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"Dragons" and Other Supernatural Tales of the Texas Wends by Charles Wukasch

Thursday 14 May 2015 at 04:55 am.

Originally published in Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, Vol LII, Number 1, 1987.

In the area around Giddings (between Austin and Houston), Texas live the descendants of the Wendish settlers who immigrated to Texas in 1854 from what was the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and who founded the community of Serbin west of Giddings.(1) The Wendish language is rapidly becoming extinct in Texas, and today the Texas Wends represent a culture in its vanishing stages. The originally trilingual, tri-cultural community (Wendish, German, and English) will no doubt soon become a monolingual, uni-cultural community.

Traditional Wendish folklore is a rich one, with interesting tales about supernatural beings and occurrences. The purpose of this brief study is to give a sampling of some of the supernatural tales of the Texas community. My choice of informants was one of the few remaining Wendish speaking individuals in the community. Mr. Carl Miertschin, aged 86, is a retired farmer living near Winchester (a small town in the Giddings area).(2) Fluent in German and English in addition to Wendish, and with a sharp memory, Mr. Miertschin has achieved a reputation as an informant who is knowledgeable about the Wendish language and the history and folklore of the community. An affable raconteur, he seems to possess an endless supply of tales and anecdotes about the community.

The traditional Wendish motif which seems to be best represented in Mr. Miertschin's repertoire is that of the "dragon." I have put the word in quotes since the English term dragon is not a good translation, dragon conjuring up the picture of a large, fire-exhaling beast.(3) In Wendish folklore, the "dragon" is a supernatural creature which attaches itself to people's homes and brings them an endless supply of various things. Although "dragons" are seemingly benevolent creatures, the tales here clearly imply that it is wrong to make use of their powers.

I have given after the tales some of the Thompson motifs.(4) This is for the reader who may wish to compare the motifs here with those from other cultures. Items in brackets are my comments or explanations. Except where the informant provides a following translation in English in the text, words in Wendish or German are given with English translation after the tales. [W] or [G] means Wendish or German. (The tales were collected in English.)

A Graveside Exorcism

"That was in the Serbin cemetery. Well, the little girl--instead of tombstones, they had these pickets around there--and that girl always stuck her hands in there and she said 'popajn mjen' [W] 'catch me, catch me.' That's when she got caught. And she hollered and she couldn't see nothin' and then they called the pastor [Rev. John Kilian, first pastor of the Texas Wends] over there and he prayed her loose. And when she got loose, she had the mark of a hand where she was held. She was mocking, you know, and the good Lord isn't--he's not mocked. Minnie's [late wife of informant] grandmother told us that, She said she seen that. That was from the beginning when the Wends came up here.(5)"

E 235.6 Return from dead to punish disturber of grave; E 542.1 Ghostly fingers leave mark on person's body;

E 443.2 Ghost laid by prayer; E 443.2.4 Ghost laid by priest (or minister); Q 22.0 Impiety punished

What Dragons Do and How They Arrived in Texas

"Bring all kinds of stuff , Money--if you want money, they bring you money. Just drag all kinds of stuff for you, like when you have--when you give 'em crush [feed], well, they drag crush for you, or cheese, they bring you cheese, or you want money, you give 'em money, they'll bring you more money, That's what I was told-I don't know.

But it seems to me that none of these other ships that brought German people, they didn't have nothin'--have that dragon. But the Wendish people had it."

B 103.2 Treasure-laying animals; F 481.2 Cobolds furnish supplies to their masters

Dragon in Form of Chicken

"That was my grandfather, I think. We had a little--it was a little boy--he went in the pasture and he seen a little chick there shivering--it was the fall of the year. And so he brought it in and he set it back of the stove--they had those big stoves--cook stove--set it back there. And then her [his] father said 'give her some crush,' so they put some crush around there. And the next mornin' there was a big pile of crush around there. It was that dragon brought that in there. So he told 'you take that chicken-carry it where you got it from.' And he carried it out."

F 481.2.1 Cobold furnishes inexhaustible grain to grinder of handmill; F 481.0.1.4 Cobold accidentally acquired.

Dragon in Form of Heifer

"They had a maid. They had a lot of cheese--so she liked cheese--so she got herself a piece of that cheese. And she was eatin' that cheese there--a big heifer showed up there in front of her and she seen that heifer and she threw that cheese into [at] the heifer and ran out, The heifer disappeared. That was a dragon, too. In Wendish you call that zmij, in Deutsch [German] Drache."

F 481.0.1.4 Cobold accidentally acquired.

Dragon in Form of Light

"That was our neighbors there, Andreas Schubert's. We'd always see light fly over there and flew in this gable--in the window- and then disappeared. And my daddy went over there and there was Andreas Schubert and his sister-in-law. They were eatin' supper and Daddy told them what they'd seen and old man Schubert said 'oh yey, oh yey, oh yey!' And we didn't see that light no more. He stopped it.

And the same light came over there from the other side from Johnny Mitschke's, and I told him 'where's that light goin' to?' And he said 'to Andreas Schubert's.' So there was a Hobratschk boy - his nephew - was there and he told him 'that light is comin' through here,' and Hobratschk said 'Well, when that light gonna come, I'll go there and ask what it wants-what it's lookin' for.' So Johnny said, 'That light is comin' there now.' So he jumped up and ran in the kitchen and told his wife 'Let's go home!' He chickened out."

E 530.1 Ghost-like lights

yey is the first syllable of either W or G Jesus (spelled the same in all three languages, but with the first syllable in W and G pronounced yey)

Man Possessed by Dragon

"That was this old cow doctor. And he taken his rifle and shot hisself. He used to treat animals and stuff like that. And they say - I don't know how true it is - they say that a person like that [possessed by dragon] - the onliest way that person can die - have to lay him on a manure pile and he'll die. Well, I guess they can't die. That's why this fellow shot hisself.(6)"

Spectral Animals

"And then my daddy - they used to right over where Emil [informant's brother] lives - there was the railroad track goin' there. And across the track - there was my mother - that's where she was raised. And then this horse would - he always would be shy. And Grandpa told him 'Zapřnić sej tu staru kobwu' [W] 'Hitch that old mare into a buggy.' And when he come there with the mare - with the horse - he had a single buggy and top down - and that horse started lookin' - got frightened in the front and started backin' up. And Daddy didn't want her to back into that blackjack tree - it would tear up the top - so he jumped off and caught her by the bridle. And when he caught her by the bridle, she was goin' forward and she seen that beast in the back. But my daddy didn't see nothin.'

And when my papa was there visiting my mother, there were gates on each side of the track. And Momma would go there and open the gate for him. And when they went through that second gate, Grandpa said 'There's a dog on the track.' And Momma said it come so close here, she kicked after him. She seen the dog aside of her legs and Daddy seen it on the track. That was just bad in this country."

E 521.2. Ghost of dog

Spectral Handcars

"And Johnny Mitschke told me that - I said - 'We heard that the handcar' - you know, those section hands - they had these pumpcars and these section hands that drive. And I said, 'We seen the section-hand car came down the track and we didn't see no car right even with us. We didn't hear no more noise - we didn't see no car either,' And John Mitschke told me 'That happened to us - we got many a times - we got off the track - and we stepped off and no car didn't come."

E 535 Ghostlike conveyance (wagon, etc.)

The Water Troll

"I don't know too much about that. That's just like a human being, but he lives in water. It's dangerous. Wódny muž - woda [W]-Wassermann [G]-muž [W] is Mann [G]. Well, they [informant's parents] just said it's a dangerous animal or looked like a human being, but lives in water.

F 42.0.5.2.l.5 Water-spirit drags children into river

[W] wódny muž = water man, [W] woda = water, [G] Wassermann = waterman, [G] Mann = man

The Seventh Book of Moses

"Well, that used to be in the Bible, but people used to use that to make all kinds of hocus-pocus with, like Hexen [G] - or what you call Hexen. And so they taken that out of the Bible. There were sixth and seventh. They taken that out. I don't think that they [informant's parents] ever seen one."

D 1266 Magic book; D 1273.l.3 Seven as magic number; G Hexen = witchcraft

The tales and beliefs presented here are merely a sample of the rich folklore of the Texas Wends. The folklore here represents two traditions: traditional Wendish folklore (e.g., "dragons'') brought to Texas by the original immigrants, and folklore which has its origins in the Texas Wendish community {e.g., spectral handcars). It is interesting to note also that some of the material here undoubtedly had at one time a didactic purpose: Children should not go swimming alone in rivers and ponds, children should be quiet and respectful in cemeteries, etc.

NOTES

1.. There are several histories of the Texas Wendish community, e,g., Anne Blasig, The Wends of Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1954).

The terms Wend and Wendish require some explanation. The preferred scholarly terms are Sorb and Sorbian (not to be confused with the Serbs of Yugoslavia). The Texas Sorbs refer to themselves as Wends. Sorbian (Wendish) is a West Slavic language and therefore closely related to Czech and Polish. There are actually two Sorbian languages: Upper and Lower. The Texas Wends are Upper Sorbs.

2. The material here was collected on August 10, 1986, at the informant's home.

3. An obvious explanation of the mistranslation stems from the fact that the German word is Drache. When the Wends learned English, they chose a word which was both phonetically somewhat similar and which was related semantically.

4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955-58), I-VI. The Thompson motifs do not necessarily match the motifs here exactly, but are for cross-reference purposes.

Collections of traditional Serbian (Wendish) folklore do not exist in English, handicapping the folklorist who knows neither Sorbian nor German. Examples are Friedrich Sieber, Wendische Sagen (Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1925), Erich Krawc, Serbske Powěsće (Bautzen: Ludowe Nakadnistwo Domowina, 1959), and Jerzy Slizinski, Sorbische Volkserzählungen (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1964). Although all three books give a good selection of traditional Sorbian folktales, they must be used by folklorists with caution. Sieber and Krawc are literary reworkings of traditional material (the latter intended for children). Although Slizinski gives informant information (e.g., informant's name, when the text was collected), it, too, must be used with caution. The late Dr. Paul Nedo, the leading authority on Sorbian folklore, informed me once that Slizinski's informants gave him material which they had learned from printed sources.

5. I once heard an urban legend with similarities to the tale here: As part of an initiation ritual; a sorority pledge must go to a cemetery at night and stick a fork into a grave. This is so the sorority can check the following day to see if the pledge really went there. They go the next morning to check and find the pledge dead of a heart-attack. She had accidentally stuck the fork through her clothing and pinned herself to the grave. When she got up to go, the fork held her fast and she died of fright, thinking it was the hand of a corpse holding her.

6. The "manure pile" motif is a strange one and I do not know if there is a similar one in the Thompson index. The tale here is confusing since the informant states that a person possessed by a "dragon" can die only by being placed on a manure pile. Yet the character in the tale died by self-inflicted gunshot.

One comment

Dan

My Wendish mother-in-law related a supernatural occurrence from her childhood, when her family lived near the intersection of 448 and 2239, within a mile to the southeast of that intersection. Must have been around 1938-1945 or so.

On multiple evenings, a strange light would be seen emanating from among the trees and fields and behind their home. Her brothers also witnessed this light, which was known to the locals as Jeremiah’s Lights (or Light). They would walk over to the area of the light, only to have it mysteriously disappear as they approached. They never heard anyone making any sounds – it was eerily quiet. Legend had it that Jeremiah was a homeless man who once was a “squatter” on the land, who had passed away. But the light of his campfire was ongoing for years, from time to time.

Dan - 05/22/2016 15:53




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