The logo for Patowmack the Trickster is a fish. You can tell it’s a fish by the tail. The image was chiseled into a rock outcrop at the Potomac River’s Great Falls. It measures 30 inches by 17 inches.
Then again, maybe it’s not a fish. Very similar images—minus the tail—were found at the Susquehanna River at a spot now flooded by the Conawingo Dam. Those images have been variously described as serpents, human faces, and fish with human traits.
What kind of fish? Let’s assume for the moment that it is a fish. What kind of fish?
We can start with circumstantial evidence. In former times in late winter and early spring. vast numbers of spawning herring, striped bass, sturgeon, and shad turned this part of the Potomac into a spectacle of shimmering silver. The shad was the star among them, a fish so handsome, so good to eat, and so incredibly abundant that writer John McFee called it “America’s founding fish.” So maybe the image depicts a shad.
But the direct evidence is not so clear. According to one authority, it’s a shad because the tail of the “fish” is forked—like that of a shad (and also its close relative,the herring). But in the drawing of the image I don’t see a forked tail, just a triangle. So maybe the ancient artist was trying to say that the fish is definitely not a shad.
(Update: the tail of the fish is in fact forked, as I found out when I made my own site visit. I asked Patowmack the Tickster if he thought I should correct the logo to match reality, but he said no. Mistakes are funny, he said, and humor is more valuable than accuracy.)
Why is it there? What was the figure’s purpose? Here the conjecture becomes more interesting, although only slightly less inconclusive.
Maybe the petroglph merely marks a good fishing hole. But Native American peoples had been fishing here for many hundreds—even thousands—of years, using specialized implements and sophisticated technology. They didn’t need to be reminded this was a good place for fishing.
The answer more likely has to do with the nature and personality of the river itself, and of the world view of the Native Americans who lived near it.
Great Falls is a mesmerizing riverscape of cascading water and twisted, battered rock, sculpted by thousands of years of ferocious floods. It also marks the upstream end of a transition zone between the Potomac River and the tidal Potomac Estuary.
Transition zones are special, whether they are temporal, e.g., day to night, or physical, such as river to estuary.
A place of magic. People and animals are often drawn to transition zones, such as fish holding on the edge of a weed bed or vacationers lying on a beach. The Indians had a more complex relationship with the Great Falls area. For hundreds of years, this transition zone apparently was uninhabited, instead serving as a buffer between Algonquin peoples living downstream and various other groups upstream. No evidence of a permanent village or fishing sites have been found there.
Occupied or not, people often imbue transitional zones with spiritual and magical significance called liminality. Developed by a French folklorist early in the last century, the concept later was re-examined by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner. In a well-known essay, Turner describes how a rite of passage alters a person’s social status and way of thinking as it creates a new identity.
How old is it? It seems to add up. The “fish” figure could well have had some kind of magico-religious significance. It may have been a representation of a deity that Indian peoples called upon to keep the fish coming back, much like depictions of maize in pre-Columbian cultures and the paintings of bison in the Lascaux caves.
The glyph could date back as much as old as 1300 years, according to an article in the National Geographic. Another source cites “experts” that date it to the post-contact period, the rationale being that the Indians would have needed steel chisels to leave a mark in that super hard metamorphic rock.
Who made it? Now that we’ve dispensed with these important questions we can transport ourselves back to distant times to that very shoreline. We feel a warm spring breeze on our faces and hear the roar of the falls. Most of all we watch the fish leap and skitter in the frothy current.
A fisherman makes his way down the shore, hopping from rock to rock, sometimes using his stone-tipped spear for balance. He comes upon a man half bent over a smooth faced rock slab. He watches as the man strikes his stone chisel against the rock, leaving a small mark. Over and over again the man strikes, and presently the marks began to form an image.
The fisherman edges a little closer until the chiseler takes notice of him.
“What is it?” the fisherman asks.
“It’s a fish,” the chiseler replies. “Can’t you tell?”
The other man looks hard at the image in the rock and squints his face in the universal language of someone viewing a work of art he doesn’t understand.
“It doesn’t look like a fish to me,” he says.
“See its eyes and its mouth? And here is its body,” the chiseler replies, tracing his fingers over a series of concentric diamonds. “And surely you can see its tail,” he adds, pointing to a triangular incision attached to the “body” by another line, like a leaf on a stalk.
The fisherman leans closer to get a better look. “It still doesn’t look like a fish to me, and I’ve seen many fish.”
The chiseler snorts in disgust and turns back to his task. The fisherman continues on his way, shaking his head.
Art and innovation. In fact, the fisherman was right. It didn’t look like a fish. The chiseler was not a giant in the history of “primitive” art. He lacked the technical and artistic sophistication of the ancient cave painters of the Altamira and Lascaux caves in Spain and southern France. His unyielding medium prevented him from imbuing his work with the movement and life of even the crude pictographs of many ancient peoples.
Nevertheless, he was an innovator. Rather than content himself with the familiar side view representation of a fish we see in scientific works and bumper stickers, he depicted a fish looking right at the viewer.
It was not until Italian Renaissance master Paulo Uccello that artists would master the use of perspective to create depth in their subjects. And even Uccello probably would have found that painting a head-on fish presents a greater challenge than depicting charging steeds and dead soldiers.
But why a head-on fish? What was on this rock artist’s mind?
The image comes alive. Later we see the fisherman returning with his son. They stand before the image.
“It’s supposed to be a fish,” the fisherman tells his son.
“It’s a strange fish,” the boy replies. “I’ve never seen a fish like that. I feel like it’s looking right at me. Like it’s alive.”
His father remains silent. His son edges closer.
“Could it be a spirit? Should we say a prayer? What should we do?” asks the boy.
The father thinks for a moment, and replies, “Let’s go fishing.” And with that they both turn and walk off.