[Supernatural folklore and ancient monuments go hand in hand in Europe. In the Americas, the connection is not so well known.]
When the first historic European cultures, the Celts, moved into northern and western Europe, they found the landscape marked by the monuments of an earlier people. Many of them were apparently simple constructions of earth – ramps, mounds, and geometric forms. Others were more elaborate, including effigies of humans and animals. Still others (often called megaliths) incorporated stone, like the familiar and unique Stonehenge. Though Stonehenge and other sites of its type are often associated with the Celtic Druids, the first Celts to behold them would have been only slightly more mystified than we still are today.
Most of these constructions were neither occupancies nor forts. Most were likely sites of pilgrimage, vision, or ritual. They look pretty rude to us today, but the rudeness seemed to be by design. The less you worked a stone, it may have been figured, the more of its natural power it kept. These structures were deceptively intricate, incorporating special proportions, alignment, siting, and even astronomy. Singly and collectively, they put together a powerful message relevant to landscape and human spirituality, could we only decipher it.
The American continents have their own ancient landscape art. Not many North American monuments use a lot of stone, but they have plenty in common with the ones of Europe. They, too, come as mounds, geo-forms, and effigies. They, too, often involve precise features of astronomy, geometry, and geology.
Good folklorists have known that in Europe, particularly in the British Isles, the ancient monuments are folklore-batteries. Since their earliest days, they have attracted legends of giants, witches, wizards, fairies, dragons, ghosts, and anything else supernatural that I might have left out. The grander the monument, the greater the body of folklore. Today, these monuments still get their legends, but they tend to concern things our age is more likely to believe in: UFOs, mystery-monsters, mystery-lights, extra-sensory experiences, and, you guessed it, ghosts.
The legendary figures associated with Old World monuments are often either its builders or its occupants. Stonehenge comes equipped with tales of having been constructed by giants, Merlin, or the Little People. In Ireland the tumuli (burial mounds) are the reputed homes of the Fairy folk. In some cases, as with Britain’s Whispering Knights or Long Meg and Her Daughters, the stones themselves are envisioned to be the petrified forms of their once-living namesakes, like traitorous warriors or witches mineralized by a mighty wizard like Scotland’s Michael Scot.
The body of supernatural folklore about the American monuments is subdued. It is detectable, though, and I think it must have been quite significant before the whites came.
On this subject, a recent internet article caught my eye. It concerned a megalithic-style fort atop a hill in Georgia – Fort Mountain – and mentioned Cherokee legends about its alleged builders, “The Moon-Eyed People,” the possibly mythical previous inhabitants of the land taken over by the Cherokee and their contemporary Native nations. The fort and the moon-eyes have been written about a number of times. A couple of links are here:
In a quick summary, the southern Appalachians have the same pattern of fortifications-at-high-points-over-river-valleys that we see in upstate New York. These stoneworks were hardly Camelot-style castles, but they were clear indicators that life in the pre-Columbian southeast was not significantly more peaceable than that in Iroquois country and that someone was trying to protect routes of water travel. They were also mysterious. The historic Native Americans encountered by the first Europeans were not making forts like them and had no solid idea who had built them. The likely builders were almost surely Native Americans influenced by cultures known to anthropologists as the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian – the mound-builders, who were long gone by the time of Columbus.
The Cherokee are the Iroquoian people displaced from the Carolinas during the lamentable 1830s episodes called the “Trail of Tears.” Their folklore has some serious overlap with that of the Six Iroquoian Nations of upstate New York, though the languages were thought to have branched off up to two millennia before the birth of Christ.
The stories about the Moon-Eyed People have some variability. That’s to be expected. Folklore is plastic. The fact that the Moon-Eyed People were physically distinct from the Cherokee is one of the constants. If they truly existed and were not of a different species, they were at least of a different race.
The Moon-Eyed People might have been cave- or underground-dwellers. They were small and paler than most Native Americans. Their eyes were of a different type and color from those, at least, of the Cherokee. They may have had trouble handling the daylight. They might have had European-style tendencies to grow facial hair. Dreaded as enemies, the Moon-Eyed people were finally displaced or exterminated by coalitions of tribes.
Some interpreters of this connection – old stoneworks + mysterious strangers – interpret the legends as signs of European immigrants in pre-Columbian North America. “Ancient explorers” is a pet theory to some people. I don’t dispute that it is possible and even likely. I have my issues with this story being good evidence of it, as well as with the idea that the Native Americans might have required outside influences to build things they needed.
To me the interesting connection is the European-style one: the folklore and the fort. Though not tiny or prodigiously magical, these Moon-Eyed People are suspiciously close to the traditional portrayals of the fairy folk, the Little People, where they exist in world folklore. The association of supernatural legends and characters with ancient monuments is a pattern we see all over the American Great Lakes. I need no more than my own interviews to assure you of this.
The state of Ohio is saturated with earthworks. I know of a limited body of folklore and experience associated with the monument-complex at Chillicothe. I have read a serious report of a potentially paranormal experience at the noted Serpent Mound in Adams County. In Newark near the site of that city’s massive complex I heard neighborhood rumors of ghostly horses, mystical experiences, and ancient chiefs walking at night.
We see it all over Iroquois country, upstate New York. As anyone who’s read much of my work would know, the upstate had plenty of its own ancient monuments. The ones known tended to be a little less complex than those of Ohio and areas closer to the Hopewell heartland, but they have their legends. I have many examples from Six Nations country.
Auburn, NY – Oneida country – features a cemetery aptly called Fort Hill. (It surrounds a hill crowned by an ancient fort.) They, too, have ghost-and-miracle stories, as if the hill radiated some sort of power that gave people visions and showed them wonders. The Oneida nation itself was known for a stone that was a source of inspiration and power to the whole society. It was nothing other than a megalith, as well as an omphalos, a world-navel and spiritual core to a society. It seems that each Oneida village had its own portable representative of this original and that the villagers would occasionally take their items to the big one to be re-energized. The big stone was thought to have other powers. It could levitate itself and travel. It could give vision and guidance.
One of the most supernaturalized spots in Saratoga County is a hill in Mohawk territory above Saratoga Lake. “Snake Hill” sports an apparent burial mound, as well as contemporary legends of UFOs, mystery lights, and ghosts. I have no idea what the Mohawk made of it. They were displaced before the whites moved in and surely stopped telling whatever tales they had about it.
We come to the hill of the Senecas’ national creation-myth, could we only be sure which one it is. It may be Bare Hill overlooking Canandaigua Lake from the east. It could be South Hill or one of several others at the southeast end of the long lake. There is or was reportedly mystery-stonework atop all of them. The spot is associated with a dragon-legend as towering as many of the ones linked to famous British sites. There are also some curiously convincing giant-serpent reports from the turn of the 20th century in Canandaigua Lake. I can hardly assert that this phenomenon has a simple explanation.
We can’t forget that Hill Cumorah had some kind of earthwork, probably a burial mound, at the top. This where Mormon founder Joseph Smith did his burrowing and came up with the idea for a new faith. I’ve heard it said that the Seneca had been suspicious of that hill for generations. There was an energy there that they found ambiguous, to say the least. Somebody should have warned Joseph Smith. He founded his faith, all right, but he died young and tragically.
We see that the Little People are commonly associated with ancient monuments about the world. In most places, the Little People are believed to be powerful, but they seldom seem to have been dreaded. In Iroquois country they are generally revered. I had heard through some white contacts of my own that the Seneca of the Allegany Reservation are deeply troubled by a certain hill on their territory because of a longstanding unease with the Little People who haunt it. I asked my Native friend Mike Bastine what he made of it.
He remembered only the outlines of a story about a clash between some Iroquoian nation – he thought it might have been the Seneca – and the Little People of their own region. He had been told that some of the Iroquois had come upon a child of the Little People and mistreated him or her to the extent that he or she died in their captivity. In revenge, the Little People captured the tiny son of the nation’s chief and imprisoned him in plain sight in what Michael remembered as “some kind of earthwork maze” that to me is reminiscent of the Minoan labyrinth that held the Minotaur eventually overcome by the Greek solar-hero Theseus. People could see the boy and hear his cries, but they couldn’t reach him because of the wondrous ingenuity of the earthwork. Only when the Seneca people were serious about a resolution did the two conflicting sides have a meeting and settle on reparations. I have heard that the ancient treaty is still remembered, and that a certain hill near Salamanca, NY, may be protected – and seldom trod upon – by the Seneca. It, too, has a stone fortification at its peak.
Why is this connection – folklore and ancient monuments – so underplayed in North America? Why haven’t any folklorists or ethnologists made a point of studying it? My suggestion is that two factors could be at work. One of them pertains to the lamentable loss of so many of these vulnerable earthworks. Most of them, of course, were lost to development, but with others it could be simple neglect. A lack of routine maintenance will cause many earthworks to disappear in a few generations. Another factor could be that the site-traditions of the Native populations would have been lost if they were not recorded by the whites at the contact period. So many Native populations were displaced from their home territories that we are lucky anything is remembered about their special places.