Saturday, August 20, 2016

Legendary Beasts: Hodag and Squonk

The Hodag
If you search the internet for information on a ferocious beast known as a hodag, you'll find all sorts of information that links him to the town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. However, Rhinelander does not own this ugly, surly, elusive fellow! When I was growing up in Elk County, Pennsylvania, all the boys who spent a week or two at a nearby Boy Scout camp, called Camp Mountain Run, had terrible tales to tell of the hodag that lurked in the woods there. Of course, none of the boys ever actually saw him. They heard his screeching, roaring, and the slapping of his tail. And they heard stories.


A logger brutally murdered by a hodag
According to the legends, a hodag is the size of a rhinoceros. It has a face like a frog but with long fangs. It also has tremendous claws, and a long tail with spikes at the end of it. Hodags live very far back in the forest, but the ground trembles when they approach and they apparently consider young Boy Scout flesh to be quite tasty.

One of the stories in my collection The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk is called Father Nick and the Hodag. In the story Father Nick talks two parish boys into helping put a fright into a bunch girls camping out. It does not go as anticipated and both Father Nick and the boys wind up nearly pummeled to death when girls, who were making mountain pies over a camp fire, beat the poor hodag with hot pie irons. A punishment likely worse than getting attacked by an actual hodag.

It is sort of interesting, given the native land of many of the people of Elk County, that the hodag should also surface in a town called Rhinelander. Many of the settlers to our county came from the Rhine Valley in Germany. I have not been able to find a source for such a beast in German legends but it is highly likely one existed. Hodags are mentioned in several Paul Bunyan stories.

The Squonk
Another beast that appears to be native to Pennsylvania is the squonk. In 1969 the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a book called The Book of Imaginary Beings. In it he mentions the squonk which is alleged to dwell in the dark, dense hemlock forests of north central Pennsylvania. According to Borges's story, the squonk is a very ugly creature with loose fitting skin and covered with warts and blemishes. The poor little squonk is very, very ashamed of his ugliness and spends all his time hiding and crying.

No squonk has ever been captured and for a very interesting reason. The squonk has the mysterious ability, when cornered, to dissolve into a puddle of tears. A certain J.P. Wentling claimed to have captured one and, as he carried the beast home in a burlap sack, the sack got lighter and lighter. When he looked inside there was nothing but a puddle of tears sloshing around.

No one seems to know the origin of the squonk but they are persistent. In the song Any Major Dude Will Tell You by Steely Dan, the lyrics go, “Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine.” And the rock group Genesis have a song called Squonk on their album A Trick of the Tail. The squonk also appears in a number of plays and stories.

Walking home that night
The sack across my back, the sound of sobbing on my shoulder.
When suddenly it stopped,
I opened up the sack, all that I had
A pool of bubbles and tears - just a pool of tears.

- part of the lyrics of "Squonk" by Anthony Banks, Michael Rutherford

As for the hodag, one would be hard-pressed to go very far in Wisconsin without coming across hodags mounted outside restaurants, as mascots for radio stations and sports teams. There are hodag festivals and a huge hodag sits in front of the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce.

Where hodags and squonks come from one can only imagine, but they are a delightful part of local folklore wherever they appear and just custom made to be used in stories by writers who have a love of such things.


Thanks for reading.

23 comments:

  1. I think I would rather for the Hodag for president than either of our choices! :-) Interesting. I had not heard of either of these creatures. Have you heard of the Rougalou? I transplanted them to Paris for my latest WIP.

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    1. Roland, I have heard of the Loup Garou in New Orleans. In fact, I have a friend who claims to have one. I am quite sure your character must be related.

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  2. Hi, Kathleen!

    I lived in Pennsylvania for 34 years and vacationed and camped with scouts in the northern counties. This is the first time I ever heard of hodags and squonks. The two mythical creatures that I remember discussing and hunting in my youth were the rabunda, a large mutant or hybrid rabbit, and the woolly, another name for Bigfoot, Yeti or Sasquatch.

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    1. Wow, Shady, I never heard of the rabunda! I'll have to see what I can find out about that. Thanks.

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  3. Here in Oz, it was bunyips. My (German) father had me convinced that bunyips lived in hollow gum trees.
    Loved this post, and my soft heart feels so sorry for the poor squonk.

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    1. I agree about poor little squonk! He is a very sad fellow. Well, now I'm curious--I'm going to search for bunyips.

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  4. Uh, the hodag is scary, but I think the squonk is quite cute. I haven't heard of either of them before though!

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    1. Yes, poor little squonk. It's hard not to love him, he's such a sad fellow.

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  5. My husband has kept a particularly ugly bit of denim and leather from his boy scout camping days which he calls the "Hodag vest". He used to try and tell scary tales of the Hodag to our son, but the boy was born a skeptic and never fell for them.

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    1. That's so funny. Kids aren't as gullible--especially now that they can Google everything.

      I thought of you the other night because I was sitting on the porch reading and some milkweed fluff was swirling around. I keep Tweeting about Fluff McDuff--I hope more people learn about him.

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    2. Thank you Kathleen! I appreciate that. I have been working on the second story, and then hope to offer a print version of both.

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  6. I never knew these creatures were the subject of songs. How cool.

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    1. To be honest, neither did I until I started researching them!!!

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  7. These are wonderful, Kathleen. I don't think I'd like to bump into a hodag - but wouldn't it be marvellous to see a squonk - and try to persuade him not to dissolve into a puddle of tears?

    Susan at
    Travel, Fiction and Photos

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    1. I know! Poor little squonk! He isn't really that ugly.

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  8. I guess all communities have their legendary creatures. I've never heard of either of these.

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    1. I just love local legends. I'm always interested in hearing about more of them.

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  9. Those are downright ugly monsters! That first picture was a real grabber. I thought, "Wait! Am I at the right blog?"

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  10. Hi Kathleen - certainly two great creatures ... opening up many doors. What wonderful lore ... and honestly the illustrators are the best ...

    Loved this - cheers Hilary

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I loved the drawings, too.

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  11. How fun! I've always adored fantastical creatures. Unicorns were my favorite as a young girl. Remnants of my obsession still linger here and there. ~grin~ Poor squonks! Wish I could befriend one.

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