Thursday, July 13, 2017

Holy Hodags!: The Beast Of Northern Wisconsin

Yes, yes, I know I said I would write about Zen this week, but travelling back from family vacation, I encountered (as some of you may now from my Facebook page) stories of a legendary beast of the northern Wisconsin woods and simply had to write about it while the experience was fresh. Called a "Hodag," tales of the creature stem to the 19th century lumberjack days in northern Wisconsin timber country. It was said to prowl the (at the time) dense woods, eating various kinds of smaller animals and emitting terrible noises, as well as odors. Though it is unclear if the beast was ever considered a threat to humans, it had a fearsome visage, with copious jaws and claws. An enormous statue sits in front of the Rhinelander, Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, as shown below.

Rhinelander has been especially associated with the Hodag since the turn of the twentieth century when a prankster named Eugene Shepard claimed to have caught one in the woods outside the town. The photo he requisitioned of the event is obviously staged. What is more, the Hodag it claims to show was later found to be made of wood. Here is the famous photo.

The town of Rhinelander has adopted the Hodag as a kind of mascot, as the above statue at the Chamber of Commerce suggests. A city website for Rhinelander embellishes the lore of the Hodag, blending some of the older elements with humorous aspects, giving imaginative details of its supposed diet (including mud turtles and bulldogs) and describing the beast's smell as a mix of "buzzard meat and skunk perfume." Besides the larger-than-life statue, smaller Hodag replicas lurk in other unexpected corners of the town, some even painted brown and purple, though the beast was traditionally said to be green. The tavern we stopped into for lunch seated us beside a large plaque with an image of a Hodag crawling down the wall beside us.  Local businesses include the beast's face in their titles and use its face in their logos. Here is a small sample of the ones we passed:

  • Hodag Pay and Loan
  • Hodag Mobil Gas
  • Hodag Realty
  • Hodag Steakhouse
  • Hodag Gun and Shooting Range (presumably to shoot at things other than Hodags)
The creature also lends its name to an annual country music festival and is the mascot for all the Rhinelander sports teams. Imagine having this fellow cheering for you when you're on the field?

Without further research, it's hard to say how the different levels of the Hodag mythos came into being, though several different threads are discernible, from the older lumberjack era to the Shepard hoax to the modern tongue-in-cheek representation. The creature also evidently figures in some Paul Bunyan stories and even made an appearance on Scooby Doo. From the point of view of comparative mythology, especially my specialty of Indian traditions, the Hodag bears an interesting resemblance to the rakshasa of Hindu and Buddhist lore. Here are some examples of rakhasas:

Note the scaly fur, horns, and protruding fangs, all of which the rakshasa have in common with the Hodag. Beyond the physical similarities, rakshasas were also seen as wild forest creatures who haunted the dark edges of the woods, possessing voracious (even bloodthirsty) appetites. They were guardians of the wild and had to either be appeased or defeated for travelers and heroes to cross the boundaries of the forest. Once a frightful monster, the rakshasa has also become more commonplace in Indian cartoons and popular culture, making its trajectory from frightful monster to funny beast somewhat similar to the Hodag's.

Elsewhere in the world, there is Humbaba from the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, who guards the Cedar Forest against the heroes and must be defeated before they can log those woods. It's hard to point to a physical similarity with the Hodag as we know much less about Humbaba, but there is evidence this mask is meant to represent that forest guardian.

If I were to wager on the common root for all these mythic forest creatures, I would place it on the ambivalent human relationship with the wilderness. I don't think it is any accident that lumberjacks were the first promulgators of the Hodag legend - they were the ones on the front line of the untamed woods and liable to have the most unsettled feelings about an unknown land. Creating a figure like the Hodag simultaneously expressed those fears of the wild (as the rakshasa did in India and Humbaba might have in Mesopotamia) and also served to manage that emotion by funneling it into a definable entity that can be mocked. Additionally (though this is a stretch without more research into the original tales), is it possible the creation of the Hodag suggests a guilt about cutting down the trees? This would explain the parallel between Humbaba and the Hodag. Like the individuals who created the myth of the Hodag, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to the Cedar Forest to decimate the trees for their own profit. In both cases, was the guilt projected into the image of a protector of the forest who must be battled, just as the loggers' internal misgivings must be battled while cutting the trees?

These wild forests are mostly gone now, though, and people don't really believe in such monsters anymore. Why, then, have images of the Hodag (and the rakshasa for that matter) persisted? Perhaps we miss the wilderness with its dangerous expanse. With the end of wilderness and the conquest of the last frontiers, civilization can only reflect in on itself and realize the void left without the previous centuries' tensions with the wild. As silly as they seem, I wonder if the retention of the Hodag figure helps express, at least subconsciously, that nostalgia and sadness for forests untouched by human hands and dark corners undreamt of, in which powerful beings might still dwell. 

Next time, absolutely, honest-to-goodness, there will be Zen! Until then, take care, and here's one last picture of us with the granddaddy of Hodags.

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