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The material in December’s Child was taken from notes originally made by anthropologist and linguist John Peabody Harrington, who worked with a number of Chumash informants in the early 20th century.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.