The Algonquin Legends of New England, by Charles G. Leland, , at sacred-texts.com
AMONG the six chief divisions of the red Indians Of North America the most widely extended is the Algonquin. This people ranged from Labrador to the far South, from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains, speaking forty dialects, as the Hon. J. H. Trumbull has shown in his valuable work on the subject. Belonging to this division are the Micmacs of Nora Scotia and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes of Maine, who with the St. Francis Indians of Canada and some smaller clans call themselves the Wabanaki, a word derived from a root signifying white or light, intimating that they live nearest to the rising sun or the east. In fact, the French-speaking St. Francis family, who are known par éminence as "the Abenaki," translate the term by point du jour.
The Wabanaki have in common the traditions of a grand mythology, the central figure of which is a demigod or hero, who, while he is always great, consistent, and benevolent, and never devoid of dignity, presents traits which are very much more like those of Odin and Thor, with not a little of Pantagruel, than anything in the characters of the Chippewa Manobozho, or the Iroquois Hiawatha. The name of this
divinity is Glooskap, meaning, strangely enough, the Liar, because it is said that when he left earth, like King Arthur, for Fairyland, he promised to return, and has never done so. It is characteristic of the Norse gods that while they are grand they are manly, and combine with this a peculiarly domestic humanity. Glooskap is the Norse god intensified. He is, however, more of a giant; he grows to a more appalling greatness than Thor or Odin in his battles; when a Kiawaqu', or Jötun, rises to the clouds to oppose him, Glooskap's head touches the stars, and scorning to slay so mean a foe like an equal, he kills him contemptuously with a light tap of his bow. But in the family circle he is the most benevolent of gentle heroes, and has his oft-repeated little standard jokes. Yet he never, like the Manobozho-Hiawatha of the Chippewas, becomes silly, cruel, or fantastic. He has his roaring revel with a brother giant, even as Thor went fishing in fierce fun with the frost god, but he is never low or feeble.
Around Glooskap, who is by far the grandest and most Aryan-like character ever evolved from a savage mind, and who is more congenial to a reader of Shakespeare and Rabelais than any deity ever imagined out of Europe, there are found strange giants: some literal Jötuns of stone and ice, sorcerers who become giants like Glooskap, at will; the terrible Chenoo, a human being with an icy-stone heart, who has sunk to a cannibal and ghoul; all the weird monsters and horrors of the Eskimo mythology, witches
and demons, inherited from the terribly black sorcery which preceded Shamanism, and compared to which the latter was like an advanced religion, and all the minor mythology of dwarfs and fairies. The Indian m'téoulin, or magician, distinctly taught that every created thing, animate or inanimate, had its indwelling spirit. Whatever had an idea had a soul. Therefore the Wabanaki mythology is strangely like that of the Rosicrucians. But it created spirits for the terrible Arctic winters of the north, for the icebergs and frozen wastes, for the Northern Lights and polar bears. It made, in short, a mythology such as would be perfectly congenial to any one who has read and understood the Edda, Beowulf, and the Kalevala, with the wildest and oldest Norse sagas. But it is, as regards spirit and meaning, utterly and entirely unlike anything else that is American. It is not like the Mexican pantheon; it has not the same sounds, colors, or feelings; and though many of its incidents or tales are the same as those of the Chippewas, or other tribes, we still feel that there is an incredible difference in the spirit. Its ways are not as their ways. This Wabanaki mythology, which was that which gave a fairy, an elf, a naiad, or a hero to every rock and river and ancient hill in New England, is just the one of all others which is least known to the New Englanders. When the last Indian shall be in his grave, those who come after us will ask in wonder why we had no curiosity as to the romance of our country, and so much as to that of every other land on earth.
Much is allowed to poets and painters, and no fault was found with Mr. Longfellow for attributing to the Iroquois Hiawatha the choice exploits of the Chippewa demi-devil Manobozho. It was "all Indian" to the multitude, and one name answered as well in poetry as another, at a time when there was very little attention paid to ethnology. So that a good poem resulted, it was of little consequence that the plot was a mélange of very different characters, and characteristics. And when, in connection with this, Mr. Long fellow spoke of the Chippewa tales as forming an Indian Edda, the term was doubtless in a poetic and very general sense permissible. But its want of literal truth seems to have deeply impressed the not generally over particular or accurate Schoolcraft, since his first remarks in the Introduction to the Hiawatha Legends are as follows:—
"Where analogies are so general, there is a constant liability to mistakes. Of these foreign analogies of myth-lore, the least tangible, it is believed, is that which has been suggested with the Scandinavian mythology. That mythology is of so marked and peculiar a character that it has not been distinctly traced out of the great circle of tribes of the Indo-Germanic family. Odin and his terrible pantheon of war gods and social deities could only exist in the dreary latitudes of storms and fire which produce a Hecla and a Maelstrom. These latitudes have invariably produced nations whose influence has been felt in an elevating power over the world. From such a source the Indian
could have derived none of his vague symbolisms and mental idiosyncrasies which have left him as he is found to-day, without a government and without a god."
This is all perfectly true of the myths of Hiawat'ha-Manobozho. Nothing on earth could be more unlike the Norse legends than the "Indian Edda" of the Chippewas and Ottawas. But it was not known to this writer that there already existed in Northeastern America a stupendous mythology, derived from a land of storms and fire more terrible and wonderful than Iceland; nay, so terrible that Icelanders themselves were appalled by it. "This country," says the Abbé Morillot, "is the one most suggestive of superstition. Everything there, sea, earth, or heaven, is strange." The wild cries which rise from the depths of the caverned ice-hills, and are reëchoed by the rocks, icebergs, or waves, were dreadful to Egbert Olafson in the seventeenth century. The interior is a desert without parallel for desolation. A frozen Sahara seen by Northern lightning and midnight suns is but a suggestion of this land. The sober Moravian missionary Crantz once only in his life rose to poetry, when more than a century ago he spoke of its scenery. Here then was the latitude of storm and fire required by Schoolcraft to produce something wilder and grander than he had ever found among Indians. And here indeed there existed all the time a cycle of mythological legends or poems such as be declared Indians incapable of producing. But strangest of all, this American mythology of the North, which has been the
very last to become known to American readers, is literally so nearly like the Edda itself that, as this work fully proves, there is hardly a song in the Norse collection which does not contain an incident found in the Indian poem-legends, while in several there are many such coincidences. Thus, in the Edda we are told that the first birth on earth was that of a giant girl and boy, begotten by the feet of a giant and born from his armpit. In the Wabanaki legends, the first birth was of Glooskap, the Good principle, and Ma_lsum the Wolf, or Evil principle. The Wolf was born from his mother's armpit. He is sometimes male and sometimes female. His feet are male and female, and converse. We pass on only twelve lines in the Edda (Vafthrudnismal, 36) to be told that the wind is caused by a giant in eagle's plumage, who sits on a rock far in the north "at the end of heaven." This is simply and literally the Wochowsen or Windblower of the Wabanaki word for word,--not the "Thunderbird" of the Western Indians. The second birth on earth, according to the Edda, was that of man. Odin found Ash and Elm "nearly powerless," and gave them sense. This was the first man and woman. According to the Indians of Maine, Glooskap made the first men from the ash-tree. They lived or were in it, "devoid of sense" till he gave it to them. It is to be observed that primevally among the Norse the ash alone stood for man. So it goes on through the whole Edda, of which all the main incidents are to be found among the sagas of the Wabanaki. The most
striking of these are the coincidences between Lox (lynx, wolf, wolverine, badger, or raccoon, and sometimes man) and Loki. It is very remarkable indeed that the only two religions in the world which possess a devil in whom mischief predominates should also give to each the same adventures, if both did not come from the same source. In the Hymiskvida of the Edda, two giants go to fish for whales, and then have a contest which is actually one of heat against cold. This is so like a Micmac legend in every detail that about twenty lines are word for word the same in the Norse and Indian. The Micmac giants end their whale fishing by trying to freeze one another to death.
It is to the Rev. Silas T. Rand that the credit belongs of having discovered Glooskap, and of having first published in the Dominion Monthly several of these Northern legends. After I had collected nearly a hundred among the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians, this gentleman, with unexampled kindness, lent me a manuscript of eighty-four Micmac tales, making in all nine hundred folio pages. Many were similar to others in my collection, but I have never yet received a duplicate which did not contain something, essential to the whole. Though the old Indians all declare that most of their lore has perished, especially the more recondite mythic poems, I am confident that much more remains to be gathered than I have given in this work. As it is, I have omitted many tales simply because they were evidently Canadian French stories. Yet all of these, without exception, are half
[paragraph continues] Indian, and it may be old Norse modified; for a French story is sometimes the same with one in the Eddas. Again, for want of room I have not given any Indian tales or chronicles of the wars with the Mohawks. Of these I have enough to make a very curious volume.
These legends belong to all New England. Many of them exist as yet among the scattered fragments of Indian tribes here and there. The Penobscots of Oldtown, Maine, still possess many. In fact, there is not an old Indian, male or female, in New England or Canada who does not retain stories and songs of the greatest interest. I sincerely trust that this work may have the effect of stimulating collection. Let every reader remember that everything thus taken down, and deposited in a local historical society, or sent to the Ethnological Bureau at Washington, will forever transmit the name of its recorder to posterity. Archæology is as yet in its very beginning; when the Indians shall have departed it will grow to giant-like proportions, and every scrap of information relative to them will be eagerly investigated. And the man does not live who knows what may be made of it all. I need not say that I should be grateful for such Indian lore of any kind whatever which may be transmitted to me.
It may very naturally be asked by many how it came to pass that the Indians of Maine and of the farther north have so much of the Edda in their sagas; or, if it was derived through the Eskimo tribes,
how these got it from Norsemen, who were professedly Christians. I do not think that the time has come for fully answering the first question. There is some great mystery of mythology as yet unsolved, regarding the origin of the Edda and its relations with the faiths and folk-lore of the older Shamanic beliefs, such as Lapp, Finn, Samoyed, Eskimo, and Tartar. This was the world's first religion; it is found in the so-called Accadian Turanian beginning of Babylon, whence it possibly came from the West. But what we have here to consider is whether the Norsemen did directly influence the Eskimo and Indians. Let us first consider that these latter were passionately fond of stories, and that they had attained to a very high standard of culture as regards both appreciation and invention. They were as fond of recitations as any white man is of reading. Their memories were in this respect very remarkable indeed. They have taken into their repertory during the past two hundred years many French fairy tales, through the Canadians. Is it not likely that they listened to the Northmen?
It is not generally noted among our learned men how long the Icelanders remained in Greenland, how many stories are still told of them by the Eskimo, or to what extent the Indians continue to mingle with the latter. During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, says the Abbé Morillot, "there were in Greenland, after Archbishop Adalbert, more than twenty bishops, and in the colony were many churches and monasteries. In the Oestrbugd, one of the two
inhabited portions of the vast island, were one hundred and ninety villages, with twelve churches. In Julianshaab, one may to-day see the ruins of eight churches and of many monasteries." In the fifteenth century all these buildings were in ruins, and the colony was exterminated by the pestilence or the natives. But among the latter there remained many traditions of the Scandinavians associated with the ruins. Such is the story of Oren'gortok, given by the Abbé Morillot, and several are to be found in Rink's Legends. When we learn that the Norsemen, during their three centuries of occupation of Greenland, brought away many of the marvelous tales of the Eskimo, it is not credible that they left none of their own. Thus we are told in the Floamanna Saga how a hero, abandoned on the icy coast of Greenland, met with two giant witches (Troldkoner), and cut the hand from one of them. An old Icelandic work, called the Konúngs Skuggsjò (Danish, Kongespeilet), has much to say of the marvels of Greenland and its monsters of the sea. On the other band, Morillot declares that the belief in ghosts was brought to Greenland by the Icelanders and Scandinavians. The sagas have not been as yet much studied with a view to establishing how much social intercourse there was between the natives and the colonists, but common experience would teach that during three centuries it must have been something.
There has always been intercourse between Greenland and Labrador, and in this latter country we find
the first Algonquin Indians. Even at the present day there are men among the Micmacs and Passamaquoddies who have gone on their hunting excursions even to the Eskimo. I myself know one of the latter who has done so, and the Rev. S. T. Rand, in answer to a question on the subject, writes to me as follows:—
"Nancy Jeddore, a Micmac woman, assures me that her father, now dead, used to go as far as the wild (heathen) Eskimo, and remained once for three years among the more civilized. She has so correctly described their habits that I am satisfied that her statements are correct." 1
These Eskimo brought from the Old World that primeval gloomy Shaman religion, or sorcery, such as is practiced yet by Laplanders and Tartars, such as formed the basis of the old Accadian Babylonian cultus, and such as is now in vogue among all our own red Indians. I believe that it was from the Eskimo that this American Shamanism all came. In Greenland this faith assumed its strangest form; it made for itself a new mythology. The Indians, their neighbors, borrowed from this, but also added new elements of an only semi-Arctic character. Thus there is a series of steps, but every one different, from the
Eskimo to the Wabanaki, of Labrador, New Brunswick, and Maine, from the Wabanaki to the Iroquois, and from the Iroquois to the more western Indians. And while they all have incidents in common, the character of each is radically different.
It may be specially noted that while there is hardly an important point in the Edda which may not be found, as I have just shown, in Wabanaki legends, there is very little else in the latter which is in common with such Old World mythology as might have come to the Indians since the discovery by Columbus. Excluding French Canadian fairy tales, what we have left is chiefly Eskimo and Eddaic, and the proportion of the latter is simply surprising. There are actually more incidents taken from the Edda than there are from lower sources. I can only account for this by the fact that, as the Indians tell me, all these tales were once poems, handed down from generation to generation, and always sung. Once they were religious. Now they are in a condition analogous to that of the German Heldenbuch. They have been cast into a new form, but they are not as yet quite degraded to the nursery tale.
It may be objected that if the Norsemen in Greenland were Christians it is most unlikely that they would have taught the legends of the Edda to the heathen; to which I reply that some scholar a few centuries hence may declare it was a most improbable thing that Christian Roman Catholic Indians should have taught me the tales of Glooskap and Lox. But
the truth is, we really know very little as to how soon wandering Vikings went to America, or how many were here.
I would say in conclusion that, while these legends of the Wabanaki are fragmentary and incomplete, they still read like the fragments of a book whose subject was once broadly and coherently treated by a man of genius. They are handled in the same bold and artistic manner as the Norse. There is nothing like them in any other North American Indian records. They are, especially those which are from the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, inspired with a genial cosmopolite humor. While Glooskap is always a gentleman, Lox ranges from Punch to Satan, passing through the stages of an Indian Mephistopheles and the Norse Loki, who appears to have been his true progenitor. But neither is quite like anything to be found among really savage races. When it is borne in mind that the most ancient and mythic of these legends have been taken down from the trembling memories of old squaws who never understood their inner meaning, or from ordinary senaps who had not thought of them since boyhood, it will be seen that the preservation of a mass of prose poems, equal in bulk to the Kalevala or Heldenbuch, is indeed almost miraculous.
11:1 The word Eskimo is Algonquin, meaning to eat raw fish, Eskumoga in Micmac, and people who eat raw flesh, or Eskimook, that is, eski, raw, and moo-uk, people. This word recalls in-noo-uk, people, and spirits, in Eskimo, Innue, which has the same double meaning. This was all suggested to me by an Indian.