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.
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.
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.