Category Archives: Folklore


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The material in December’s Child was taken from notes originally made by anthropologist and linguist John Peabody Harrington, who worked with a number of Chumash informants in the early 20th century.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


Filed under Folklore

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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