Saugerties, where Rose Ann and I live, is the town that separates Woodstock from the Hudson River. It is exactly 100 miles up the Hudson from New York City. The name, Saugerties, is a combination of Dutch and English and reflects the colonial heritage of the area, and the original dialect that was spoken in the town. The name is derived from the sawmills that made use of the Hudson’s smaller tributaries, which merge with the river at this bend, to turn their waterwheel powered saws and cut wood. This wood was shipped down the river, or up, to build bigger cities like New York and Albany. The name Woodstock, no doubt, has something to do with the fact that the area to the west is where the trees were felled that fed the saws.
A Local Hero
When I first moved to the town, I had the pleasure of exploring, the large brick mansion that served as the town library (it has since been expanded with a large modern addition). In the library, at the far end of the room, hidden behind the shelves, there was a reading alcove with some wooden chairs gathered around a fireplace with a tiled mantle. The tiles, with their sculpted relief in the historic arts and crafts style, illustrate what is probably the most famous fable to come out of the Hudson Valley, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. Here in a series of images, we find the familiar tale of a henpecked husband, who, looking for peace of mind, hiked with his dog, Wolf, and his fowling-piece to the mountain source of Kaaterskill Creek. Once there, he met the short, stout ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men and accepted an evening drink that took twenty years to sleep off.
Irving was our nation’s first internationally acclaimed author and Rip was his most popular character, one who became as well known from the numerous theatrical performances of his tail as from Irving’s writing. As it was Rip’s story that brought the Hudson Valley to the attention of the world, references to Rip Van Winkle are ubiquitous in this area but Saugerties may have a unique claim to this character. Is it possible that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown?
Rip Van Winkle was first presented to the public in May 1819 in the first installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon Gent. This was during the Romantic era in art and philosophy, which combined a reverence for nature with a fascination for the supernatural. The Catskill Mountains were a preserved area of rugged wildness in close vicinity to the centers of population in New York and Albany, and they, therefore, were becoming an attraction for Romantic tourist, who wanted to get back to nature and who valued legend and tradition. With his writing, Irving attempted to supply the second element and the legend of Rip Van Winkle was seized on by the Catskill tourist industry, perhaps the first such industry in our country’s history. In 1823, the Catskill Mountain House, the first resort hotel in the US, was constructed on top of the cliff, at the foot of North Point, from which the Kaaterskill Creek descends, and, as local historian, John Thorn, pointed out in an article in the Saugerties Times, by 1826 there was a building claiming to be the Rip Van Winkle House along the road to the hotel. Although Rip is a fictional character, it seems that this fact was soon forgotten and some longtime residences began to claim that they had known him. Here is a 1902 Catskill postcard showing the house.
As the nineteenth century progressed, Rip continued to be a valued Catskill tourist attraction and many local towns vied with each other claiming to be Rip’s hometown. The most adamant claimants were Catskill, Kingston, Stone Ridge, and Palenville. By the twentieth century, Rip’s name seemed to be on everything from hotels to rocking chairs and a Rip Van Winkle theme park was built on the plateau above Kaaterskill Clove next to North Lake, which is the source of the Kaaterskill. Here, among eighteenth century cottage architecture complete with appropriately dressed women engaged in colonial crafts, a visitor could shake hands with Rip himself, or at least an actor playing the part. But the only road leading from the valley to the summit of the plateau lead through Palenville and here tourists would first be greeted by a sign claiming that Palenville was the home of Rip Van Winkle. Even today on the Palenville website we are informed that Washington Irving envisioned Rip living in Palenville because Irving lived there when he wrote the story. On a Catskill web site designed for tourists an alternative claim is found that it was Irving’s visit to Catskill that inspired him to write the story. It seemed that every town except Saugerties has been claiming Rip.
Irving, who was born in 1783, lived in New York and occasionally spent time on the Passaic River in New Jersey and just up the Hudson from New York in the old Dutch village of Sleepy Hollow. His first view of the Catskill mountains was from the deck of a sloop on his way up the Hudson. On at least two occasions in 1802 he sailed from his home in New York to Albany to visit his sisters, Nancy and Kitty, and again in 1803 he sailed up the Hudson to Canada with his employer Judge Hoffman. It seems that before 1819 when Rip Van Winkle was published, the only time that Irving had a chance to explore the Catskill region on foot was for one week in August in 1812 when he was a guest of John Robert Livingston at his mansion on the east bank of the Hudson at Barrytown, across the river from Kingston. Irving was twenty-nine at the time and took advantage of his stay to make day trips with some of the young Livingston women as companions. The Livingstons were wealthy landowners who lived in a series of mansions along the east bank of the Hudson where, from their spacious lawns, they could view their land holdings on the West bank, which included what is now Saugerties, Woodstock, and much of the Catskill mountains. John Robert was the younger brother of Robert R. Livingston who lived in Clairmont the principal estate, which lies about seven miles north of Barrytown directly across the river from Saugerties.
In his The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, historian Alf Evers states that during this stay Irving got his only up close view of the Catskills when he saw Overlook Mountain in what is now Woodstock. To accomplish this it was most likely that Irving would have taken a carriage to Clairmont where the Livingstons had a ferry, which regularly crossed over the river to Saugerties. On the west side, The Livingstons had built a road from the bank to their sawmill in Woodstock over which logs were brought to the river. Irving could have taken a carriage up the road to the sawmill within view of Overlook Mountain. Although Woodstock at the time was only a sawmill and some workers’ huts, in Saugerties Irving would have found farms and, clustered around the Esopus where it empties into the Hudson, rows of brick houses inhabited by people who spoke a combination of Dutch and English like the inhabitants of Irving’s beloved Sleepy Hollow. And, like the residence of Sleepy Hollow, they were steeped in ancient lore and a belief in Witchcraft.
Washington Irving’s Inspiration
Between 1815 and 1819 Irving was living with his Sister Sara Van Wart in Birmingham, England. Because of the bankruptcy of his family business, Irving had decided to try and make a living as a writer but, because of his depressed state of mind, he had written almost nothing for most of a year. At the urging of Walter Scott, he had been studying German folk legends and he longed to create a similar folk history for his home country. One evening in June, Washington was walking with his sister’s husband, Henry, and they were reminiscing about their visits to Sleepy Hollow. Sparked by the memory of happier days, Washington retired to his room early and began to write.
That night he made use of two German folk stories. One was about the Emperor Charles the Great and his army who disappeared into a cleft in a mountain where they were condemned to stay until doomsday. It was said that when claps of thunder were heard in the mountain it was the Emperor making an appearance. Irving had been reading a description of Kaaterskill Clove written by Samuel Mitchill and he thought of replanting the story in this new-world location, substituting Henry Hudson and his men for the Emperor and his army. The second story was about Peter Klaus, a goatherd who followed his goats into a cleft in a mountain where he discovered some otherworldly bowlers. The bowlers gave him a drink of wine that caused him to sleep for twenty years. In Irving’s imagination, Peter Klaus became Rip and the bowlers became Hudson’s men complete with a means of creating thunder by striking their bowling pins. All that was left was to give Rip a suitable colonial Dutch village.
Kaaterskill Falls in the 1800
Kaaterskill Falls today
Of course, when creating Rip’s home, Irving made use of images of Sleepy Hollow, which he had been recollecting that evening. He described the town as being founded by Dutch settlers during the early rule of Peter Stuyvesant (1645-1664) with the oldest houses being made of yellow brick brought from Holland. Sleepy Hollow was settled in 1645 and does have yellow brick houses. Saugerties was settled in 1677 during the rule of the English governor Andros and the oldest Dutch houses are made of fieldstone not brick. But, it is the oldest town near the foot of the Mountain where the story takes place and it is founded by Dutch settlers as well as English. Irving also describes the village as seen from the river, just below the mountains with “light smoke curling up from a village, whose shingled-roofs gleam among the trees, just where the blue tints of the upland melt away into the fresh green of the nearer landscape.” This is not a description of Sleepy Hollow but a description of Saugerties as seen from the grassy riverside sloop of the Clairmont estate. Saugerties occupies the ridge just above the river, which, because of an optical illusion, would appear to be at the foot of the mountains from this vantage point. It seems that just as Irving had amalgamated German legends with this new landscape he fused Sleepy Hollow and Saugerties into one village.
Palenville is at the foot of the mountain from which the Kaaterskill flows as the town is described in the story but it did not exist in the late 1700s when the story took place, and it cannot be seen from the river as the town is described. Even in the early 1800s, all that stood there were two mills and the cabins of the workers who manned them, and, as we have seen, Washington Irving was living in England when he wrote the story not in Palenville as they claim. Stone Ridge at over twenty-eight miles and Kingston at over twenty are just too far from Kaaterskill Clove to be thought of as within walking distance and only make their claims by disputing the location of Rip’s nap. Catskill is a colonial town founded in 1678 on the east bank of the Hudson about nine and half miles from the base of the mountain, which would have been walking distance for Rip, but Irving is not known to have visited Catskill before he wrote the account. Saugerties is actually a year older than Catskill and a half-mile closer to the clove making it the closest colonial town, and as we have seen, it is likely that Irving did visit Saugerties before he wrote the story. Therefore, in answer to our question, yes, it is likely that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown.
Still, one mystery remained. Where did the name Rip Van Winkle come from? Is it possible that it based on the name of an actual family in the Catskill region as many have claimed? My friend Susan who is the librarian in North Haledon, New Jersesy, helped me to solve this one. After I talked to her about my theory that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown, she discovered an account by a local historian explaining why an avenue in Haledon was named Rip Van Winkle. It seems that Wasington Irving was a friend of the Van Winkle family of Totowa, New Jersey, a town near Haledon and on the Passaic River, where Irving was living. Irving was particularly fond of the Van Winkle boy, who was nicknamed Rip because of his wide grin. As Irving spent more time in New Jersey than in the Catskills this account does seem plausible. It struck me as Ironic, however, because I grew up in Totowa. It seems I had traveled up the Hudson to find Rip’s hometown only to find out that I may has attended grammar school with some of his descendants.
Rip’s Mythological Roots
To most Americans, Rip Van Winkle, is a unique humorous character, famous for his nap. However, I know from uncovering Irving’s sources for the story and from my study of Celtic mythology that Rip was not alone. The theme of the hero being lured into fairyland and returning to find that years have passed is a popular one. Also a mountain or a hill is the most likely place for this type of encounter. The Gaelic for fairy is sidhe, pronounced “shee.” It means “people of the hills.” Hills and mountains are traditionally associated with the inhabitants of the spirit world. The Irish call them fairy mounds. From Irving’s retelling of the Native American legend we can see that the American natives associated North Point with the spirit world as well.
In Ireland, Scotland, and other Celtic countries, hills are also said to be the burial places of ancient kings, such as King Arthur and there are parallels between the Fairy world and the other ancient myths of the underworld, the land of the dead. In the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, Hades, the god of the dead, carries the young maiden away to his home under the ground with the intent of making her his bride. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, manages to win her back but, because Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, she must return to the underworld for six months out of the year. Similarly, it is because Rip accepted a drink from the keg of his fairy/ghost hosts that he fell into his sleep. In Celtic folklore, it is an established fact that, if one should venture into a fairy mound, one should not accept invitations to play, dance, eat, or drink. Rip managed to avoid playing ninepins but he made the mistake, in spite of intuitive warnings, of drinking from the keg.
According to legend, a young Irishman named Shon ap Shenkin was even less fortunate than Rip when he encountered the fairy world. On a warm summer morning he was walking through the forest when he became captivated by the most beautiful yet eerie melody. Shon sat under a tree to relax and listen. When the music came to an end, he got up and was surprised to find that the green healthy tree that he placed himself under had become an old dead trunk during the course of the melody. Shon made his way home and found that his house had also aged. At the door, he encountered a strange old man. When he introduced himself, the stranger said, “I have often heard my grandfather talk about your disappearance.” At the news, Shon crumbled to dust on the doorstep. The years had caught up to him. A visit to the underworld is not to be taken lightly and folk tales are continually warning us of the dire consequences that can befall an ordinary man who dares the adventure. Yet, the underworld is the very place that a hero must venture to if he or she is to escape the realm of time and find the secret of immortality.
We can see this in the oldest known myth, recorded in Sumeria in 2,000 BCE, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and the Goddess of Love, decides to descend to the underworld to visit her sister, the Goddess of Death. At each one of the seven gates, that mark the descent, she gives up an article of clothing – the original dance of the seven veils – and she arrives before her sister naked. Inanna is killed and put on a meat hook where she hangs for three days. On the third day she is sprinkled with the Water of Life and reborn. Now she can return to her people imbued with power and wisdom.
This theme in mythology may reflect ancient ideas that predate the Sumerians. I know from my study of shamanism that shamans, from every culture, while in a trance, visualize themselves entering into the earth where they commune with their spirit guides and gain power and wisdom. To obtain a shamanistic state one may dance and drum but a shaman may also lie still and deathlike as he or she ceases to focus on the physical world. The Shaman may visualize following a fish up a stream, like the Kaaterskill, until he or she enters into the rocks at the source. Or, like Alice, he or she may follow a rabbit down a rabbit hole. Or, their spirit guide may be a wildcat. The underworld is the place of dreams and the place where the dead go when they depart and it is here that the shaman can find out the secrets needed to conquer death and disease. Ending suffering and conquering death is the true goal of all religion and philosophy. It is not surprising that the earliest Greek philosophers were also willing to take the mystical journey to the realm of death for the sake of the love of wisdom.
The first person to call himself a philosopher, which literally means a lover of sophia (wisdom in Greek), was Pythagoras who lived in the sixth century BCE. In the third century CE the Greek writer Diogenes Laertius wrote that Pythagoras was initiated into wisdom first in the Idaean Cave in Crete and then in the crypts in Egypt where “he learned the secrets of the Gods.” The third century author, Hermippus, wrote that, while living in southern Italy, Pythagoras had himself buried in the ground for a period of time and when he emerged he said that he had been in Hades, the realm of the dead, and impressed everyone at the assembly with his knowledge of the events that had happened while he was gone. As a rationalist Hermippus claimed that Pythagoras’s mother was writing down the daily news on a tablet and sending it down into her son’s crypt to keep him informed while he was in the ground. Like many modern observers, Hermippus seems to be unable to accept psychic abilities. But, his account does make the point that the pre-Socratic philosophers may also be considered shamans or magicians.
The idea that Inanna rose from death on the third day and that Pythagoras was entombed and also returned from the land of the dead may remind the modern reader of the story of Christ. The story of Christ definitely fits the archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey and we can see that this is also connected to shamanistic practices.
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing 420 years before the birth of Christ, described the myth of a hero cult in Thrace that may remind the modern reader of Christ and the Last Supper. Herodotus wrote that the Thracians believe that their god, Salmoxis, is the only god. At one time Salmoxis was a man. He was a slave belonging to Pythagoras but he won his freedom and returned to his home in Thrace where he brought culture and wisdom to the people. Salmoxis had an underground chamber built in which he held a feast for the townsmen. At the feast, he told them that those who drank with him and their descendants would not truly die but after their physical death they would join him in a paradise. At the end of this speech he had himself entombed and remained there for three years. On the fourth year he came out of the tomb and returned to them to demonstrate his mastery of death.
We have come a seemingly long way from an entertaining tale popular with Hudson Valley tourists to a shamanistic practice that helped give birth to religion and philosophy. But, as we can see, there are connections that can be made. Joseph Campbell, the author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, explored these themes more thoroughly, and he was living nearby in Woodstock when he did it. Perhaps there is something in the area that inspires these thoughts.
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