scalp 10 of her captors while they slept. Wouldn't someone have screamed and woken everyone else? A few years ago I found one possible answer to this question in Eva Speare's 1932 collection, New Hampshire Folk Tales.

According to one Mrs. J. G. MacMurphy of Derry, New Hampshire, a benevolent fairy queen named Tsienneto (Neto for short) lived in Derry's Beaver Lake. Neto took pity on Hannah when she and her captors stopped by the lake as they were heading away from Haverhill, and promised to "accompany her unseen by her captors and to supply all her needs." Neto followed Hannah and the Indians up the Merrimac river, and eventually cast a spell over the Indians so they would sleep soundly while Hannah killed them. Afterwards, Neto helped Hannah and her companions return safely to Haverhill.

Hmmmm. I don't know if I'm entirely satisfied by Mrs. MacMurphy's explanation.

The local Indians certainly believed in beings that are similar to European fairies. But why would a local native American fairy help a Puritan English settler against local Indians? The Puritans wanted to eradicate native supernatural beliefs. Would Neto really help someone who was probably anti-fairy?

I've never seen this story anyplace except Eva Speare's book, so it's possible Mrs. MacMurphy made Tsienneto up. However...

There is a Tsienneto Road in Derry (although there's no proof its named after a fairy) and the Hollow Hills ghost site mentions a different Tsienneto story from another Eva Speare book, Stories of New Hampshire. In that story, Tsienneto saves someone named John Stark from being shot. I'm assuming it's Revolutionary War hero John Stark, who is famous for coining the phrase "Live Free or Die."

Maybe there's something to this Tsienneto legend after all. I'll have to find Stories of New Hampshire. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any information about Tsienneto!

May 01, 2010

Thomas Morton and the Maypole of Merrymount

I was planning to post part two of the Hannah Duston story, but I got a question from my friend Jeff. He asked, "What do you know about Thomas Morton? I heard something in the news about him."

I know a lot about Thomas Morton, and I actually thought I had blogged about him before. Thanks for inspiring me, Jeff! Happy May Day!


Things were getting crazy down in Quincy in the 1600s! An illustration from Hawthorne's story.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The May-Pole of Merrymount", written in 1836, tells how May Day festivities are disrupted by some dour Puritans and their soldiers. Hawthorne based his story on the actual life of Thomas Morton, an early English settler. While the Puritans came to the New World to establish a theocracy in what they saw as a wasteland, Morton came seeking freedom amid a landscape of bounty and beauty. Contemporary anarchists, neo-pagans, and those seeking sexual freedom see him as an ancestor. I guess everyone wants to claim a piece of Thomas!

In the late 1620's, Thomas Morton arrived in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. At the time, it was thinly inhabited by the Massachuset Indians, whose population had been decimated by European diseases. Morton developed friendly relationships with them, and convinced a group of indentured servants bound for Virginia to remain with him. Together, they founded a settlement called Merrymount.

Morton and his men began to trade firearms for furs with the local Algonquians, which angered his Pilgrim neighbors in Plymouth. Even worse in the Pilgrim's eyes, Morton celebrated folk traditions such as Maypole dancing, crowned himself the Lord of Misrule, and encouraged fraternizing between the English settlers and the Massachuset. The Maypole of Merrymount was an enormous cedar tree, crowned with antlers and dedicated as an altar to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and merriment. Over time, Merrymount attracted other settlers who were unhappy with the Puritans.

Ontological anarchist Hakim Bey writes that Thomas Morton and his followers "had decided to renounce Christianity altogether and revert to paganism. If they had succeeded in uniting with their Indian allies the result might have been an Antinomian/Celtic/Algonquin syncretic religion, a sort of 19th-century North American Santeria." I think this is a definite exaggeration. Morton didn't renounce Christianity - The New English Canaan mentions his Christian beliefs. However, he did compose both poems and songs using imagery from classical mythology to describe the New England landscape, and celebrated Bacchus during the Mayday festivities. Most educated Englishmen of the time were familiar with ancient pagan literature. Think of Shakespeare, for example.

Thomas Morton disregarded established authority, and flirted with paganism. Equally disturbing to the Puritans, the settlers at Merrymount were sexual libertines. For example, Morton wrote about Jupiter and his boyfriend Ganymede, deities that were used in Renaissance literature to denote homosexual relations. The name Merrymount itself was most likely a double entendre. (If you need me to spell it out, send me an email!) According to William Bradford, the leader of the colony at Plymouth, "...even sodomy and buggery (things fearful to name) have broke forth in this land oftener than once.... They set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices." I'll leave the "worse practices" to your imagination.

Seeing a threat to their moral authority and trade monopoly, the Puritans arrested Thomas Morton and deported him, but he returned to Merrymount within a year. John Endecott, a leading Puritan, chopped down the Maypole while Morton was away and changed the settlement's name from Merrymount to Mount Dagon, after the god whose temple Samson destroyed.

Refusing to sign a document declaring that the Christian God's word would the the law of the land, Morton was again deported, and Merrymount was burned to the ground. While in England, Morton published The New English Canaan (1637), an account of his adventures that extolled the beauty of North America and the nobility of its native inhabitants. He returned to Massachusetts in 1644, was imprisoned in Boston, and died two years later in Maine.

In the end, Thomas Morton's values triumphed. We have our sexual and religious freedoms, and you can dance around the Maypole with anyone you want. There's now a park in Quincy where his settlement once was. And guess what, it's named Merrymount Park, not Mount Dagon.

You can find a lot about Thomas Morton on the Web, but I got my information from Thomas Palmer's Landscape with Reptile and the Boston History Project's Improper Bostonians. Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. Hakim Bey's quote is from his book T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism.