April 28, 2012

The Merman of Maine

Did you know that there used to be a merman who lived off the coast of Maine? Here's the story as it appears in John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England

One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.

It would be too bad if Mr. Mittin killed the last merman in Maine, but I don't think anyone has seen one since then. Maybe they're just lurking underwater off the coast of Portland, waiting for the oceans to rise from global warming so they can have their revenge.

John Josselyn, an Englishman of noble birth, turned his voyages to New England into a best-selling book called New England's Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents and Plants of That Country. His followup, An Account of Two Voyages to New England, was less popular.

While New England's Rarities is mostly a straightforward guide to New England wildlife (interspersed with praise for the region's lovely Indian women), An Account includes stories about sea serpents, pigs giving birth to monstrous half-lions, and a ghost-haunted island. You'd think this would make it another bestseller, but apparently not. Modern scholars generally think Josselyn was quite gullible, but perhaps he just loved a good story or maybe (just maybe) New England was even stranger in the 1600s than it is now.

A mosaic of Triton. From the fantastic site Theoi.com.

Although very little is known about his life, it's generally assumed that Josselyn was well-educated. His education is even evident in his description of Mr. Mittin's encounter with the merman. Josselyn uses the word triton, which comes from classical Greek mythology. Triton was the son of the sea-god Poseidon, and was usually portrayed as a large merman carrying a conch shell.

Triton was in general a beneficent god. In the plural, though, tritons were a group of minor sea deities who were sometimes aggressive towards mankind.

For example, the ancient writer Pausanias claimed that the Greek city of Tanagra was plagued by a triton that stole cattle from the beach and overturned small boats. Tired of the merman's predations, the Tanagrans set a bowl of wine on the beach. The triton came ashore, got drunk, and passed out. While he was asleep the Tanagrans cut off his head. In another version of the same story, Dionysos the god of wine dispatched the triton himself. However he met his end, the triton's pickled and preserved body was put on display for tourists, including Pausanias himself. I wonder what Mr. Mittin did with that hand?

April 16, 2012

John Hancock's Uneasy Afterlife

It's Patriots' Day here in Massachusetts, which means the Boston Marathon, battle reenactments and a Red Sox game at Fenway. In the spirit of the holiday I'm devoting this week's post to a local patriot: John Hancock.

John Hancock is most famous for his dramatic signature on the Declaration of Independence but his life was notable for many other reasons. Hancock, who was born in Braintree in 1736, was extraordinarily wealthy, hung around with radicals like Sam Adams, and became the first governor of Massachusetts when it became independent from the British.

As befits such an important patriot, Hancock's grave is marked with a large monument in Boston's Granary Burying Ground. There's just one catch though - he might not be in it.

He was definitely interred in the Granary Burying Ground when he died in 1793. The large monument was erected in the 19th century; he was initially buried in a brick tomb marked with a white marble slab.

It's too bad he didn't get the bigger monument right away, though, because it might have deterred the grave robbers. According to legend John Hancock was buried with large rings on both hands. Grave robbers came one night to steal them but had trouble prying them off the corpse's stiff fingers. Afraid of being discovered the robbers quickly cut off his hands and escaped into the night. Poor John Hancock's hands were never found. We can assume the robbers sold the rings.

That's pretty gruesome, but things got even worse for Hancock's body when his tomb was destroyed in 1860s during construction on a Park Street basement. The bricks and marble were carted away with the debris and his coffin, which allegedly was made of lead, was melted down to make pipes. His body simply disappeared.

I wish I could say that John Hancock's ghost haunts Tremont and Park Streets looking for his hands, but it doesn't. He devoted his life to the nation so I guess he doesn't care what happened to his body.

I also wish I could definitively say these stories are true, but I can't. I found references to these stories many places on the web but couldn't find any verification in print. The two Hancock biographies I found at the library end with his death, and don't cover the history of his tomb. A guidebook to the the Granary Burying Ground had disappeared from the reference section. If anyone knows anything about these stories please let me know!

Like so many events associated with our nation's founding I'll have to be satisfied with a mix of legend and history. At least it's interesting!

April 07, 2012

The Magic Power of Spit

I'm not a big fan of spitting. Actually, I get really grossed out when I see people spitting on the sidewalk or (God forbid!) the subway platform. Not only is it disgusting, but these people are wasting the magical power inherent in their saliva.

What's that? You didn't know your spit was magic? I guess it's just another flaw in our modern educational system. To edify you, here are some interesting examples from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England:

  • "When fishing, spit on your bait for good luck. Certain of the most ignorant class will spit on money for good luck."
  • If you put on a garment inside out, you should wear it that way to bring good luck. If you want to put it on the right way and not lose the luck, you should spit on it to keep the good luck in. "To do this genteelly, you need only to moisten the finger-tip with the tongue, and touch the wrong garment.Then you can turn the garment again and no harm will result." And then no one will think you're crazy for wearing your pants inside out.  
  • If you need to find a missing cow, you can catch a daddy long-legs and hold one of its legs down with you finger. It will point with another leg towards the direction where you can find the cow. However, if you can't find a daddy long-legs, you can "spit in the palm of the left hand, strike the spittle with a finger of the right, and the direction the spittle jumps in will show what course to take in looking for the cow."
  • Back in the days when teachers would hit students with rulers, boys believed that if they spit in their hands before the teacher struck the ruler would break in two. 
  • To bring yourself riches, spit over your pinky when you see a white horse

Clifton Johnson collected this folklore in the late 1800s, but even older references to magic spit can be found in New England. For example, in the 1600s minister Cotton Mather claimed the accused witch Goody Glover of cursing someone by anointing a stone with her spit. It sounds silly to us today, but this was serious business for the Puritans. 

I'm not a saliva specialist, but it looks like the connection between saliva and magical power is not exclusive to New England. For example, in Islamic dream interpretation spit is representative of the dreamer's personal power, and someone who awakes from a bad dream should spit three times to the left, which will free them from the nightmare's influence. Wikipedia claims that mothers in North India and Pakistan will spit on their children to protect them from evil.

If we go even further back, Jesus used his saliva to effect miraculous cures. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus makes a mute man talk by spitting on his finger and sticking it in the man's mouth, and makes a blind man see by spitting on his eyes. (Thanks to this site for pointing this out!) 

That still sounds a little gross to me but I guess it was OK since it was the Messiah's saliva. I still don't want to see anyone spitting on the subway platform though.

April 01, 2012

The Devil's Den

We're blessed in this part of the country with an abundance of natural features named after Satan.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of the Devil's Chair, the Devil's Hopyard, Purgatory Chasm, the Devil's Beanpot and the Devil's Oven. Lots of towns also have at least one of the Devil's footprints imprinted on a boulder.

Clearly our Puritan ancestors were obsessed with the Evil One and held him accountable for almost every unusual rock, cave, or crevice. In some cases these natural features were also associated historically with the local Algonquians, whom the Puritans erroneously felt were Satan's minions.

That's the situation with the Devil's Den in Ashland, Massachusetts, a small cave where archeologists have found some evidence of early Indian activity. Tony and I decided to pay a visit while we were in Ashland looking for the witch caves. Why not see two interesting sites on one tank of gas?

We parked our car in Wildwood Cemetery and followed a trail that a local guidebook said would lead to the Devil's Den, but unfortunately we couldn't get there. This giant construction site blocked our access, and the trail had been removed. We actually could see the cave far on the other side of the construction site but had no way to get to it.

It turns out that Ashland is creating new athletic fields behind their high school and the Devil's Den has been at the center of some controversy. Some people in the town claim it has to be destroyed for the new soccer fields but the local historical society has been petitioning to save the cave.

The Devil's Den after being damaged. Photo taken from this site.
 Seriously? You're going to destroy a cave that is thousands of years old, named after Satan, and associated with ancient Indian groups so you can expand your athletic fields? It just seems like a decision everyone will regret in a couple years once the high school population starts to shrink again. I think it's important to preserve the things that make this part of the country interesting and unique. And besides, if I were a high school student I would rather have a cave called the Devil's Den than a soccer field, wouldn't you?

It seems the historical society has prevailed and the Devil's Den has been spared, although it has been damaged. I suppose the important thing is that the cave has been preserved, but if the Ashland soccer team has a bad losing streak we'll know who to blame. Satan!