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)
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.
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.