August 30, 2009

Full Corn Moon - with Music

Next week's full moon is the Full Corn Moon, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac. I tend to think of fresh local corn as a summer thing, but the corn season is at it's height now. Some years if we're lucky we can buy local corn until Halloween.

Corn, or maize, is of course native to the Americas, and was probably first grown in New England around 1,000 A.D. It became more integral to the Algonquian's diet in the following centuries, particularly in southern New England where the weather was milder. (This info is from Kathleen Bragdon's Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650). Maize was believed to have been a gift from the gods.

I have a neighbor who is American Indian, and one summer she was growing corn with red, black and yellow kernels in the neighborhood garden. This is often called Indian corn and is used for wreaths and centerpieces in the fall, but as she pointed out "All corn is Indian corn. The correct term is decorative corn." Point taken!

The English settlers coined the term Indian corn. In Britain, the word "corn" refers to any grain. Wheat, oats, barley, whatever - it's all corn to the British. When they arrived in the New World they called maize Indian corn to differentiate it from all the other things they called corn. Gradually the term for maize just became corn, with Americans calling wheat, barley, oats, etc. grain or cereal.

The Algonquians in New England had some interesting recipes for corn. In addition to roasting, boiling and mashing it, they would:

  • According to Roger Williams, "bake bread of Indian corn which they call pagataw; with this and austres (oysters) a kind of snail, they make a dish which is widely used."

  • According to Timothy Alden, "pound mature corn fine, sift it, make it into a dough with water or bear oil, cover the dough with leaves or pat it into little inch-thick cakes, and bake it in the ashes."

Bear oil is hard to find these days at the supermarket, but you can still find oysters. The favorite corn dish for the English was Indian pudding, which I discussed earlier this year. (Recipes are from Indian New England Before the Mayflower by Howard Russell.)

Finally, in an effort to take advantage of the Web's multi-media capacities, here is a link to Vanessa Williams singing "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, Disney's animated take on colonialism and cultural conflict. It has the lyric: "Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?" The movie may be a little hokey, but at least they didn't tack on a happy ending, and the song is good.

August 22, 2009

The Ghost of Fort Warren

Tony went on a company outing to George's Island in Boston Harbor this week, and took these great photos of Fort Warren.

Fort Warren was built before the Civil War to defend Boston from naval attacks, and was also used to house Confederate prisoners. It's now a historic landmark.

It's an amazing place, with great views of the city and harbor, and lots of dark tunnels to explore. You definitely need a flash light to see all of it.

A woman in a black dress is supposed to haunt Fort Warren. She's the restless spirit of Mrs. Andrew Lanier, the wife of a Confederate soldier held prisoner there. Mrs. Lanier, disguised as a man, had sneaked into Fort Warren to free her husband. They were discovered by the guards as they fled, and Mrs. Warren accidentally killed her husband when her pistol misfired.

She was sentenced to hang on February 2, 1862. Her last request was that she be executed wearing a dress, rather than in the men's clothing she wore as a disguise. The guards dressed her in an old black gown, which her ghost is still said to wear.

Allegedly, a soldier stationed at Fort Warren during WWII became so deranged after encountering Mrs. Lanier's ghost that he spent 20 years in an institution. Spooky!

This story is well-known, but I found the details in Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts.

An Impractical Cure for a Cough

I've had a nasty cough this week. It's either an allergy attack, or it's a mild cold being aggravated by the hot dirty air that's been blanketing Boston.

I'm a firm believer in modern medicine, but out of curiousity I looked through some of my folklore books for an old-fashioned cure. Here's the best (meaning most convoluted and impractical) one I found, from Eva Speare's 1932 book New Hampshire Folk Tales. It's technically for whooping cough, but sometimes that feels like what I have! It's also another case of horse magic, which I wrote about before.

If a child had whooping cough, it was believed that if you saw a man riding a piebald horse and you should ask him for a remedy, if his instructions were followed the child would be cured.
So, a woman whose children have whooping cough sees a man riding by on a piebald horse and asks him for a cure. He's confused, since he doesn't know anything about medicine (or about this piebald horse superstition). He says:

Er, hang it, I don't know. Take a harrow tooth and steep it in skim milk.

Huh. I was a little puzzled when I first read this because: 1. I didn't know what a harrow tooth was, and 2. I was surprised they had skim milk in the 19th century. I found out that a harrow is a farm implement that is used to pull up weeds (a little bit like a plough), and a tooth is one of the blades.

So, the man on the piebald horse is basically instructing the woman to take a piece of a farm implement that's been dragged through the dirt behind a horse, stick it in milk, and (I suppose) make her kids drink the milk. This seems like it would make the children sicker, but according to the story it works. The kids are cured of their cough.

I'm going to stick to cures I can purchase at Walgreens, but I suppose they didn't have decongestants 150 years ago.

August 16, 2009

How Maushop Created the Most Expensive Real Estate in New England

My last post was about Indian deities; my previous posts were about Provincetown, a summer resort. Can I write about Indian gods and resort towns in one post? Yes, if I write about Nantucket.

Oh, Nantucket, playground of the wealthy elites! I can understand why, since it is so beautiful there. No one is sure what the name (an Algonquian word) means exactly, but it may mean something like "far away island" or "in the midst of waters." Nantucket is nicknamed the Grey Lady because of its occasional foggy weather.

In the past it also had a less attractive nickname: the Devil's Ash-Heap. I can't imagine people saying "Where am I spending my summer? Why, on the Devil's Ash-Heap, of course!"

According to a legends told for hundreds of years by the Wampanoag of Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket was created by Maushop ("Big Man" in Proto-Algonquian), the giant culture hero of southern New England. William Baylies, a physician from Dighton, first recorded this story in 1786:

On a time, an offering was made to him of all the tobacco on Martha's Vineyard, which having smoked, he knocked the snuff out of his pipe, which formed Nantucket. (found in William Simmons Spirit of the New England Tribes)

Later versions of the story elaborated on this, adding details such as Maushop creating Nantucket as a refuge for two lovers whose marriage was opposed by their parents.

Maushop was basically a benevolent force, but Nantucket was called the Devil's Ash-Heap because Christian writers assumed that all indigenous gods were evil. For this same reason, an off-shore rock formation Maushop created is named the Devil's Bridge, and a bowl shaped depression on Gay Head where Maushop used to live is called the Devil's Den.

Most legends recorded in the 18th and 19th century say that Maushop abandoned New England when the European settlers came. However, legends from the 20th century note that he might still be lurking around. Dolores Tantaquidgeon recorded the following in the 1920's:

Maushop takes the form of various creatures and may be sensed about Gay Head at times as a gust of cold wind that rushes past one...

Nosapocket, a member of the Mashpee tribe, told William Simmons in 1981 that she encountered a large, hairy giant in the woods. It eventually came to her house and looked into her window.

And its chest I would say had to be about five feet wide. Its lungs were bigger than my body, and it just breathed... I was not very frightened, but excited that such beings still lived amongst the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Many pages of Maushop stories can be found in Simmons's excellent book Spirit of the New England Tribes.

August 09, 2009

37 Indian Deities from Rhode Island - or maybe just 13

An illustration of Roger Williams and his neighbors. I don't think the Narragansett wore shirts with buffalo on them - there weren't any buffalo in Rhode Island!

About ten years ago I realized I knew quite a bit about European mythology and folklore, but not very much about the lore of New England, where I've lived all my life. It seemed like a big gap in my knowledge, so I started reading. And reading. And I'm still reading!

I was particularly curious about the religion of the Algonquians before the Europeans came. Unfortunately, they didn't leave written records, so we have to get our information from the English setters, who weren't sympathetic to native beliefs and sought to stamp them out. This is particularly true in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, which were more heavily colonized by the English than the northern New England states.

One exception was Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who was both sympathetic and curious about his neighbors, the Narragansett. His 1643 book A Key Into the Language of the Americas recorded not only their vocabulary, but some of their religious beliefs. Granted, Williams was still a devout Christian and seems a little squeamish about the native religion, but he was light years ahead of his peers in terms of being open-minded.

Williams wrote that the Narragansett worshipped 37 gods. Unfortunately, he only provides the names of 12, who are:

Wompanand - the Eastern God
Chekesuwand - the Western God
Wunnanameanit - the Northern God
Wowwand - the Southerne God
Wtuomanit - the House God
Squauanit - the Woman's God
Muckquachuckquand - the Children's God
Keesuckquand - the Sun God
Nanepaushat - the Moon God
Paumpagussit - the Sea
Yotaanit - the Fire God
Kautantowwit - the Southwest God, to whose House all soules goe, and from who came their corne, beanes as they say.

He also mentions Wetucks, "a man that wrought great miracles among them, and walking upon the waters, etc. with some kind of broken resemblance to the sonne of God." Wetucks may have been another name for Maushop, the culture-hero/giant of southern New England who is similar to the northern hero Glooskap. The modern Wampanoag still tell stories about Maushop, and his wife Granny Squant, who is probably Squauanit, the woman's god (or goddess) by another name.

It's great that there are still stories being told about Maushop and Squant, and I'm happy that Roger Williams recorded at least 13 names of the deities. But it would have been better if he had recorded all 37 names. Best of all would be if these gods were still being worshipped here in New England. It makes me realize how much has been lost, probably never to be recovered.

I don't want to end my post on a gloomy note, so I'll say thanks to everyone who has commented in the last few weeks. I really appreciate all the feedback and information!

August 01, 2009

The Black Flash of Provincetown

Here's another post about Provincetown.

Back in October 1938, Provincetown was haunted by a phantom that locals dubbed the Black Flash. Unlike your average ethereal wispy ghost, the Black Flash was nearly eight feet tall, unnaturally strong, and wore all black clothing, including a flapping bat-like cape. To top it off, he had glowing eyes and possibly breathed fire.

Some salient points about the Black Flash's behavior:

1. He could easily leap over 10 foot fences when being chased.

2. He liked to laugh malevolently. Once, after a villager shot him with a shotgun, he laughed AND leaped over a high fence.

3. He liked to jump out of dark alleys and scare people with his giant black cape. Sounds harmless, no?

4. He physically attacked when confronted. Two adult men both claim to have been overpowered by the Black Flash. So, maybe he wasn't harmless.

5. He terrorized P-town for seven years, until December of 1945.

The Black Flash was ultimately defeated by a group of small children. Al, Joey, Eleanor and Louie Janard were playing outside their family's house on Standish Street one foggy December day when they saw the Flash lurking on a hill nearby. Terrified, they ran inside. The Black Flash followed them, rattling the doors. Finally, Louie filled a bucket with hot water and dumped it on the phantom from an upstairs window. With a gasp, the Black Flash ran off. He was never seen again.

This story is recounted in a lot of New England folklore books, but the best account I've read is in Joseph Citro's Passing Strange. Citro in turn got his information from Robert Cahill, the now deceased Salem folklorist.

My general reaction to this story is "What the heck?" You read about a lot of ghosts and witches in New England, but not too many costumed marauders. Maybe the Black Flash was just a prankster, but he kept it up for seven years! (And apparently was immune to gunshot wounds...)

The Black Flash also seems very much like a product of his era. Costumed superheroes and villains first started to appear in the media during the Depression, and were most popular during WWII. His name and appearance remind me of Batman and the Flash, but the Black Flash's actions were a little more villainous.

Author's note, 8/31/2017: I wrote this post more than eight years ago and it is still quite popular. I've learned more about the Flash since then! You can read an updated post here.