March 21, 2017

Fairies, Lost Children, and Cannibalism in 1830s Maine

Last year I did a lot of research into New England fairy folklore for an upcoming project. I found a some strange and wonderful things, including an article called "The Water-Fairies" by Harley Stamp in the July - September 1915 issue of The Journal of American Folklore.

The article is an allegedly true account of an encounter four Penobscot hunters had with some supernatural creatures in Maine in 1835. I say "allegedly true" only because the narrative doesn't match the current normative culture's standards for reality, but standards (and perhaps reality itself) may have been different two hundred years ago.

The story starts off with the Penosbscot hunters traveling into the wilderness to find game. They canoe up the Kenduskeag (an offshoot of the Penobscot River) and make camp near what is now the town of Kenduskeag. As they eat their evening meal they are besieged by strange noises:

Suddenly, while we were eating, we heard a noise or rumbling, like water rushing down from the mountains which surrounded us. We all stopped eating to listen. The noises continued, and then at intervals of about two minutes we heard what seemed to be millers driving their dogs into the logs and throwing their bars across them, then the filing of saws. We heard the sails of vessels flapping, the blowing of horns and drums... then from the south we came a rolling noise like thunder, and also one like a whistle heard through a tunnel; besides these, many strange sounds (forty-two every two minutes); and it seemed as if each one was louder and more distinct than the others. 

One of the hunters thinks the noises are coming from witches on the mountains, while another thinks they are being produced by devils. They consult the oldest and wisest member of their party, a man named Neptune. He thinks the sounds are coming from a nearby lake, which he has been told is inhabited - but he doesn't say by what. (Suspense!)

The next morning the hunters hike up into the nearby mountains, where they find a large wigwam made of whale bones. No one is inside, but a big pot is boiling on the cooking fire. When they open it they find the arm, foot, and head of a child. Yikes! They also notice large forks and spoons (each about six feet long) resting against the wigwam's walls. They run back to their camp in terror, and that night they again hear the same sounds.

If I can interject here, I will just say that this is a very creepy set-up. Hunters alone in the wilderness, strange nocturnal noises, and a pot full of child body parts. At this point I would turn around and head home, but the hunters don't do this. They need to catch some game to feed their families, so the next morning they canoe further up the river.

The banks of the river are wide and sandy, and they see what at first look like multiple otter tracks in the sand. But on closer inspection they discover the tracks are actually tiny human footprints. Weird, but things get even weirder as they go further up the river. They come upon a miniature village made entirely of clay. It contains houses, stables, horses, and even people, but all child-sized, inanimate and sculpted of river clay. As they look through the village, Neptune tells them that it was made by water-fairies, or warnungmeksooark in Penobscot. He had heard they lived nearby and had always hoped to see them because they can foretell the future. They are known to create sculptures from clay.

The Kenduskeag, from Wikipedia.

They return to their canoe and plan to continue up the river, but when they turn a bend they come across a huge crowd of water fairies running in many directions along the bank. The hunters don't really get a good idea of what they look like though, because the fairies see the hunters and dive into the water.

Again, I would probably turn around and head home at this point, but one of the hunters, Sauk Ketch, decides to capture a warnungmeksooark. His friends bury him in the sand and then hide in the bushes. When the water-fairies finally emerge from the river and he rises up from the sand and grabs two of them. The rest disappear into the river.

The hunters are shocked when they see what a water fairy looks like:

... he had the most beautiful fine long hair; but his face was narrow, with so long a chin that it rested on his breast. His nose was so big and broad that you could see it on each side of his head when his back was toward you. His eyes were very narrow up and down; and his mouth was the shape of a sharp A, the point running up under his nose. He wore no clothing...

The hunters are even more shocked when the water fairies eventually lead them to see the king of their tribe, who is sleeping nearby.

... we saw before us, on the rock, a huge man. His gray hair was long and in ringlets. His neck was as large as a barrel. His feet were large, and he had on a strange sort of dress. On his feet were black shining moccasins with silver clasps. He had close-fitting leggings. His coat was olive-green outside, and bright blue and red inside... As his mouth was open, I saw he had two large teeth only, on his upper jaw, one of which was broken off. 

The water fairies explain that their race is divided into twelve tribes, each ruled over by a king. The kings are able to travel through the air, and can live in water or on land. The kings catch children who fall into lakes or rivers and bring them to someplace safe.

That sounds nice, but what finally happens to the children that they save? Well, once a year the twelve kings gather together, kill the children, and eat them. Apparently the pot the hunters found contained the remains (or the beginnings) of their feast.

At this point I would definitely leave. And you know what? The hunters leave and head back home. That's the end of the story.

There are a lot of interesting things about this article. Water-dwelling fairies are found in the folklore of many northern New England Algonquin tribes, and they are generally benevolent. Even in this story the warnungmeksooark themselves seem pretty nice, but their kings are another matter entirely. Algonquin folklore also often describes malevolent beings who lure children to their doom, and the water-fairy kings seem to be a variant of this.

The sleeping king, particularly with his shiny buckled shoes, curly hair, and his brightly colored coat, seems to resemble someone of European descent. Maybe it could be a little bit of political commentary?

I really like the narrative arc of this story. The hunters slowly learn more as they travel further into the wilderness, and the strange noises and gruesome wigwam set a creepy mood. Neptune has always wanted to meet the water-fairies because they can tell the future. They do tell him they can do this, but he never gets to ask them any questions. My expectations for the story were foiled!

People do still see fairies in New England, but not quite like the warnungmeksooark. However, the frantic running of the water fairies does remind me of the these tiny high-speed cavemen seen on the Connecticut River. Perhaps they are the same entities? If so, let's just hope their kings aren't anywhere nearby.

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