I’m currently in the process of reading Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, and I think it was the brief appearance of some beavers in this book that made me think of researching beaver-related mythology. Beavers are no strangers to the Oz universe, as L. Frank Baum wrote about Fairy Beavers in John Dough and the Cherub, and Jack Snow reused the tribe in The Shaggy Man of Oz.
A beaver couple is also quite prominent in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which kind of confused me as the Narnia series is pretty thoroughly British, and beavers are mostly known as North American animals.
Actually, there are two separate species of beaver, the North American and the Eurasian. The latter is much less common, however, as beavers were hunted almost to extinction in Europe. The hunters were after the beaver’s meat and fur, as well as an oil called castoreum, which is produced in the animal’s anal glands. Apparently it was commonly thought at one point that castoreum was produced in the testicles, leading to an odd bit of folklore saying that a male beaver would chew off its own testicles to escape from hunters. Just thinking about that idea makes me wince in pain.
The beaver appears to have been respected considerably more by the Native Americans, who presumably realized that hunters needed to leave some members of a species alive so that they could continue hunting it. There are quite a few Native American myths related to beavers, but one of the more interesting ones I came across is from the Haida tribe of British Columbia. This one concerns a couple who lived in the wilderness, the husband frequently going off on hunting trips and leaving the wife alone. In order to amuse herself, she dammed a small lake to use as a swimming hole. As her husband continued to stay away for ever longer periods of time, she became so used to being in the water that she didn’t want to leave it. Eventually, her apron turned into a tail and she grew hair all over her body, and that’s how the first beaver came into existence. She was pregnant at the time, and her children also became beavers.
In some parts of North America, the beaver was given the Prometheus role, having stolen fire from the tree spirits.
There’s also a Chinook myth that casts the beaver in a villainous role, making the enormous beaver Wishpoosh the selfish guardian of a lake. Whenever any other animal tried to swim or fish in the lake, Wishpoosh would kill it. This continued until Coyote showed up to challenge the beaver. The two had an epic battle that resulted in the creation of several bodies of water, but it wasn’t until Coyote used trickery that he managed to prevail. He turned into a piece of fir wood and nestled among the salmon. When Wishpoosh had swallowed the transformed Coyote along with the fish, the trickster reverted to his true form and killed the monster beaver from inside.