This is the fourth post in a series examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.
What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?
It is convenient to look back on the rich nature stories of Native American folklore and retro-fit today’s cryptids into their pantheon of spirits. That’s a mistake.
Bigfoot proponents commonly point to Native stories support the tales of the hairy man of the woods. Or historic names are used to refer to the monster of the lake. Even recently, the South Carolina media trotted out an unsupported (from what I could tell) tall tale about the local natives knowing of a man-like creature with a tail in order to give the Bishopville Lizard Man some additional credibility. It seems logical to look for additional evidence from history.
But it’s not as logical as it seems. Instead, to make such a claim is overly simplistic, shows a lack of knowledge about folklore and culture, and is disrespectful as well as being a bad argument to support crypto-claims. This post provides additional support for why using native folklore to support cryptids is not sound. To remove these beasts from their native context is to do them a great injustice.
Chapter 3 of Merger’s Lake Monster Traditions (LMT) talks about the huge menagerie of magical animals envisioned by the natives of North America. As in European tradition, the natives on this side of the ocean imagined that land animals had equivalent counterparts in the water. Therefore, they describe water-bison, water-tigers, water-panthers, water-dogs, water-grizzlies, the Great Lynx in the water, the great water serpent, the giant slug, the antlered worm and the horned alligator. The variety and number of animals are astounding!
Are we to assume that each one of these represented a real animal? Then we are over-loaded with mystery animals for which we have no physical evidence. Instead, these animals were described as mysteries of the water, they were not historical observations.
The “great serpent of the water” known across the continent was often described as a huge, horned beast. Its name and nature differ according to tribes – Sisiutl, Weewilmekq, Mishipizhiw, N’ha-a-itk. They had some features in common: bony or hairy dorsal ridge, antlers, serpent form. They were also magical. A stag could transform to a serpent (which explains the “horns”.) Sisiutl was a salmon until its sudden transformation into a serpent.
These magical creatures, hidden underwater, in the rocks, or by a veil of fog, were the realm of shamans and sorcery. To see one required spiritual preparation. The Piute shamans derived power from the great serpents of the lakes. A ritual trial for youth took place in the lair of the underwater spirits. The test was for the boy to swim alone into the deep water to the cavern of the monster to possibly acquire shamanistic powers from the beast.
The guardians of the lake were depicted in pictographs on the rocks, as the artists believed the creature was part of the rock or hidden within it. The horned serpent might come out and take a woman back into the lake with it. Therefore, the beasts were provided appeasements, such as tobacco or animals to prevent them from causing storms or dangerous waves. The sacrifice of a dog with paws painted red continued to be offered to the Great Lynx in eastern Canada at least until the 19th century. The waves on the Great Lake were from the “serpent-devil” looking for a meal. The whirlpools and caverns were its mouth. The shamans could assert power over it, but those traveling in canoes avoided looking for the beast lest they see it and die.
The ritual representation of the horned serpent in native populations is somewhat consistent and important IN CONTEXT. The serpent god had bulging sections of humps or coils. There are clearly many fantastic elements involved in the characteristics. The solitary log was a danger as it was a vehicle to the underworld. The giant leech of the North Carolina Cherokee had wings and made the water bubble and foam. It was said that a lovely young woman who regularly visited the lake may be taking nourishment from the serpent’s venom and she would kill the man who would have her. (Such a tale, Merger says, is known in Europe as well and has connections to the female menstrual cycle.)
We can see that such fantastic elements were NOT used by modern cryptozoologists but instead were left behind with only the more naturalistic, believable elements demythified to meet modern tales. However, to folklore specialists, Merger says, the ideas about serpents and lake monsters belong to a vast cultural complex across central and eastern North American, the Great Lakes in particular. These creatures are considered mysteries of the water, not biological organisms.
It is folly to try to build the morphology of an unknown creature with these traditional descriptions. The characteristics may be symbolic features and have no basis in reality. It is certain that some of the features ARE exaggerations. The depictions of monsters, just as with dragons and our fictional monsters of today, may represent an embodiment of a concept – a top predator, the danger of messing with nature, the embodiment of danger or death – and not exist in any remotely related form in real life. That is, the watcher of the lake may just be a “spirit” animal based on one or many features of real animals but not one of flesh and blood.
The famous pictographs that cryptozoologists pore over and speculate about are not naturalistic representations but a way to enter into spiritual communication with the magic creature, the guardian of the threshold. This is more akin to a religious belief than a record of natural history.
Today’s literal cryptozoologists who consider descriptions of the bestiary of the historic past in a straightforward, biological manner are mistaking imagination for zoology, art and culture for natural history. Carefulness and great caution is required when distilling data from these ethno-known sources and interpreting them as animals that existed once and perhaps still exist.
Several authors have written about this new thinking regarding cryptozoology that embodies the lessons of Meurger’s LMT. There is more on the way, as well! This path looks to lead to a richer, more colorful interpretation of cryptids and the people who believe in them. That’s encouraging.