Mississippian bird effigy pot, circa 1000 CE. Probably Pileated or Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Photo: Herb Roe.
North American aboriginal lore is rich in story and folklore about the woodpecker. This wisdom is usually absent in Native animal-spirit books targeted to a mass audience, a testament to the lack of interest most English speaking people have in this bird. In a Lenape (mid-Atlantic) tale Rabbit is invited to dine with the twelve Woodpecker Girls and is impressed with the gourmet meal of grubs they offer him. He is envious and determined to outdo them. Rabbit is very talented – he molded the clan animals from the animals who died during the Great Flood – but unfortunately his pride in this instance is greater than his own greatness. He invites the Woodpecker Girls to dine with him and attempts to re-create the grub delicacies with disastrous results. The Woodpecker Girls laugh at him. This is why Woodpecker laughs at everything, even Creator.
In a myth attributed to the Hasinai-Caddo (Texas), people become woodpeckers after abusing a mescaline producing plant (like peyote). Elders warn that only those initiated in medicine ways should touch the plant, but most people ignore the warnings and spend their days caught up in visions. They forget about their children and one day notice that the children are missing. Creator hears the distraught cries of the parents and changes them into woodpeckers so they can hunt for their children. This is why woodpeckers tap at trees and poke into holes: they are looking for their children.
After a feast of new material, I have not been posting much original content lately, so I thought I’d tell everyone what I’m up to right now.
I just finished a short essay with photos for Moon Books Blog and will have that link up next week. I also finished a piece recently for the Mago Books anthology She Rises volume 2, which I believe will be out later this year. I have articles in three other upcoming anthologies but don’t have dates for those yet.
I am focusing on finishing my second book as much as I can. Right now I’m working a chapter on (surprise!) the woodpecker. I will have a short graphic story in this chapter, which is something I’ve never tried before. I’ve had to learn how to draw in order to do this, which means it has been very time consuming. It is coming along well though.
I am enjoying the sun and the warmer weather today. The ice is gone and water birds are returning. So grateful for spring!
No other bird has so much work to do all the year round, and none performs his task with more energy and sense.…He is artisan to the backbone,—a plain, hardworking, useful citizen, spending his life hammering holes in anything that appears to need a hole in it.
This is the Pileated Woodpecker, in my opinion the most handsome of a very beautiful group of birds. Both males and females have this striking red crown.
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm writes in her 1901 woodpecker treatise:
one of the most persistent of our tree-climbers and more than any other woodpecker I ever observed given to scratching rapidly round and round a tree-trunk, clinging at ease in almost any position except head-downward, and drilling incessantly and at all seasons for grubs; he is a typical woodpecker of the largest size
Source: Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, The Woodpeckers. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.: 1901.
Another excerpt from my book-in-progress. Crows and ravens are conflated in ancient Greek myth.
A less familiar goddess who has a link with crows is Coronis. She is one of the Hyades, the seven sisters of light who are rain-makers. Olympic genealogy has her the parent with Apollo of the healing god Asclepius. She is also tied to Apollo in a story where the mistrustful Apollo sends a crow to spy on the goddess, and she does indeed cheat on him with another god. Apollo has Coronis bumped off by his sister and punishes his crow for not halting the liaison by changing him from white to black. This story accomplishes three things: 1) it solidifies Apollo’s ownership of the crow while denigrating the crow at the same time; 2) it explains why the god of light would have a black emblem; and 3) it justifies usurpation of the goddess’s cult by making her demise a result of her own betrayal. Reading into this story a bit, I would guess the unruly priestesses of Coronis resisted the cult of Apollo effectively for awhile.
The goddess Athena is believed to have turned Coronis herself from a white crow into a black crow. This is why the raven rests on the bust of Pallas in the Edgar Allan Poe narrative “The Raven.” Pallas is another name for Athena. The story goes that Coronis brought Athena some bad news, and the goddess in a rage changed the feathers of Coronis from white to black and banished her from the Acropolis. I disagree with those who categorize the crow as a familiar of Athena on the basis of this story. I think crows and ravens were banished from Athena’s temples because her priests wanted owls to nest there. Crows like to nest in high places (hence the term “crow’s nest”), and they mob owls. The purpose in the mobbing is to defend chicks and eggs from owl predation, and yet crows seem from our perspective to pursue owls with an unnecessary vehemence, seeming to attack them on principle. At any rate the two birds could not have cohabitated, so crows would have to be banished from Athena’s domain. In addition to firmly linking Coronis with the crow, this story again makes the crow an oracular bird.