Monday, June 25, 2012

Manitou: Fires of the Great Spirit

Over the weekend, specifically on the Eve of St. John's Day and St. John's Day, June 23-24, 2012, wildfires swept over Colorado, encompassing nature, homes and cabins (shown above). Readers here were probably not too surprised by these events considering the past.

Upon closer inspection, the epicenter reveals yet another name game. The news reports have signaled the fires have been concentrating, at least in one major outbreak, on Manitou Springs, Colorado.

A wildfire burns west of Manitou Springs, Colorado, on Sunday, June 24, 2012. The fire erupted and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. (Credit: Christian Murdock, The Colorado Springs Gazette)

Manitou Springs is a "name game" wonder. The settlement was "Manitou" until changed in 1885. "Manitou" is a term for the "Great Spirit," in its most basic interpretation. The main street through the town is a direct route to Pikes Peak. One of the town's major attractions, Briarhurst Manor, is a Victorian manor house built in 1876 by the founder of Manitou Springs, Dr. William Abraham Bell (April 26, 1841–June 6, 1921). Bell earlier had been the 32nd parallel expedition's photographer, as the southern route for the Union Pacific Railroad was being mapped in the late 1860s. (See more on the significance of the "Bell" name here.)

In my breakthrough article, "Devil Names and Fortean Places," published in Summer 1979, in Fortean Times 29, I looked at how names used by Native Americans, First Peoples, and other indigenous folks have left their sinister/spiritual feelings on the land, whether the names used be devil, diablo, hockomock, or manitou.

In my Mysterious America: The Ultimate Guide to the Nation's Weirdest Wonders, Strangest Spots, and Creepiest Creatures, I reprinted and expanded on this "devil names" article in Chapter 3. There I note the following about the name Manitou,
...the WPA guides are wonderful books for tracking down the origins of place names. One of my favorities is the story behind Lake Manitou, Indiana. “Manitou” is an Indian word demonstrating some power and connection to the unknown - “The Great Spirit,” similar in a fashion to what we are talking about here regarding “devil.” According the WPA guide for Indiana (page 436), Lake Manitou was inhabited by three “monster devilfish” that began destroying all the fish there after arriving from Lake Michigan. “They even drove the wild game away, for when the buffalo, elk, deer, and other animals came to the lake to drink, fearsome serpentine tentacles shot out and dragged them beneath the surface of the murky water.” The prayers of the Natives exterminated the monsters and out of gratitude, they named the lake after the Great Spirit. While the exact details of the encounters may be shrouded in folkloric overtones, the underlying nature of such stories are an intriguing bit of evidence for some historical links to real events, as we have seen over and over again. The land reveals its secrets for those who wish to look.
To expand a bit on the meaning of Manitou, the generally accepted definition is "a supernatural force that according to an Algonquian conception pervades the natural world."

But the lines between "god," "spirit," "Great Spirit," "evil spirit," "demon," and "devil" are very thin in how Manitou was used or understood by Western settlers or invaders. The notion of a continuum is at work here, with most North Americans of nonnative background considering Manitou to be a positive "spirit" term and the other end of the range being Hockomock (and its other forms) being a negative "devil" word. For Amerindians, the differences may not be so clear, for example, as any concept can hold both "good" and "evil" meanings. In the Hockomock Swamp, Massachusetts, naturally, there exists both ends of the continuum.

Western Europeans, using an Algonquian name, have now painted the landscape of North America.

Wikipedia points out, "In 1585 when Thomas Harriot recorded the first glossary of an Algonquian language, Roanoke (Pamlico), he included the word mantóac meaning "gods" (with a plural ending). Similar terms were found in nearly all of the Algonquian languages."

Besides Manitou Springs, El Paso County, Colorado, and Lake Manitou, Fulton County, Indiana, other Manitou forms that show up on the landscape of North America include:
Province of Manitoba, Canada
Manitou Island, off Keweenaw Peninsula, Lake Superior, Michigan
North Manitou Island, off Leelanau Peninsula, Lake Michigan, Michigan
South Manitou Island, off Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan
Manitou Island, White Bear Lake, Minnesota
Manitoulin Island, Lake Huron, Ontario
Manitouwadge, Ontario
Big Manitou Falls, Douglas County, Wisconsin
Manitou Island, one of Apostle Islands, Lake Superior, Wisconsin, and
Manitowoc, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.


Smokebender said...

North Manitou Island, off Leelanau Peninsula, Lake Michigan, Michigan is a place of wonder, but the NA's would not spend the night there. I've spent weeks there and it never stops calling me to return.

Anonymous said...

Manitou can be translated to mean any spirit in general, and not the Great Spirit. When we talk about the Great Spirit, it is mentioned specifically: "Gitchi-Manitou," "Gitchi" meaning great. Conversely, when we mention the Devil, or Bad Spirit, it is also a specific reference: "Maji-Manitou," "Maji" meaning bad.

Travis Vaughn said...

Manitou Cave is in Fort Payne, AL,
in DeKalb County. I know I have read somewhere that the old story was
the Cherokees thought the Great Spirit lived there. It was a tourist attraction early in the 20th century.