Strange and Fearsome Critters
It's time to jump into the wonderful world of cryptids, those supernatural and Fearsome Critters.
I’ve written about strange beasts before. My focus there was on how strange creatures came into existence in mythology and my pet theory on the difference between monsters and beasts.
Today, I’d like to focus on the weird and wonderful the Fearsome Critters.
The joy of a country as young as America is we’re able to actually track back a lot of their mythology to clear, established sources. As opposed to Greek mythology which is a hodgepodge of half a dozen different people, all loosely calling themselves Greek, filtered through the lens of Roman and Victorian influence.
The Fearsome Critters oral tradition is a staple in American folklore. These were tall tales told around the campfire and scare the socks off any newcomers. It began among the lumberjacks Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually spread across the country.
Here are a few of my favourites.
If you’re not from the US, your first encounter with the graceful Jackalope was probably the Pixar short Boundin’, as it was for me. The Jackalope is seemingly an exclusive in American folklore. North America, specifically. It is a creature which resembles a jackrabbit, but with a set of fine antelope horns.
At this point, I should probably add a line explaining why people believed in the jackalope and/or why the story was important. But I’m honestly not sure why. It’s just cute.
Where to find the Jackalope: again, Pixar’s short. You can also find it in Red Dead Redemption where you can kill and skin it for an achievement.
However, a creature we can very clearly see the point of is my personal favourite, the Agropelter.
The Agropelter hides in trees and, believe it or not, pelts passers-bys with twigs and branches. It’s supposed to be half-man, half-ape and 100% vindictive. Don’t correct me on my maths.
It’s also known as the Widow Maker and was used as an explanation if any lumberjack was hit by falling branches. The warning is obvious – be alert when you’re in the forest.
Side note, it also has the title of being the ‘King of the Wild Frontier’. Which I had always thought was Davy Crocket? Or maybe that’s just my Disney indoctrination talking.
Where to find the Argopelter: I mean, let’s hope you don’t. But if you’re keen, check your local deforestation site. Wearing a hard hat.
Another similar creature is the Hidebehind. This creature – who in illustrations looks a little bit like a bear or giant wolf, hides in the forests, waiting for its prey. When it finds an unsuspecting lumberjack, it will attack, dragging it back to its lair to be eaten. It was used as an explanation if any lumberjack went missing.
Why then do we talk about Hidebehinds and not a grizzly bear as this creature is clearly based on? Well, you can spot a bear. A grizzly bear is dangerous, yes, but comfortingly real. A terrifying creature which cannot be seen, pointed to or explained is far more terrifying.
Where to find the Hidebehind: again, I’m questioning your judgement, but if you insist. The Gravity Falls short "Dipper's Guide to the Unexplained: The Hide Behind" would be your first stop. Also, Pottermore released a new story about the wizarding school of Ilvermorny which features the Hidebehind.
Eugene Shepard in 1893
The Hodag probably shouldn’t be included on this list of mythical critters as it’s totally real, we have a photo and everything.
The Hodag has "the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end."
The photo by Eugene Shepard in 1893, claims to show the capturing of the Hodag. Guys… is anyone else seeing a bulldog with big ears holding a stick in its mouth?
Eugene Shepard went on to display his captured hodag at the first Onedia County fair.
Having connected wires to it, Shepard would occasionally move the creature, which would typically send the already-skittish viewers fleeing the display.
Fortunately, after the Smithsonian Institution announced that they would be inspecting the new created, Shepard was forced to announce that it was, in fact, a hoax.
However, the hodag has remained an official symbol of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. No judgements here. The official animal of Scotland is a unicorn.
Where to find the Hodag: there’s a very nice statue of is in Rhinelander. I’d start there.
Last, but not least, and included because I cannot resist the name, is the Oomph. This creature bears all the hallmarks of the Hidebehind in that it’s dangerous, impossible to see until it’s too late and lurks in a lair. As large as a dog, but was a cross between a lizard and a toad. And, of course, large porcupine-like spines covering it’s back.
However, the Oomph was not used so much as a warning but as a way of hazing.
This is the classic Snipe hunt. Newbies would be told it was a requirement of newcomers to hunt the Oomph by searching the forest, making ‘oomph’ noises to draw it out and hunt for broken eggs to find its lair. After what was likely a terrifying and fruitless search, they would return to the ridicule that likely followed. Until, of course, they had a chance to do it to the next batch of unwitting victims.
Where to find the Oomph: you don’t, that’s the whole point!