September 25, 2011

Squant, Ol' Squant, and Granny Squannit

Roger Williams wrote that the Narragansett Indians revered thirty-seven different gods. Most of the ancient gods have been forgotten since Williams lived in the 17th century, but a few of them are still acknowledged by the Indians of southern New England. One of them is Maushop, a giant who created Nantucket and other geographic features. I wrote about him a few years ago.

His wife, Squant, is also still acknowledged by the Wampanoag and the Mohegan. Squant's name is most likely derived from Squauanit, meaning "woman's god", one of the deities recorded by Roger Williams. Squant is also known as Ol' Squant and Granny Squannit.

According to legend, Squant and Maushop had a troubled marriage. Maushop had a temper that matched his huge height, and once threw all their children into the ocean, where they were transformed into whales. Squant was understandably upset about this, and mourned the loss of her children. Her tears enraged Maushop even more, and he threw her from their home on Martha's Vineyard to Rhode Island, where she was transformed into Sakonnet Rock. Sakonnet Rock originally was shaped like a woman, but over time it's limbs fell off until it became unrecognizable. When Squant mourns for her children, the wind sighs and the surf moans.

Another story claims that Squant was once very beautiful, but her eyes were cut into square shapes by an enemy (possibly Cheepi, aka Hobbomock) who found her asleep on the beach. Squant hid her deformity by growing her beautiful black hair over her face. Her hair is now so long that she is said to resemble a huge haystack.

These myths show Squant as a passive victim of other deities, but that's not really the case. She is still quite active in the world, and isn't just petrified down on the Rhode Island shore.

Here's an example. In 1928, a group of schoolchildren and their teacher were walking along the beach near Mashpee. As they strolled, they saw what they thought was a haycart being pulled by oxen. But then they realized there weren't any oxen - the giant pile of hay was moving by itself! It was Squant. They all fled in fear. Mashpee children were instructed to never make fun of Squant or she would "tear you all to pieces." During the annual Cranberry Festival in the 20th century, "a child was given a basket of food to carry into the dunes to set down at a lonely spot as a gift to old Granny Squannit, and cautioned to hurry away without ever looking back."

Although somewhat terrifying, Squant also has a positive side and helps shamans. In the nineteenth century, Wampanoag herbalist William Perry was well-known across southern New England for his healing abilities. He credited them to Granny Squannit. If he needed to find a particularly rare herb, he would leave an offering of food under a pine tree and she would tell him the plant's location.

Granny Squannit has a similar reputation among the Mohegan, who say she rules the Makiawasug, the little people who dwell in the forest and under the hills. In one Mohegan tale, a medicine woman descends to an underground chamber to heal Granny Squannit from an illness. In thanks, the goddess gives the woman a basket of items to use in her healing practice.

So, in closing I'd say be respectful when you're walking on the beach or in the woods, because you never know if Squant is watching you.

I found most of this information in William Simmons' Spirit of the New England Tribes.

September 17, 2011

Looking for love, but finding Satan!

Love magic has a long history in New England. For example, the girls who started the Salem witch trials made a Venus glass, which was supposed to predict their future husbands. As we all know, once they started dabbling in magic they got more than they asked for.

Love magic continued for centuries here, and I found this story in Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses by Frederic Denison, published in 1878. Once again young women are involved, and once again things get out of hand.

In the 1700s, two young ladies named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly home of one Esquire Clark. One afternoon, while Mr. Clark was out on business and his wife was ill in bed, Hannah and Comfort became bored and decided to try some love magic. What could possibly go wrong?

They took a ball of yarn to the well, and repeatedly tossed it down and pulled it up, all the while reciting Biblical psalms backwards. According to popular belief at the time, these magical actions should make their future husbands appear.

As the sun went down, Hannah and Comfort went to the front of the house to wait for their beaus to manifest. Their thoughts turned to rich, handsome men.

Soon, they saw a figure walking towards them. Was it a future husband?

As the figure got closer, they noticed he was taller than the average man. In fact, he was between 8 and 10 feet tall. His height wasn't the only thing strange. His face was hideous - his eyes were the size of saucers, and flames spouted from his mouth.

Clearly, this was not what they expected.

The young ladies ran into the house, shrieking, and threw themselves onto the bed where Mrs. Clark lay ill. The monster, meanwhile, made his way to the front door.

At this point, Mr. Clark returned home. Seeing a large, and possibly demonic, monster in front of his house, the pious man began to pray. The prayers worked! The monster shuffled away, and was seen no more in Westerly.

Hannah and Comfort never used the Bible for magical purposes again, and lived very religious lives from that time on. Unfortunately Mrs. Clark died shortly after that night. The shock of having a monster from Hell on her stoop was too much for her weakened constitution.

It was only decades later that the people of Westerly learned it was not Satan who appeared that evening, but a fellow mortal. A man named Daniel Rogers, who had once been a neighbor of the Clarks, confessed he had really been the monster, and his demonic visage was merely a large jack-o-lantern. He wanted to play a prank on the girls, but had kept quiet for years afterwards out of guilt for causing Mrs. Clark's death.

That's the end of the story. It reminds me of an episode of Scooby Doo. The monster's real - no, wait, it isn't! The part about Daniel Rogers being the monster feels a little tacked on to me. Isn't this story really about the perils of unmarried young women with too much free time? A cautionary tale from a more patriarchal era?

I think so, and a very similar story recorded in 1928 among the Wompanoag of Gay Head proves my point.

Once upon a time, a Wompanoag minister had four daughters. One evening while he was out preaching, his daughters tried a little love magic that involved hanging their underwear in front of the fireplace. Soon a howling wind picked up, and they heard someone (or something?) pounding on the doors and windows of their house. The girls cowered inside, terrified. When the minister came home, he saw a large creature, half human and half animal, clawing at the front door. The monster disappeared into the night, and the minister reprimanded his daughters for raising spirits. (From William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes (1986)).

I definitely like this version better. There's no Scooby Doo ending, just magic, a monster, and some teenage girls causing trouble. It could be the basis for someone's thesis in Women's Studies.

September 07, 2011

Rhode Island Ghosts and Vampires on TV

Set your VCR, Tivo, or other recording device! Tonight (September 7) and tomorrow night the there will be two programs about supernatural happenings in Rhode Island. As the days get shorter and the weather gets cooler, these are exactly the type of things I like to watch.

Does this look like Rhode Island to you?

Tonight, the SyFy channel's "Ghost Hunters" investigates Seaview Terrace, a mansion in Newport. Episodes of the old horror soap opera "Dark Shadows" were filmed there from 1966 - 1971, and apparently there have been some lingering after effects. The new owner claims the mansion is haunted, with a disembodied voice that cries out "Hello? Are you there?", mysterious cold spots, and a doorknob that opens on its own. Investigators from the Atlantic Paranormal Society try to get to the bottom of things. "Ghost Hunters" airs at 9:00 p.m.

The other show airs tomorrow night (September 8) on WSBE Rhode Island PBS. "Haunted RI" will examine the case of Mercy Brown, one of the most famous New England vampires. Mercy died of tuberculosis in the 1890s. When her little brother developed the same disease, neighbors suspected that Mercy was feeding on his life force from her grave. A grisly exhumation followed. I'm sure the show will be interesting, but if you want a detailed description of this and similar cases I would recommend Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires by Rhode Island state folklorist Michael Bell. It's one of those books that made me realize how strange the past really was.

Creepy photo of Ram Tail mill from Greenville Paranormal Research.

"Haunted RI" will also look at Ram Tail Mill. The mill, and the small village around it, both fell into ruin long ago, but the site is still supposed to be haunted by the ghost of Peleg Walker, a former watchman who committed suicide. You can find more about the haunted mill, plus directions, here. "Haunted RI" may become a regular series, for those of you lucky enough to live in the Ocean State.

I want to thank my friend Steve, a huge "Dark Shadows" fan, for telling me about these shows! You can also read about them in the Providence Journal.