Cherokee - The Legend of Uktena
The white man's Bible speaks of a time when "giants walked the earth." The Cherokees believe in such a time, also - but there is a difference. The ancient myths tell of great beings - gigantic birds, lizards and bears that once lived in caves, rivers and gorges of the fog-shrouded mountains. In this dim past, the Cherokees seem to believing in a time that was newly created. So new, in fact, that bits and pieces of an older, darker world were still present. These ancient creatures of the air, land and water seemed somehow...left over from another time, doomed to haunt some lonely mountain pass, a darkened pool, or a wind-swept rock until old age (or a strong-armed warrior) Sent them into oblivion; Freed them from a world that was as terrifying and incomprehensible to them as they were to it.) Did they yearn for his coming - the strong-armed warrior? When oaken shafts shattered their strange hearts, were they glad?)
This is the land of the Uktena; this ancient land of vast, fog-wrapped mountains. (Even yet, there are rock ledges in the Oconaluftee and the Tuckaseigee rivers that bear the imprint of his body.) How old is the Uktena? As old as the fossil stones in the Unakas. What did he look like? For many years, centuries perhaps, no one knew. He was merely the sound of something ponderous, swimming in a dark river. He was a shattered tree, A dislodged bolder thundering down Gahuti, The scream of a dying animal on a distant mountain. .But no one saw him for...to see him was to die. Some said, "Perhaps he does not exist! What proof is there?" In reply, the old ones told strange stories: A deer, grazing in the forest, raises its head as though it heard a summons, and then raced into the dark woods; A howling wolf, yearning for companionship, hears an answering call, and rushes up the mountainside, never to return; A young warrior vanishes, and his friends find his bow lying in the woods, an arrow still notched in the string. Why would a hunter drop his bow? The old ones said that the deer, the wolf and the young man had been called. Something had said, "Come!' . And they had obediently ...gone. Time passed Hunters grew cautious.. "It is not wise to go into the forest alone, "they said. Do not fish 'terrapin water,' the Tuckaseigee." "Do not cross the mountain called Gahuti." In the nights when families gathered about the village fire, The call of a night bird, or the grunt of a roaming bear.. Would cause the Cherokees to draw near the fire, Staring into the darkness. "There is something out there, "they said. Perhaps the thing that will not show its face is more frightening than the thing that steps into your path with bloody fangs and unsheathed claws. Perhaps.
He Who Sits By The Fire
It was Dutsi, the foolish hunter who saw it. Dutsi, who found himself in the gathering darkness on the slopes of Gahuti. Too late to go home, now. He would blindly stumble among the trees, Perhaps falling over a cliff. Better to climb to the treeless crest and wait for daylight. He climbed hurriedly in the dying light; And then the sun winked out, like a great eye closing. The silence was unnerving. No owls, no crickets. Dutsi hugged his knees in the night chill And watched the last glimmer of light fade on the horizon. Then he saw it - a dull, red glow. At first it seemed a final sunbeam that touched the rocky ravine behind him; but, no, all was darkness now except for that single, pulsing light that seemed to rise from the ravine. Dutsi crawled to the edge and peered down into the ravine; down to where it lay. It lay twisted in sleep like the trunk of a monstrous tree. The body was that of a snake, but the head was horned...In the center of the head, between the sleeping eyes was a great, glittering stone, A jewel that flickered with all the colors of the rainbow: The red of fresh blood, the blue of winter ice and the green of deep water. The pulsing light confused Dutsi, and though his whole being struggled to flee, he found himself moving towards the light.. He saw that the sleeping serpent's neck was circled by seven bands of color, and that the final circle swelled an throbbed as though the Uktena's great heart thundered beneath it. Then, the Uktena stirred, the great eyes flickered, and Dutsi turned, screaming to fall, and leap, and scramble downwards. Then, he heard the voice, and his legs froze. He huddled, whimpering against the rocks. "My son! My son!" It was the voice of his mother "Dutsi, bring me water!" It was his brother, pleading. "I am hurt." And finally, the voice of the girl he loved: "My love, I am here!" Her teasing laughter echoed around him. How could be? The voices mingled. "Help me! Water! I'm here!" How could this be? The voices of the mother, the brother and the girl, Pleading, commanding, teasing, until Dutsi turned, and fell. He ran all that night, and wandered lost in the gorges of Nantahala for two more. The voices came and went like circling birds. When the villagers found Dutsi near the trail, his face was ashen and his voice was an animal whine. They lead him to the village, and there, by the fire, he told them what he had seen....When he had finished, the villagers looked at him with sad, compassionate eyes. "Do you not believe me?" said Dutsi. Yes, they believed him. And then, they told him a final, terrible truth; A fact that would drive him forever into a grey world of shadows and sighs....His family was dead. His mother, his brother and, yes, even the girl he had loved. They had died three days before his return. And so, the final truth: To see the Uktena and live is to lose the things you hold most dear. Dutsi had brought death to his loved ones by blundering on the sleeping serpent. Now, for the remainder of his life, He would be haunted by those voices. Help me! Water! I'm here! He would never again find joy in living. Neither food, or twilight or the faces of young women would please him; Neither the sun or the village fire would drive the chill from his bones. And always, he would remember that last dash down the mountain, and those voices calling. Help me! Water! I'm here! So, now we know. The Uktena can imitate any sound. Even a human sound....Dutsi never went hunting again. His hair turned white. For the rest of his life, he sat by the village fire Staring toward the barren crest of Gahuti. And sometimes, in the night he would scream in his sleep. After months of watching his vigil, the villagers changed his name. He was no longer Dutsi; He was called "He Who Sits By The Fire." And so he sat, touched with a chill that no summer heat or village fire could drive away. Years passed, and then,
The Shaman Comes
One evening, the villagers grew excited. There had been fighting, a skirmish of sorts somewhere to the east. Now, word reached the village that the warriors were returning... And they had a captive, a Shawano, the tribe most hated by the Cherokees. But this is no mere warrior! His name is well-known. He is Aganunisti, the shaman. Of all the enemies of the Cherokee, none are more hated than the Shawano. None are feared more than Shawano shaman! So, Aganunisti is tied to a stake in the center of the village. An angry crowd gathers. Here are mothers, daughters, fathers and brothers of Cherokees who have been slain by the Shawano. Certainly, they mean to kill this one. But how? A sudden blow with a knife? An arrow or war lance through the heart? No, the fear and hatred that the Cherokees have for this Shawano requires a very special death. Fire, Disfigurement, Amputation, A slow and terrible torture. For Aganunisti is a magician. He can draw fire from stone, Music from the wind. He can read the future in a flicker of sunlight on water, or the flight of a bird. He is the greatest of the Shawano medicine men, and he can do terrible things to his enemies. He can strike a man mute! Cause fur to grow on his body, And send him crashing through the woods with the black bears, never to be seen again. It is said that he sometimes bewitches the children of his enemies, Lures them from their homes to a village in the clouds Where they never grow old Or know hunger, Or tire from playing. Their fathers and mothers grieve for them as though they were dead. There are stories that say magicians like this man can walk on the bottoms of rivers; Call lightning bolts from the sky to strike their enemies, Cause arrows and lances to swerve and miss their targets. All these things he can do if he has had the opportunity to call on the powers of rocks, earth, water and sky; to touch the bones of animals; to chew herbs and roots dug in the dark; to stroke the air with an eagle's feather, and chant a secret charm. But on this day, Aganunitsi has been taken unawares. He is helpless now, and among his enemies. There are no charms to help him. the magic deerskin pouch hanging from his neck has neither stones, bones or herbs. He stares stoically at the raised knives and firebrands that encircle him. And then, he speaks. It is not a plea. It is a simple statement spoken in the Cherokee language. He says he knows the thing the Cherokees fear most. They hesitate, and he continues, "Release me, and I will kill.....the Uktena!" Kill the Uktena? His captors stare at one another. They confer. The elders whisper, "A Shawano cannot break his word!" They say, "Either he will die (and most certainly, he will) or he will do what he says." His bonds are cut. He stands for a moment smiling at those who regret the decision of the elders; And then he walks to the village fire; Walks to where the white-haired man sits. Poor, lost Dutsi! He Who Sits By the Fire gazes towards the southern mountains. Aganunitsi has heard of this man and what he has seen. The shaman kneels and searches the tormented face. Perhaps he thought he would learn something of value, but the magician sees only dispair and terror. And so, instead of death, the Shawano finds himself looking into the eyes of a man who has experienced something...worse. What did he see in the face of the man by the fire? We do not know, but when he rose and turned away, the shaman's face was pale and his own eyes were haunted. "So, we have a bargain," he said. "Better to die in the coils of the Uktena than there." The shaman looked at the stake. "Better to feel his fangs in my throat than to live a death in life." He looked at He Who Sits By the Fire. Then, turning to the elders, he said, "Like you, I have never seen the horned snake, but my people know of the stone in his head. It is called Ulunsuti, the flashing crystal. As proof that the Uktena is dead, I will bring you the magic stone. The old Shawano stories say that the stone is not a part of the great snake, But is a being which thinks and sees, and hungers. The man who plucks the stone from the skull of the Uktena shall possess its power. If I bring you the Ulunsuti, your village will be blessed in hunting, and in war; The blessing shall extend to all your people. Aganunitsi promises to return to this village to live out his days. Together, we will share in the bounty of the magic crystal." He turned then, and walked into the forest; descended the gorge of the Noon-Day Sun; Passed the bottomless pools of Hiawasee, and climbed the great cliffs where Tlanuwa, the Great Hawk, has built his nest. Through the mountains of Unaka, Unicoi Valley and Nachoochee Gap. For days, and then weeks he traveled, until one evening, near the mountain called Gahuti, He raised his eyes toward the setting sun, and saw the barren rocks on the mountain's crest. A chill touched the shaman's heart. Without knowing why or how, Aganunitsi sensed that his search was ended. It was growing colder now, and as the shaman climbed through the wind and flying leaves, he felt a chill that had nothing to do with the dying year. He moved through flickering shadows; heard the whispers of the invisible ones, the Nunnehi, who are always with us. As he climbed the last, steep slope, he knew that Gahuti was truly the home of ..."Things Left Behind." Strange eyes watched the shaman's struggle. The Yunwi Tsunsdi, the Little People, kept pace with him, Their golden faces glimpsed for a moment in the dark hollows, their tiny feet sounding like wind-blown snow in the leaves. The Yunwi Amaiyinehi, the Water-Dwellers, called from the darkness of moss-bound pools, their voices like faint sighs. Wind rises, birds scream, the mountain seemed to shudder with life. And then, silence falls. It was as though he had crossed some unmarked boundary. Before him, no birds, no deer, only the barren mountain. He sensed he had reached his journey's end; and so he had. Like Dutsi, the shaman climbed in the fading light. And like the one who came before him, he saw the dull, red glow, pulsing from the deep crevasse. Yes, it was the same as before. The Uktena was asleep. Only the great jewel stared back at Aganunitsi. The great snake shifted in sleep and the ground quaked. The shaman turned and silently fled, back down the mountain, back into a world of sound and life, ran until he came to level ground. There, in the darkness, he prepared himself. Tracing a great circle, Auganunitsi muttered incantations; gathered his items, stones, bones, feathers and earth. He snatched fire from the air and watched it race in an arc about him. When he is within this circle, neither tooth nor claw can touch him. It is time to begin. Back now, through the wind and leaves and voices; Back to the edge of the crevasse. The shaman hefts a large stone, and sends it crashing down on the Uktena's skull. The scream is immediate; a scream that seemed to echo within Auganunitsi's head. Rising then, out of the crevasse came the ancient, evil face, Rising on until it towered above him. The eyes sought the tiny man who strung an arrow in his bow, and carefully, deliberately sent the stone-tipped missile deep into the seventh band of color, deep into the Uktena's heart. Turning then, Auganunitsi ran, and behind him came thunder. An avalanche of boulders and a keening wind. He did not turn until he stood within the flaming circle; until he felt the quiet stillness of his safety. Turning, then, he saw the serpent-skin; Saw that each scale was a flake of crystal that burned with an inner light. Towering above him, the great eyes waxed and waned like twin moons; the head tilted, as though the serpent found Auganunitsi a curious specimen. The keening wind, the shaman now realized, was the Uktena's breathing; and now the circle of fire raged fitfully in counterpoint to the fetid, chill respiration. Once more, Auganunitsi released an arrow that sped to the serpent's heart. Then, the Uktena's mouth gaped and the monstrous head struck, fell like a hammer, only to rebound as it encountered an invisible wall. Again, it struck with the same effect. The beating of the shaman's heart slowed, and he raised his head and laughed. Another arrow sped to its target. The serpent's breathing became labored. Then, it withdrew; turned away, slid slowly between trees and stones until it was beyond the reach of the shaman's bow. At first, Auganunitsi was perplexed. Had the great snake fled? Was it even now, plucking the arrows from its throat? Then, he felt it. A cold finger in his head; searching, prodding, discarding. The shaman laughed. "You will find nothing to lure me from this circle," he shouted. "I am not as others!" The search became more frantic. Auganunitsi became defiant, but unresisting. Then, the voice came, more ancient than Gahuti's barren heights. The snake whispered within his mind, "So, shaman, there is nothing I can take from you. No mother, no mate no children. You, like me, are the last of your kind. Then, perhaps, if I cannot take from you, I should give you something." The Uktena returned. In a blur of speed, the snake threw itself at the invisible wall; battered aimlessly at the shaman's magic armor. Auganunitsi sent all of his arrows into the serpent's heart. When his arms grew numb from the bow, he stood, waiting. When the Uktena fell, it was as though an ancient oak had fallen. The crash resounded through the mountain gorge. Auganunitsi was cautious. He sat within the circle staring at the great head. The crystal pulsed, its colors undimmed. When he was sure that the Uktena was dead, the shaman conducted one final magic spell.
The Calling of the Birds
The sky darkened with their approach. Bird cries and the sound of beating wings rose above Gahuti. The feast went on for days, and when it was over, there was nothing left to show that the Uktena had ever existed; nothing except the great bones that lay like a necklace around the base of Gahuti; The bones, and"Ulunsuti," the magic stone. When the shaman stooped to pluck it from the skull of the Uktena, the pulsing colors washed his face. The Return And so, he returned to the Cherokee village, bearing the magic stone in his two hands like a precious gift. Word of his approach reached the village long before he arrived. The Cherokees stood by the trail watching Aganunitsi approach. He walked carefully as though Ulunsuti were fragile. "See, "he said, "I have fulfilled my promise," and he proffered the stone. "The Uktena is dead! Ulunsuti will bring prosperity to your village. Now, I, Aganunitsi, as guardian of the flashing crystal will spend the rest of my life among you." And so it was. From that day forth, the Cherokees enjoyed abundant crops, peace and prosperity. And life was good.....except for one thing. It had to do with Aganunitsi. The man who returned to the Cherokees was not the same man who had departed. People became...uncomfortable in his presence. You see, the snake bothered them..... The snake in Aganunitsi's hair..... It is easier to explain if we go back; return to the magic circle. Remember, the fire protected the shaman. Neither tooth nor claw could touch him. But, he was....touched that day. As the great serpent died, As its head crashed down like a bolder, a single drop of blood fell across the magic circle, striking the shaman's head. From that drop of blood grew a snake with red eyes; that lies coiled in Aganunitsi's hair. The shaman doesn't know it is there, and no one tells him about it. At first, he wondered why the Cherokees avoided him. He sat by his fire outside the Cherokee village; (sat like the sad, white-haired hunter inside the village) staring into the darkness. Time passed: months, and then years, and he became accustomed to being alone; an existence that was like Death in Life. But, he was the guardian of the stone; Respected, of course, but from a distance. So, he sat by the fire with the stone in his cupped hands. The Cherokee told stories about the stone and the snake. They said that the shaman feed the stone every seventh day; Fed it warm blood from freshly killed game. And if they passed Aganunitsi's fire late at night, they noted that the magician was often asleep; but that the snake was not. They said that the snake never slept, and those eyes, like the embers of Aganunitsi's fire watched the Cherokees pass in the night; peered at them from the tangled tresses of the shaman's hair. And the stone...the stone seemed a part of Aganunitsi's hands. It pulsed with color, waxing and waning in the darkness, And perhaps it was Aganunitsi's own blood that colored the fitful light. When the shaman died, when the villagers found him lying by his cold fire with Ulunsuti clutched in his lifeless hands, they decided that the man who brought such prosperity to their village should, at least, have an honorable burial. And so, with eyes averted, they buried the Shawano; buried him with the stone in his hands, for none wanted the responsibility of owning it. They covered him with rocks and dirt. Those who turned to watch the shaman's face sink beneath the soil, they said that the snake...the ever-watchful snake, peered at them until the last; until its red eyes were covered. Long after the Shawano's name was forgotten, the Cherokees continued to avoid his grave. Old women told of seeing strange lights there. Hunters made vague references to a wind that blow across the burial mound. They said that in the fall of the year, when dying sage covered the spot, the wind in the sage sounded like ..whispers; that they sometimes heard words: Help me! Water! I'm here my love! Help....me....Help....me.... Others say that this is a foolish story; that the sound is merely...the wind.
Copyright, Gary Carden, 1998
From the Archives of Blue Panther