December 03, 2012

Glooskap Encounters Winter, and Why Foxes Are Shy

Although astronomically winter always starts on the solstice, according to meteorologists winter starts here on December 1. In other words, December 21 may be the time when our hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun but the wintry weather actually kicks in three weeks earlier. We've already had a little bit of snow in Boston this year, so despite our current warm spell I concur with the weathermen on this one.

In honor of the wintry weather here is a Penobscot folktale about Glooskap, who I've written about a few times in the past. He's the culture hero and trickster god of the Indian tribes of Northern New England and the Maritime Provinces. A being of gigantic size, strength and magical power, Glooskap is the protector of mankind but also sometimes gets involved in comical adventures. Sometimes things don't turn out quite the way Glooskap plans.

A Glooskap (or Glooscap) statue from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia.

The story, which I found in Frank Speck's 1935 collection "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in The Journal of American Folklore, goes something like this.


A long, long time ago Glooskap was living with his grandmother, the Woodchuck. Winter had come and brought with it heavy snow and very cold weather. All around Glooskap the Penobscot were starving and freezing to death.

Glooskap said, "Grandmother this is terrible! I must put a stop to this thing called winter. Where does it come from?"

Grandmother Woodchuck said, "Winter comes from the far, far north. It is so cold that no one can live there. If you went there you would die!"

"I must try," Glooskap said. "Make me six pairs of snowshoes - two made from caribou hide, two from deer hide, and two from moose skin."

Grandmother Woodchuck did as he asked, and Glooskap set out to put an end to winter. He walked north through the snow and ice for many days. He walked for so long that he wore out first the moose snowshoes, then the deerskin ones, and finally even the caribou snowshoes. He walked on for many days even after the final snowshoes had fallen apart, until he finally came upon a house made of ice.

Glooskap entered the house, and the door closed shut tightly behind him. Inside the house was an old man.

Glooskap addressed him using the polite term for an elder. "Grandfather, could you open the door? It is very cold in here."

The old man mimicked Glooskap, saying back to him "Grandfather, could you open the door? It is very cold in here."

Glooskap could feel himself freezing solid. Through chattering teeth he said, "Grandfather, I am nearly frozen to death."

The old man laughed and again repeated Glooskap's words to him. "Grandfather, I am nearly frozen to death."

And then Glooskap froze solid and died. The old man dragged Glooskap's giant body outside of the house and threw it in the snow, but in the spring Glooskap thawed out and came back alive. The ice house had melted away and he started the long walk back home.


That's a pretty stark ending. The moral seems to be winter is coming, and there's not much you can do about it. Now of course there is another tale where Glooskap steals summer from some magicians and finally teaches the wintry old man a lesson, but isn't it really more appropriate for the spring? Right now we just need to make peace with winter. I don't want to end this post on a really depressing note though, so here's a raunchy story about what happened to Grandmother Woodchuck while Glooskap was away. It also incidentally explains why foxes are shy.


While Glooskap was away up in the north Grandmother Woodchuck sat up in her wigwam every night, waiting for him to come home.

Some mischievous foxes who lived nearby learned of this and decided to play a trick on her. One night they came to her door, and one fox imitated Glooskap, saying, "Grandmother, I am home." When Grandmother Woodchuck opened the door the foxes urinated in her face and then ran off into the dark, laughing.

The foxes thought this was so funny that they did it again the next night. And the next. This went on for several months, until Grandmother Woodchuck was nearly blind from being sprayed with fox urine. You would think she would learn a lesson after the first few times, but she was so concerned about Glooskap that she still opened the door every night.

That spring Glooskap finally made his way back home after thawing out. He stood outside her wigwam and said, "Grandmother, I am home."

Grandmother Woodchuck said, "You damn foxes fooled me all winter, but I won't be fooled again. I've had enough. Go away! I'm not opening the door."

Glooskap said, "No grandmother, it is me!" He stuck his hand in the door, and when Grandmother Woodchuck felt his hand she knew Glooskap was really home.

Glooskap healed his grandmother's eyes, and she explained what had happened. Glooskap was furious. He took his bow and arrows and went hunting, and killed every fox he could find. Then he trapped one fox alive and brought it to his grandmother.

Grandmother Woodchuck tied the fox to a pole whipped it with switches until it apologized. When she set the fox free it ran off into the woods and was never seen again. And because of this, foxes are now shy and avoid people's houses.


I don't recommend shooting foxes (they're too darn cute!), but I don't recommend pranking elderly grandmas either. Happy meteorological winter!

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