The Fisher Stars
Constellations have fascinating histories, and different cultures have their own takes on the figures that can be seen in the stars. One of the more famous constellations is commonly known as the Big Dipper, but the Big Dipper wasn’t always known as such. In the early 1900s, a family might have called it the plough (a cultural remnant from England and Ireland). One of the more interesting explanations of the Big Dipper is this sacred story from the Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa):
Once there was a great man named Gitchi Odjig, and Gitchi Odjig was a great hunter. This was a good thing, because at one time on Earth, there was only winter. The world wasn’t completely unpleasant—if you worked hard, you could get enough; but all the days were cold, and all the days were icy. Your life was basically the freezing and thawing of your fingers. Gitchi Odjig’s skills served him well in this cold world.
Gitchi Odjig and his family had heard a story that explained that the sky they looked to every day wasn’t only a roof, it was a floor as well: a floor to a world in which winter was not present. The water in that world was free of ice. The trees wore green glossy things called leaves. You could walk during the day without a coat or hat. It was a beautiful story to hang on to, but even if people believed it, they didn’t think there was much anyone could do about the cold. Things were the way they were.
Gitchi Odjig’s son, however, didn’t think that way. He wanted to do something to make things better. He thought it would be wonderful if the warm world above somehow opened to this one. He held on to the idea.
Then, one day, Gitchi Odjig’s son was hunting, and he got a good bead on a squirrel. The squirrel stood up and spoke: “Please put away your arrows. There is something I think you’d like to know.”
Gitchi Odjig’s son was surprised, but he dropped his weapon and listened.
“You know and I know the constant cold we both live in is no picnic,” began the squirrel. “This frozen ground doesn’t yield much and is incredibly unforgiving. But there is something called summer, and it exists in the world above us. There is a weather that is warm and abundant. Instead of killing me, let’s work together to see how we can somehow bring that world here.”
The son took this information to his father, who felt that this was a sign and that it was time to hold a feast and discuss the matter. He invited all the animals he knew, and together they decided that they would travel to the highest mountain peak, and break through to the summer world.
They found the peak, and cracked through the top of the sky into the world above. They all climbed through. Gitchi Odjig couldn’t believe what he was feeling—the wind wasn’t bitterly cold; the trees rustled with beautiful drifts of leaves instead of clattering and whistling their bare branches; the ground was lush and green, and hummed with the music of insects; the water in the streams and rivers wasn’t cluttered and scabbed with ice. He was standing in the middle of summer.
But the people of that world did not appreciate these intruders, and they did not appreciate that the edges of the hole these intruders had climbed through had cracked and crumbled, and now summer (and spring, and fall) gushed down onto the earth in a giant torrent of colors, and life, and change.
They fixed the hole and started to chase Gitchi Odjig. In order to go faster, he turned himself into a fisher (which is a like a badger, or wolverine) and he was almost caught when he recognized that the people of this world were some of his distant relatives. He called on this connection, and convinced them to let him go.
Although he had gotten free, he could not break again through to the Earth. This saddened him, but beneath his sadness was a deep peace and satisfaction. He had brought the seasons to the Earth. He laid himself down at the scar where he had entered the sky, and was happy.
You can still see him laying there in the night sky, with the four points of the Dipper as the four points of his body, and the handle of the dipper his lithe tail.
The Cornfield Spider
You might have heard of the Jersey Devil, a beast that haunts the woods of New Jersey. That story involves a woman who was in league with evil spirits. She gave birth to a child which appeared normal at first, but then began to grow and change at awful speed, its head transforming into a goat’s head, its body becoming long and winnowed and serpent-like, and its back sprouting great leathery wings.
This area also has a legend like that. At the heart of this story is a beast that makes the Jersey Devil seem tame. This story involves a 12-year-old boy in league with shadowy forces:
One July night, a farmer who tended 500 acres west of Omaha saw his son at the edge of a field talking to a strange figure. The farmer called to his son, and the boy and the figure turned. The figure dissipated into thin air, but the boy ran, setting off up a slope into the knee-high corn. The father gave chase.
He again called to his son. The boy reached the top of the ridge and turned to look at his father. Then he disappeared down the other side. The father ascended. When the farmer was nearly at the top of the wide hill, something rose up from the other side—but it wasn’t his son.
It was a terrible thing with a long thin torso, great long arms, and wild long fingers that ended in thorny claws. It bent over long thin legs. According to the farmer, it was covered in wiry brown hair, and had an almost spiderlike body, with a small long head, like a human’s head that had been pulled in a taffy puller, then given sharp long teeth and wide lidless eyes. The farmer turned and ran. He could hear the thing loping after him. He made it back to the farmhouse, slammed and locked the door, and heard the wild scratching. Then, nothing.
He never saw his son again. However, a handful of people have seen a similar creature on summer nights, sometimes standing still and watching, sometimes giving desperate chase.
This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.