It is easy to feel the touch of the mountains that overlook Salem’s Moon. It was the Dutch who named them the Katzbergs due to the wild-cats and panthers that lived there. Originally the Native Americans living there called them Ontiora – “mountains of the sky.” Now, we call them the Catskills and they are rich in myth and legend.
Some Native American tales explain that the mountains were the remains of a giant monster. This monster delighted in feeding on members of the tribes. One day it was making its way to the Ocean to bathe. The Great Spirit turned the monster to stone. The lakes near the summit of the mountains became its eyes. The peaks of the mountains became the home of the Catskill Witch.
Legends say that the Catskill Witch controls night and day. She is responsible for letting the sun out each day and sending the moon out each night. She would back one and then the other lest they become angered in their jealousy and a cataclysmic conflict arises. Each month when the moon became old she would cut the moon into stars and hang them in the sky.
She would spend her days sitting on the Round Top Mountain or North Mountain peaks spinning out the clouds and sending them into the winds. Next time you see the clouds “scudding across the sky” think of her.
It is also said that the Catskill Witch controls the weather. She demanded reverence. When she felt slighted in that regard she would unleash mighty storms. She would unleash the lightning on the longhouses and homes of those who mocked her. She would cause the rains to fall in such abundance that the streams would overflow drowning those living near the streams.
Sometimes she would disguise herself as a deer and lead the Native American hunters astray, exposing them to great danger. Sometimes she would appear as a large shadow menacing them. They would run and oftentimes find themselves at the edge of a large ravine. Then she would laugh at their fear just as they stopped short of falling.
She often liked to spend time near Garden Rock as it was called in those days. It is known as Smallwood now. There is a lake there. Anyone coming near the lake risked her wrath. One day a hunter got lost and found himself beside the lake. Not realizing at first that this was the lake of the Catskill Witch he stopped to pick a gourd from a tree. Suddenly he saw her. He dropped the gourd and it broke. From the broken gourd came a stream. As it swelled in size it surrounded the hunter and carried him away. Today the stream is known as Catskill Creek.
(Retold from Myths and Legends of Our Own Land – Vol 1 – the Hudson and its hills by Charles M. Skinner)
Ontiora a poem by Henry Abbey
Moons on moons ago,
In the sleep, or night, of the moon,
When evil spirits have power,
The monster, Ontiora,
Came down in the dreadful gloom.
The monster came stalking abroad,
On his way to the sea for a bath,
For a bath in the salt, gray sea.
In Ontiora's breast
Was the eyrie of the winds,
Eagles of measureless wing,
Whose screeching, furious swoop
Startled the sleeping dens.
His hair was darkness unbound,
Thick, and not mooned nor starred.
His head was plumed with rays
Plucked from the sunken sun.
To him the forests of oak,
Of maple, hemlock, and pine,
Were as grass that a bear treads down.
He trod them down as he came,
As he came from his white-peak'd tent,
At whose door, ere he started abroad,
He drew a flintless arrow
Across the sky's strip'd bow,
And shot at the evening star.
He came like a frowning cloud,
That fills and blackens the west.
He was wroth at the bright-plumed sun,
And his pale-faced wife, the moon,
With their twinkling children, the stars;
But he hated the red-men all,
The Iroquois, fearless and proud,
The Mohegans, stately and brave,
And trod them down in despite,
As a storm treads down the maize.
He trod the red-men down,
Or drove them out of the land
As winter drives the birds.
When near the King of Rivers,
The river of many moods,
To Ontiora thundered
Manitou out of a cloud.
Between the fountains crystal
And the waters that reach to the sky,
Manitou, Spirit of Good,
To the man-shaped monster spoke:
'You shall not go to the sea,
But be into mountains changed,
And wail in the blast, and weep
For the red-men you have slain.
You shall lie on your giant back
While the river rises and falls,
And the tide of years on years
Flows in from a boundless sea.'
Then Ontiora replied:
'I yield to the heavy doom;
Yet what am I but a type
Of a people who are to come?
Who as with a bow will shoot
And bring the stars to their feet,
And drive the red-man forth
To the Land of the Setting Sun.'
So Ontiora wild,
By eternal silence touched,
Fell backward in a swoon,
And was changed into lofty hills,
The Mountains of the Sky.
This is the pleasant sense
Of Ontiora's name,
'The Mountains of the Sky.'
His bones are rocks and crags,
His flesh is rising ground,
His blood is the sap of trees.
On his back with one knee raised,
He lies with his face to the sky,
A monstrous human shape
In the Catskills high and grand.
And from the valley below,
Where the slow tide ebbs and flows,
You can mark his knee and breast,
His forehead beetling and vast,
His nose and retreating chin.
But his eyes, they say, are lakes,
Whose tears flow down in streams
That seam and wrinkle his cheeks,
For the fate he endures, and for shame
Of the evil he did, as he stalked
In the vanquished and hopeless moon,
Moons on moons ago.
Image Credit: Postcard originally published in 1918 and found on EBay.
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