Editor’s note: In celebration of right whale calving season on our shores, we are posting whale stories by Lauri deGaris every other Monday through the season.
By Lauri deGaris
The Algonquin “People of the Dawn” belong to the Wabanaki Confederacy consisting of Peskotomahkati – Passamaquoddy, Mikmaq, Wolastoqey-Maliseet, and Penobscot nations. The Wabanaki have inhabited the coastal lands of the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada for more than 12,000 years.
The Wabanaki believe everything that can have an idea has a soul. They give a name to every rock, river, and road in their path. This is similar to the aborignal use of Songlines to navigate the landscape by the people of Australia.
The legends and myths of the Wabanaki Confederacy are also like that of Norsemen. They both share common themes that originate in the Eddas. The Eddas are divided into two parts. The Prose Edda written in 1222-23 is by an Icelandic chieftain, poet and historian, Snorri Sturluson. Many distinguish these tales by his dramatic style, humor, and charm. The Poetic Edda is a later manuscript from the 13th century and it discusses older material. The author is unknown. However, the style, which is terse and archaic, is easily distinguished from the Prose Edda.
Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) was an American humorist and folklorist born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Princeton University and published numerous books on ethnography, folklore, and language. Leland recorded many of the Wabanaki myths and legends. He understood that, prior to colonization, all these stories were in the form of a poem or song.
Charles Leland believed it was possible the myths and legends of the People of the Dawn, traveled from Sweden and Norway to Iceland, then to Greenland, crossed the Baffin Sea into Canada and south to Northeastern United States. Along this route, a Songline would have guided their navigation.
Despite language differences, the legend and myths of all cultures living along this route were similar. They all depended on the sea for a living. They shared a direct kinship with whales and were connected to them intimately for survival. And, most importantly, they honored whales for the gifts they provided. The gift could be food, oil — or a lesson.
Glooskap (Gluskap, Gluskabe) is a legendary figure in Wabanaki history, purported to have created the earth and taught the Wabanaki people the skills to survive. He is both creator and teacher.
Glooskap is responsible for the creation of many landscape features throughout Mi’kmak’i (Nova Scotia). Have you ever wondered why the Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world? Click here to see why according to the Glooskap First Nation legend.
Consider this shortened version of the Wabanaki tale, “GloosKap and the Smoking Whale.” It is meaningful and charming at the same time.
In the legends of old times, men were animals and animals were men. How this was no one knows. As they gave themselves up to this and that desire, they became beasts. Before this came to pass, they could change form from man to animal and back again.
Glooskap lived on an island with many others who carried the names of animals and birds. The partridge men became powerful but grew jealous of Glooskap. They took Glooskap’s grandmother and brother away thinking he would perish. He did not.
Glooskap rested and when the time was right, he went to the shore and sang the magic song to call the whales. A small whale appeared but Glooskap was too heavy for him. He sent the whale away. He sang the magic song again and the largest of the female whales appeared. Glooskap was pleased. However, the whale was greatly afraid of getting caught in shallow water and beaching herself. Glooskap insisted she would be fine.
As they approached the shoreline, the whale grew more afraid of beaching herself. She could see the shells below her and she could hear the lullaby of the clams. The clams were singing to her, asking her to throw Glooskap off and swim away. The whale did not understand the language of the clams. She asked Glooskap what the clams were signing about. Glooskap replied they are telling you to hurry, hurry, swim as fast as you can. So, the whale swam as fast as she could and found herself beached in the sand. She lamented and said, alas my child you have been my death. I can never leave the land. I shall swim in the sea no more.
Glooskap insisted that she have no fear. You shall not suffer. You shall swim in the sea once more. Then with a push of his bow on her head he sent her off into deep water. The whale rejoiced greatly. “Oh, thank you grandson,” she said to Glooskap. Now, have you a pipe and some tobacco? He replied yes and gave her a short pipe, tobacco, and a light. And, the whale being of good cheer sailed away smoking as she went. Glooskap stood silently on the shore leaning on his bow. He followed a small cloud of smoke until it vanished away. And to this day, when the Wabanaki see a whale blow they say she is smoking the pipe of Glooskap.
The Algonquin Legends of New England – Myths and Folk Lore of the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Tribes have been recorded and are available to the public here.
Leland, Charles G. 1884. The Algonquin Legends of New England. Boston: Houghton, Miffin and Co.
The Smoking Whale on Birch Bark – This illustration appears in the book Algonquin Legends of New England, or Myths and Folklore of the Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Tribes, by Charles G. Leland (1884) Reprint. 1992 as Algonquin Legends, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.