Author Archives: Lillian Anderson

The Man and the Snake

I had asked my friend if he had any stories or tales from his childhood that his family would tell. He comes from an area of Kansas City, Missouri that is traditionally an African-American community, and he told me a tale, a fable, that his mother used to tell him when he was growing up.

This is a story that my mother reiterated to me many times during her lifetime and when I was a child. There was a man in Africa, walking up a mountain. Halfway up the mountain, it starts to get cold, even though it is hot at the bottom of the mountain. Halfway up the mountain it is kind of frigid. Halfway up the mountain, this man happens upon…a very sickly snake. And the snake is sitting there in this cold climate and its basically freezing and it looks up to the man and says, “Please, sir, please, will you carry me down the mountain?”
And the man is going down the mountain, and he looks at the snake and he says, “But you’re a snake. Not only are you a snake, but you are a very poisonous snake. If I pick you up you will surely bite me!”
And the snake says, “Silly man, now why would I do that? I – I need your help. If – if I stay here I will surely die. If you carry me past the peak of the mountain, and down to the warm foothills, I will not bite you. I will be forever grateful.”
So the man thinks about it. And being a good man, an honest man, decides to help the snake. So he picks the snake up and he walks toward the peak. And he starts to walk on toward the peak and as it gets colder, the snake gets very, very still. But finally they pass the peak and they slowly get down and the weather starts to get warmer and the snake starts to move around. And as they go down the mountain, all of a sudden the frost clears, there’s green foliage and the snake is slithering happily as the man is carrying it in his arms. And finally, they are almost to the foothills and the man feels a sharp pain. Bam! The snake has bitten him. And he falls to his knees as the poison takes hold and he looks at the snake and he goes, “Snake, I’ve helped you, I’ve saved your life, and you promised me that you wouldn’t bite me.” And he goes, “Why!? Why!?”
The snake slithers off, takes a moment to pause as he decides to answer. And he looks back at the man taking his last breaths, and he says, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.” And he slithers off.

This tale is a fable that has a clear moral, like most fables, which is that you should not offer your help, your aid, to someone or something that you know to be dangerous. This tale is also serving as a warning to not trust the promises of a desperate man, and to be wary of those who might stab you in the back. This is the kind of tale that would be told, and is told, to children. After all, the informant’s mother would often tell this story to him when he was growing up. The fact that the informant grew up in a traditionally African-American part of the city he lived in, would suggest that this tale is African in origin.



I asked one of my classmates about game she played as a child while waiting for class to begin.



Her: Okay, so, when I was in elementary school, and I must have been in 4th or 5th grade, one if those, I don’t know exactly, but it was when those people were still in school with me. We used to play a game. And I say that loosely, because there was no winning, really, it was just like something we would run around and do, ’cause like we had a big grass field that we could run around in and there was obviously kick balls and soccer balls and that stuff. So we called it “Pegging” and I don’t think, I don’t think we thought it was, ’cause I’ve heard like yucky references to what that is and I don’t think we knew that, and that’s why we called it that.

Me: ‘Cause you were in like 4th grade.

Her: Yeah. But, but like, I didn’t make that name up. Like someone else did. But We would run around and it was usually like the boys vs. girls, and it was me and another one or two girls against like three boys we would usually play with, and we would just try to hit each other as hard as we possibly could with a soccer ball. Like, we would throw it at each other, and that’s like the whole point of the game. And I think somehow we, ’cause I would talk to the girls and I would think some of us liked those boys.

Me: Oh, oh, oh.

Her: So I think there was a whole thing. I mean, We would hit hard. I mean we would have like welts,

Me: Oh, wow, yeah.

Her: And we realized we were doing that, and we wouldn’t do that anymore. And yeah, we used to do that when we were in 4th, 5th grade. It was like a form of courtship or something. Demented courtship. But like, well God, we would hit each other hard. Like, as I said, falling down would be normal after being hit.



This game was clearly a kind of courtship game. It was played between pre-pubescent children, who were just beginning the slow process of transitioning from a child into an adult. As it was played as boys vs. girls, it was a way for the girls (and possibly the boys) to “peg,” or “mark,” the boy/girl that they liked or had a crush on. How hard one could throw the ball could be seen as a posturing move, a show of strength, of accuracy, and perhaps even of the level of interest the person had for the target. Though much more painful than various other pre-pubescent “courtship” games, it is a game that lets children explore the new kinds of feelings for members of the opposite sex as they begin the transition into adulthood.

Scrimshaw – The Whaler’s Art


I was perusing the shops in downtown Lahaina, HI, when I wandered in to a Scrimshaw shop. Curious, I asked the shopkeeper, who had worked at the shop for more than 20 years, about the art.



Me: So what is scrimshaw, and where did it begin?

Informant: Scrimshaw is carved and dyed ivory – usually whale teeth and bone. It is New England whalers that scrimshaw is usually attributed to. It is a whaling art that the New England whalers started doing in the late 1700’s early 1800’s when they were out at sea. They were bored, they were uh, they wanted to make gifts for their family members back home, so the teeth and the bone were the leftovers from the whaling industry – the whales were hunted for their fat, their blubber mainly, which was used for, among other things, lamp oil. The bones and the teeth were leftovers, unneeded. And so, the whalers started carving them. The thing about ivories and bone, is that it is one of the oldest mediums that man has worked in general, you know, you get stuff that is carved out of woolly mammoth tusk. Though, so what they specifically attribute to scrimshaw is work such as what is done on sperm whales’ teeth. [See picture for an example of scrimshaw]. And it’s actually an engraving process, where the artwork is hand-engraved into the ivory, which is first polished. Then they take a sharp tool and engrave the design. And then they rub ink into it.

Me: Okay. And I noticed that most of the pieces here are nautical themed. Was that the norm for scrimshaw?

Informant: Yes. It was more often than not nautical themed, or, when you look at antique pieces it was often of things that reminded the whalers of home.

Me: Now, I know that Lahaina was once a whaler’s village, and by the fact that there is a scrimshaw store here, I would assume that when whalers had come here they brought the practice with them?

Informant: Yes. How Hawaii comes into play, is that when the whalers started whaling in the Pacific, Lahaina became the whaling capital of the Pacific because we are a natural three-sided port. So they had safe mooring out here by the road stead, the Lahaina road stead. And uh, they didn’t really whale in Hawaii, the whalers just wintered here. Where the actually whaled was around Alaska.

Me: Okay. That makes some sense. Follow the migration patterns.

Informant: Yes. And because of the ice floes, they would be up around Alaska for much of the year, as all the ships were wooden hulled. So they would sail back down to Lahaina, because back in that era, when they sailed into the Pacific they would have to sail all around the southern end of South America and back up. So it took them months to get into the Pacific and so they didn’t want to try and get back to New England every year.

Me: Makes sense.

Informant: Yes, thus Lahaina became the home base, if you will, for the Pacific whaling industry. So most of the whaling vessels around Hawaii were at sea for around 2-5 years. Some of them might have been inspired by the tattooing, the Hawaiian/Polynesian tattooing they saw. But, scrimshaw as an art was not inspired by the Polynesians, as they did not work bone and ivory in that way.

Me: Awesome. So who would the whalers give these carved and dyed ivory pieces to? And do any of the pieces tell stories or have stories about them?

Informant: The whalers would often give these to people back home. Sometimes, when you see the antiques, they will often be documents of the whaling voyage, of things they saw along the way, or sometimes, women were a popular subject matter.

Me: Yeah, I’ll bet.

Informant: Yes, and so there was a small genre of pornographic scrimshaw, but that was more rare. It was more often with those that they would take pictures from magazines or similar things and essentially copy such pictures onto the teeth/bones. As most, if not all, of them did not have any art training, you know, most of them were illiterate whalers just thinking about their family. So most of the scrimshaw pieces do tell of some kind of event or something similar. So I hope that is what you are looking for.

Me: Yeah, this is great. Thanks a lot.

Informant: You’re very welcome.



Carving ivory, as the informant said, is one of the oldest known practices of mankind. Carved mammoth tusks and bone have been found at prehistoric sites all over Europe. Ivory was most likely used because it is so malleable, and an easy medium to carve or engrave. Scrimshaw, in particular, is probably the best-known example of colonial American folk art. It was created and performed by people who were bored, had no training in art, in engraving or carving or even drawing. Whalers were often illiterate, or at the most slightly educated. They simply put to use the tools and the materials they had on the ship to commemorate a voyage or event on a voyage. Furthermore, with the demise of the whaling industry, the only material now used for making modern scrimshaw is fossilized bone and ivory, which is rather rarer and more expensive to acquire. So, though it began as a true folk art, it is now mostly made by professional artists who can afford the raw materials used as the medium.

The Origin of the Hawaiian Fishhook Pendant


I was wandering through some of the shops in Lahaina, wondering about the abundance of fishhooks that could be worn as necklaces. So I asked one of the shopkeepers about them.



Me: So I was curious as to where the practice of wearing fishhooks originated. Do you know?

Informant: There are many wild tales as to how the practice started. I had a customer about ten years ago who was very concerned about because of his religious beliefs. He wanted to buy a fishhook but was worried about its pagan connotations.

Me: Okay. Makes some sense I suppose.

Informant: Yes. So I contacted a friend who lives on another island about this. And his response was that the Hawaiians never wore their fishhooks.

Me: Okay.

Informant: The Hawaiians were a purely practical culture. And for them, they would not have worn their fishhooks as ornamentation. They would only carve them to use. So when you hear these legends of safe voyage and this and that – that is not true. However, I do have some examples of one of the few things that the Hawaiians did wear. You see these things here that look like hooks? [Pictured above]

Me: Yeah.

Informant: They look like hooks, but they’re not. They are something that was only worn by the royalty, the ali’i, or the representative of a royal. They are called paloas, which roughly translates as “whale’s tooth” or “tongue of the chief,” and they would wear massive ones on dozens of strands of braids. And that was one of the few things that the Hawaiians wore as a culture. This then translated, over time, along with the importance of the fishhook to the Hawaiian peoples, into the practice of wearing fishhooks as ornamentation. Also, these are mostly Maori designs that we have, not Polynesian. So this is one possible origin of the fishhook as ornamentation. I hope that answers you questions.

Me: Yes. It does. Thank you very much.

Informant: You’re welcome



To me, it is odd that something that has become such a major part of the consumer culture of Hawaii, something that is often seen as being traditional Hawaiian ornamentation, actually was not used for ornamentation at all. Yes, the fishhook is an incredibly important aspect of the Hawaiian culture, as the Hawaiian’s main source of protein came from the sea. There were no large land animals, no large game birds. Pigs, cattle, cats, dogs, and chickens only came to the Hawaiian Islands when the Europeans brought them. Thus, the fishhook would have been extremely important to the Hawaiians, an idea that was then taken by the tourist industry and turned into a decorative consumer item. I personally even have a fishhook on a length of cord that I got in Hawaii (the Big Island) years ago. Yet, the fishhook as decorative ornamentation has become so ingrained in Hawaiian culture that it might as well have become a folk tradition. It has become part of the traditional Hawaiian culture.

The Legend of Maui


I was once again wandering the streets and perusing the shops on Front St in Lahaina, HI with my mother. I was looking at some fishhooks that were carved from bone when the shopkeeper came to me. We got to talking, and I told her that I had heard of one possible origin to the practice of wearing fishhooks, when she offered up another reason for the practice, and told me the legend, the myth, of how the Hawaiian Islands came to be.



Maui, a demigod, was out fishing one day with his brothers. They paddled far beyond their usual fishing grounds. Maui then flung his fishhook, one that was similar to these [see picture above for a decorative example] that he had carved from bone. When he got a bite, he instructed his brothers, who were earthly, to paddle as hard as they could but not to look back behind them. His brothers, who were jealous of Maui’s status as a demigod, turned around and saw that Maui was pulling up, not a fish, but land out of the sea. As soon as they looked, they were amazed, and they stooped paddling. Because they stopped paddling, the land stopped rising out of the sea, so instead of getting a great continent, all Maui got was a small chain of islands in the Pacific. Maui was furious at his brothers, as he wanted a great continent. Thus the Hawaiian Islands came to be.



This myth reveals several things about the Hawaiian people. First is that they are a fishing people. They rely on the sea, and thus their fishhooks are incredibly important. Second is the fact that the fishhook is made from bone. Bone, especially whalebone, was considered to be able to become an extremely lucky fishhook. Also, Maui is not just a Hawaiian mythical figure. He features in myths and legends from New Zealand – such as the legend that tells of how New Zealand’s terrain formed; why it is so hilly – and from other areas of Oceania. This can be key in discovering the migration patterns of people into Oceania – how the ancient peoples spread from mainland Asia and Australia into such far-flung and isolated island chains in the middle of a vast body of water. By tracking where similar mythological and legendary figures crop up, such as the demigod Maui, anthropologists and archaeologists can track migration patterns and possible origins for the people of these far-flung and isolated Pacific Ocean Island chains. Furthermore, this myth demonstrates how central to the Hawaiian culture fishhooks are/were. The tourism industry presumably caught wind of this importance and began to make “authentic” Hawaiian fishhooks to be worn as ornamentation and sold as “traditional” Hawaiian jewelry/ornamentation, despite fishhooks never being worn by the Hawaiian people. Nowadays, practically every gift store, souvenir shop in the islands sells fishhooks, and it has become “traditional folk” jewelry.