Myths of the Cherokee (James Mooney)

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

Hunting the Snake

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

These are both hunting stories about men who decide to capture the uktena snake, or the uksu'hï, another powerful and mysterious snake monster. The weapon used to defeat the uksu'hï may surprise you!

The Red Man And The Uktena

Two brothers went hunting together, and when they came to a good camping place in the mountains they made a fire, and while one gathered bark to put up a shelter the other started up the creek to look for a deer. Soon he heard a noise on the top of the ridge as if two animals were fighting. He hurried through the bushes to see what it might be, and when he came to the spot he found a great uktena coiled around a man and choking him to death. The man was fighting for his life, and called out to the hunter: "Help me, nephew; he is your enemy as well as mine." The hunter took good aim, and, drawing the arrow to the head, sent it through the body of the uktena, so that the blood spouted from the hole. The snake loosed its coils with a snapping noise, and went tumbling down the ridge into the valley, tearing up the earth like a water spout as it rolled.

The stranger stood up, and it was the Asga'ya Gi'gägeï, the Red Man of the Lightning. He said to the hunter: "You have helped me, and now I will reward you, and give you a medicine so that you can always find game." They waited until it was dark, and then went down the ridge to where the dead uktena had rolled, but by this time the birds and insects had eaten the body and only the bones were left. In one place were flashes of light coming up from the ground, and on digging here, just under the surface, the Red Man found a scale of the uktena. Next he went over to a tree that had been struck by lightning, and gathering a handful of splinters he made a fire and burned the uktena scale to a coal. He wrapped this in a piece of deerskin and gave it to the hunter, saying: "As long as you keep this you can always kill game." Then he told the hunter that when he went back to camp he must hang up the medicine on a tree outside, because it was very strong and dangerous. He told him also that when he went into the cabin he would find his brother lying inside nearly dead on account of the presence of the uktena's scale, but he must take a small piece of cane, which the Red Man gave him, and scrape a little of it into water and give it to his brother to drink and he would be well again. Then the Red Man was gone, and the hunter could not see where he went. He returned to camp alone, and found his brother very sick, but soon cured him with the medicine from the cane, and that, day and the next, and every day after, he found game whenever he went for it.

The Hunter And The Uksu'hï

A man living down in Georgia came to visit some relatives at Hickory-log. He was a great hunter, and after resting in the house a day or two got ready to go into the mountains. His friends warned him not to go toward the north, as in that direction, near a certain large uprooted tree, there lived a dangerous monster uksu'hï snake. It kept constant watch, and whenever it could spring upon an unwary hunter it would coil about him and crush out his life in its folds and then drag the dead body down the mountain side into a deep hole in Hiwassee.

He listened quietly to the warning, but all they said only made him the more anxious to see such a monster, so, without saying anything of his intention, he left the settlement and took his way directly up the mountain toward the north. Soon he came to the fallen tree and climbed upon the trunk, and there, sure enough, on the other side was the great uksu'hï stretched out in the grass, with its head raised, but looking the other way. It was about so large [making a circle of a foot in diameter with his hands]. The frightened hunter got down again at once and started to run; but the snake had heard the noise and turned quickly and was after him. Up the ridge the hunter ran, the snake close behind him, then down the other side toward the river. With all his running the uksu'hi gained rapidly, and just as he reached the low ground it caught up with him and wrapped around him, pinning one arm down by his side, but leaving the other free.

Now it gave him a terrible squeeze that almost broke his ribs, and then began to drag him along toward the water. With his free hand the hunter clutched at the bushes as they passed, but the snake turned its head and blew its sickening breath into his face until he had to let go his hold. Again and again this happened, and all the time they were getting nearer to a deep hole in the river, when, almost at the last moment, a lucky thought came into the hunter's mind.

He was sweating all over from his hard run across the mountain, and suddenly remembered to have heard that snakes can not bear the smell of perspiration. Putting his free hand into his bosom he worked it around under his armpit until it was covered with perspiration. Then withdrawing it he grasped at a bush until the snake turned its head, when he quickly slapped his sweaty hand on its nose. The uksu'hi cave one gasp almost as if it had been wounded, loosened its coil, and glided swiftly away through the bushes, leaving the hunter, bruised but not disabled, to make his way home to Hickory-log.

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

  • how was the hunter rewarded for helping the stranger? what happened to the man's brother?
  • what did the hunter do when he saw the snake on the grass?
  • how did he escape from the snake?

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