The Phantom Woman
retold by Richard Dieterle
Jones, who recounts this tale, is of the very odd opinion that whatever one tribe believes, all others believe as well. If he learns something from the Choctaw, for instance, he then ascribes it to the belief system of "the Indian." Consequently, his narrative is peppered with odd foreign terms and beliefs, very few of which could be ascribed to the Hočągara. I have, of course, removed all of these distortions.
There was a village. It was a Hočąk village. The chief of this village was Little Turtle (Kečągnįka), a man not yet old, and who in his prime was a great warrior. Several years ago his wife had died and he had not remarried. In the course of time, he became weak of body and had to retire to his bed. A Medicine Man of great skill was called, but he could not find the cause of the chief's condition. Two other doctors were summoned, but they too could tell nothing. Finally, the greatest of Medicine Men was called, but he too was unable to do anything. As the chief lay there helpless, the hoot of a gray owl was heard from atop his lodge. The chief knew that he was destined to die soon, and revealed to his people why his fate had come to this.
The chief said, "I had paddled my canoe across a still lake late in the day. Gradually, there appeared before me a vision of a woman standing upon the waters. She was a woman of great beauty. Her clothes shined as if they were made of crystals, and her hair was the color of the sun. I fell instantly in love with her. As I propelled myself towards her, she gradually changed, until when I was right upon her, I discovered nothing but stone. The rock had a human face, and a long tail that ended in a fish fin. I knew that it must have been a spirit being, so I offered tobacco, and asked why it had appeared to me only to dissolve into stone. A voice from the stone said, 'Mortal, long have I known of you. I have taken pity upon you. You wish to have me, but I am not of this world. I give you a choice: if you would live with me among the Waterspirits, then you must choose to die soon; otherwise I shall bless you with a long life. If your love is true, then you will choose to die and to dwell with me forever as a spirit," she told me. So I resolved to embrace this beautiful being even if I should die. Such is my resolve and it is this that causes my life to ebb away."
He soon lost consciousness and lay there still. After much time, he suddenly sat up, and as he extending his arms, he said, "My beloved, I am coming to you!" Then he collapsed and died.1
Commentary."Little Turtle" — his name is given in Ojibwe as Mishikinakwa. It is possible that the story was told in Ojibwe by Jones' ultimate source, as that language was the lingua franca of the time.
"the hoot of a gray owl" — owls are considered to be bearers of ill omen.
"you must choose to die soon" — in many myths, the Waterspirit offers its body to a supplicant to be used as medicine (or objects of power). Here this relationship is reversed: the man must sacrifice his body in order to marry the Waterspirit. Also, in other stories, a man who tries to reclaim his wife from Spiritland must undergo a ritual of temptation before the spirits will let him reunite with his wife. He only succeeds by resisting their temptations. In the present case, we have an inversion of this relationship: in order to secure his spirit wife and reside in her Spiritland, he must resist the temptations posed by the living to continue in their company.
Comparative Material. ...
Stories: in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧápara, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake; mentioning Medicine Men: Visit of the Medicine Man, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, Holy One and His Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon.
Themes: in human form, Waterspirit women are extraordinarily beautiful: The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Nannyberry Picker, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2); frustrated love: White Flower, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Twin Sisters, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Partridge's Older Brother, The Stone Heart, Snowshoe Strings, Trickster Soils the Princess, Sunset Point, Rainbow and Stone Arch; a Waterspirit demands a human sacrifice: The Seer, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Old Man and Wears White Feather; because the spirits make clear that it is a necessity, a man volunteers to die: Redhorn's Sons, The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, The Man who Defied Disease Giver; a human marries a spirit: The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy (a Thunderbird, a Nightspirit, and two Waterspirits), The Thunderbird (a Thunderbird), How the Thunders Met the Nights (a Nightspirit), The Shaggy Man (a Bear Spirit), White Wolf (a Wolf Spirit), The Woman who Married a Snake (a Snake Spirit), The Star Husband (stars), Little Human Head (a Louse Spirit), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (Buffalo Spirit); a human lives with Waterspirits: The Nannyberry Picker, The King Bird, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Old Man and Wears White Feather.
1 "The Phantom Woman. A Tradition of the Winnebagoes," in James Athearn Jones, Traditions of the North American Indians. Second and revised edition of Tales of an Indian Camp. 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830) Vol. 2 (pages are unnumbered).