In the summer of Wonder Woman, we haven’t heard much about Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, the woman who could wrestle alligators, run faster than a wildcat, beat up all nine of her older brothers, and be so nice that the bears would let her hibernate with them and the hornets would let her wear their big nests as Sunday hats. Maybe that’s because traces of Sally Ann from Tennessee are already there behind the golden tiara of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, hiding in plain sight. Wonder Woman may have a golden lasso, but Sally Ann made her own—by tying six snakes together and using it to pull helpless Davy Crockett from a tree.
It’s a writers workshop truism that great storytelling, especially in fantasy and science fiction, often draws on classical mythology. Wonder Woman isn’t the only adaptation of Greek myths to contemporary settings—Rick Riordan has built his own pantheon of Olympian-American kids, and burlier versions are all over the superhero comics. Norse mythology is the taproot of English-language fantasy, from Tolkien to Stan Lee’s Thor, the power of the sagas and characters recounted in Michael Chabon’s essay on D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths and Neil Gaiman’s new nonfiction book Norse Mythology. And everyone knows how the hero’s journey monomyth distilled by Joseph Campbell from all of the above and more provided the core architecture of Star Wars—and countless other efforts to update the oldest human stories. But for Americans there is another body of heritage stories out there worth considering, one so deeply embedded in popular culture that we tend to forget it.