Small, omnivorous, tree-climbing American marsupial. When in 1608 Captain John
Smith described the female opossum as having “a head like a Swine, and a Taile like a
Rat, and…the bigness of a Cat,” further observing that “under her belly she hath a bagge
where she lodgeth, carrieth, and suckleth her young,” his English audience must have
dismissed the account as one more example of the captain’s renowned gift for hyperbole.
But in this instance, Smith’s observations were not exaggerated: from its wide toothy grin
to the tip of its scaly prehensile tale, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
presents an unusual combination of physical and behavioral characteristics securing it a
unique place in American folklore. Possessed of more teeth and less cranial capacity
relative to its size than any other mammal, subject to a death-like trance when threatened,
and adorned with a bifurcated penis in the male and a pouch and double uterus in the
female, it is no wonder that the opossum is celebrated in narrative, song, and belief.
It was not only European explorers who marveled at the creature. The name
“opossum” (usually shortened to “possum”) derives from the Algonquian apasum,
meaning “bright beast,” referring to the striking silvery luster given its pelt by white
guard hairs. Choctaw legend explains the size of the creature’s mouth as a permanent
grimace of pain and embarrassment at having been duped by other animals into singeing
the fur off its once-beautiful tail. Joel Chandler Harris drew on African American
etiological narrative to offer a different explanation in Uncle Remus’ tale “Why Mr.
Possum’s Tail Has No Hair” and also relates an account of the origin of “playing
possum” in “Why Mr. Possum Loves Peace.”
Although the opossum is found in most regions of the continental United States, it is
symbolically and folklorically most strongly associated with the Southeast, its original
habitat. As with traditional esoteric and exoteric attitudes toward the South as a whole, a
curious duality suffuses traditional attitudes toward the opossum, who is seen as both
foolish and sagacious, vulnerable and persistent, aggressive and defensive, shiftless and
resourceful. In Southern Anglo and African American song lyrics, “The possum is a
cunning thing, he travels in the dark;/Nothing at all disturbs his mind, till he hears old
Ranger bark.” The naive yet penetrating wit portrayed in the newspaper cartoon character
of Pogo Possum, Walt Kelly’s Huck Finn—like denizen of Okefenokee Swamp,
effectively represents this complex set of cultural associations.
The vulnerability of the opossum to the forces of industrialization in the form of the
automobile is a byword: At truck stops throughout the South, one can purchase novelty
items purporting to be “canned roadkill” or “roadkill jerky,” with possum invariably
listed as a predominating ingredient. In fact, the opossum is hunted and trapped for both
its hide and its meat, although neither is considered of high value. As food, the opossum
is treated in the manner of most small furbearers such as raccoon, groundhog, or muskrat:
It is braised, roasted, or fricasseed, commonly accompanied by sweet potatoes.
Perhaps the oddest belief associated with the opossum is the once widespread notion
that conception is achieved by the male ejaculating into the nostrils of the female, who then sneezes the sperm into her pouch or vagina—a misimpression no doubt suggested by
the bifurcate structure of the male organ, and the female’s habit of nosing herself in the
process of grooming. It has been suggested that this belief may have direct antecedents in
a similar set of beliefs, dating at least from classical Greek natural history, concerning the
oral gestation of bear cubs, who were believed to be born a formless mass from the
female’s mouth, then licked into shape.
Hartman, Carl. 1921. Traditional Belief Concerning the Generation of the Opossum. Journal of
American Folklore 34:321–323.
Schwartz, Charles W., and Elizabeth Schwartz. 1981. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Columbia:
University of Missouri Press.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. 1989. Opossum (“Possum”). In The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,
ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,