What is a Hodag?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The hodag is a legendary creature that seems to have first developed out of tall tales told by lumberjacks. Today, the creature is especially associated with Wisconsin, and some legends tell that when Paul Bunyan’s ox died and was burned, the hodag rose from its ashes. Hodags are especially connected with Rhinelander, Wisconsin, which is called “The Home of the Hodag” on the city’s website. Rhinelander High School even has a Hodag mascot.

Wisconsin is of special interest to the hodag legend.
Wisconsin is of special interest to the hodag legend.

The legends concerning hodags may be connected to Native American, particularly the Ojibwe tribe’s mythology. A creature called Mishepishu, or underwater panther, was said to have deer horns, feathers, scales, and yet was shaped like a mountain lion. Different myths show the Mishepishu to be helpful to humans, and sometimes quite dangerous. Since the Ojibwe tribe was located near the Great Lakes, the idea of an animal with multiple animal parts may have inspired legends of the hodag.

Legend states that hodags cover themselves in sap and roll in autumn leaves to provide warmth for winter.
Legend states that hodags cover themselves in sap and roll in autumn leaves to provide warmth for winter.

There are differing opinions on the physical appearance of hodags. Some suggest they have lizard bodies, horns on their heads and are covered in spikes. A hoax perpetuated by Eugene Shepherd in the late 19th century has cemented the idea of what this mythical creature looks like in many minds. Claiming he had caught a wild hodag, he exhibited the beast at the 1896 Oneida County Fair, held in Rhinelander.

In truth, the beast displayed was carved out of wood, covered with an ox hide, and horns from cattle and/or oxen. However, from a distance, the animal appeared to move (by used of strings) and growl, actually noises supplied by Shepherd’s sons. Shepherd later took his animal on tour. It is said that Shepherd’s hoax did help Rhinelander, bringing in a needed population to help transform Rhinelander into a bustling city.

Even though Shepherd’s hoax was later dismissed as a great practical joke, legends of the hodag persist. The beast is considered fearsome, potentially dangerous, and somewhat grumpy. Yet its boon to Rhinelander in raising the population means it is also viewed very favorably. It’s not specifically a threat to humans, though it does look dangerous with all its spikes.

Some legends suggest hodags use these spikes well to protect themselves during harsh Wisconsin winters. First they rub bark off trees and cover themselves in sap. When they are sufficiently sticky, they roll in the fallen autumn leaves to provide a nice extra layer of warmth and to protect themselves from the cold.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@ceilingcat - I agree, folklore is great fun. I also think it's especially cool the town of Rhinelander adopted this one as it's own, even though they did get hoaxed!

I personally think having the hodag as a high school mascot would have been awesome. Much more original than most high school mascots. Usually they are some generic wild animal, like a lion or a tiger.

I've also read that this town has an annual Hodag Fest, which is actually has nothing to do with mythical animals. Instead, it's a country music festival!


I seriously love urban legends like this! I think they're fun and they give extra character to an area. For example, where I grew up our mythical character was called the Goatman (he had the head of a goat, body of a man-obviously). Supposedly he lived on an abandoned farm and would attack anyone who came onto the premises.

However, I have to say that I think it's shady when people try to create hoaxes like Eugene Shepherd did. Urban legends are much more fun if you just leave them alone and let people add to them as the years go by!

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