Petrification Myths:  Coyote and the Legend People of Bryce Canyon

Petrification Myths: Coyote and the Legend People of Bryce Canyon

In the desert of southwest Utah in the United States of America is a remarkable place known as Bryce Canyon which many, many bizarre and colorful rock formations. The canyon is named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who settled in the area in 1874.  However, the Native American Paiute people of the region who were there long before the arrival of pioneers called it Angka-ku-wass-a-wits or red painted faces.

Bryce Canyon must surely be one of the most extraordinary natural places on earth.  It is a place where strange rock formations of yellow, orange and reddish brown that change hue as the light changes and fill the mind with many fantastical shapes and forms that appear grotesquely humanoid.

In geological terms, these columns are called hoodoos a term also used in witchcraft and the supernatural.  The Paiute people tell a very different story to the geologists but both explanations are really very extraordinary.   Presented first is a brief and simplified version of the geological explanation.  This is followed by a version of the traditional explanation given by the Paiute people who believed the columns were created when a mythical race called the Legend people were punished by their divine entity Coyote.

The Creation of the Landscape

First of all Bryce Canyon is not a canyon in geological terms.  It was created in a very different way to canyons which are created by weathering and the erosive action of rivers.   Instead, the Bryce landscape was created by a natural process called frost wedging which works over a great period of time to alter and recreate the entire landscape.  This process happens in Bryce Canyon because for most days of the year the temperature fluctuates to above freezing and drops to below zero in the course of a single day.

During daytime, seasonal snow melts and the water seeps into cracks and fractures in the rock and when it freezes at night it turns to ice and expands causing it to crack and fracture further and forcing sections of it apart making wedges into the rock forcing it apart.  This happens about 200 times a year in Bryce Canyon and an another process called frost heaving also comes into play forcing rocks upward from the bottom.   These two natural actions are supplemented by wind and rainwater which is naturally slightly acidic and this gently rounds off the rocks slowly dissolving the edges. And it is these natural processes that have combined to create the fantastical landscape of Bryce Canyon and it’s weird and wonderful hoodoos that are its main feature.  So that is a very quick and simplified precis of the scientific explanation but the Paiute people have another explanation

The Legend People of Bryce Canyon

According to Paiute legend and tradition millions of years before they appeared on earth there was another people who lived in the area called To-when-an-ung-wa or the Legend people.  In those days the land was said to be different being very green and verdant with streams and rivers of fresh clean running water.  Animals and birds were plentiful and the hoodoos were not yet created.

The Legend people took the form of giant animals, reptiles, and birds and in their land of plenty gave no thought to others who shared it with them.  They would drink up all the water and despoil what was left so others could not use.  They would eat and take all the nuts, fruits and berries leaving nothing for other creatures to survive the winter on.  They never gave a thought for the other animals and birds that shared the land which became less fertile and abundant.

Coyote

At last the animals and birds began to complain loudly about the inconsiderate and selfish behavior of the legend people and how carelessly and recklessly they despoiled all the fruits and good resources of the Earth.  One day the spirit they called Coyote heard them while he was out walking and went to see what was going on.  Coyote was angry at what he saw and decided to punish the Legend people.  He had a reputation for being a trickster which was well earned and he decided there and then he would trick the Legend people.

Coyote invited them to a great feast promising them they would be served the best food and drink they had ever been given.  The Legend people were always greedy for more food and drink and readily accepted the invitation.  They put on their best clothing and painted their faces red as was their custom at such occasions and went to the great feast of Coyote to eat their fill.

When they arrived they found the best food they had ever seen all laid out and ready for them to tuck into.  Coyote was watching and just as they were about to take the first bite of food he cast a spell.   Suddenly, one, by one they all began turning to stone.  Naturally, those not yet affected began to panic and tried to escape trying to climb over the ridge of the valley. They all pushed and pulled and scrambled over one another but there was no escape and gradually they all succumbed to the spell of Coyote.   It was a scene of madness, mayhem and sheer hell.  Soon their struggling ceased and all were turned into columns of stone, their bodies and faces rigid and paralyzed in their final act of standing, sitting, crawling,  climbing, running or whatever and there they have remained through the ages as a testament to their greed and selfishness.

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By Don Graham from Redlands, CA, USA – God bless it! (Ancestors, Bryce Canyon NP, UT 9-09) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Pauite People

When the Paiute people arrived they found the hoodoos and could see their red faces in the rock columns just as they were before they were petrified.  This is why they called the place Angka-ku-wass-a-wits, which means red painted faces and these are the hoodoos we see today in Bryce Canyon.  Some people today say their faces have been eroded so much over the centuries that they cannot be recognized and people will forget the story of the Legend people.  Those who can see know Coyote still wanders the wilderness and know he has not lost his power and they will not forget why he turned red painted faces to stone.

© 23/05/17 zteve t evans

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Copyright May 23rd, 2017 zteve t evans

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Petrification Myths: Mischief, Mayhem and the Pesky Lincoln Imp

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Lincoln Imp – Image by Richard Croft – CC BY-SA 2.0

On the walls of Lincoln Cathedral in the city of Lincoln in England is a rather strange figure of an imp that is carved on the stonework of a pillar inside the cathedral.  Despite its strangeness, or perhaps because of it,  the imp has become a symbol of the city as well as a number of other local organizations.  There is a legend that tells that the grotesque was once a real imp that was turned to stone by an angel.

The Legend of the Lincoln Imp

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St. John and All Saints Church, Chesterfield – By Charlesdrakew – Public Domain

The legend is thought to date from the 13th or 14th century and tells how two imps were sent to Earth by Satan to cause as much mischief and mayhem as possible.   Arriving in the north of  England they set about their task with glee and malice causing mayhem and mischief everywhere they went.  Settling on the spire of St. Mary’s Church in Chesterfield they spitefully twisted it out of shape and even today the results of their mischief can still be seen. Today, the Crooked Spire is a well-known feature of Chesterfield, though there are other legends which give different accounts of how this came to be.

The imps were not satisfied with their handiwork and went on a spree of mayhem and mischief.  They soon caused chaos across the north and the imps decided to visit Lincoln. Coming across the cathedral they set about causing as much devilment as they could.  They broke chairs and tables and vandalized everything in sight and were even said to have tripped up the Bishop.   They caused so much damage that an angel was sent to deal with the imps and to put things right.

The legend says the angel appeared out of a hymn book as they were vandali\ing the Angel Choir and immediately ordered the two miscreants to stop.   One of the imps, terrified by the angel obeyed and hid under a broken table.  The other was bolder and more evil and as well as throwing stones at the angel threw insults as well.   The angel was taking no nonsense from the imp and promptly turned him to stone there and then.  As the other imp had obeyed him and had not thrown stones or insults the angel spared him the same fate as his friend and gave it a stern warning.  The imp did not need a second warning and quickly skedaddled.   There is a saying that when the wind blows around Lincoln Cathedral it is the imp flying around in circles looking for his friend who can be seen in the cathedral to this day, looking down from where he was petrified to stone by the angel.  Different parts of the UK have variations of this legend.

The Grimsby Imp

One variation of the legend is found in Grimsby and tells how the second imp, having escaped petrification by the angel in Lincoln Cathedral, made his way to Grimsby.  Imps being imps are born to make trouble this one soon began to cause mischief and mayhem around Grimsby.  Finding  St. James’ Church,  the imp went in and began a spree of vandalism inside causing great damage.  The angel who had exercised leniency at Lincoln was sent to deal with the imp and seeing it was the same one he had spared spared, this time gave it a good thrashing on its backside and then turned it to stone. Imps may be imps but they should not mess with angels!

The Term “Lincoln Imp”

The symbol appears to have been termed the “Lincoln Imp” because it is the best known example and seems to have the first come to popular usage in the 19th century, even though it is far older and many examples predate the 18th century.  It may that it came to the public attention more in the latter part of the 19th century when a businessman named James Ward Usher managed to get the sole rights to make jewelry using the symbol in his designs which helped to make him famous and wealthy.

The Imp as a Symbol

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Modern example of the use of theLincoln Imp in the gable end of a garage in Farndale – Image by gordon clitheroe – CC BY-SA 2.0

The imp usually appears with cloven feet and with one leg raised to rest upon the other knee and both hands are gripping the leg that is on the knee.  It has a hairy body and open mouth displaying sharp teeth and has ears like those of a cow.

The imp is a symbol that appears in many parts of England and Scotland.  For example,   All Saints Church, Easington, Yorkshire has a carved stone figure of an imp.  The reason they were placed in churches or other places or their meaning is unknown.  It may be that these are not associated or representative of either the Lincoln or Grimsby imps but have some other purpose.  The use of the symbol is thought to predate both of these legends and many see its use as a similar mystery as that of the Green Man or the Three Hares symbol.

The Lincoln Imp is still a popular symbol and appears on the crest of Lincoln City Football Club and their mascot is known as Poacher the Imp.    A Gibraltar football club Lincoln Red Imps F.C., also takes their name from it and a World War 2, RAF  Squadron No. LXI Squadron RAF used the imp in its emblem until it was disbanded in 1958.  The Lincoln Imp is a symbol strongly associated with Lincoln and Lincolnshire and used by many local organizations and enterprises.  It appears in many works of art and jewelry still and is also found in churches and buildings in many other parts of England and Scotland. and many products of all kinds are found bearing its image.  Ultimately the legend of the Lincoln Imp portrays the imp as a symbol of the triumph of God over Satan and the never ending battle between good and evil reminding us that good will always triumph over evil.

© 09/05/2017 zteve t evans

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Copyright May 9th, 2017 zteve t evans

Petrification Myths: The Stone Women of Moelfre Hill

There are many petrification myths and legends in settings scattered around the British Isles that tell how people have become turned to stone.  It is often the case that some religious code or rule has been transgressed by one or more people for some reason and they have been punished by being turned to stone.

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Moelfre in Gwynedd – Image by Oosoom – CC BY-SA 3.0 – From Wikimedia Commons

The Stone Women of Moelfre Hill

The legend of the Stone Women of Moelfre tells the story of how three women were turned to stone for working on the Sabbath.  Its setting is on Moelfre, which  is a Welsh hill in Gwynedd, Wales sitting on the western edge of the Snowdonia National Park, situated about three miles from the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy and about five miles from the village of Llanbedr.

The legend was said to have originated about the time Christianity was taking over from the old pagan beliefs and tells how three women had a problem winnowing their corn because there was no wind.  Winnowing was an important task that their families and community depended upon to make bread.  According to the legend, one woman wore a red kirtle.  Another wore a white kirtle and the third wore a kirtle of the darkest blue.

After the corn was harvested the people would thresh the corn, sometimes by making oxen walk in circles over the harvested ears of corn, or by pounding it on the ground with flails.  This would crush the ears leaving the chaff and grain that needed separating, or winnowing which was hard work and done by the women of the community.  They would spend many hours  throwing the mixed chaff and grain into the air so that the wind would take the light chaff away but leave the heavier grain to fall to the ground.  The remaining grain would then be placed in sacks and ground into flour.

The problem the women had was that for many days there had been no wind or even the slightest breeze, making it impossible for them to winnow.  The women worried that unless they could get their task done soon it would rain and ruin the corn.  The grain and chaff would get wet making them stick together and hard to separate and they would not be able to bake bread to feed their families and began to despair that they would not be able to complete their task.

Then the woman wearing the red kirtle had an idea and said to the others, “I say there is bound to be wind on the top of Moelfre.  Let us carry sacks of grain up there and do the winnowing there.”

“But we would be working on the Sabbath if we did that!”  said the woman in the white kirtle. It was a Sunday and on Sundays in Wales no one at all was allowed to work because it was the Sabbath.

“But if the wind is blowing on Moelfre, shall we let it go to waste and have no flour to bake bread?”  said the woman in blue, “And what would we tell our children when they have no bread?  I will fetch three sacks and we can fill them up and carry them up to Moelfre.”

They all agreed that they should this so they filled up a sack each and hoisting them across their backs began the arduous journey along the path to the top of Moelfre.   On the way they passed a cottage where an old man looked out of his door and was shocked to see them hauling the sacks up the path.   He gave them a stern warning about the consequences of working on the Sabbath but the women continued on their way ignoring him.  They passed a farm and the farmer shouted out a warning that it was the Sabbath and told them to stop or they would be punished.  The women laughed at him and carried on.

Their path took them through the valley where the men of Neolithic times made axes out of the sharp Graig Lwyd stone.  Passing though, they climbed the path to the high hill where the Meini Hirion, also called the Druid’s Stone Circle stood and passed this and continued on their way.  They knew that the summit of Moelfre was not far off and that there would be wind there and redoubled their efforts.

Finally the reached the summit of the hill.  Just as they had anticipated the wind was just right for their task so they spread out a sheet on the ground to catch the grain when it fell out of  the air.  They emptied the contents of their sacks into a heap and began the arduous task of winnowing the corn throwing up into air so that the wind took the husks and the grain fell onto the sheet on the ground.  Then as they were busily working away a terrible thing happened.   The  legend says that  God saw them working on the Sabbath and punished them for disobeying his law and turned them into three standing stones.  One red, one white and one dark blue and there they stood on top of Moelfre for years untold, but not forever.

Triple Goddess

There is a school of thought that says the three women represent a triple goddess.  Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, says,  “The three standing stones thrown down from Moelfre Hill near Dwygyfylchi in Wales in the iconoclastic seventeenth century may well have represented the Io trinity. One was white, one dark red, one dark blue and they were known as three women. The local monkish legend was that three women dressed in those colors were petrified for winnowing on a Sunday.”

Others also see the three stones places in a triangle as representing a triple goddess and the colours representing a different aspect of the goddess.  Their supposed petrification may not have been just a warning about working on the Sabbath but possibly a warning of possible punishment inflicted for keeping the old ways.

Vandalism

Today there are no standing stones on the summit of Moelfre.  Some people say  those who search they may find three stones below the turf that appear to have sunk into the ground and these are said to be the Stone Women of Moelfre.   Another explanation offered by Wirt Sikes in British Goblins – Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions was that they were subject to vandalism by a gang of youths who dug them up and rolled them down the hill.

© 28/03/2017 zteve t evans

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Copyright March 3rd, 2017 zteve t evans