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Lichen mythology

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This is an essay on ethnolichenology. To return to the main page click here.'


According to Menomini legend, lichens are said to be scabs from the head of Må'nåpus. Må'nåpus placed the scabs where they are to keep his uncles and aunts from starving. Another version of this legend is that the lichens were scabs from when Må'nåpus burned his buttocks, and they came off as he slid down a slanting rock (Smith 1923: pg 21, 60).

The Northern Paiute of Nevada called the orange and yellow crustose lichens on rocks "Lizard semen" [translated]. This name comes from the little pushups that western fence lizards do on rocks (Sharnoff 1996).

The Okanagan-Colville have a legend about how Bryoria fremontii was created (Turner et al. 1980). The lichen is said to have originated from Coyote's hair. There are several variants of this legend. In one variation, coyote tries to catch some swans but they end up flying away with him and only letting go when he is high up in the air. Coyote falls and becomes caught in the branches of a tree. When coyote is finally able to free himself he leaves much of his hair entangled in the branches. Coyote then transformed this hair into Bryoria fremontii, saying "You, my hair, will not be wasted. The coming people will gather you and make you into food." And the lichen has been used as food ever since.

The Gitksan called a species of Lobaria Nagaganaw [lit. "Frog's dress"] (Turner and Clifton, unpublished) or "Frog blanket" (Gottesfeld 1995). The lichen was generally associated with frogs and used it in a spring bathing ritual to bring health and long life (Gottesfeld 1995).

In China Usnea diffracta has been called "Lao Tzu's beard" and has been described as a medicine in Chinese herbals as early as 500 A. D. (Strickmann, unpublished notes). The legendary Lao Tzu is said to have wrote the Tao Te Ching about 2,600 years ago. There must be a cool story behind the lichen if it is named after him.

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