April 25, 2009

Why Woodpeckers Have Red Spots

Cute red feathers, or ancient bloody marking?

As I was walking home this afternoon, I heard a loud tapping noise. "Tap tap tap tap tap!" I hear woodpeckers all the time, but this was the fastest and most frantic woodpecking I think I've heard. Maybe the warm weather today was driving the woodpecker into a frenzy!

Like all the woodpeckers I see in Boston, this one had a red spot on the back of his neck. Evolutionary science would tell us the red spot developed as a random mutation that possibly survived because it gave the woodpeckers who had it an advantage over those that didn't.

Algonquian folklore provides another explanation, however. I've already mentioned Glooskap before on this blog. During one of his adventures, he battled a giant monster who was making the water stagnant and undrinkable for the local humans. The monster was only vulnerable in one spot, and Glooskap didn't know where to strike. Luckily, a woodpecker showed him the monster's weak point, and Glooskap killed it with an arrow. He then marked the woodpecker's head with monster blood to thank it for its help. This story puts those cute little birds in a different light!

I found one version of the story here, but I think I've read it other places as well.

April 20, 2009

The First Snakes of Spring

I was walking in one of my neighborhood's parks on Sunday and saw two garter snakes sunning themselves. It wasn't particularly warm, but I guess they were tired of hibernating. For me, seeing snakes is a sure sign it's finally spring.

The garter snake is the official reptile of Massachusetts, according to a bill passed by the state Senate and House a couple years ago. This pro-snake attitude is a big change from the state's past. Early settlers in Massachusetts really hated snakes, but also attributed them lots of supernatural power. As a result there is a lot of particularly crazy snake folklore. The following story, which is one of my favorites, was recorded by Clifton Johnson in the late 1800's.

A farmer and his wife had a young daughter with a strange habit. Every evening, she refused to eat dinner with her family, but instead took her plate and ate alone outside. Since she was young, her parents at first humored her odd request. But after the little girl did this for several weeks, her father became curious and secretly followed her outside one evening.

He was surprised to see his daughter sitting by an old stone wall, calmly sharing her dinner with a large rattlesnake that she addressed as Graycoat. Fearing for her life, the farmer rushed from his hiding place and killed the rattlesnake with a shovel, despite his daughter's pleas. Shortly thereafter, the little girl began to sicken. Despite their best efforts, the farmer and his wife watched helplessly as their daughter wasted away and died from an unknown ailment.

Although the girl's parents were puzzled at her death, we shouldn't be. Ancient European legends teach that snakes are often more than simple reptiles. They may really be fetches or fylgias - human souls in animal form. When the father killed the snake, he destroyed his daughter's soul. Medieval legends from Europe teach similar lessons. For example, a legend from Silesia tells how a man found a large dead snake in front of the house after his mother died, while Olaus Magnus wrote in 1555 that a snake will become imbued with the soul of a child whose bowl it shares. If the snake is killed, the child will die. (I found that piece of lore in Claude LeCouteux's excellent book, Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages.)

It's pretty amazing that a belief from medieval Europe could still be found in Massachusetts in the 1800s! Please avoid killing snakes, in case it is true.

April 12, 2009

Two Superstitions for Easter

Will their eggs rot? Not if it's Easter.

In celebration of Easter, here are a couple 19th century superstitions from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England.

1. An egg laid on Easter will never rot. It may dry out, but it will never actually decay. The same is apparently true of eggs laid on Good Friday.

2. If you wear three new things on Easter, you'll have good luck for the entire year.

You may want to try wearing three new things today to see if it brings luck. I don't know anyone who raises chickens, so I can't ascertain the truth of superstition #1.

April 05, 2009

The Great White Hare

Symbol of spring, or ruler of the Underworld?

Easter is on the way, so my mind has drifted to bunnies and colored eggs. I couldn't think of any good lore about colored eggs, but I read a good story about a bunny (actually a hare) in Frank Speck's article 1935 article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in The Journal of American Folklore.

According to some of Speck's Penobscot informants, a long time ago there was a giant White Hare who lived on a far northern mountain which was inhabited by lots and lot of little white hares. Sounds cute, right? Not so. The White Hare ruled cruelly over his smaller subjects, who were originally men but whose brains had been removed and eaten by malevolent witches. Brainless, they drifted north to the White Hare's wintry abode where they were transformed into hares. (Speck points out that in many Algonquian cultures the White Hare is rules the land of the dead, so in this story the mountain could represent the afterlife, and those brainless men the souls of the dead.)

For quite some time the witches keep eating brains and sending men to the White Hare, whose mountain became covered with thousands and thousands of hares. Meanwhile, the poor Penobscot are starving to death. Winter has struck, and there's no game to be found. Plus, I guess, a lot of their hunters have been de-brained, so things are bad for the people left behind.

Eventually Glooskap saves the day. He braves the wall of perpetual blizzards that surrounds the northern mountain and, after an epic battle, slays the White Hare. He frees all the little white hares, who scamper away into the woods. The Penobscot are saved from starvation, because they capture and eat the white hares. Basically, the souls of the dead cycle back into the natural world, and sustain their living descendants. Oh, and Glooskap also slays the witches by sticking them head first into the ground like sticks.

This story does fit the Easter season pretty well. In addition to bunnies, it has death, resurrection, and feasting (although in a non-Christian context). You probably won't hear during Sunday services.

There is another version of the White Hare story, though, which doesn't feature Glooskap at all, but another hero named Snowy Owl. Snowy Owl defeats the witches, but doesn't go after the White Hare at all. At the end of the story the White Hare is still up there in the north, collecting hare-shaped human souls in his icy mountain abode.