- By Kara Newcastle
Myth Monday: Granny Squannit (Mohegan and Wampanoag Myth)
Myth Monday: Granny Squannit (Mohegan and Wampanoag Myth)
Don’t let the funny name fool you; ol’ Granny Squannit was no slouch in the magic department. Known as Too-quah-mis-quan-nit, Squauanit, Squannit, Squant, and Ol’ Squant (not to be confused with Squanto, the Patuxet man who aided the Pilgrims) among many of the Northeastern Native American tribes, she was best known as Granny Squannit the Sea-Woman, wife of the giant hero Maushop (also known as Moshop), who lived on Nantucket island. Depending on who you ask, Granny Squannit was either a goddess, a giantess, a mermaid, or the queen of the Native American fairy folk. Either way, she was powerful, kind, and beloved by the native peoples, and had impressive storm powers that manifested as nor'easters and blizzards when she and Maushop argued—which was pretty frequently.
The Mohegan people believed that Granny Squannit was queen of the little people called the Makiawisug, and they were so small that they wore flower blossoms as moccasins. The Makiawisug lived underground, much like the fairies of Celtic mythology, and were generally tolerant of humans, even teaching the Mohegans how to plant corn. The Mohegans showed their gratitude by leaving baskets full of gifts such as cornbread, meat and berries in the woods for the little people, but once in a while somebody would do something stupid, like stare at the Makiawisug like they were freaks of nature. If someone saw one of the Makiawisug and stared like a slack-jawed idiot, the irked elf would point at the person and put them in a trance, leaving them to stand there paralyzed until the Makiawisug finished stealing all their stuff and ran away. If you ever suspect that a Makiawisug is nearby, just listen for the whippoorwill bird; whippoorwills always announce the Makiawisug’s arrival with a song.
Long ago, not long after the white man began to settle in the Northeast, many native people became sick, and there were a series of bad storms that pounded the woodlands. A Mohegan medicine woman was home alone one rainy night when she heard a whippoorwill singing. She looked outside her house and was startled to see a small boy standing there in the rain … then she did a double-take and realized she was looking at a fully grown man, a warrior who stood barely two feet tall. The warrior begged for her help, saying that his queen, Granny Squannit, had gotten into a bad fight with her husband Maushop and the stress had made her sick, which was in turn causing her to lose her focus and unleash storms on the area. On top of that, Granny Squannit was also responsible for assisting healers, and if she was sick, the healers wouldn’t be able to care for any of their sick or injured either.
Agreeing to help, the medicine woman gathered her things and followed the small warrior into the woods and down into a hole in the ground. The warrior led the woman through a system of caves, where she saw hundreds of Makiawisug people waiting nervously. The warrior then brought her to a beehive-shaped done or house where a very sick Granny Squannit laid. It took a month to bring the fairy queen back to health, but the medicine woman worked diligently. Granny Squannit and the Makiawisug were so grateful for the medicine woman’s assistance that they gave her a basket, then blindfolded her. When the medicine woman took off her blindfold, she found that she was back in her house, and her basket was full of gifts of fine furs, powerful herbs, and beautiful crystals.
Another story tells how, after arguing with Granny Squannit, an angry Maushop tossed all of his children off of Nantucket and into the sea, where they were transformed into whales. Granny Squannit was distraught, and, tiring of her crying, Maushop tossed her out to the Rhode Island coastline, where she became the Sakonnet Rock. Allegedly, the rock had once had a very human-like female shape, but the elements have since eroded the details away.
Moving northward to Massachusetts, the Wampanoag had several stories about both Granny Squannit and of Squant, a mermaid-like entity or sea goddess. Squant the Sea-Woman was described as a giantess with seaweed hair and webbed fingers who lives along the coast of Cape Cod and uses her singing to control storms—again, much like the mermaids in European tales. One day she fell asleep on the beach, and was attacked by an evil god named Hobbomock (again, not to be confused with Hobomok, the Pokanoket warrior who also assisted the Pilgrims) who cut her eyes into square shapes. Squant was so upset at her disfigurement that she grew out her hair (in this story described as normal black hair) so no one could see her face. An interesting story from Mashpee in 1928 (although this was from a time when newspapers were notorious for printing wacky fictional stories), a group of young children and their teacher saw what they initially thought was a giant haystack pulled by oxen trundling along the beach, only to realize that it was a giant lady covered in long hair.
Other stories claim that Squant retreated to the safety of the sea, where she eventually captured Maushop after he had been driven out of Nantucket by Christians. Squant took Maushop down to her underwater cave near Gay Head, sang him to sleep, and then tied up up with her seaweed hair. Every winter Squant fears that Maushop will wake up and leave, so the ocean is wracked with storms and whirlpools until the spring.
As for Granny Squannit, the Wampanoags believed that she lived in a cave on Great Neck, near Barnstable Harbor. Neither fairy queen nor mermaid, the Wampanoag believed that Granny Squannit was a powerful but not necessarily malevolent witch who lived by herself, growing magical plants. Granny Squannit was quite independent, never respecting any of the chiefs or shamans of the nearby villages, but she never went out of her way to cause trouble. In fact, she occasionally lent a helping hand … especially when it came to bratty kids.
So not Granny Squannit ... this is supposed to be a picture of Tituba, the woman accused of being a witch in Salem. It was the closest I could find.
It wasn’t often that the Wampanoags had to deal with unruly children, but when they did, Granny Squannit liked to put in an appearance to scare them back in line. One boy was especially hard to control, since a wicked spirit had possessed him and refused all attempts made by the adults to either punish the boy or drive out the spirit. Catching wind of the problem, Granny Squannit snuck into the village one night, grabbed the boy and hauled him back to her cave. There she gave him a medicine to make him sleep for days while she went to work.
At last the boy finally woke up. Granny Squannit yawned and stretched, telling the boy to go out and play while she took a nap to recuperate her powers. “But,” she warned as she settled down to sleep, “do not, under any circumstances, touch the hair on my head. I mean it.”
Forcing an innocent look on his face, the boy solemnly promised not to touch Granny Squannit’s hair. Satisfied, the old witch laid down and quickly fell asleep. The boy waited until he heard the old woman’s breathing become even and regular, then tiptoed back into the cave. Crouching down over Granny Squannit, the boy pushed the hair away from her forehead …
AND SAW A HIDEOUS GREEN EYE GLARING BACK AT HIM!
The sight was so horrifying that the evil spirit was scared out of the boy and fled into the wilds. The traumatized boy was returned to his village, where he never made any trouble again.
*Interesting note: when I went online to double check the spelling of a few names, I came across Joan Tavares Avant, a Wampanoag tribal leader and historian from Mashpee, Massachusetts, who writes extensively about and portrays Granny Squannit and was officially given the name “Granny Squannit” by a medicine man. She even writes a column called “Tales from Granny Squannit” in the Mashpee Enterprise. How cool is that?