Blog Post 96 – Critters 2 (Magical Animals, Part II)
This is a continuation from the last post about magical animals, so you may want to look at that one before diving into this one. Or not. It’s up to you really. Either way, here’s some more on North American animals showing up in magical folklore.
(More) American Magical Animals
Deer – Legends about magical deer are hardly new, nor are they limited to the New World. White stags appear in Arthurian legends, and the label of Jagermeister liqueur bears the image of an enchanted cervid. Charlemagne also had a stag legend associated with him. In American folktales, they retain similar significance, though often they lead hunters astray or into mischief. In a tale from Gilmer Co., WV, a normally gifted hunter encounters a doe he can’t shoot, even at close range when he knows he should be able to. He decides to try shooting it with a silver bullet and succeds in hitting it in the leg, and then follows the blood trail back to a cabin where an old woman is nursing her bleeding leg, thus revealing her as a shape-shifting witch (Gainer p.157). In New York State, there’s also the tale of “Auntie Greenleaf and the White Deer,” which bears a strong resemblance to the Gainer tale. The Huichol natives of Mexico engage in a type of spiritual quest called the Peyote Hunt in which the peyote (a type of hallucinogenic cactus) is treated as a magical deer to be caught:
The Hunt is a symbolic re-creation of “original times” before the present separation occurred between man, the gods, plants and animals; between life and death; between natural and supernatural; be-tween the sexes. On the Peyote Hunt, the men who return to their homeland become the gods, and at the climatic moment of the ceremony, they slay and eat the peyote, which is equated with the deer and with maize (“The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex…” by Barbara G. Myerhoff, Anthropological Quarterly, Apr. 1970)
It’s not surprising that a continent whose inhabitants until only fairly recently depended upon deer for food would assign it such a high mythical value, and there are plenty of good stories about witch deer or helper deer to be found in every region.
Rabbit/Hare – This is the animal most associated with witches in folklore (other than perhaps the black cat). North American magical tales are no exception, and there are a plethora of rabbit-related witch stories out there. As I mentioned in the Spiders/Insects section, Anansi has an avatar in the form of a rabbit in the New World, a form probably best known and realized through his appearance in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. The Trickster Rabbit of these tales became so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we turned him into an icon recognized worldwide, even though he is distinctly American in attitude: Bugs Bunny. Native American legends also provide Trickster Rabbit stories, such as “Rabbit Plays Tug-of-War” from the Creek tribe. Hares could also be less mirthful magical creatures, and often appear in American folklore as witches in disguise. Richard Dorson records a tale in Buying the Wind of a witch-hare that could not be caught or killed by anyone. Even when they trapped it and set everything around it on fire, the rabbit still managed to escape. Finally a hunter thought that perhaps this hare might be a witch in disguise, and so drew a picture of it and shot it in the leg with a silver bullet. Not long after, he found out that a local woman with a rather witchy reputation had fallen and broken her leg while sweeping the floor. The hare was not seen again (Dorson, p. 316-17). Stories like this are echoed in the Deer and Cat stories mentioned above and other tales of witches becoming hares can be found in the collections from Patrick W. Gainer and Hubert J. Davis, too.
Bear – The figure of the Bear is a mainstay in several traditions of American lore. He appears as Brother/Brer Bear in the aforementioned Uncle Remus tales, where he comes off as a bit of a brute. The bear is a key figure in Native American lore, appearing as a spiritual totem animal for chiefs and warriors, as in the tale of the “Spirit Lodge” from the Nariticong people in the northeastern U.S. A curious tale from the Pacific Northwest features a comical (and obviously fictional) encounter between a Sasquatch, a black bear, and a river boat captain. In northern Mexico, the story of “The Bear’s Son” describes a mytho-magical quest undertaken by a brave young man. The repeated motif of strength and battle seems to be the bear’s primary contribution to North American folklore. Yet occasionally bears appear as guides or wise teachers as well—even unintentional ones, as in the Maine tale of “The Fisherman and the Bear,” in which a clever ursine demonstrates a remarkably effective method of fishing to a hungry human.
Birds – This is a pretty broad category, and there are many different types of birds which appear in American magical tales. The most common appearances of birds are as magical omens or forerunners of good and bad luck. We touched a bit on this in our Weather Lore posts, but we also had to leave a number of bits out, so I’ll share a couple of them here:
- A bird building a nest out of your hair will cause madness or headaches.
- A bird building a nest in any piece of your clothing (shoes, hat, pockets, etc.) means you should prepare to die within the year.
- Loons portend bad weather (because they are the souls of dead sailors).
- Whippoorwills calling indicate death or bad luck soon to follow (I prefer Gillian’s interpretation of this, which is that a whippoorwill call means that you’ve done a good day’s work).
- Killing barn swallows will cause your cows to give bloody milk.
- To cure a backache, wait until you hear a whippoorwill call then roll on the ground three times.
- It is bad luck for a hen to crow.
(These examples are taken from Ozark Magic & Folklore by Vance Randolph, Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer, and “Odds & Ends of North American Folklore on Birds” by W. L. McAtee [in Midwest Folklore, 1955])
There are truly endless numbers of folk spells, omens, signs, stories, and legends regarding animals in North America. And there are plenty of animals I didn’t cover here that probably deserve some attention. Critters like possums, raccoons, gators, eagles, buffalo, cattle, sheep, pigs, mountain lions, and any number of other animals all have abundant magical lore surrounding them, which I will hopefully be able to cover someday. For now, though, I hope this couple of posts has helped open up some areas for you to explore with regards to animals and magic. I’m hoping to get at least one more post out this week or early next week focusing on animal parts in magic, so stay tuned for that, too. And if you have animal lore you’d like to share, feel free to comment on the blog or email us!
And thanks for reading!
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