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Mishipeshu

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Pictographs of a mishibizhiw

Mishipeshu is a fabulous creature in Native American mythology.


Contents

Etymology

The name can be literately translated into ‘’Great Lynx’’. It is also known as 'Gichi-anami'e-bizhiw which means fabulous night panther.


Description/Morphology

Mishipeshu has been variously described as a horned serpent or an aquatic feline. Most legends hold that the creature possessed a combination of both reptilian and feline features as is indicated both by its name and its depiction in the ancient pictographs of Agawa Bay. He reportedly resembles a feline sporting a pair of horns. Although he possesses paws that enable him to swim swiftly through the water, scales cover both his back and tail.


Origin

Mishipeshu is featured in the mythology of the Ojibway, a branch of the Algonquin people. These people held the belief that Mishipeshu controlled the various lakes and rivers that could be found within the Ojibway tribal domains located north of the Great Lakes region. More than one Mishipeshu might have existed, although most accounts speak only of a single entity. This however, may stem from the possibility that the legends of a specific locale would probably deal solely with its own resident Mishipeshu and may have neglected to mention the existence of others.


Behavior

Mishipeshu was capable of being either a malevolent or benevolent force depending on the circumstances. Greatly feared and respected due to his control over the lakes and rivers, he was regarded as a ‘’Manito’’ or a powerful being worthy of worship.

Travellers who wished to cross safely across the surface of a lake or river located within the domain of this being were required to make a small offering of tobacco to appease Mishipeshu. If this precaution was neglected, Mishipeshu would create destructive whirlwinds on the surface of lakes and churn rivers into dangerous rapids in order to punish those who had angered him.

In winter, he was equally dangerous, since he possessed the ability to cause the ice coating the surfaces of lakes to melt. In this manner, disrespectful intruders would drown in the icy waters of Mishipeshu's dominion. Further adding to its sinister reputation was the claim of the Canadian writer Peter Unwin who during his visit to the great Lakes region, claimed that the creature was especially fond of drowning children.

However, Mishipeshu could also be a helpful deity if treated with the respect that he merited. The myths of the Ojibway claim that if invoked by a shaman, Mishipeshu would emerge from the surface of the lake and allow the shamans to remove fragments of his horns which were believed to be of copper. These fragments were believed to contain great power and shamans were eager to ensure that their talismans or ‘’medicine bundles’’ contained small shards of Mishipeshu’s horns. Unfortunately, if the shaman who made this request, in any way abused this privilege, his punishment would be dire.

A more violent method of obtaining the copper produced by Mishipeshu’s body was to engage him in combat. An Ojibway boy who was attacked by Mishipeshu while rowing his canoe across a lake describes how he drove the creature by striking its tail with an oar. A part of its tail was damaged by this strike and became detached from the body of the Mishipeshu as it made its retreat. When the boy recovered this fragment, it proved to be made of copper. He subsequently used this trophy to bring him great success in during fishing and hunting trips.

In addition to providing copper to his supplicants, Mishipeshu was also revered as the deity responsible for controlling the supply of both lake fish and terrestrial game. In order for fishing or hunting expeditions to be successful, offerings had to be made to him by the native Indians.


Habitat

Mishipeshu was believed to reside in the vicinity of the Lake Superior region located in Canada. His domain was supposed to exist within caverns and tunnels found beneath under lakes, a fact which allowed him to move with relative ease within the region. Lakes inhabited by this being are said to have one of the three following features: they are suddenly best by powerful winds or fogs, contain deep cavities and lastly, have waters that are a specific shade of colour.


Stories

Mishipeshu was closely associated with the deposits of copper ore that existed within the vicinity of the Lake Superior region. Believed to be the guardian of these copper deposits, he would inflict terrible punishment on those who sought to mine them without first obtaining his permission to do so. When a missionary by the name of Father Claude Dabon visited this region, he was told a certain legend by the local Indians which involved Mishipeshu punishing four men that had attempted to carry off valuable copper deposits. As the tale goes, these thieves had made their way to Michipicoten Island and begun to remove numerous copper nuggets once they had arrived there. However, while they were engaged in this crime a great voice confronted them and accused them of stealing from it what were rightfully the possessions of its offspring. The tale goes on to say that all four paid for this theft with their lives, although the exact circumstances of their deaths are left vague and unexplained. The Indians who Father Dabon spoke to, attributed this hostile presence to Mishipeshu.

Another famous legend relates how Mishipeshu earned his title The Prince Of Snakes. The Ojibway of the Lake Temagmi region relates how Mishipeshu was struck by a lightning bolt while sojourning on the surface of a lake. He was instantly reduced to shattered fragments. Each of these tiny remnants subsequently transformed into living serpents, the first serpents to inhabit the world. Hence, the people of the Lake Temagmi region hold that Mishipeshu was the ancestor of all snakes.

Another story relates how a particular shaman had dream which involved him striking the surface of a lake with a stick and chanting a special incantation in order to attain the blessings of the resident spirit. Inspired by this vision, the shaman did exactly that The moment hiss tick struck surface of the water, Mishipeshu emerged from the surface of the lake amidst a violent whirlwind. Unafraid, the shamans requested in his greed that Mishpeshu shower great wealth and good health upon him. Upon hearing his demand, Mishipeshu ordered him to scrape away some of the copper deposits located between its horns with the aid of a piece of birch. The shaman was then further instructed in the use of the substance that had had just obtained. Initially, it appeared as if the shaman’s wish was fulfilled. After obtaining this gift from Mishipeshu, he soon became a prosperous man . However, in exchange for this boon, his wife and son had to perish. Following their deaths, the shaman eventually died a poverty stricken and lonely man.


Theories about origin and existence

Some cryptologists have voiced their opinion that Mishipeshu is actually a stegosaurus, a species of dinosaur that inhabited the earth during the Jurassic period.


Art/Fiction

Ancient depictions of Mishipeshu can be seen painted in red ochre on the face of the granite cliff that rises over Agawa Bay.


Sources

  • Ancient Depictions of Dinosaurs, Genesis Park.
  • The Mythology of the Americas by David Michael Jones, Brian Leigh Molyneaux and Susanna Rostas.
  • The Myths of the North American Indians by Lewis Spence.
  • The Wolf’s Head-Writing Lake Superior by Peter Unwin.
  • The Serpent’s Copper Scales by Wiliam A.Fox.
  • Mishipeshu, The Canadian Encyclopaedia by Serge Lemaitre.