Saturday, July 19, 2008

Recreating a lived mythology: the landscape of the Lenape imagination

Perhaps its that we moderns are so removed from our mythology, or that our modern mythology is very much of the "placeless" variety (consider Batman, or Superman as modern Olympians) that it's hard for us to recognize the mythological character of a place, unless we have it documented, imaged, or otherwise historicized.

So it's with some trepidation that I attempt to "re-mythologize" my little slice of heaven here. Some trepidation, and a bit more worry that I'm getting things flat out wrong and the disrespect that could entail for peoples long gone.

However I think it does more good than harm, especially in this rootless time, to take a place and attempt to re-embed it in the appropriate mythological matrix.

Philosophy aside (and isn't it wonderful that it's even possible to put it aside) let me lay out the following items for consideration.

It's fairly well known that many native America groups acknowledged a "horned serpent" of some sort as an enemy, or malignant spirit. Known by some groups as Uktena or Uncegila, and here by the Lenape as Maskanako (or Ma'xanaxo). The spirit is universally associated with water and more specifically, the destructive unleashing of water. The horned serpent is said to live in a bottomless pool, a pool which often may lie in a deep gash of rock.

But Masknaako is not the only water manitou. A more beneficent spirit in Lenape mythology is the Toad manitou, who controlled the waters in a more measured fashion, holding back the floods. Maskanako, devil that he/she was, killed the great Toad and stole the waters. Either because Maskanako lacked the Toad's ability to restrain water's natural chaos, or because it did not wish to, Maskanako used this power to unleash a great flood from its lair in the underworld. Only the timely intervention of the creator and the great world turtle (The "Turtle Island" beneath our feet) saved humankind from extinction. Maskanako, chastened but not destroyed, still lurks at the interface of the underworld and great pools of water, seeks the destruction of mankind, and is often and only thwarted by the beneficent "Thunder Beings" (the closest thing the Lenape have to Thunderbirds).

Variants of this horned serpent story are familiar to afficionados of Native American mythology. Less familiar, perhaps related to this myth cycle is the following Micmac myth: Glooscap, Micmac culture hero, notices that the land has grown very dry and his people are thirsty. All the water in the land has been dried up. Glooscap, having nothing better to do, decides to find out what's going on and take the matter in hand. After some travel, and some investigation, he finds that a great Toad spirit is responsible, having stopped up all the water behind a great weir of rocks and drunk everything else. As a culture hero is wont to do, Glooscap defeats the monster, smashes his dam and wrings all the excess water out of the creature, shrinking him down to the right and proper size for a toad.

So here we have, again, a (much more malignant) toad responsible for the restraining of water. And he does it, through the building of great rock wall (and through gluttonous sousery...but I digress)

What does any of this have to do with Devil's Pool? Well let's consider what we know. First, a great battle of manetuwak happened here. And one manitou, the bad one, dwells in the great pool to this day, and was of sufficient spiritual power to be more or less equated to the Christian Devil. Interestingly, Devil's pool is commonly held by locals to be "bottomless" (actually extending downward to hell itself) much like the abode of Uktena/Uncegila/Maskanako. However deep the pool is, it isn't *that* deep, perhaps bottoming out at 9 or (at most) 14 feet. Anyone jumping from the rocks learns this rather quickly, as their toes dig into the shimmering mica sand coating its bottom. So why did this place, in a valley full of deep pools of water, obtain a reputation of bottomlessness?

It is a rocky valley, riddled with points which seem likely entrances to the underworld.

As I've documented, the pool is constrained and channeled by series of rock weirs of unknown provenance but that are at least older than a century. Some of these weirs terminate in large flat stones, or standing stones, like this one:

Additionally, the large cave shown above is interesting in that is lies below an opening in the rock that is connected by a longish"tube" (for lack of a better word) to a location removed from the cave. Perhaps some kind of "speaking tube" for ritual use?

Is is possible, then, just possible, that this location represented a sort of spiritual re-enactment of the toad-serpent flood cycle? Are the weirs a representation of the restraining power of the toad, holding back the bottomless depths of the horned serpent's flood? Was this a site of initiation into the mysteries of Turtle Island (would the "speaking tube" find use in this scenario)? Or was it regarded as the actual place where the great world flood began? And where Maskanako resided, gnashing his teeth in eternal frustration?

Lots more pics from here.

1 comment:

Pardes said...

Nice article!
I'm looking forward to MORE blogs by you.