The Wabanaki peoples of Northern New England and the Canadian Maritimes had a rich folklore that often featured a “larger than life character” called Gluskabe or Glooskap, according to anthropologist Bill Haviland.
An Island Heritage Trust talk featured Haviland sharing stories of Gluskabe and some of his adventures on Tuesday, August 27.
“Gluskabe transformed the landscape and instructed people in various skills,” said Haviland. The mythic figure teaches life lessons as well, such as the story of the giant frog.
In the story, a giant frog monster has dammed a river, and people are in need of the water. Gluskabe goes to the monster and asks four times for some water to drink. He is refused until the fourth time, when he is given a bit of mud. Gluskabe then grows “taller than a pine tree” and breaks down the dam to release the water. “Why do you think you own all the water?” he asks. “No one in the world can own all the water.” He also punishes the monster by downsizing the giant frog into the bullfrog we know today.
“One of the important roles of stories is to teach important lessons,” said Haviland. “Storytelling was a constant pastime during leisure hours. Kids were exposed to the stories and learned from them how to be a responsible adult.”
The major lesson from the giant frog story, said Haviland, is that “no one has the right to monopolize a resource needed for everyone,” and that “whatever is available to one person should be available to all.”
Gluskabe also served as a figure to explain the constantly-changing landscape. “After the last ice age, the landscape was constantly changing. Glaciers left great deposits of granite and gravel, often blocking water, and sometimes those deposits would give way and release the water. Stories helped give explanations of phenomena experienced by people long ago.”
Many of the larger species that had existed during the time of the ice age, such as woolly mammoths, six-foot giant beavers, bears the size of Kodiaks and giant elk, also went extinct during this time. Stories of Gluskabe “shrinking” these animals offered an explanation.
For instance, the moose in Wabanaki folklore used to be a much larger creature. “The moose went around bragging about what a giant animal it was,” said Haviland. Gluskabe told the moose the moose couldn’t move him. Gluskabe held out his hand and the moose pressed against him so hard that eventually the moose became smaller—and that is why moose also have a bent profile.
The changing landscape, rising sea levels and more were also explained through the figure of Gluskabe.
“This sort of thing happened all over the state, taming the rapids, explaining changes in ways that people could understand,” said Haviland.
Up in the Bay of Fundy, the Minas Basin, which was once separated from the bay by a spit of sand and not subject to the tides of the bay, was called Gluskabe’s bathtub. Supposedly, the whale was jealous and broke down the spit of land. In actuality, said Haviland, about 3,400 years ago the “tidal amplitude increased markedly” (tidal amplitude is the amount the tide goes up and down). That, combined with storm surge, made the Minas Basin tidal with the rest of the bay.
Gluskabe was a very clever figure, said Haviland. Cleverness was prized among the Wabanaki, and Gluskabe often takes on a trickster persona.