Saturday, August 4, 2012


Michi-Peshu, a canoe full of paddlers, and two giant underwater
serpents. Agawa Rock, Lake Superior Provincial Park, 
Ontario, Canada.

            Michi-Peshu, the underwater panther, has primacy among underwater monsters in the Great Lakes region. In this realm the underwater horned serpents are relegated to the role of Mishi-Peshu’s helpers. According to Conway:

            "The supernatural feline guardian of Lake Superior, Mishi-Peshu is an amalgam of a tufted-cheek lynx, a dragon with spines running from head to tail, and a minotaur with curved horns. Mishi-Peshu represents a bold abstraction of Lake Superior's power and fury - the unrivaled forces of the world's largest freshwater lake. The composite mythological animal mimics the tension between natural elements.
            To Algonquian speakers, the generic peshu can conjure up cat, lion, panther, or lynx, depending on circumstance or a well-chosen adjective. Following a native worldview, where interrelatedness is more important than divisions between living creatures, they are simply “cat”. Even artistic conventions are reinforced by folklore in the case of Mishi-Peshu. Over half of the Ojibwa and Chippewa tales describing the underwater lion mention its spine-covered tail. The three dream portrait pictographs of Mishi-Peshu marking Agawa Rock strongly emphasize this feature of the lord of the depths.” (Conway 1993:66)

            The red pictograph of Mishi-Peshu at Agawa Rock, in Lake Superior Provincial Park may be the best-known rock art image of the underwater panther in existence.  It is portrayed in red paint with a canoe full of paddlers behind it and its two giant underwater serpent helpers below.

            According to Dewdney and Kidd, portrayals of Mishi-Peshu are common throughout the Great Lakes region. Another mythological creature of great interest that may also be associated frequently with the pictograph sites is Mi-shi-pi-shiw, literally the Great Lynx, actually the Ojibwa demi-god of the water. At Agawa we have an authenticated likeness of this sinister deity of swift or troubled waters. In 1851 Henry Schoolcraft, the Indian Agent at the American Sault Ste Marie whose collection of Ojibwa legends was the basis for Longfellow’s Hiawatha, published his Intellectual Capacity and Character of the Indian Race. Included in it were birch bark renderings of two pictograph sites painted by an Ojibwa shaman-warrior who claimed the special protection of Mishipizhiw (Dewdney 1967:14).

Michi-Peshu, a canoe full of paddlers, and two giant underwater
serpents. Agawa Rock, Lake Superior Provincial Park, 
Ontario, Canada. Pen and ink, Peter Faris, 2004.

The scales covering Michi-Peshu are made of pure copper which is confirmed by the discovery of native copper deposits at locations in the Great Lakes region. Six thousand years ago, descendants of the first settlers of this area were utilizing native copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula and other locations on the shores of Lake Superior. These copper deposits served to confirm the truth of the legends about Michi-Peshu.

Michi-Peshu, woven bag, Potawatomi indian, 
Wisconsin, ca. 1840-1880.

Such was the awsome power of Michi-Peshu, that he was chosen to represent the underworld on native woven bags of the Northeastern woodlands and Great Lakes Region. Such bags were almost invariably decorated with the Michi-Peshu on one side, and Thunderbirds on the other side representing the above world. This theme expresses the dichotomy of existence with the contents of the bag, and thus by extension the person carrying it, representing this world between the above and the below.

I have previously written about the ubiquity of underwater serpents among the mythologies of native North American People (Water Monsters – Unktehi and Uncegila, April 10, 2011). What is fascinating to me about Michi-Peshu is that his myths also include giant underwater serpents, but they are only his helpers. What a wonderful creature, mythological or otherwise.


Conway, Thor,
1993    Painted Dreams: Native American Rock Art, Northword Press, Inc., Minocquia, WI.

Dewdney, Selwyn, and Kenneth E. Kidd
1976    Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes, Second Edition, University of Toronto Press.

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