Myths of the Cherokee (James Mooney)

Week 13: Native American Tales - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Terrapin and Bullfrog

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900words.

Terrapin is a fascinating character: sometimes he is made out to be a fool, but he is a warrior, and he possesses magical powers. In this story, Terrapin manages to kill a wolf and he escapes the avenging wolves by using a trick very similar to the trick that the hare used when she had been trapped in the tar (a trick made famous by Bre'r Rabbit shouting, "Do what'nsoever you want to do with me, Brer Fox, but please, please, please! Don't throw me in that briar patch!"). You will also read a story about a creature who was supposed to have magical powers: the "witch bullfrog," a character who is far more sinister than the Frog-King of the Brothers Grimm.

The Terrapin's Escape From The Wolves

The Possum and the Terrapin went out together to hunt persimmons, and found a tree full of ripe fruit. The Possum climbed it and was throwing down the persimmons to the Terrapin when a wolf came up and began to snap at the persimmons as they fell, before the Terrapin could reach them. The Possum waited his chance, and at last managed to throw down a large one (some say a bone which he carried with him), so that it lodged in the wolf's throat as he jumped up at it and choked him to death. "I'll take his ears for hominy spoons," said the Terrapin, and cut off the wolf's ears and started home with them, leaving the Possum still eating persimmons up in the tree. After a while he came to a house and was invited to have some kanahe'na gruel from the jar that is set always outside the door. He sat down beside the jar and dipped up the gruel with one of the wolf's ears for a spoon. The people noticed and wondered. When he was satisfied he went on, but soon came to another house and was asked to have some more kanahe'na. He dipped it up again with the wolf's ear and went on when he had enough.

Soon the news went around, that the Terrapin had killed the Wolf and was using his ears for spoons. All the Wolves got together and followed the Terrapin's trail until they came up with him and made him prisoner. Then they held a council to decide what to do with him, and agreed to boil him in a clay pot. They brought in a pot, but the Terrapin only laughed at it and said that if they put him into that thing he would kick it all to pieces. They said they would burn him in the fire, but the Terrapin laughed again and said he would put it out. Then they decided to throw him into the deepest hole in the river and drown him. The Terrapin begged and prayed them not to do that, but they paid no attention, and dragged him over to the river and threw him in. That was just what the Terrapin had been waiting for all the time, and he dived under the water and came up on the other side and got away.

Some say that when he was thrown into the river he struck against a rock, which broke, his back in a dozen places. He sang a medicine song:

Gû'daye'wû, Gû'daye'wû,
I have sewed myself together, I have sewed myself together,
and the pieces came together, but the scars remain on his shell to this day.

The Bullfrog Lover

A young man courted a girl, who liked him well enough, but her mother was so much opposed to him that she would not let him come near the house. At last he made a trumpet from the handle of a gourd and hid himself after night near the spring until the old woman came down for water. While she was dipping up the water he put the trumpet to his lips and grumbled out in a deep voice like a bullfrog's:

Yañdaska'gä hûñyahu'skä,
Yañdaska'gä hûñyahu'skä,
The faultfinder will die,
The faultfinder will die.

The woman thought it a witch bullfrog, and was so frightened that she dropped her dipper and ran back to the house to tell the people They all agreed that it was a warning to her to stop interfering with her daughter's affairs, so she gave her consent, and thus the young man won his wife.

There is another story of a girl who, every day when she went down to the spring for water, heard a voice singing, Kûnu'nü tû'tsahyesï', Kûnu'nü tû'tsahyesï', "A bullfrog will marry you, A bullfrog will marry you." She wondered much until one day when she came down she saw sitting on a stone by the spring a bullfrog, which suddenly took the form of a young man and asked her to marry him. She consented and took him back with her to the house. But although he had the shape of a man there was a queer bullfrog look about his face, so that the girl's family hated him and at last persuaded her to send him away. She told him and he went away, but when they next went down to the spring they heard a voice: Ste'tsï tûya'husï, Ste'tsï tûya'husï, "Your daughter will die, Your daughter will die," and so it happened soon after.

As some tell it, the lover was a tadpole, who took on human shape, retaining only his tadpole mouth. To conceal it he constantly refused to eat with the family, but stood with his back to the fire and his face screwed up, pretending that he had a toothache. At last his wife grew suspicious and turning him suddenly around to the firelight, exposed the tadpole mouth, at which they all ridiculed him so much that he left the house forever.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did possum kill the wolf? what did turtle do with the wolf's ears?
  • how did turtle escape the wolves?
  • why did the man pretend to be a bullfrog? what happened when the bullfrog turned himself into a young man?

Source: Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney. From Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM