Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The sacred dances of Winter's magical midpoint—now a mere fortnight away—have long been the stomp-dances that rouse the seeds and animals that sleep within the frozen Earth.

We generally begin our February Eve doings with just such a dance, turning to the farthings and calling in turn upon their respective animal powers, the hibernating and migrating beings whose stirring marks the turning towards Spring. In the traditional Appalachian song which accompanies this dance we call to Groundhog, Redbird, Rattlesnake, and Muskrat. Those who associate Four Elements with the quarters will not have far to seek.

Groundhog, the holiday's eponymous patron, is also known in American English as Woodchuck, a variant (by folk etymology) of Cree ochek, a name which inspired the playful tongue-twisting folk query:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck [= toss]

if a woodchuck could chuck wood?


Redbird. Here in southern Minnesota, cardinals migrate south in the fall, but only as far south as Iowa. Some time around late January the males come back to stake out a breeding territory for the coming summer; the females return about a month later. They are the first of our returning migrants, and that rippling, liquid territorial call is a sound to melt the very heart of Winter. Red bird, black branch, white snow.

Rattlesnake. In various European folklores, Candlemas is said to be the time when hibernating animals awake: marmots, hedgehogs, bears, badgers, and (in Ireland) snakes. Here we see the naturalized American version.

Muskrat. Another burrowing hibernator, strong swimmer of streams, whose midwinter rousing foretells the melting of the ice and the waking of the waters. 

In this memorable recording, Cree singer and activist Buffy Ste.-Marie accompanies herself on the mouth bow, which has the advantage of being playable while one sings. It is one of humanity's oldest musical instruments.




Groundhog, groundhog:

what makes your back so brown?

I've been living in the ground for so darn long,

it's a wonder I don't drown, drown,

a wonder I don't drown.


Red bird, red bird:

what makes your head so red?

I've been picking your corn for so darn long,

it's a wonder I ain't dead, dead,

a wonder I ain't dead.


Rattlesnake, rattlensnake:

what makes your teeth so white?

I been sittin' in the sun for so darn long,

you're lucky I don't bite,

well, you're lucky I don't bite.


Muskrat, muskrat:

what makes you smell so bad?

I been living in the ground for so darn long

I'm mortified in my head, head,

mortified in my head.


Groundhog, groundhog:

what makes your back so brown?

I've been living in the ground for so darn long,

it's a wonder I don't drown, drown,

a wonder I don't drown. 













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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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