From Pholk to Psi Phi: Evolution of the ‘Dactyl

The Swarthmore pterodactyl hunt is a tradition like no other. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is almost certainly the only place in the world where in early October, pterodactyls take over campus, and a grueling battle for freedom ensues. A whole host of other monsters — specially sought out and trained in advance by the Psi Phi club, the events’ sponsor —act as the pterodactyls’ protectors. Students choosing to be hunters rise up to save themselves and the college from the monsters and the pterodactyls.

Before it was Psi Phi (a tongue-in-cheek reference to Swarthmore’s Phi Psi fraternity), the science fiction club on campus was the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature (SWIL), founded by Jim Huang in 1978. Upon founding the club, Huang served as its Fearless and Charismatic leader for his remaining three years at Swarthmore. Under his leadership, the club expanded in membership and recognition, but took on no projects of the size or magnitude of the now-annual hunt.

In 1983, the Dactyl Hunt was introduced as a joke by, of all clubs, the folk dance club. As part of Swat’s Oktoberfest tradition, the proposed pterodactyl hunt was, shockingly, not getting much support. Luckily, the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature stepped in to save the pterodactyl hunt, believing it to be a good way for them to advertise their existence while taking on an event consistent with their philosophy. Swarthmore Alum and SWIL member Sherry Levi writes on SWIL’s history page:

“At that point, one of the issues in SWIL was, how do we have a higher profile on campus? How do we let those people who don’t attend SWIL know that we exist? How do we show the campus that we are useful and therefore deserve to be funded? The Pterodactyl Hunt seemed the appropriate sort of even for a SWIL service project — so I volunteered to organize it that year with support from the group. We didn’t necessarily plan to run the P.H. forevermore at that point. The next year, as Oktoberfest approached, people began to say, ‘Are we going to organize the P.H. again this year?’ and there were eager volunteers once they found out what a Pterodactyl Hunt was… And if a group does something twice in 2 years at college, it’s a tradition.”

When Psi Phi replaced SWIL, the new club took over the Pterodactyl Hunt, which became its most famous tradition.

Complex rules for ‘dactyl hunting have evolved over time, just as the Pterodactyl did, but unlike the pterodactyl, this game is anything but extinct. Some elements of the hunt have never changed: hunters, wearing white trash bags, defend themselves with swords or foam bats against monsters, who wear black trash bags. Types of monsters have ranged from, historically, the Vampire and its Shadow, to the current array of “goblins, orcs, kobolds, the jabberwock, the lonely troll, and dactyl guards,” according to Psi Phi’s page about the hunt. SWIL’s more antiquated archives contain a rule manual, with regulations ranging from sword protocol (a dead hunter’s sword must be relinquished to the monster) to fight protocol (no more than six hunters fighting a monster at one time). According to the manual, a hunter cannot even attack the pterodactyl prior to obtaining ’dactyl hunting license, bought with money from a slain monster. Upon killing the pterodactyl, the licensed hunter must carry its heart back to Hunt Central, but if the hunter is killed along the way, the heart is returned to the pterodactyl, and the game continues.

Whether or not these rules are strictly followed to this day, the spirit of the Pterodactyl Hunt is undoubtedly stronger than ever. Today, foam bats replace swords, but the live action role-play is as intense and creative as it ever was. Students paint their faces and dress the part fully, complete with wings and claws, and hundreds of Swatties turn out to either participate or watch the lethal battles unfold. We can only hope the loyal hunters manage to defend our campus from the unearthly monsters for one more year.

Happy hunting!