Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Grandfather Thunder



DURING the summer of 1892, at York Harbor, Me., I was in daily communication with a party of Penobscot Indians from Oldtown, among whom were an old man and woman, from whom I got many curious legends. The day after a terrible thunderstorm I asked the old woman how they had weathered the storm. She looked searchingly at me and said, "It was good." After a moment she added, "You know the thunder is our grandfather?" I answered that I did not know it, and was startled when she continued: "Yes, when we hear the first roll of the thunder, especially the first thunder in the spring, we always go out into the open air, build a fire, put a little tobacco on it, and give grandfather a smoke. Ever since I can remember, my father and my grandfather did this, and I shall always do it as long as I live. I'll tell you the story of it and why we do so.

"Long time ago there were two Indian families living in a very lonely place. This was before there were any white people in the land. They lived far apart. Each family had a daughter, and these girls were great friends. One sultry afternoon in the late spring, one of them told her mother she wanted to go to see her friend. The mother said: 'No, it is not right for you to go alone, such a handsome girl as you; you must wait till your father or your brother are here to go with you.' But the girl insisted, and at last her mother yielded and let her go. She had not gone far when she met a tall, handsome young man, who spoke to her. He joined her, and his words were so sweet that she noticed nothing and knew not which way she went until at last she looked up and found herself in a strange place where she had never been before. In front of her was a great hole in the face of a rock. The young man told her that this was his home, and invited her to enter. She refused, but he urged until she said that if he would go first she would follow after. He entered, but when she looked after him she saw that he was changed to a fearful wee-will-mecq—a loathly worm. She shrieked and turned to run away, but at that instant a loud clap of thunder was heard, and she knew no more until she opened her eyes in a vast room, where sat an old man watching her. When he saw that she had awaked, he said, ' I am your grandfather Thunder, and I have saved you.' Leading her to the door, he showed her the wee-will-mecq dead as a log, and chopped into small bits like kindling wood. The old man had three sons, one named ' M'dessun.' He is the baby, and is very fierce and cruel. It is he who slays men and beasts and destroys property. The other two are kind and gentle; they cool the hot air, revive the parched fields and the crops, and destroy only that which is harmful to the earth. When you hear low, distant mutterings, that is the old man. He told the girl that as often as spring returned she must think of him, and show that she was grateful by giving him a little smoke. He then took leave of her and sent her home, where her family had mourned her as one dead. Since then no Indian has ever feared thunder."

I said, "But how about the lightning?" "Oh," said the old woman, "lightning is grandfather's wife."

Later in the summer, at Jackson in the White Mountains, I met Louis Mitchell, for many years the Indian member of the Maine Legislature, a Passamaquoddy, and asked him about this story. He said it was perfectly true, although the custom was now falling into disuse; only the old people kept it up. The tobacco is cast upon the fire in a ring, and draws the electricity, which plays above it in a beautiful blue circle of flickering flames. He added that it is a well-known fact that no Indian and no Indian property were ever injured by lightning.

The Council of the Royal Agricultural Society of England has instituted a fund to be contributed by all interested in agriculture, for preparing a testimonial to the invaluable services rendered to that art by Sir John Lawes and Dr. Gilbert. Subscriptions are to be limited to two guineas. The testimonial will take the form of a granite memorial, with a suitable inscription, to be erected at the head of the field where the experiments were made; and an address to Sir John Lawes and Dr. Gilbert, accompanied (if the funds permit) by a commemorative piece of plate.