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The Serpents of Bienville is an artist collective started in Southern Alabama by Amanda and Sean Herman. The project has grown from a study of southern mythology and folklore to include art, books, and merchandise available for purchase. The Serpents of Bienville is a celebration of the Southern Arts community and the people that carry on the tradition of creativity. Subscribe to our blog to hear about Alabama's history, oddities, lore and hidden treasures. Follow us on social media to stay up to date with new artists and projects in our community!

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Filtering by Tag: legend

Serpent Tales: Down To The Bone

Amanda Herman

Their daughter came home with cuts on her arms. The girl was a gentle and friendly soul. No one would mean her harm. 

 

“Who would do this to you?” 

“The little girl that plays with me in the field.”

“What little girl? What’s her name?”

“She doesn’t know her name.”

“The girl doesn't know her own name? Where does she live?”

“Under the porch.”

 

“…our porch?’

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well, when your little friend comes back, I want to have a word with her.”

“She can’t speak, mama.”

 

Her parents became more concerned than they intended after that conversation. They watched the next day when their girl was expected back from the fields to see if they could spy their daughter with her new friend. Sure enough, their daughter was sitting under the old oak by the road with a little girl that neither parent had seen before. A little younger, a little paler, she didn't speak, yet she got along fine with their little girl, so the parents’ minds were eased for a spell, until the sun was almost set. Just as the last rays faded from the sky, the unknown child pulled out a bone from her dress pocket, swiped their daughter’s arm, and then jumped away from their daughter, seemingly struck with fear from harming her friend. Then she crawled across the dirt patches in the yard and scurried underneath their very own porch.

 

“Git back out here right now, ‘fore I call your mama!”

 

No one answered.

No one was there.

 

Their daughter didn't seem nearly as shaken as they were. Though, she did tell warn how the interaction between herself and the other child was going to play out. The next day, her parents repeated their actions, hiding in the same place, spying the same child getting along well with their daughter. This time, just as soon as they saw the sun leaving the sky, knowing the little one would reach into her pocket at any moment, the parents leapt out from behind the house and called to the girl, “What do you think you're doin? Where’s your mama?” The little one flashed up on her feet and stared the mother down with the dark and telling shadows where her eyes surely should have been. The child rushed at the mother all at once, on hands and feet, not enough human, and too innocent to be called creature. Right before the mother’s eyes, it whipped out the bone from her pocket and swiped it cleanly across her arm. The fear she expected to wash over her never rolled in, she only worried for the child, not of herself. Following closely as the little one scampered back to the porch, gnawing and scratching to reach the underbelly of the wood slats, the mother raced for the toolshed. Returning with a crowbar and a shovel, she handed one to her husband.

 

“Help the poor child.”

 

She pulled up the boards and the father dug until he saw her. Hands around her face, shoulders curled to one side, both feet tucked under her hips, the little girl’s bones lay, finally found, ready for rest.

 

Serpent Tales is a series of folktales from around the South that I have been researching, writing, and reconfiguring for a while. We share stories to strengthen the ties that hold us to each other, to those that came before us, to the roots from which our best tomorrows can grow. The original pointillism artwork for this story pictured above was created by Sean Herman and can be purchased at the Serpents Store in downtown Mobile, Alabama.

 

We Are The Serpents of Bienville

We birthed from ancient bogs where fog concealed marauder’s scorchings 

left from the fires of freedom, and loss thereof its spoil. 

The wicked soils birthed nourishment, shores lined themselves in feast.

No heed to Iberville omen, the harbinger of bones in the harbor just back.

And now we revel with the saints and haints rekindled year again,

and jubilee on in holy shallows knowing each of us shall join them

under the oak once more with only wampus to guard our souls.

 

Keep treasure Mauvila in your heart, they knew what we forget.

Brand the surface with what you will, it still passes with master to grave.

It wasn’t only Creek that saw our slither boding.

We are Bienville’s serpents.

Boyington Oak

Sean Herman

"He prophesied that his innocence would be proven, for after his death, a strong oak tree would grow from his grave, and everyone would know that when they saw this tree he spoke the truth, and they would have to live with the knowledge that they killed an innocent man."

Illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

As the rope was put around Charles Boyington’s neck, he proclaimed his innocence to the thousands watching, all awaiting in anticipation of his gruesome execution.  As the mob screamed for his sentence to be fulfilled, he made the people a promise.  He foretold that his innocence would be shown, for after his death, a powerful oak tree would grow from his heart, buried deep in the grave. Everyone would know that when they saw this tree he had spoken the truth, and they would have to live with the knowledge that they put to death an innocent man.  Travel to downtown Mobile, behind a stone wall dating to the 1830’s, and you will witness the most peculiar sight.  Vines run up wrought iron fences that surround crypts carved out of stone, standing silently under the live oaks, stretching upward to the heavens, like the hands of deceased pulling themselves out of their graves.  Just outside the stone wall that surrounds this cemetery, which has been closed since 1898,  grows a huge live oak, reaching its arms upward in attempts at freedom.  This oak grows out of a lone grave site, the cemetery plot of Charles R.S. Boyington.


Charles R.S. Boyington arrived in Mobile from Connecticut in 1833 at the age of 23.  With the rapid growth in Mobile, young working class men like Boyington were arriving in large numbers in Mobile, causing the cost of living to sky rocket and crime to run rampant.  Prior to a central penitentiary being built in 1834, and the first police chief being appointed in the 1820’s, Mobile had been policed only by volunteer patrols.  A full time citizen watch was established in 1821, and all free male citizens 16 and older were responsible for duty.  Crime began to revolve around houses of prostitution, with murder, burglaries and assaults being painfully common.(1) Large amounts of Mobile’s new population were living in boarding houses, including Boyington.  Gambling was widespread, and said to be one of things that attracted Boyington to the area.  His roommate was Nathanial Frost, a thin and sickly man, but for good reason.  He suffered from tuberculosis, a disease ravaging through the population at the time.  Both Boyington and Frost were printers, which didn’t provide the pay that would have allowed them to mix with Mobile’s upper class.  Stories say that Boyington tried to blend in by going to dances and events.  At one he met a woman named Rose, and somehow he won her attention. In an almost storybook way, Boyington and Rose fell in love.  With the aid of one of her father’s staff, Lydia, they communicated via notes she would quietly pass between them.  Rose’s father didn’t approve of Boyington, primarily because he felt that his income was not enough to properly provide for Rose.  So, just as the movies go, her father forbade them from seeing each other.  


Boyington’s love became an infatuation that consumed him, to the point that he stopped attending social events to write poetry for Rose. Before long, his hopeless romantic daydreaming cost him his printing job.  With a new reputation for poor work and musing, Boyington found himself unable to find another job, and with no income, having no chance to ever receive approval from Rose’s father.  His lofty dreams of marriage to Rose were slipping through his fingers.  He became a broken, desperate man.


Present day Church Street Cemetery, Mobile, Alabama

Present day Church Street Cemetery, Mobile, Alabama

Seeing Boyington broke and pained, Frost felt sympathy for his friend.  Thinking he could help, he offered to pay for Boyington’s room and board until his could get back on his feet.  Boyington’s pride was hurt, and as a result, he lashed out at Frost.  After calming Boyington down, Frost knew he had to change directions to help his friend.  He had to try to build up his pride, to help his look good to his beloved.  Frost went into detail about his ability to carve beautiful pieces of art out of wood, which inspired Boyington to learn from Frost how to carve a heart of wood for his last chance to ultimately win her father over and be with Rose. Frost agreed to meet Boyington in their usually haunt, The Church Street Graveyard (founded in 1819 at the height of yellow fever epidemics), to teach Boyington about carving.  Boyington did learn two things that day, his friend’s ability to whittle beautiful images out of wood, and the stash of money and valuables Frost had hidden in a trunk in their room.  Frost, sickly and thin, was hiding everything Boyington would need to win Rose.  Could Boyington have viewed Frost as expendable to obtain his dreams?  Could they have ever dreamed that they would soon be resting in the same cemetery? 

 

Boyington returned to the boarding house that night under peculiar circumstances: he was alone. Frost was no where in sight, but according to his landlord, he reassured them that Frost just wanted to spend some time alone in the cemetery.  According to the landlord, Boyington handed her a package to be given to Rose, and proceeded to buy a ticket for the James Monroe which was leaving the port at Mobile that night for Montgomery.  He was going to find work in Montgomery, and win back the hand of his prized love.

 

Close up of illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" by Sean Herman

Close up of illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" by Sean Herman

By the next morning Frost had still not returned to the boarding house, and the landlord grew suspicious. She contacted the Sheriff, expressing her distrust of Boyington.  Nathaniel Frost’s body was discovered later that day, in the friends old haunt, The Church Street Cemetery.  Frost had been stabbed multiple times, suspected to be by his own carving knife, which was no where to be found.  Frost body was discovered May 11, 1834. His pocket watch and money had been stolen.  Authorities decided there were no other leads, so they concluded that it was obvious only one person could have committed such a crime, Charles Boyington.  

 

A few years earlier Mobile had changed from a citizen watch to having a sheriff and police force.  The new police force operated on it’s own terms.  In one instance, the force was accused of claiming a need for “a little lynch discipline” to being used when four free black men came through the area, causing a fear of abolitionists to spread like wildfire.  Mob mentalities became completely commonplace.  This was the backdrop Charles Boyington was up against. On May 12, 1834, the town paper printed an article, written by Mayor John Stocking Jr., claiming that Boyington was suspected of murdering Nathaniel Frost, and offering a $250 award for his capture. Local news reports also declared that Boyington had “cultivated” Frost with “acts of kindness and attention” eventually killing him “for the sake of plunder.”  The race was on to find Boyington.

 

By Thursday May 15th, Charles Boyington had been apprehended while aboard the James Monroe.  He was taken away in shackles, and brought back to a Mobile jail, declaring his innocence until the last day he lived.  Boyington was greeted by huge crowds, screaming at the man they believed committed the most “diabolical act of atrocity.”  Even Rev. William Hamilton, who visited Boyington in an attempt at death bed conversion, called him “the archest hypocrite, the vilest villain for hardihood, the sun ever shone upon.”(2)  He had a very short trial in November of 1834, with the jury only deliberating for an hour and 15 minutes, which delivered to him quickly a gruesome fate.  Charles was to be hung in February of 1835.  


Days passed quickly, and Boyington spent them proclaiming his innocence, never changing his story. He even went so far as appealing to the Alabama Supreme Court, on the grounds that one juror was British, having foreign citizenship, and another saying that they would hang Boyington himself if given the opportunity.  The high court ruled against him, stating that he waited too long to appeal.  Interestingly enough, two years later the court reversed the precedent on a similar issue.  Some say that Rose visited him in jail, wearing the carved heart he had made for her around her neck.  Rose never believed that her Charles would commit such a murder, and continued seeing him all she could.  Once her father found out, he kept her under 24-hour surveillance, forbidding her visits.  Boyington wrote to her, sending her poetry and songs, but she was allowed no contact.  In a way, she was imprisoned alongside her love.  Boyington never cracked on his claims, nor would he cease, creating a dramatic scheme that would prove to the world his innocence.  


Close up of illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" by Sean Herman

Close up of illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" by Sean Herman

Could Charles Boyington have been telling the truth?  Was an innocent man convicted and put to death? Is the story of Charles Boyington just one in an unfortunately long line of narratives about unjust convictions?  As far back as 1863, almost 30 years after Boyington was trying to appeal his case, there was the case of Chipita Rodriguez.  Rodriquez was convicted of murdering a horse trader, and promptly executed in San Patricio County, Texas.  Texas Legislature passed a resolution 122 years later exonerating her.(5)  Case after case can be found, even popular culture has been inspired time and time again by these scenes. Everyone can think of a song or film dealing with the matter.  Dr. Richard Kimble anyone? 

 

Movie poster for "The Fugitive", 1993

Movie poster for "The Fugitive", 1993

We all remember the classic 1993 film “The Fugitive”, with Harrison Ford spending 90 minutes yelling “I didn’t kill my wife!” while fleeing Tommy Lee Jones.  The true story of the film is about Dr. Sam Sheppard, with whom the character of Richard Kimble was based on. Sheppard was convicted in 1954 of the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, and was found guilty despite evidence proving he didn’t commit the crime. According to reports, very much like the movie and television series, the investigating police completely overlooked obvious evidence, primarily because they believed Sheppard was the killer—and they needed a conviction. Blood was also found in the home which did not match that of Sheppard, his wife, or their kids. Sheppard was eventually exonerated in 1966, but the case had taken an colossal toll on him and he was to meet his end four years later of liver disease, almost completely ruined both financially and emotionally.9

                                                                             

                                                                                                                     

        Rubin Carter and Bob Dylan

        Rubin Carter and Bob Dylan

On June 17th, 1966, police arrested Rubin Carter, a professional boxer and his friend John Artis for a triple-homicide committed in the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey. Police stopped Carter's car and brought him and Artis, also in the car, to the scene of the crime. Upon searching the car, the police found ammunition that fit the weapons used in the murder. Police took no fingerprints at the crime scene and lacked the facilities to conduct proper tests on the gunshot residue. Carter and Artis were tried and convicted twice (1967 and 1976) for the murders, but after the second conviction was overturned in 1985, prosecutors chose not to pursue the case for a third time. Carter served as the inspiration for the 1975 Bob Dylan song “Hurricane”, one that garnered major popularity and attention to Carter’s cause.(7)

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world. “
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
Mumia Abu Jamal

Mumia Abu Jamal

Most prisoners that appeal a wrongful conviction will not be as fortunate as Carter to live to see their exoneration. Many of these prisoners are arrested because of political motives, accused of crimes many believe they didn’t commit, in order to further a political agenda.  Mumia Abu Jamal is the most prominent political prisoner in the US. In 1981, in a Cointelpro style investigation, he was arrested and sentenced to death in an what many believe was an unjust trial for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. Mumia was an organizer and campaigner against police abuses in the African-American community, and was the President of the Association of Black Journalists. After his conviction and sub sequential imprisonment, he continued writing and has published several books and other commentaries. Mumia’s writing is dealing in the topics of wrongful convictions, and other human rights mistreatments.  most notable is his book Live From Death Row, which was released in 1995.  Mumia has many incredibly vocal supporters.  The front man of the popular musical activist group, Rage Against the Machine, Zack De Le Rocha, has spoken to Congress, condemning the U.S. government's treatment of him. To see for yourself and to learn more visit freemumia.org.


The West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin  photographed after their arrest in June 1993 by the West Memphis Police Department

The West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin photographed after their arrest in June 1993 by the West Memphis Police Department

Thankfully some exonerations do come in the innocent detainee’s lifetime, but not always in the form deserved. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were convicted in 1994 for the deaths of three local boys. The prosecution alleged it was part of a satanic ritual. This was part of a string of cases that had been known as “The Satanic Panic,” for which many people were later exonerated, like the employees at the Fells Acres Day School, on the basis of groundless and untrue accusations.  A mass hysteria swept the country, creating a cloud of accusations of “satanic ritual abuse” and murders.(8) Unfortunately, the West Memphis Three, which Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were known as, got swept into this hysteria.  The case was documented in the film “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hills”, as well as two sequels which garnered the accused a large following, including many celebrities, who believed in the innocence of the defendants. In 2011, they entered Alford pleas in exchange for having their sentences reduced to time served. While their convictions stand legally, they are widely considered to have been wrongfully convicted.  Justice for the three is still sought to this day, along with an attempt to find the real murderer.(7) Learn more about this case at www.wm3.org.

 

These are just a few examples of the victims of unjust imprisonments,  you can find a list of exonerated death row inmates here.  


Charles Boyington stood looking out at the thousands gathered to watch him die.  In the his last minutes of his short life, as he stood with a noose around his neck,  Boyington made a declaration. From his now damned and condemned mouth spilled forth a prophecy that could only become mythical lore.  He proclaimed that a great oak tree would grow from his innocent heart, buried deep in the grave, pushing and breaking out, reaching to the heavens.  With every inch the tree grows, those who convicted him would be forced to remember their anger that killed an innocent young man.  Their guilt will also grow, until they are consumed by the arms of the oak.

 

   The present day "Boyington Oak"

   The present day "Boyington Oak"

Months after Charles Boyington’s execution, the city of Mobile had begun to forget all about Boyington and his murdered friend Nathaniel Frost.  Stories say that Rose even met a suitor her father approved of, eventually packing her carved heart away into a box, so she could be free to love again.  One day a peculiar thing was spotted in the cemetery.  A small sprout had began to grow from a grave in Potter’s Field (where the poor or unknown were buried), only sixty yards from where Nathaniel Frost’s body was found.  From the grave of Charles Boyington, that sprout grew into a powerful oak tree.  Boyington Oak now stands tall, outside the walls of the Church Street Graveyard, on the edge of a parking lot, near a playground, declaring his innocence.  With the tree being enough of a grave marker and reminder now, his actual gravestone has long since been removed.  The branches now outstretched, the tree takes on the appearance of a person, pulling itself out of the deep catacombs.  It’s said that on those dark nights, when the warm southern wind howls in the branches, you can hear Charles Boyington’s voice, proclaiming his innocence, reminding a world quick to judgement that an innocent man died that day.  

 

boyingtonoak20.jpg

In an article written in 1847 in the Albany (New York) Evening Journal entitled, “The Wrong Man Hung”, Boyington’s innocence was proclaimed by its authors, who had researched the evidence from the aging case.  The journal purported a death bed confession, one from their landlord. The landlord knew about Frost’s hidden valuables, and was the one to report Frost missing.  Boyington had now become an example of the perils of capital punishment.  Walt Whitman even refers to the cases as “the story of the Boyington mistake” in his essay “What the Defenders of the Gallows Say and an Answer Thereto”.(9)  Whether or not his innocence was a definitive reality, obvious questions now exist in Boyington’s case, along with thousands of other cases, and now the American Justice System as a whole.  In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. American prisons are filling up, huge percentages of the country are under the poverty line, and our country has more money than any other country on earth dedicated to it’s military (at $619 billion a year).(10)  What do these statistics reflect in our society, in us as a people?


                                                                              The late Bill Hicks

                                                                              The late Bill Hicks

The late comedian/educator Bill Hicks said,

“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud, and it's fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, "Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?" And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, "Hey, don't worry; don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride." And we … kill those people.
 "Shut him up! I've got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real." It's just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn't matter, because it's just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”

The Southern Alabama Gulf Coast has an environment that eventually dwells deep within every living being that inhabits this swamp.  The air is thick and dense, as fog rolls over our feet, we lie in the cradle created by the gigantic aging oaks that surround us.  One of these trees lies in a plot of land dedicated to the souls that roamed before us.  This oak, The Boyington Oak, grows from the heart of innocence, growing outward, to be hidden no longer.  As we look on at the massive tree, we are reminded of the lives lost because of an unjust system, one that we are responsible to transform.  As we look at the large, outstretched branches, we realize that we could be the crowded masses, the ones who condemned Boyington, and living through the eyes of fear drove us to it.  No longer can our lives be dictated by the visions that hold us hostage.  Our time to exonerate is now.  For we are the serpents of Bienville.

 


  1. “Down the Years”, Paul M. Pruitt Jr, and Robert Bond Higgins
  2. Hamilton, William T., and Ala Mobile. The Last Hours of Charles R.S. Boyington,: Who Was Executed at Mobile, Alabama, for the Murder of Nathaniel Frost. Perpetrated May 10, 1834. Mobile [Ala.]:: Printed at the Commercial Register Office., 1835. Print.
  3. Bingham, Joan, and Dolores Riccio. More Haunted Houses. New York: Pocket, 1991. Print.
  4. Pruitt, Paul M.; Higgins, Robert Bond (1963). "Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Mobile: The Long Story of Charles R. S. Boyington". Gulf Coast Historical Review 11 (Spring 1996): 6–40.
  5. "Wrongful Execution." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
  6. "10 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of Heinous Crimes - Listverse." Listverse. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
  7. "10 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of Heinous Crimes - Listverse." Listverse. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
  8. "Fell Acres Day Care Center Preschool Trial." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
  9. Whitman, Walt, and Cleveland Rodgers. The Gathering of the Forces,. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1920. Print.
  10. "United States Incarceration Rate." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

The Harbinger of Death

Sean Herman

“For the Choctaw, the black panther steals souls, particularly the souls of those unprepared to die…Whether a harbinger of death…or as a symbol of the dark side of feminine nature, the black panther is both a symbol of death and rebirth…the nalushashito or soul-eater.”1

 

Illustration entitled "The Harbinger of Death" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Illustration entitled "The Harbinger of Death" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

The dense Alabama wilderness has a way of becoming a black cloak at night fall.  The veil falls over your eyes, guiding you into a void of towering pines like smoke stacks, a thick fog floating at your feet.  These are the nights that any slight sound becomes a ghost, whispering in your ear.  The earth at your feet opens wide, swallowing you into your grave, as a shrill scream echoes in the distance, ringing in your head as you plunge to your inevitable end.  All that can be heard is the deafening shriek, echoing through your mind as the ground closes up around you.  The pine needles are teeth in a closing mouth.  The last bits of dirt are thrown over the hole by large black paws, her mouth still billowing the cry that has sealed your fate: the cry of the Wampus Cat—the “Harbinger of Death”.  

Southern Alabama is not typically where one would find black panthers, which is why special significance and lore have been placed on this beast that roams the woods.  For the Choctaw, the black panther was the stealer of souls that were not prepared to die.  This cat signifies the dark side of feminine nature, a harbinger of death, representing both death and rebirth, or simply the nalushashito, the soul-eater.1  

The Wampus Cat lore is derived from a commonly heard story about a beautiful Indian woman, hiding in the words, watching her husband and the men of her tribe practicing magic.  The belief was that it was forbidden for women to be present during these rituals.  So she watched in secret, clutching the hide of a mountain cat around her body for disguise and protection, watching their sacred ceremony take place.  Unbeknownst to the woman, she had been discovered.  As she watched, the medicine man turned and stared deep into the trees she thought were her cover, as if to be looking right into her eyes, seeing her through all darkness.  In this long silence, she became frozen.  Words slowly began to fall out of the medicine man’s mouth and the woman could feel the hide she was hiding in, to keep warm and protected from the night, begin to squeeze around her, as if it was breathing life, fusing with the woman’s flesh.  The skin of the cat became her flesh, overtaking her body, turning her into a hideous monster.  The woman fell to her knees, seemingly breathing her last breath, the sound abruptly rising into a howl, a deafening scream.  Her head lurched back, arms outstretched as she morned her now damned existence.  The myth follows, stating that if you are the one to hear that shrill cry, death is right around the corner, for she is now the “Harbinger of Death”.

Story telling and myths have a way of showing the deeper truth and belief that lie within a culture.  The ugly, the unjust, the damned will be created and turned into the recipients of the pack mentality hatred that is boiling over.  One recipient of this, time and time again, is feminine nature.  Stories from that of Eve and the Apple, Pandora’s Box, and the Salem Witch Trials seem to contain the underlying distrust of the feminine, of the woman herself.  Since the times of early story telling, duality myths always abound.  One would read these and believe that we have grown as a civilization, and we no longer hold onto these ideals, but is that really true?  Could this still be taking place today?

Leo Igwe, of The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, documented these events that sound like they were taken out of a page of history from hundreds of years past, but were unfortunately products of the 21st century. 

Igwe states:

“In patriachal societies, women often are found at the lower ranks of the society. Hence they have the label of witchcraft applied to them. This explains why women are often the victims of accusation. But it is not all women who are accused. It is mainly elderly women- widows, childless women who are often targeted. Here are a few cases from Northern Ghana to illustrate my point.
Melatu was accused by the daughter of being responsible for her illness. She was taken to a local shrine where she was confirmed a witch. The daughter later died. She was attacked, beaten and banished from her community. Melatu is currently living in a witch camp in Ghana.
In 2012, I met another woman at the Kukuo witch camp. She was banished from her community for engaging in witchcraft. She could not walk. She crawled to attend to her daily chores but when I returned in February 2014, they said she had died. What happened? She was bitten by an insect one evening, she cried out for help but before they could attend to her, she passed away.
But another alleged witch, Bibat, could not make it to the camp. In 2010, the step son confirmed from a local diviner that she was bewitching him. And one evening, the step son confronted her in an open field and stabbed her to death.
Not all who are banished because of witchcraft flee to the camps. An 80 year old woman, Sinat was accused of being responsible for the death of a neighbour's wife. She was seen in the dream by another girl in her compound. Sinat was accused of witchcraft and was banished from her community. One of her relatives accommodated her in Tamale where I met with her.
Her relations took her case to court with the help of the state human rights agency. While the case was in court, the chief of her village asked her to return to the community. 
But another woman, Mega, was not as lucky. I met her in February 2014 at the witch camp in Gnani. She was banished after being accused of sorcery. I met the chief and other elders of her village and persuaded them to allow her to return to the community without success. But with the grant from Foundation Beyond Belief, she was able to leave the camp and is now trying to start a small business.
Vulnerable members of the population are not necessarily female. They can be male, young or old, poor or 'rich' people. It is not all elderly women or men, not all boys or girls that a branded witches. Witches are those with weak social political base; those unable to successfully contest accusations made against them. The tragedy is that witchcraft remains a powerful narrative in diagnosing social problems and challenges that people face…”2
Illustration by Sean Herman, "Harbinger of Death"  11"x17" on Illustration board

Illustration by Sean Herman, "Harbinger of Death"  11"x17" on Illustration board

One can’t help but imagine a beautiful Choctaw woman, from the original “Wampus Cat” myth, cast out from her community, and forced to wander the night alone, labeled an outcast, unclean and never to return to her former home.  These modern stories, these current events, make this myth now so vivid, so uncomfortably real.  We want to imagine that this is only a legend, something to tell around a late night campfire to cause you to look twice in the vast darkness of wilderness that surrounds us, hoping the monster is not a few steps behind you.  Perhaps we are the monster, as a culture, as a civilization.  The beast is no longer the woman, but our modern civilization, the human conditions and beliefs that created this creature, this story.  Perhaps the cry we should really be hearing is that of change, and of coming back from a damned existence of judgement.

A light of hope can be found in a piece written by David Titterington:

“The above/below duality that all upright bodies experience correlates with male/female archetypes not only due to historically situated cultural constructions, or to intentional, patriarchal agendas, but also to material, bodily conditions. Rather than reifying modern sex-roles and gender differences, this realization uncovers what we can call ‘gender-landscape reciprocity’ and helps us to understand how truly gendered phenomena are before they even reach consciousness. By keeping an eye on how these subtle structures of association color our experience, we can transcend them, reducing misogyny and homophobia within ourselves. “Realization and liberation are simultaneous.””3

Realization becomes liberation.  Then, “It is possible that people never understand each other, yet they always agree. each interprets the other's words in his own way, and they live in perfect harmony, the perfect solidarity of perfect mutual misunderstanding.” 4

Maybe, if we take one more look, we can find something that was there all along, that the black panther is both a symbol of death and rebirth.  Could a true rebirth in modern civilization lie in an acceptance and understanding that we are one?  Can we ever truly be complete, or will we remain roaming into the void of wilderness, bringing death with our words, crying out for something we never will have?



1.  https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~rnelson/asail/SAIL2/141.pdf

Owens, Louis. Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. American Indian Lit. and Critical Studies Series 26. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1998. ---. “Re: Article.” E-mail sent to author. 13 Nov. 2000. ---. The Sharpest Sight. American Indian Lit. and Critical Studies Series 1. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.


2.  http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/igwe20140825 


3.http://solpurpose.com/2013/05/22/gender-landscape-myth/


4. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1984.