Pethel: A Forgotten Cryptid
Whenever I read through an ethnological treatise on one of Canada’s First Nations, or the writings of some bygone Canadian frontiersman, I invariably come across references to bizarre superstitions once held by Canadian natives. Many of these pertain to witchcraft; love potions, remedies for curses, and precautions against evil medicine men being common motifs. Others are woven into puberty rituals in which teenage girls prevent themselves from accidentally harming other band members with the strange otherworldly power with which they were supposed to be imbued. Others still are intense fears of certain animals which modern man generally considers innocuous. The latter belief is rendered especially bizarre when considered alongside the fact that Canada’s pre-modern indigenous peoples, who relied on the land for sustenance, were necessarily experts on the flora and fauna that pervaded their territories. Is it possible that the subjects of such fears are rare but real animals of which Canada’s native peoples were justifiably afraid? In this piece, we will take a look at a few of these little-known cryptids, or hidden animals, of native tradition.
In his 1900 ethnological treatise on the Thompson Indians of south-central British Columbia, Scots-Canadian anthropologist James Teit wrote, “All kinds of snakes, toads, frogs, lizards, insects, and shell-fish are looked upon with abhorrence and disgust by the average Indians. The small black lizard is held in dread. It is said that if it sees a person, it will follow his tracks, and in the night-time will overtake him, and crawl into his anus and eat his intestines. Indians, therefore, when they happen to see one of them, light a fire in their tracks, or jump over the camp-fire four times when they get home. It is said that the lizard will always turn back from fire, of which it has a great dread.”
Teit was not the only anthropologist to describe this horrific reptile, nor were the Thompsons the only native group who believed in its existence. In his Report on the Ethnology of the Statlumh of British Columbia, published in the 1905 issue of The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, English ethnologist and folklorist Charles Hill-Tout described a similar belief held by the Stlatlumh, or Lillooet Indians, another Interior Salish people whose territory lies west of Thompson Country. “The small red lizard,” he wrote, “was much dreaded by the Stlatlumh, who regarded it in much the same light as the Haida did the mouse. They believed that it entered a man through his nostrils and ate up his heart and liver, and thus killed him.”
To illustrate this belief, Hill-Tout included a story told to him by a Lillooet elder. While on a hunting trip with a partner, the story goes, a Lillooet hunter separated from his companion and headed up a rocky beach. After some time, he came to a spot where the stones were stained with some yellow substance. Believing that he had unwittingly stumbled upon a lizard colony, the hunter fled the area and rejoined his companion, to whom he relayed his suspicion. Both men agreed that it would be wise to leave the area as quickly as possible, and headed in the opposite direction without delay. They travelled all day and all night without stopping to rest, fearing that the lizards were on their trail.
When he returned home, the man who had stumbled upon the lizard den related his adventure to his family, and told his wife and children to watch the door for any approaching lizards while he slept. When he awoke that evening, he took his family’s watch, and stood sentry at the door of his house until morning, well aware that lizards prefer to launch their assaults at night. The family maintained this fruitless vigil for two days.
On the morning of the second day, the hunter’s wife went down to the river for water. While dipping her cedar bark basket into the water, she caught a glimpse of two lizards peering out from beneath the family canoe. “She straightway killed them,” Hill-Tout wrote, “and hurried back to tell her husband that the lizards had followed and found where he was staying.”
The family resumed their 24-hour watch with renewed vigilance. In preparation for his own night shift, the hunter prepared a basket full of brine, or salt water, a touch from which was supposed to be lethal to lizards. That accomplished, he took his place by the door and waited.
“As soon as daylight had gone,” Hill-Tout wrote, “the lizards began to come forth in twos and threes. They sought to enter the house, but when they came near the doorway, he poured brine over them, which instantly killed them. When dead he placed them in a basket, and by morning he had filled it with dead lizards. They continued to watch and kill the lizards in this way till all had been exterminated, and the man was safe from them again.
“This is said to have happened within the last few years,” Hill-Tout concluded. “It is clear that the incidents are modern, because of the use of ‘brine’ to kill the lizards. The Indians had no salt and therefore no ‘brine’ before the advent of the whites.”
West and south of Lillooet Country lies the territory of the Squamish, a Coast Salish people who shared the Interior Salish belief in dangerous reptiles. In his 1895 book Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America, Teit’s friend and colleague, German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, reproduced a traditional Squamish story which describes the mythological origin of this monstrous reptile. The protagonist of this tale is Qals, a Squamish deity endowed with the ability to transform people, animals, and landmarks into other forms.
“Qals walked on,” Boas wrote, “and reached a house where there lived an old man with a red face and with red hair on his hands and feet. His name was Pethel. When Qals arrived he hid, and when Qals journeyed on, he changed into a small snake (with a red belly and a black back) and followed. When Qals pitched camp in the evening and the eldest brother sat down, he crawled into his anus.
“‘Ha!’ cried Qals. ‘Are you playing such tricks? Then remain a snake and always do this.’ Ever since then Pethel has been a small snake which always follows people, even into the water, and crawls into their anuses.”
Ethnographer Randy Bouchard and anthropologist Dorothy Kennedy, who edited and annotated a 2002 English translation of Boas’ book (the original having been written in German), speculated that the word ‘pethel’ denotes a species of red salamander called Ensatina eschscholtzii, a creature which they claim once bore the ominous epithet “bum lizard”.
When comparing Boas’ original handwritten transcription of the story, which was written in the language of the Squamish storyteller, to his own German translation, Bouchard and Kennedy discovered that the term which Boas interpreted as ‘salamander’ appears to be the name for a particular reptile which Halkomelem linguist Brent Galloway identified as “probably the Pacific giant salamander and/or northern alligator lizard.” The association which Boas’ informant made between the dreaded pethel and the alligator lizard incidentally evokes a strange discovery made in the Canadian Cascades not far from the traditional haunts of the Squamish, Lillooet, and Thompson Indians. In 1915, while prospecting in the mountains near British Columbia’s Chilliwack Lake, south of the Fraser River, Charles Flood of New Westminster (Vancouver, BC), and Donald McRae and Green Hicks of Agassiz, British Columbia, encountered several strange animals not yet recognized by the scientific community. Charles Flood described this adventure in a 1957 statement, writing:
“Green Hicks, a half-breed Indian, told McRae and me a story, he claimed he had seen alligators at what he called Alligator Lake, and wild humans at what he called Cougar Lake. Out of curiosity we went with him; he had been there a week previously looking for a fur trap line. Sure enough, we saw his alligators, but they were black, twice the size of lizards in a small mud lake.”
Flood went on to describe how the three men continued to Cougar Lake, where they saw “a large, light brown creature about 8 feet high, standing on its hind legs (standing upright) pulling the berry bushes with one hand or paw toward him and putting berries in his mouth with the other hand or paw.”
West across the Georgia Strait from Squamish Country lies Vancouver Island, the western half of which was once the domain of the Nootka Indians. These people have their own stories about dangerous reptiles, which anthropologist Philip Drucker touched on briefly in his 1951 ethnological treatise on The Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes. “Small snakes, of the ‘gartersnake’ type…” Drucker wrote, pointing out that there are no poisonous snakes on Vancouver Island, “were dreaded. To find a den of them was especially dangerous, for with lightning speed they hurled themselves into the bodily orifices of the unlucky discoverer.”
The natives of British Columbia are not the only indigenous people to traditionally harbour superstitions about small seemingly-harmless animals. Far to the north, on the southern border of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, lies the traditional homeland of the Mountain Indians, a Dene people who lived at the edge of the notorious Nahanni Valley. In the early 1900s, a former North West Mounted Police officer named Poole Field travelled extensively with the Mountain Indians before establishing a trading post at the confluence of the Pelly and Ross Rivers, in Southeastern Yukon. He wrote about his adventures with the natives in a series of letters to his friend John “Jack” Moran, a former government inspector of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
In several of his letters, Poole Field made references to an old Dene belief that it was bad luck to harm frogs. “If you touch or kill a frog,” he wrote in one of his letters, “your limbs will lose their strength, and you will get poor. Your flesh will gradually waste away till you die.”
He elaborated on this superstition in another letter, writing, “A frog… was supposed to have very strong medicine. If you injured one in any way your children when born would be disfigured in the same way.
“It reminds me of an instance I had paddling across the river from the store on the Pelly to where a large encampment of Indians were, and as I landed a frog jumped out of the grass onto the beach. I picked him up and told some young girls and boys that were watching me land that I was going to drop him down their backs. They immediately ran away screaming something in Indian. I didn’t understand the language very well at that time and didn’t catch the meaning but I took after them on the run. You can imagine my surprise when the whole camp started for the bush, men women and kids yelling and shouting to each other. In the meantime one of them who could speak a little English called to me to stop and explained to me that I had done an awful bad thing. Even touching a frog was the worst kind of bad luck. For years I was always getting myself in wrong by committing some such act that was taboo with them.”
Is it possible that these deadly reptiles and amphibians of native tradition are based on real animals? Could the orifice-invading snake or lizard of Indian lore have once prowled the game trails of British Columbia, dealing agonizing death to any unfortunates it came across? Could the Mountain Indian’s aversion to frogs have a connection to some long-forgotten poisonous amphibian, close contact with which caused limbs to weaken and flesh to waste away? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
- The Thompson Indians of British Columbia, by James Teit, in the April 1900 issue of the Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History: Volume II: Anthropology I: The Jesup North Pacific Expedition
- Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America (1895), by Franz Boas
- The Northern and Central Nootkan (1951), by Philip Drucker
- Report on the Ethnology of the Statlumh of British Columbia, by Charles Hill-Tout, published in the 1905 issue of The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
- Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life (1961), by Ivan T. Sanderson
- Letter from Poole Field to John “Jack” Moran, February 8th, 1913
- Letter from Poole Field to John “Jack” Moran, July 14th, 1939