This is the second installment in a month long series I am doing for the Halloween season. Each piece is the story behind one of the illustrations I drew for The Serpents of Bienville Collection. I hope you enjoy! If you like the story, and the illustration, you can purchase it over at serpentsofbienville.com . Thanks!
“For the Choctaw, the black panther steals souls, particularly the souls of those unprepared to die…Whether a harbinger of death…or as a symbol of the dark side of feminine nature, the black panther is both a symbol of death and rebirth…the nalushashito or soul-eater.”1
The dense Alabama wilderness has a way of becoming a black cloak at night fall. The veil falls over your eyes, guiding you into a void of towering pines like smoke stacks, a thick fog floating at your feet. These are the nights that any slight sound becomes a ghost, whispering in your ear. The earth at your feet opens wide, swallowing you into your grave, as a shrill scream echoes in the distance, ringing in your head as you plunge to your inevitable end. All that can be heard is the deafening shriek, echoing through your mind as the ground closes up around you. The pine needles are teeth in a closing mouth. The last bits of dirt are thrown over the hole by large black paws, her mouth still billowing the cry that has sealed your fate: the cry of the Wampus Cat—the “Harbinger of Death”.
Southern Alabama is not typically where one would find black panthers, which is why special significance and lore have been placed on this beast that roams the woods. For the Choctaw, the black panther was the stealer of souls that were not prepared to die. This cat signifies the dark side of feminine nature, a harbinger of death, representing both death and rebirth, or simply the nalushashito, the soul-eater.1
The Wampus Cat lore is derived from a commonly heard story about a beautiful Indian woman, hiding in the words, watching her husband and the men of her tribe practicing magic. The belief was that it was forbidden for women to be present during these rituals. So she watched in secret, clutching the hide of a mountain cat around her body for disguise and protection, watching their sacred ceremony take place. Unbeknownst to the woman, she had been discovered. As she watched, the medicine man turned and stared deep into the trees she thought were her cover, as if to be looking right into her eyes, seeing her through all darkness. In this long silence, she became frozen. Words slowly began to fall out of the medicine man’s mouth and the woman could feel the hide she was hiding in, to keep warm and protected from the night, begin to squeeze around her, as if it was breathing life, fusing with the woman’s flesh. The skin of the cat became her flesh, overtaking her body, turning her into a hideous monster. The woman fell to her knees, seemingly breathing her last breath, the sound abruptly rising into a howl, a deafening scream. Her head lurched back, arms outstretched as she morned her now damned existence. The myth follows, stating that if you are the one to hear that shrill cry, death is right around the corner, for she is now the “Harbinger of Death”.
Story telling and myths have a way of showing the deeper truth and belief that lie within a culture. The ugly, the unjust, the damned will be created and turned into the recipients of the pack mentality hatred that is boiling over. One recipient of this, time and time again, is feminine nature. Stories from that of Eve and the Apple, Pandora’s Box, and the Salem Witch Trials seem to contain the underlying distrust of the feminine, of the woman herself. Since the times of early story telling, duality myths always abound. One would read these and believe that we have grown as a civilization, and we no longer hold onto these ideals, but is that really true? Could this still be taking place today?
Leo Igwe, of The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, documented these events that sound like they were taken out of a page of history from hundreds of years past, but were unfortunately products of the 21st century.
“In patriarchal societies, women often are found at the lower ranks of the society. Hence they have the label of witchcraft applied to them. This explains why women are often the victims of accusation. But it is not all women who are accused. It is mainly elderly women- widows, childless women who are often targeted. Here are a few cases from Northern Ghana to illustrate my point.
“Melatu was accused by the daughter of being responsible for her illness. She was taken to a local shrine where she was confirmed a witch. The daughter later died. She was attacked, beaten and banished from her community. Melatu is currently living in a witch camp in Ghana.
“In 2012, I met another woman at the Kukuo witch camp. She was banished from her community for engaging in witchcraft. She could not walk. She crawled to attend to her daily chores but when I returned in February 2014, they said she had died. What happened? She was bitten by an insect one evening, she cried out for help but before they could attend to her, she passed away.
“But another alleged witch, Bibat, could not make it to the camp. In 2010, the step son confirmed from a local diviner that she was bewitching him. And one evening, the step son confronted her in an open field and stabbed her to death.
“Not all who are banished because of witchcraft flee to the camps. An 80 year old woman, Sinat was accused of being responsible for the death of a neighbour’s wife. She was seen in the dream by another girl in her compound. Sinat was accused of witchcraft and was banished from her community. One of her relatives accommodated her in Tamale where I met with her.
“Her relations took her case to court with the help of the state human rights agency. While the case was in court, the chief of her village asked her to return to the community.
“But another woman, Mega, was not as lucky. I met her in February 2014 at the witch camp in Gnani. She was banished after being accused of sorcery. I met the chief and other elders of her village and persuaded them to allow her to return to the community without success. But with the grant from Foundation Beyond Belief, she was able to leave the camp and is now trying to start a small business.
“Vulnerable members of the population are not necessarily female. They can be male, young or old, poor or ‘rich’ people. It is not all elderly women or men, not all boys or girls that a branded witches. Witches are those with weak social political base; those unable to successfully contest accusations made against them. The tragedy is that witchcraft remains a powerful narrative in diagnosing social problems and challenges that people face…”2
One can’t help but imagine a beautiful Choctaw woman, from the original “Wampus Cat” myth, cast out from her community, and forced to wander the night alone, labeled an outcast, unclean and never to return to her former home. These modern stories, these current events, make this myth now so vivid, so uncomfortably real. We want to imagine that this is only a legend, something to tell around a late night campfire to cause you to look twice in the vast darkness of wilderness that surrounds us, hoping the monster is not a few steps behind you. Perhaps we are the monster, as a culture, as a civilization. The beast is no longer the woman, but our modern civilization, the human conditions and beliefs that created this creature, this story. Perhaps the cry we should really be hearing is that of change, and of coming back from a damned existence of judgement.
A light of hope can be found in a piece written by David Titterington,
“The above/below duality that all upright bodies experience correlates with male/female archetypes not only due to historically situated cultural constructions, or to intentional, patriarchal agendas, but also to material, bodily conditions. Rather than reifying modern sex-roles and gender differences, this realization uncovers what we can call ‘gender-landscape reciprocity’ and helps us to understand how truly gendered phenomena are before they even reach consciousness. By keeping an eye on how these subtle structures of association color our experience, we can transcend them, reducing misogyny and homophobia within ourselves. ‘Realization and liberation are simultaneous.’”3
Realization becomes liberation. Then, “It is possible that people never understand each other, yet they always agree. each interprets the other’s words in his own way, and they live in perfect harmony, the perfect solidarity of perfect mutual misunderstanding.” 4
Maybe, if we take one more look, we can find something that was there all along, that the black panther is both a symbol of death and rebirth. Could a true rebirth in modern civilization lie in an acceptance and understanding that we are one? Can we ever truly be complete, or will we remain roaming into the void of wilderness, bringing death with our words, crying out for something we never will have?
Owens, Louis. Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. American Indian Lit. and Critical Studies Series 26. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1998. —. “Re: Article.” E-mail sent to author. 13 Nov. 2000. —. The Sharpest Sight. American Indian Lit. and Critical Studies Series 1. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.
4. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1984.