I’ve been reading a lot of Native American mythology, and one of their most popular legendary beasts–coast to coast–is the Thunderbird—the giant supernatural bird that causes thunderstorms and stirs up the wind. There are all sorts of variations on the theme, but one legend stood out to me as weirder than the others. Many stories in the Pacific Northwest tell of battles between Thunderbird and a whale. In one of these, a man who was out hunting sees a whale’s body lying in a field in the mountains. It had been caught at sea and carried there by Thunderbird, who is resting in a tree nearby. The man goes back home and tells his people about the whale, and while the Thunderbird is away, they all gather at the whale’s carcass to cut it in pieces and pile it up to be cooked and eaten. But then Thunderbird returns and becomes very angry, because the people had taken the whale. So he creates a hail storm and kills and mangles all the people and turns them into stone, as well as all the meat and blubber that they had piled, resulting in a ridge of great rock blocks from one end of the field to the other. According to this story, the ridge is still there today, and even the whale’s ribs and his great head may still be seen. (Source: Thunderbird Turns People To Stone, told by Luke Hobucket, https://www.pnsn.org/outreach/native-american-stories/thunderbird-and-whale/thunderbird-and-whale-stories/tales-from-the-hoh-and-quileute)
From a story-telling perspective, this seemed to me to be a pretty whacky tale. First, how would anybody conceive of a bird, no matter how big and strong, carrying a whale to land and dropping it there?
It didn’t make sense to me, didn’t exactly resonate. It could be because myths and legends often reflect historic events and this sometimes results in odd, nonsensical stories So I looked it up and it seems that geologists believe the legend of the Thunderbird and the whale was created to explain a devastating earthquake and tsunami around the year 1700.
But it still didn’t sound right to me. The times I experienced earthquakes, I’m fairly certain that giant supernatural birds dropping whales nearby never entered my mind.
While visiting Washington State this summer, I went to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington and saw a 27 million year old fossil of an early species of baleen whale– which was recently named–Sitsqwayk cornishorum. The fossil had been found in the northern Olympic Peninsula, the very same area where the legend of the Thunderbird and the whale has always been popular. That’s when I had an epiphany. Imagine you’re a Quiliute Indian living hundreds or thousands of years ago in the Pacific Northwest, and you find a stone skeleton of a whale embedded in some rock cliff far from the sea. Back then you knew nothing of the geological history of the area, nothing about the sea that covered that land millions of years ago. You would wonder just how that whale got to dry land, and you would look to the spirits to find your answer. Suddenly now, it made sense to me that Thunderbird took it there. What else could have done that? The legend even states how the whale’s ribs and head had been turned to stone and could still be seen. It might not have been Sitsqwayk cornishorum, but the original story teller had clearly seen some kind of whale fossil.
That intersection of myth and science was thrilling, and even if I’m completely wrong about the connection in this case, I don’t care, it ought to be true.
However, I saw a second intersection of myth and science during my stay in Washington, but this one wasn’t thrilling at all.
One day, an old friend, a conservative Christian, tried to hold a conversation with me about the blood moon prophecy. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a belief in fringier Christian circles that a tetrad –four consecutive lunar eclipses within two years– is a sign of the end times and the second coming of Christ, as described in the Books of Joel, Acts, and Revelations. “The sun will turn into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
The prophecy was a big deal among the apocalyptisphere last year, when a book promoting it hit the top of the bestseller lists. But the 2014-2015 tetrad ended in nothing happening, which resulted in the main proponent of the prediction taking it down from his website. But because of some blood moons this year, my friend anticipated another tetrad, and maybe this time the prophecy would work. As usual, his conversation was cryptic, since I think he knows how crazy the prophecy sounds. Mostly he hinted at the coming of the end times by citing the dates of recent lunar eclipses and how they line up with Jewish holy days, and then asking who I thought might be the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place– that is, the antichrist, another sign of the end times. Since my friend is also a political conservative, I knew where he was headed–so I offered my own opinion. I suggested that if the holy place means the oval office, the abomination would not be Clinton, but could be Donald Trump if he becomes president.
Legends like the Thunderbird and the Whale and the Biblical apocalypse are very, very old, maybe going back to prehistoric times, when people had no knowledge of the scientific causes of whale fossils or lunar eclipses. They made up stories in order to make some kind of sense out of these scientific mysteries.
But the modern Blood moon prophets –I suppose unwilling to shake magical thinking– do the opposite–they use science to try to prove that the myths are true.
Note: This is an essay that I presented at a Penn and Pencil Club reading this fall, before the election. I wrote it with the presumption that Hillary Clinton would win, but now that Trump will be president, I comprehend the irony of my argument. I was being sarcastic about the abomination of desolation, but now that prophecy does seem too close for comfort!