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Smart vs. dumb cannibals/vampires

Smart vs. dumb cannibals/vampires published on No Comments on Smart vs. dumb cannibals/vampires

I was reading When The Chenoo Howls by Joseph and James Bruchac, an awesome collection of monster stories from Native American traditions, when I came to the realization that most cultures distinguish between the smart vampiric or cannibalistic creatures and the dumb ones.

Taking the Native Americans of the Northeastern woodlands as a cultural group, we can see the contrast between smart and dumb cannibals in the following two creatures: the tsinoo and the flying head.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the tsinoo [or chenoo, but I like the other spelling better] kills people and eats them. It may also deplete their souls. Though murderous, the tsinoo retains human characteristics of reason, emotion and even empathy, as the story about the woman melting the tsinoo’s heart illustrates. Because it is humanoid in intelligence, rationality and emotions, I’m calling the tsinoo a smart vampire.

The flying head, on the other hand, is scary, but dumb. According to Seneca stories, the flying head is an oversized head with a large mouth. It flies through the air, looking for humans to scoop up in the big bear paws growing from either side of its neck. The appetite of the flying head is indiscriminate, though; it will chew on pretty much anything. The Bruchacs tell a great story of how a young mother defeated a flying head who was stalking her and her infant son. When she knew the flying head was watching, the woman roasted chestnuts in the fire, then ate them. Because the chestnuts had blackened shells, they looked like coals. Thinking to follow the woman’s example, the flying head burst through the smoke hole of the woman’s house and began shoveling not chestnuts, but COALS, into its mouth. It either died from burns or injured itself so severely that it never bothered the woman again. [This is what I mean about some Native American tales having a very dry sense of humor. The picture of a big monster head stuffing its face full of hot coals is highly amusing.] Definitely not the sharpest arrowhead in the quiver…

There’s a quick summary of the story of the woman vs. the flying head available on Google Books in Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iriquois or Six Nations and History of the Tuscarora Indians, by Elias Johnson. [Interestingly, Johnson, as a “native Tuscarora chief,” has a much different perspective on his material than Charles Leland, whose Anglocentrism I harassed to shreds previously. He comments: “I …have longed to see refuted the slanders, and blot out the dark pictures which the historians are wont to spread abroad concerning us. May I live to see the day when, it may be done, for most deeply have I learned to blush for my people.” Unfortunately, he has been dead for quite some time, but the “slanders” are still going strong.]

Modern U.S. movie mythology, which is catholic, promiscuous and syncretic, makes the smart/dumb distinction as well, using vampires and zombies. Vampires, as they currently manifest in the majority of popular U.S. media, are seen as superheroes: incredibly strong, often sexy human beings with full powers of reason and emotional sensitivity, hindered by their hunger for human blood. Zombies, as they currently manifest in the majority of popular U.S. media, are seen as the flying heads of bloodsuckers: menacing, but also easily outwitted since they have few wits to speak of.

I’m not sure where to go with this division, only to say that I have observed it elsewhere too.

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