Category Archives: Folklore

You better watch out

I’ve blogged several times about my interest in what I like to call fantastic ethnobiology, a term I use for creatures that exist as cultural knowledge, but which do not physically exist, and which also do not have any particular religious significance. (I make that distinction both to avoid causing unnecessary offense and because I believe the difference really is important in understanding the phenomenon.)

In keeping with this interest, and in view of the season, I was therefore quite happy to find a website that has some first person accounts of sightings that can definitely be described as fantastic.


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Archaeologists don’t dig dinosaurs

But sometimes we do uncover fossils in an archaeological context. In the case reported here, marine fossils seem to have been used in a religious context at Palenque. The Maya of the Late Classic period apparently knew that they had uncovered the remains of long dead sea creatures.

However, I would not be so quick to conclude that finding those fossils caused the Maya to believe that the world was originally covered with water. A primordial ocean is such a widespread element in mythology that I find it far more likely the fossils merely reinforced an existing cosmogony. It will be interesting to see what further research will turn up.

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More old ethnographies

I’ve discovered that the Internet Sacred Text Archive hosts a decent collection of ethnographic works dealing with American Indian religions and oral traditions. Scanning the available titles, I see works by Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, C. Hart Merriam, Edward Sapir, Constance Goddard DuBois, Julian Steward, Frank Cushing, James Mooney, and a number of other well respected and careful researchers. This looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun to explore.

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Giants in the Earth

I stumbled on this in an autobiography of Buffalo Bill Cody (p. 207):


While we were in the Sand Hills, scouting the Niobrara country, the Pawnee Indians brought into camp, one night, some very large bones, one of which a surgeon of the expedition pronounced to be the thigh bone of a human being. The Indians claimed that the bones they had found were those of a person belonging to a race of people who a long time ago lived in this country: That there was once a race of men on the earth whose size was about three times that of an ordinary man, and they were so swift and powerful that they could run alongside of a buffalo, and taking the animal in one arm could tear off a leg and eat the meat as they walked. These giants denied the existence of a Great Spirit, and when they heard the thunder or saw the lightning they laughed at it and said they were greater than either. This so displeased the Great Spirit that he caused a great rain storm to come, and the water kept rising higher and higher so that it drove those proud and conceited giants from the low grounds to the hills, and thence to the mountains, but at last even the mountain tops were submerged, and then those mammoth men were all drowned. After the flood had subsided, the Great Spirit came to the conclusion that he had made man too large and powerful, and that he would therefore correct the mistake by creating a race of men of smaller size and less strength. This is the reason, say the Indians, that modern men are small and not like the giants of old, and they claim that this story is a matter of Indian history, which has been handed down among them from time immemorial

As we had no wagons with us at the time this large and heavy bone was found, we were obliged to leave it.

With nothing further to go on, I have to assume for the moment that Buffalo Bill is telling the truth, and that his account should be taken at face value: The party was shown some very large bones, one of which the surgeon thought was human, and one or more Pawnee Indians related the story that is given here. Throughout the nineteenth century, newspaper account record a great many hoaxes involving giant skeletons, or sometimes mummies, but I have no evidence that this particular case involves any deception, either on the part of Buffalo Bill or that of his Pawnee informants.

As the bone was not kept, there is obviously no way now to determine it’s actual origin. Very likely it came from some species of extinct megafauna that could not be readily identified by either the Indians or the Buffalo Bill party. There are a number of conditions under which organic material such as bone can be preserved for many thousands of years. It was probably not a fossil, that is, a mineralized bone, since it is hardly likely that the fact that the object was made out of rock instead of bone would have been overlooked.

Giants, of course, are found in the traditions of an enormous number of cultures, from every part of the world. The same is true of world-destroying floods. In this case the two motifs are explicitly connected, with the giants all drowning during the flood. This juxtaposition is far also from unique, appearing in traditions as widely removed from one another as Chumash and Hebrew.

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the Pawnee to speculate as to how this story connects to other narratives, or what role it may have played in Pawnee culture. Most of the ethnographic information I’ve studied comes from peoples west of the Rocky Mountains; in California, the Great Basin, or the Southwest. Timothy Pauketat has argued* that at least some nineteenth century Pawnee religious rituals might have been derived from practices carried out at Cahokia, but I can’t say what relevance, if any, that connection might have for this story.

Since there is no indication that this story has any particular religious significance, I would tentatively classify it as an example of what I’ve been calling fantastic ethnobiology: cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in nature, and which are not functioning in a religious context. (Yes, I know there are some problems with this definition, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment. I’ll go into it in more detail in a future blog post.)

As I said, I only stumbled on this account by accident. It’s from a culture that’s outside my area of limited expertise, but I nevertheless found it interesting enough to be worth thinking about.


* In Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi

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In a comment to one of my recent posts, Anthroslug pointed to December’s Child by Thomas Blackburn as an excellent source of information about Chumash traditional narratives. His comment reminded me of a very interesting possible correlation that I discovered the first time I read that book.

The material in December’s Child was taken from notes originally made by anthropologist and linguist John Peabody Harrington, who worked with a number of Chumash informants in the early 20th century. Several of those informants told Harrington about a group of monsters or demons called nunashish*. One of these nunashish was Yowoyow, who carried a basket of boiling tar on his back, into which he tossed his victims. Regarding Yowoyow, Harrington’s informant Maria Solares, said, “He lives at a certain place down near Ventura, and the people there see his smoke rising sometimes.”

What makes this particular story very interesting to me is that my grandfather grew up in Santa Barbara. He told me on several occasions that when he was a child (which would have been close to the time Harrington was working with the Chumash) there was a cave at a spot in the cliffs between Santa Barbara and Ventura from which smoke could be seen rising. According to him, there was a tar seep in the cave which had somehow caught fire. Because it was sheltered from the rain, it smoldered there for many years.

I find this a very interesting coincidence, although at present I’m not prepared to say anything more than that there might be a connection between the two stories. Certainly I don’t believe that a fire in a cave could be, in any real sense, the “truth behind” the story of Yowoyow. I do consider it quite possible that the odd event of smoke coming out of a local cave became attached in the early 1900s to a story that was already known.


* I hesitate to say that the Chumash “believed in” the nunashish because it’s not clear to me exactly what role these beings played in their world view. They might have been creatures that no adult actually believed in, like Santa Claus is for us today.

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Traditional narratives

Coming back from Monterey, we decided to stop and spend a day in Jackson, CA. I had hoped to visit Chaw’se (aka Indian Grinding Rock State Park), but the weather didn’t cooperate, so I went to a local used bookstore instead. Among other things, I was able to find a short collection of Wintu traditional stories.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve long been interested in what I sometimes call fantastic ethnobiology – creatures which are part of the cultural knowledge of a society, but which do not exist in nature. Dragons would be an example of this, as would the Point Pleasant Mothman.

Unfortunately, while it’s extremely easy to find stories about such things from our own society, getting them from many other cultures is very difficult. A great many of the books on American Indian traditional narratives, for example, combine stories from all over the continent, selected according to some person’s aesthetic sense. Additionally, many of the narratives in collections of this type have been edited to make them more interesting to a European or American audience. A large part of the problem is that most of the older published collections were intended primarily as entertainment for Euro-American readers. Obviously, there’s nothing at all wrong with entertaining people. Books written for that purpose, however, tend not to be very useful for serious research.

What is needed is extensive collections of narratives, each from a single culture, with details about the informant from whom each narrative was collected. Ideally, such a work should include the informant’s own opinion about what type of story is being told; religious story, children’s story, history, strange-but-true, etc.  In a perfect world, it would even be possible to identify which stories are definitely not told in a particular culture. Some information of this type has been recorded by anthropologists working with American Indians, but a vast amount has undoubtedly been lost in the five centuries since Columbus. And that causes me to wonder how much more irreplaceable information is still in danger of being lost forever when those few who still remember it die.


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Strange creatures

I have long enjoyed reading ethnographies, especially the sections describing mythology, religion and magical practices. One somewhat related topic that I have recently become interested in is what, for lack of a better name, I would call fantastic ethnobiology. By this I mean cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in the real world, but which are not considered religious. Familiar examples of this would include vampires, werewolves, fairies, and unicorns. Less well known are North American creatures like the Shoshonean water baby, or from the Miwok, the dangerous metubu lizard. Of course, our own modern world has plenty of examples as well – bigfoot and the chupacabra being particularly well known.

As the video about the water baby makes clear, it is not always obvious whether a particular subject falls into the category of religion or ethnobiology. Some creatures, such as the Devil in medieval English folklore, seem to fall into both categories.

Unlike standard urban legends, which most often are told in the third person (commonly they happened to “a friend of a friend”), stories of encounters with fantastic creatures are frequently given as first person accounts, at least in our society. Unfortunately I don’t know if this approach is common in other cultures as well. Many ethnographers seem to have ignored the subject, or mention only a few tantalizing bits in passing.

One of the most intriguing aspects of fantastic ethnobiology is the fact that although there is an enormous diversity of creatures described, there are also some that show up again and again in a wide variety of cultures. One of the most common is the mischievous dwarf; tiny people, usually between 1′ and 3′ in height, who can appear and disappear at will and who like to play tricks. Tall, hairy, humanoids (i.e. bigfoot) are another common creature, as are giant flying reptiles.

I admit I have no idea why certain creatures pop up in culture after culture. It may be related to the fact that certain myths are also found over and over again in many different cultures. Perhaps both of these phenomena reveal something interesting about the workings of the human brain. In any case, it’s a fascinating subject.

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