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What is a Hodag?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By sunnySkys — On Nov 06, 2011

@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!

By ceilingcat — On Nov 05, 2011

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!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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