Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mishipeshu, the Horned Water Panther

Mishipeshu by Firenze

Great cats are usually not thought of as especially good swimmers, much less water dwellers. But one of the major players in the creature lore of North America's Ojibwe and Cree people is Mishipeshu, the great water lynx or water panther. Its name has been spelled in myriad ways due to its wide territory, and descriptions can vary, but these tribes believed it to be the special guardian of the ancient copper mines of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Its home was Michipicoten Island, and taking any of the pure chunks of copper ore from that island was considered strictly taboo. One oft-repeated story is of four Ojibwe who tried to steal copper from Mishipeshu, only to be followed home by the screaming water panther. The trip was fatal for all four thieves.

The curse of Mishipeshu continued as Europeans discovered the fortune in copper nuggets on the Upper Peninsula in the mid-1800s. Ships carrying copper would capsize in sudden storms, such as the one that sank the Algoma in 1885 with 45 people aboard. The storms, the Ojibwe believed, were stirred purposely by Mishipeshu. Ten ships were sunk in the area of Isle Royale alone.

Mishipeshu is not alone in his quest to guard the sacred copper. Mishi Ginabig, a serpent-like creature that bore antler-like horns and measured the same length as the tallest pine trees, was reportedly spotted in the Great Lakes area in the early 1800s. Both Mishipeshu and Mishi Ginabig are enemies of the great Thunderbird, a spirit-being in the shape of a giant bird, which battles them to restore balance between powers of the water and of the air.

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