American Gods: Paul Bunyan

Recently, Sara Mastros (of Mastros & Zealot), on her blog TraifBanquet shared a post about a new project she’s doing, inspired by the new ‘American Gods’ movie, which is based on the book of the same name.  The idea for her American Gods project is to share stories of spirits of the landscape, or the region where you live.

Seeing as I live in Northern Wisconsin, I figured not only do I have a few really interesting spirits to talk about, but also I’ll have the chance to share them with people who aren’t anywhere near me, geographically.

The first name I thought of regarding this project was the greatest lumberjack to ever swing an axe: Paul Bunyan.  Some call his stories ‘fakelore’ because the things people say about him, and the stories that were told were embellished by for-profit writers, cartoonists, etc who made him into something a bit different from his earliest spoken folk-tale iterations. That was in the mid-twentieth century, but many years before that, people told stories of him around wood cook-stoves in lumber camps throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  When folklorists first collected stories of him, there were some old-timers who claimed to have worked at his camps, or to have met him in person.

Maybe they were telling the truth and stories of his exploits were simply exaggerated for entertainment value in the long dark winter nights in the North-woods.  Perhaps the loggers were simply joking around, trying to pull one over on the folklorists. Regardless, there is hardly a more dyed-in-the-wool North-woods character than Paul Bunyan.

He is known for a few admirable qualities:

  • Brute strength
  • Ingenuity
  • Perseverance/Endurance

And of course no hero is complete without things he simply can’t manage:

  • Writing
  • Ethical behavior

As an example of his occasionally dubious behavior, he had been running his logging camp all winter long and hadn’t made enough money to pay off his crew like he’d promised.  When the time came, he had the bright idea to run into the camp and shout that they’d been logging ‘government pine’ all year and the men all grabbed whatever camp property was close to hand and booked it, splitting up as they went… And that’s how Paul Bunyan got his money troubles squared away, he’s apparently not averse to lying or cheating if he feels the need.

Because I like telling tall tales, I’ll share the one I’ve heard about Paul Bunyan’s lack of writing skill, which he makes up for by sketching out little images of the supplies he wants to order for his camp. One day, when they got their supply order into the camp and started putting things in their proper places, he realized they didn’t get the grind-stones that he’d drawn on the paper, and instead had gotten several wheels of cheese. “Oh, I forgot to put the holes in the grindstones!” he said.


And although I don’t think of him as a conventional ‘mythological figure’ like Hermes or Thor, but given that there are stories about him, and he figures prominently in the folklore and culture of the area where I live, I figure his stories are a great place to start.

It’s also worth pointing out that according to a paper written by K. Bernice Stewart, and Homer A. Watt from the University of Wisconsin in 1916, Paul Bunyan’s stories are a type of uniquely American story. They feature a larger-than-life figure (much like Pecos Bill and John Henry) whose exploits grew to match the truly epic proportions of the land that European settlers and their descendants were living in. In the days of early European settlements and the beginning of logging the old-growth forests in the Northern Midwest, people must have had an acute sense of just how immense the land they were getting to know really was, and their folk tales grew to fit those epic proportions.

I’m not completely convinced that a figure such as Paul Bunyan would really respond to an invocation or prayer in the way you might expect a conventional spirit/deity to react, in that he may or may not have any existence outside our own stories about him.  

EDIT: apparently my phone doesn’t like the mobile WordPress app. I inadvertently clicked on this post, and my phone decided arbitrarily to delete a significant chunk of it. I apologize, I’ll try to recreate it tomorrow after work. It was essentially a few ideas for the potential influence Paul Bunyan as a spirit might have on the world /a person who asked him for help. 


3 thoughts on “American Gods: Paul Bunyan

  1. From time to time Paul Bunyan has struck me as a type of Thor, or an aspect. But something about this reading struck me as a type or aspect of Hercules — the strong but also intelligent mover of rivers, shifter of mountains. Someone who remakes the wilderness in the service of man. There’s something of Odysseus in him, too, perhaps: the wanderer or adventurer, mostly, not the pirate. Some things to think about. Hmmm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! I’d never thought of him as having anything of Thor in him (then again I’m not that well-versed in Norse mythology), but definitely Herculean, for sure! That thought kept cropping up in my mind the past couple days as I read his larger than life stories.
      I also want to say there’s something … I don’t know how to put it, liminal comes to mind but not exactly… he’s not civilized, because he’s a rough-and-tumble lumberjack living in the woods wearing the same clothes all winter, but also he’s necessary, for civilization to have wood to build things with, to clear land for farming, etc… I feel like there’s a more specific word that would describe that aspect.
      When it comes to Odysseus, I’m unfortunately not as familiar with Odysseus as I should be, although I know there are anthropologists who argue his stories are a type of ‘traveler’s tales’ and that idea fits nicely with what I know of Odysseus.
      Sorry for making this such a long reply to your comment! I’m just thinking out loud…


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