Friday, August 19, 2022

StorySpotting: The monster in the wilderness (Prey)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

So I just watched Prey, which is an amazing movie, and immediately fell down a rabbit hole. This is not just a cool action flick, but also fascinating in terms of how it incorporated Comanche culture, tradition, and even language (as the first major Hollywood production with full Comanche dubs at its release). I recommend this article for more details.

Where was the story spotted?

Prey (Hulu, 2022.)

What happens?

Naru, the movie's main hero, flees from her first encounter with the Predator (that kills a bear in front of her). She meets young men in the woods and tries to describe what she has seen: 

"It was huge. I couldn't see it until it was covered in blood, but it looked like... like a mupitsl."

One of the young men scoffs. "You saw a monster from a children's story?"

What's the story?

Okay, disclaimer first: there are a million people out there who could do this better than me, because I only found out about this creature like a day ago. But I went down the rabbit hole, and got excited, so this is me nerding out. I am citing all my sources in the links for accuracy.

So, mupitsl. Also known (or rather, spelled) as Pia Mupitsl, Pia Mupitsi, piamupits, piamupitz, mu pitz, mupits, piamupitsi, and a bunch of other variations.

The name, apparently, means 'great owl' or 'giant owl', and refers to the monster's owlish features. It is also translated in some places as 'big old giant' or 'cannibal owl.' Apparently large owls were admired by the Comanche by their ability to hunt quietly and stealthily in the night.

The earliest mention I found is a Spanish-Comanche dictionary from 1865, written by Manuel García Rejon and published in Mexico. In it, the piamupitz is described as "an imaginary being, human-shaped and gigantic, that carries an extraordinarily large staff as a walking stick, devours humans, and lives in caves in the mountains of the distant North. It is believed that if the staff breaks, it dies."
1994 article about Comanche tradition of topography also mentions the piamupits' mountain habitat, and the actual caves it was supposed to live in.

So far, the Predator does a pretty great job with this impersonation.

A Comanche medicine woman named Sanapia, whose knowledge of medicine was recorded, used bone fragments (mammoth fossils) in her work. She called them piamupits bones. She described the piamupits as a large, hairy giant, tall, with big feet, and with a face like a man. She claimed their bones ended up in the ground when they died of old age.
Turns out the bones of the piamupits were valuable medicine. An article from 1942 mentions pieces of fossil bones that were believed to be the bones of the Piamupits (a "supernatural being"), and used to treat sprains and broken bones. Sanapia also used them for the same thing.

Fossil bones and legendary creatures took me to Adrienne Mayor, who researches traditions around the world involving fossils. She does not only describe Mu pitz traditions in detail in the book linked above, but she also went straight to the source, talking to contemporary Comanche storytellers and tradition bearers. One of whom - drumroll! - was the same Juanita Pahdopony who consulted on Prey. Well, that explains a whole lot. We love it when storytellers consult on movies! The storytellers confirmed that both forms of the creature - the hairy giant and the large owl - existed parallel in tradition.

Most of the actual stories I found came from a book on Comanche Ethnography. There is one story about a group of children who get left behind when their camp moves, and they end up at a piamupits' cave. They manage to make an escape with the help of various animals (a frog, a crane, an eagle, a buffalo, and a calf). In the end, the owl-mupits is thrown up into the moon where it lives today.
In another story, a hunter encounters a piamupits (in the form of a giant man) while hunting buffalo. it offers the creature meat, but the piamupits wants to eat the hunter instead. He flees, but the piamupits tracks him down to his camp. Eventually, the hunter manages to kill the invulnerable creature by sticking a sharp pole up its anus.
In yet another story, the piamupits enters a hunter's tipi while he is away, and kills his pregnant wife in a very graphic way. The twins she had in her belly, however, survive, and their father later finds them.
There is also a story in the collection where the piamupits functions as the dragon in European stories: a girl is supposed to be devoured by the eight-headed creature, but a young man saves her. Another young man tries to take credit for the kill, but the girl tells her father the truth.

The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center also has a short introduction to the Pia Mupits who uses a cottonwood tree as a cane, and was mentioned to scare children into quieting down. Many of the sources seem to agree that the piamupits was a child-scaring creature in folklore.


Early in the movie, after witnessing the Predator's ship in the sky, Naru calls it a Thunderbird. Thunderbird lore is vast and well documented, but I came across one thing in one of the articles I read about the piamupits: it mentions a Thunderbird that fell into a ravine from the sky, killed some men with lightning, and burned out a large patch of grass "in the shape of a bird" where it landed. So.


The more I read about piamupitsl folklore, the more impressed I got with how one throwaway line from the movie integrates so much of tradition so seamlessly into the movie-mythology of the Predator. On purpose, and with consulting Comanche educators. Let's face it, the two might be centuries apart, but the 'masterful, deadly hunter stalking its prey in the wilderness' is an age-old story that keeps surfacing again and again...

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