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Thursday, June 22, 2006


Legendary Felines: Erie, white lion, great panther

I've been catching up on my research, and today I have some exciting stories to tell about the great panther, also known as "the white lion."

Whether you call him catamount, cougar, mountain lion, puma, or panther, the great cat of North America is an impressive figure. American Indians turned the panther into a legendary figure, personifying him—or her—as a warrior-sorcerer. And some of them named themselves after the panther:

In his history of the Erie people, Lee Sultzman explains that “Erie is a short form of the Iroquian word 'Erielhonan' meaning literally 'long tail' and referring to the panther (cougar or mountain lion). Hence their French name was Nation du Chat (cat nation). Their other Iroquoian names - Awenrehronon and Rhilerrhonon (Rhierrhonon) - carry the same meaning."

And as many other sources point out, Lake Erie was known to the French as Lac du Chat. The panther, who sometimes lived underwater, reminds me of Missipeshu, the great cat whom the Ojibwe pictured as living in the depths of Lake Superior.

An academic study of panther images* says that for the Seneca, the panther is “ the great white lion man-being, alter ego of the meteor/comet man-being.” The same book recounts the Huron-Wyandot story about a young warrior who calls himself “White Lion” and flies through the air “like a blaze.” On a darker note, I learned that the Seneca spoke of the “Death Panther,” a tall warrior with a sky-blue body, who also appears as a blue panther, flying high in the treetops, his tail shooting flames. This panther also lives at the bottom of a deep lake.

If you are lucky, the panther might let you have a bit of its fur or blood, or a token—a round white stone—as a charm to give you potency as a lover, hunter and warrior.

Unlike the fierce panthers of mythology, real panthers are reclusive, preferring to hunt deer and stay away from humans. And not all mythical panthers are warlike, either. Here’s an Iroquois tale about a female panther who rewards a kind human:
ONCE, in a Seneca village, a party of men was preparing to go on a hunting expedition. In that village was a young man whom people thought was foolish, not strong of mind. He knew that hunters were getting ready for an expedition and he went to one and another and asked to go with them, but no one would let him go.

After the hunters started a young woman took pity on the young man, went to him, and said, "Let us marry and go hunting." He was willing. They started off together and after going some distance camped in the forest. The man couldn't find any big game, but he killed squirrels and small game. He made traps to catch deer and put them down where he thought deer would come.

One morning, when the young man went to look at his traps, he heard some one crying; the sound came nearer and nearer. Soon he saw a woman and two little boys. The woman was crying.

As she came up she said to the young man, "Help me, or we will be killed. One of my little boys stole a feather and pulled it to bits and we are going to be killed for it. I want you to shoot the hawk on that tree over there and when the person comes whose feather my little boy took, throw the hawk at him and call out, 'Here is your feather!'"

The man killed the hawk and no sooner had he done so then he heard a terrible roar and noise, and trees began to fall. A man came and stood on a close-by tree. This man had enormous eyes and long hair, and that was all there was of him--just a great head without a body. The young man threw the hawk at him, and said, "Here is your feather." The Head caught it, said, "Thank you," and was satisfied.

The woman was a panther and the children were her cubs, but to the young man she appeared to be a real woman. She told him that she lived among the rocks and that the Head (Whirlwind) was her neighbor. While he was away from home, her little boy went to his cabin, found his feathers and spoiled one of them. When Whirlwind came home he was angry and chased her.

She told the young man that she knew he was poor, that no man would hunt with him, and she said, "Hereafter I will help you and you will get more game than any of the hunters, I do this because you saved me and my boys."

After that the young man killed more game than any other hunter in the village.**

*George R. Hamell, “Long-Tail: The panther in Huron-Wyandot and Seneca myth, ritual and material culture,” in Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas, Nicholas J. Saunders, editor (Routlege, 1998).

**This is one of the many Seneca myths collected by Jeremiah Curtin (1922).

If you're venturing out to sea, be sure to board the Friday Ark for more animal tales--and tails. And on Sunday, it's the Carnival of the Cats at Pets Garden Blog.




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