Legend of Spanish Moss – Storytelling for Everyone

When I was a young girl, living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I was spellbound by the gray Spanish moss in the old oak trees. The moss dangled in massive shapes with an eerie sweep, swaying in the wind. We neighborhood kids who lived along the back road in town used to dare one another to walk through Live Oak Cemetery and lie full length on a grave under the ghostly, moss-laden trees. I’ll never forget lying on the chill, damp earth of a 19th century grave, nestled under its ancient headstone for a full count of one hundred for a double dare.

Back then, I never wondered why it was called “Spanish moss.”

Spanish moss has had a number of different names as various settlers and explorers have encountered the mystical plant. The French called it “Spanish beard” while the Spanish called the plant “French hair.” It has also been known as “graybeard” and “tree hair.” “Spanish moss” derived from the original “Spanish beard” and is the name that has stuck.

There are a few legends that tell how Spanish moss got its name. Here is one of the most-told tales:

Long ago, Spanish pirates used to sail these off these waters in search of other ships to pillage and plunder, and when they were in need, to visit the coast for water and provisions. The most blood thirsty and evil-looking of them all was a pirate captain by the name of Gorez Goz. He was a large man—well over six feet tall, with muscles bulging from his arms that made him look like a giant.

His face was deeply scarred from many battles, and his eyes were black as coal. Because he was a giant of a man, he had a giant beard—some say it grew down to his bulging waist. Like his eyes, it too was black as coal. It was his great pride.

One fine October evening, as Gorez Goz crew was carrying water from the Spanish wells to be taken to the pirate ship, a small group of Cusabo Indians quietly approached. There were three of them—two old men and, standing between them, a beautiful young girl.

They stood motionless, hoping the pirates would not notice their presence. The Cusabo knew the reputation of these men, knew they respected no one and put no value on the life of a Cusabo. They were all evil, but none more so than Gorez Goz.

Just as the three Cusabo began retreating into the trees around the wells, a knife whistled by the head of the oldest Indian and sunk deeply into a tree trunk inches from the old man’s head.

“Hold!” a man cried out. It sounded like thunder. The pirates stopped loading. Great blue herons flew up from their rookery nearby. Deer skittered deeply into the forest. The Cusabo trio didn’t move.

Gorez Goz approached them. It was he who bellowed out the command. Even in the dimming light, the Cusabo could see the evil smile on the pirate captain’s face. He was looking at the young girl. She was fifteen and lovely. Her eyes were like large pools of the richest amber, her beautiful cheeks high, almost austere. Her long black hair sparkled in the twilight.

The pirate captain came close to the girl, his stale breath reeking of rum and garlic. “I want this girl,” he said.

“You cannot,” the oldest man said. “She is my daughter and I am the chief.”

“Not for long,” Gorez said, with a sickening smile, as he pulled out his sword, thinking he would end the old man’s life quickly.

“Wait!” the young girl said quickly. “I have an offer for you,” she said, giving Gorez her best smile. “Spare my father and I will let you chase me. If you catch me I am yours.”

The pirate captain roared with laughter. “Then run my fair maiden!” he said, laughing even louder and watching her go. The rest of the pirates joined in the merriment, but when Gorez Goz turned back to the chief and the maid, they had disappeared.

Gorez Goz cursed but took off after the girl, thinking of what fun he could have. For a big man, he could move fast. He was sure he could catch the girl in moments. He saw her through the trees and began the chase in earnest. The light was dimming quickly so he carried a torch with him to guide his way.

Trailing the girl was easy: a broken twig here, a footprint in the soft forest floor there. It was as if she wanted the ugly pirate to catch her. But the chase soon took its toll on Gorez Goz. He had been at sea for weeks, and all the running started to slow him down. But just as his pace slowed, he heard the girl’s soft voice calling to him from a giant oak tree just ahead.

“Here, up here, you ugly oaf. Climb to me,” the girl sang.

Gorez Goz looked up at the tree. The girl was in the high branches of the massive live oak. The pirate captain’s anger rose; he jumped to a low branch and began his climb. Higher and higher he went, and as he did, the girl climbed higher still. Gorez Goz cursed her under his breath but kept going up and up until he was almost within reach of the young girl.

“I have you now!” the pirate hissed, the tree’s tiny branches at the top of the tree prickling his face.

“No, you ugly toad. I think the tree has you now,” the girl laughed. To the amazement of Gorez Goz, she jumped from the tree. It was only then he noticed the creek below and heard the splash.

Gorez Goz attempted to climb back down the giant oak, but the small branches held him in place. He couldn’t move down. So he decided to follow the girl into the water. It was the only way.

But as he flung his body away from the branches, the branches held tightly to his huge beard and would not let go—would never let him go.

The funny thing is that long after Gorez Goz died, his beard would not stop growing. It continued to spread to all the oak trees along the coast and into the forests. We now call the pirate’s beard, Spanish moss.

And if you don’t believe me, take a piece of moss, remove the grey scales that cover it and you will see the moss itself as a black as coal!


Source: Adapted from a retelling by Michael Segers 

Photo: Live Oaks Cemetery, Pass Christian, Mississippi
Notes: On the October 23, 1851, Mr. Henderson deeded the cemetery to the Wardens and Vestry of Trinity Church on condition that the grounds shall remain for the use of all people and would contain, in addition to the privately-owned lots, “Free Ground for the interment of both white and black.” 

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