Prevalence of Underwater Panther

  • I was researching my tribe's clan history and came across something interesting. Osages, like most American Indian tribes, name their clans after either mythological creatures, or common animals (typically with a mythological backstory for the choice).

    One of the other subclans caught my eye: "Puma in the Water". This appears to be a reference to a common American Indian mythological character, Underwater Panther. I had never previously heard of this creature.

    Apparently, he is the opposite and nemesis of Thunderbird (which I had heard of)*. He's not an actual panther, but rather an aquatic hybrid creature with a feline body, but also horns, scales, and a very long tail.

    enter image description here

    However, every reference to Underwater Panther I could dig up was in the mythology of Great-lakes area Algonquin-speaking tribes. Osages are not Algonquians, but rather Mississippi Valley Sioxans. And yet, there Underwater Panther is in my tribal history.

    Wikipedia does now mention some possibility of a connection with the Mississippians, but completely unattested. My tribe maintains that the Middle Mississippians were their ancestors, and there does seem to be some consensus that at least some of them were probably Siouxan. That's about the best breadcrumb I have.

    So the question here is exactly how widespread was Underwater Panther mythology among the Native American tribes? What nations featured it? Is he everwhere that has Thunderbird as well?

    * - Yes, Osages have a clan associated with Thunderbird as well.

    Great question; hope to see more like it! Have you asked anyone from your tribe about this? They seem like they would be the most likely to know the answer.

    @Christofian - I wouldn't have gotten this far without them.

    @plannapus - Greatly. Without going through it in detail, I see at least 4 tribes on his list that are Siouxan, 2 of which are very closely related to Osage.

  • femtoRgon

    femtoRgon Correct answer

    7 years ago

    The underwater panther is indeed a very widespread figure. Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography has a section titled "The Forms of the Underwater Powers", which gives brief descriptions of records of similar traditions from peoples spanning the Plains, Mississippi river, Great Lakes, and Southeastern United States. The figure is referred to in different ways, sometimes a Great Serpent, or Underwater Panther, or others. In common, though, it is a powerful being of the Underworld, usually has horns and combines qualities of multiple animals, and opposes the Thunderbird (or similar Overworld being).

    To justify linking these traditions (Great Serpent and Underwater Panther), the author has this to say:

    Although Western eyes might readily identify the two creatures as quite different species, the native view, rooted in shape-shifting and symbolic imagery, seems to find much less distinction between the two. It appears, in fact, that the two quite different images would be better envisioned as the two ends of a pole, with various morphs possible between the extremes.

    Generally, the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex seems to be (very roughly) a reasonable fit, though I have seen some sources that dispute the usefulness of that model.

    Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

    Among the particular peoples called out in the aforementioned book as having such a tradition: Algonkian peoples (in general), Ojibwa, Illinois, Peoria, Shawnee, Miami, Plains tribes (broadly), Mitchigamea, Menominee, Meskwaki (Fox), Cree, Sioux, Muskogee (Creek), Potawatomi, Dakota, Delaware, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.

    While the tradition is very widespread, I don't believe it would be safe to say that it appears everywhere that Thunderbird myths occur. For a counterexample, Thunderbird is a major figure in Pacific Northwest traditions, but to the best of my knowledge, Underwater Panther does not occur in that region.

    +1. When I went looking Friday, I did run across this modern attempt to conflate the UP and proper snake stories, so this is a line of scholarly thought. As near as I can tell, the snake stories were mostly a Musckoegan(generally south-eastern) thing. One source even had a map showing snake tribes, UP tribes, and tribes that had both. Not as pretty as your map though. :-)

    +1 great answer. I just have one question: you say `"I have seen some sources that dispute the usefulness of that model [Southeastern Ceremonial Complex]"` -- could you cite those sources? It's not that I doubt you, it's that I'm interested in learning more.

    @T.E.D. Pretty! That map is ugly as homemade sin. The text is comic sans, for pity's sake. I just couldn't find a better one online. At any rate though, yes, I am (obviously) convinced by the case made to equate the two forms.

    @Christofian - Here's the one I came across recently: Farewell to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

    @femtoRgon - Well, it has color, shading, and location dots. So its +3 right there. I will admit that modern Americans rendering defunct tribal names in Comic Sans is literally adding insult to injury. :-)

    "That map is ugly as homemade sin." -- It's also a bit troubling from what it includes. Fort Ancient and Serpent Mound are from a different culture than the other sites; I believe they're newer than the Mississippian sites.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM