Our modern, interconnected world is so saturated with significance that its seems highly unlikely that a new religion could find purchase, so we look upon the historical rise and fall of alternate theologies as quaint museum pieces, worthy of examination, but no more vested with cosmological import that the latest political scandal. But all religions begin somewhere. Nail a guy to a cross these days, and you better be ready to invoke “stand-your-ground” laws. Renouncing your princely heritage and travelling South Asia as an ascetic philosopher seems like an exceptionally bad career move. If you see a burning bush, you’d better call the fire department. It’s not that these sorts of events go unremarked in the modern world, rather that absolutely everything is steeped in significance worthy of endless hours of commentary, social media exposure, and documentation for future generations. If everything is important, then nothing is important. There is simply no room for what Mircea Eliade termed a hierophany, that is “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (Eliade, 1959, p11). This leaves us completely unprepared for an encounter with the mysterium tremendum (“the awe-inspiring mystery”), and in fact we have invented a whole category of “Weird News” that ensures the profane nature of any paranormal experience is maintained. This self-conscious desacrilization of incongruous experience was the exception rather than the rule for most of human history, where a single manifestation of something wholly other could reverberate across millennia. Consider what you would do if you ran across a white panther in a river these days. Easy. Snap a picture on your Iphone, and post it to reddit/r/cats for a sense of community. The Native American Wyandott (also called the Huron) of the 17-19th Century couldn’t get a decent cell phone signal, so an encounter with a mysterious white panther went very differently, resulting in the Cult of the White Panther.
In a boggy spot on the margin of River Huron, in Michigan, and not many miles from its confluence with Lake Erie, was a sulphureous spring, in the form of a deep pool that discharged its surplus waters by an outlet into the river. (The locality of this spring may not now be found, as it was nearly a century and a half ago, or the pool itself may have long since disappeared, and the bogs now entirely overgrown with marsh grass and flags.) Some of the Wyandotts then inhabiting the banks of the Huron River, who were inclined to be superstitious, concluded that a mysterious spirit, or some kind of monster lay hidden in this spring, from the strange action of the water. It had been noticed by the passer-by, to rise and fall, as if caused by the breathing of some animal beneath its surface. Sometimes the water was seen bubbling or spouting up about a foot and a half high—then suddenly the pool would become calm, and as smooth as the surface of a bowl of melted grease. Many of the Indians shunned it, as the abode or haunt of some evil spirit. A Wyandott was known to describe what he and his companion once saw and heard there, whilst passing by, one dark and calm summer night, thus: Suddenly a great light flashed over the spring, looking like the phosphorescent lights of a great number of fire-flies close together, and all at once; then followed a rumbling, subterranean sound; feeling the earth trembling under their feet, “weet-se!” they exclaimed, and started homeward with rapid strides, as if the evil spirit was at their heels (Clarke, 1870, p155).
Okay, let’s deal with a few administrative details. The Wyandott had settled around Lake Ontario by the 15th Century A.D. The remaining modern Wyandott are the remnants of two earlier groups, the Huron Confederacy and Tionontati, having been decimated by epidemic diseases after encounters with the French in the early 17th Century, and pushed southward into the Ohio and Michigan territories after wars with nearby Iroquois tribes. The vast majority of Wyandott were then forcibly displaced to Kansas in 1840 by the U.S. Government. Obviously, the Wyandott had it rough what with the crazy gun-toting white people encroaching on their lands and their angry Iroquois neighbors. It’s therefore unsurprising that certain segments of Wyandott would start looking for a few tactical advantages. The Wyandott tribe from ancient times had twelve clans (only seven of which are still in existence – Big Turtle, Little Turtle, Wolf, Deer, Bear, Porcupine, and Snake). One of the now extinct divisions was the Prairie Turtle Clan, an one wonders if the disappearance of this relatively ill-regarded clan had anything to do with their close association to the cult of the white panther, for it is the Prairie Turtle Clan that is traditionally thought to have invoked the spirit of the panther.
A party of the Prairie Turtle Clan camped one day at the spring, established an altar and offered burnt offerings to the strange god. Articles of value, silver ornaments and wampum belts, were feast into the pool and Ce-zhaw-yen-hau was chosen to call up the spirit. Standing in the marsh, with a bow in one hand and a bunch of arrows in the other, he chanted a song; while his companions, in homage to the Hoo-kee, or wizard of the spring, burned tobacco. He invoked the spirit to come forth. A loon arose, screaming and flapping its wings. “Not you,” said Ce-zhaw-yen-hau, and the loon vanished. Next came an otter. “Not you,” said the Indian, “begone! Come forth, you wizard!” The water rose, as if agitated by some huge body, and a white panther emerged, looking eastward. Piercing its side with an arrow, the conjurer quickly extended a small vessel to catch the blood which trickled from the creature’s side. The moment the pan filled, the wounded animal disappeared, and the air vibrated with a rambling, muttering sound, like distant thunder. Volumes of turbid water came to the surface, indicating the course the monster had taken in passing down the river. Never again was it seen at the pool. The Prairie Turtle Clan, which had always been considered refractory in disposition, and inclined to be rebellious toward the Good Spirit, now formed a society and deified the white panther. Anyone who divulged the secrets of the association was instantly put to death. The blood in the small vessel coagulated and became dry. This was broken into pieces and distributed among the members to be placed in their medicine bags (De Voe, 1904, p134-135).
A secretive brotherhood was formed to capitalize on the hefty mojo of the panther’s blood, though to convey success in life, love, and war. Penalty for revealing the secrets of the white panther fraternity was punishable by death. On a side note, biologists agree that the term “white panther” is a catch all for a variety of large white cats, which in North America would no doubt have referred to a cougar (Puma concolor) that was not actually albino, rather manifesting leucism (a reduction in all pigmentation, rather than just melanin. When the local Catholic missionaries caught wind of the burgeoning white panther cult, they identified it as devil worship and witchcraft, as colonial Catholic missionaries are wont to do, and issued stern warnings regarding practices that deified the white panther. Coupled with the fact that conversion to Christianity among the Wyandot was proceeding apace, these characterizations as evil sorcerers did not bode well for the future.
With this substance a member could obtain anything he might wish for that he could not acquire before; good luck always attended him on his hunting grounds; good luck attended his wife when making maple sugar; good luck attended him whilst on the war path, and he was always successful whenever he used the substance, either for good to himself or for evil purposes to others. The principal portion of this association were of the Prairie Turtle Clan. And they were repeatedly warned by the Catholic priest, then at Detroit, what would be the consequence, if they did not renounce the evil spirit or strange god they worshipped. “Throw away the baneful substance, which came to you from the devil, by one of his emissaries in the shape of a panther,” he said to them, “for just as certain as you continue to keep it among you, the time is not far distant when you will all be ruined by it, both body and soul.” But the admonition of the priest was unheeded by the wayward Wyandotts, who continued to deify the white panther, and practiced their sorcery with its concreted blood, until not one of them was left living. The very moment a member divulged the secrets of this heathen association his fate was sealed, and whenever his (two) executioners were started off from their midnight consultation with a decree that he must die, there was no escape for him, unless he had received timely warning and betook himself to flight, to become a fugitive among some distant nation (Clarke, 1915, p343-344).
The Wyandott were not alone in their hierophanic experience of the white panther, in so far as they are rare, they represent a clear disjunction in the natural order. The Chippewa (also called the Ojibwe), an Algonquin group spread out around Lake Superior at the time (including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario, and Quebec) refer to talking white panthers that acted as oracles, and had the power to condemn those who offended them to wander the earth as living skeletons. We do not hear of the rise of a white panther-specific cult among the Chippewa, but as one of the largest cultural groups of Native Americans across a wide geographic area, they no doubt felt a little less pressure from encroaching colonists and less competition from adjacent tribes.
Among the many legends associated with Crow-Wing is one about a white Panther, whose home was here when the world was young. That Panther was the Prophet of a certain Chippeway tribe, and had power to speak the Chippeway language. A young brave was anxious to revenge the death of a brother, and had sought the oracle to learn the success of his intended expedition. The Panther told him that he must not go, but wait until a more propitious season. But the young man headed his party went; and every one of his followers was killed, himself escaping by the merest chance. Thinking that the Panther had caused this calamity, he stole upon this creature and slaughtered it, in the darkness of midnight. The dying words of the oracle were, “Cruel and unhappy warrior, I doom thee to walk the earth forever, a starving and undying skeleton.” And it is said that this spectre man, whenever the moon is tinged with red, or the aurora borealis floods the sky with purple, may be seen flitting in perfect solitude along the banks of the Mississippi (Lanman, 1847, p70).
The Menomini, another Alqonquin-speaking tribe centered on the Great Lakes (primarily Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Penninsula) were a little more clear about their feelings towards the white panther, relegating him to a position as attendant to the third tier of the underworld (one step removed from the big evil white bear god, lord of the underworld).
The Menomini have reduced their scheme of the universe to a more definite system. They divide it into two main sections: the upper and lower worlds. These in turn are divided into four parts or tiers each, and are separated by the earth. Each world has its presiding deity. The upper world, peopled by beneficient powers, is ruled by Mate Hawatiik, who dwells in the fourth tier of heaven. Beneath him come the thunderers, mythical birds inhabiting the ether above the air, the golden eagles, and the lesser birds of the air, commanded by the bald eagles, in descending order. These are his servants, and, since they come into actual contact with mankind, and Mate Hawatuk does not, they receive more actual homage than their master, who really appears only as a figurehead. The powers below are governed by a white bear who resides in the fourth tier of the underworld. He has a “naked bear” as his especial attendant. The other tiers in ascending order towards the earth contain his servants. The first is a white panther with its attendant, a white beaver, then a white deer with its attendant, a black wildcat, and, next the earth, the horned hairy snakes. Unlike Mate Hawatiik, the supreme god beneath, because of his power for evil, which renders him an object of dread, receives many direct sacrifices (Skinner, 1913, p86-87).
Interestingly, the Five Nations Confederacy, a historic alliance of the Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca nations first formed somewhere between 1570 and 1600, facilitated by a renegade Huron named Dekanawidah, makes specific reference to the dangers of discord among the representatives of the confederated tribes, as it would open up the opportunity for “the white panther” to prey upon them.
Then he, Dekanahwideh, continued and said: “I will now leave all matters in the hands of your lords and you are to work and carry out the principles of all that I have just laid before you for the welfare of your people and others, and I now place the power in your hands and to add to the rules and regulations whenever necessary and I now charge each of you lords that you must never seriously disagree among yourselves. You are all of equal standing and of equal power, and if you seriously disagree the consequences will be most serious and this disagreement will cause you to disregard each other, and while you are quarreling with each other, the white panther (the fire dragon of discord) will come and take your rights and privileges away. Then your grandchildren will suffer and be reduced to poverty and disgrace (Parker, 1916, p103).
Clearly there was a degree of trepidation with regards to the activities of the followers of the white panther. As Huron conversion to Christianity increased, the remaining adherents of the cult of the white panther were systematically exterminated or exiled. There is no fanatic like a convert turning on their own traditional practices. This is not unique to Christianity. Religious experience requires a certain level of commitment, and in a transitional state, it is easy to identify old ways as an abomination. The cult of the white panther was never heard from again.
It would thus appear that Tijaiha and his followers whose fate has such a profound impression on the survivors of the Huron or Wyandot nation were merely the last representatives of the old party in that nation In some access of religious fury among Christian majority these holders of the ancient faith accused of arts and malignant practices were either exterminated driven to take refuge among the still unconverted Iroquois. That memory of this outbreak of fanaticism was not pleasing to my the genial and liberal minded chief was shown by the exclusion of all reference to it from his version of the legend except such as may be gathered from the significant remarks with which he prefaced his narrative The story as thus explained may serve as a picture of the mental condition of the Indians and doubtless of all other savage converts in their transition from heathenism to Christianity (Hale, 1888, p253).
Ghosts, mermaids, faeries, aliens, UFO’s, and bigfoot would at one time have been hierophanies, a brief glimpse into the sacred that made us consider our position in the universe and the nature of our reality. An anomaly is an eruption of unreality into our profane lives and we can choose to relegate it to our category of “strange news” as an amusement alongside bizarre tattoos, dumb crimes, and the death of football-predicting camels. Or we can look underneath for our white panthers, for as Albert Einstein once said, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
Clarke, Peter Dooyentate. Origin And Traditional History of the Wyandotts: And Sketches of Other Indian Tribes of North American. True Traditional Stories of Tecumseh And His League, In the Years 1811 And 1812. Toronto: Hunter, Rose, & co., 1870.
Clarke, P.D. “The Origin of the Panther Fraternity”. Geological Survey of Canada. Memoir v80. Ottawa: The Survey, 1915.
De Voe, Carrie. Legends of the Kaw: the Folk-lore of the Indians of the Kansas River Valley. Kansas City, Mo.: Franklin Hudson publishing co., 1904.
Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. The Sacred And the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
Hale, Horatio. “Huron Folklore”. Journal of American Folklore v1:1. American Folklore Society, 1888.
Lanman, Charles, 1819-1895. A Summer In the Wilderness: Embracing a Canoe Voyage Up the Mississippi And Around Lake Superior. New York: D. Appleton & company, 1847.
Parker, Arthur Caswell, 1881-1955. The Constitution of the Five Nations. Albany, N.Y.: University of the State of New York, 1916.
Skinner, Alanson. “Social Life and Ceremonial Bundles of the Menomini Indians”. American Museum of Natural History v13. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. New York, N.Y.: Published by order of the trustees, 1913.