Hunters never killed for sport. They believed that if they violated their sacred trust, terrible things would happen to them. The exploitation of animals could bring disease. If this happened, plants, which were a natural counterbalance to animals, could provide a cure.
— Theda Perdue, The Cherokee (1989)
On one level, the natural history of a region consists of its terrain, habitats, plants, animals, and how they interrelate. Elizabeth and I also believe that no full understanding of the natural history of a region can be realized without coming to terms with its spiritual landscape. And when we turn to the consider the spiritual landscape of the Blue Ridge country, we enter the realm of the ancient Cherokees.
They called themselves the Ani-Yun-wiya, which signified they were The Principal People. As such, the Cherokees assumed that it was their responsibility to maintain harmony and balance — not only in their homeland but also in the universe. They did so by invoking the powers of the Upper World to help them neutralize the powers of the Under World, in order to bring balance and peace into the mundane Middle World occupied by humans and the four-legged animals.
Quite naturally, birds epitomized the Upper World — the realm of light and everlasting life. The Cherokees were keen observers of bird life. As we do today, they admired birds for their beauty, for their ability to sing, and — most of all — for their ability to fly.
During times of peace, their national flag consisted of a long white pole with a white cloth fastened at the top. Immediately below the white cloth, a bird was painted or carved. As part of their belief system, they envisioned a mythic bird — probably modeled on the peregrine falcon — known as the Mythic Hawk. This was a large and ferocious bird noted for its swift and strong flight. Numerous cliffs throughout the mountains were designated as places where Mythic Hawks resided. These, no doubt, were also places where peregrine falcons nested in ancient times.
As with many entities in Cherokee lore, this bird would at times would be an ally of the Cherokees, while at other times it could become their mortal enemy. This reflected their concept of duality, whereby “things are never quite as they seem.”
Mythic Hawks would sometimes carry off the young children to their hideaways in the high cliffs and devour them. But they were also invoked on behalf of stickball players, who wore red-dyed feathers representing the great bird when they played that punishing game known as “little war.” And the Cherokees held the great hawks in high esteem because they were the mortal enemies of the Uktenas, the giant serpents that represented the Under World — the realm of everlasting darkness.
While living with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Western North Carolina during the late 1880s, anthropologist James Mooney collected Uktena lore subsequently published as part of Myths of the Cherokee (1900). To this day, a conversation about Uktenas can be conducted with a few of the more traditional Cherokees. They sometimes refer to it as “The Uk-ten” — so that, in a metaphorical sense, the creature lives on.
A snake myth requires a big serpent. Uktenas were very large. According to Mooney’s informants, the creature — which had been born of envy and anger — was “as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length and cannot be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and life.”
Uktenas were often described as having large sets of antlers. The most compelling physical feature, however, was a diamond-shaped crest (often depicted as a quartz ckrystal) on its forehead that emitted flashes of light like a blazing star. Those encountering the serpent — especially young children — were so bedazzled by this light they were lured, like a moth to a flame, toward certain death.
But in the Cherokee spirituality system there was always a balance between good and evil. Their medicine men utilized various crystals to foresee the future and restore balance. The most powerful of all was the ulunsuti — the jewel embedded in an Uktena’s forehead. Such a stone, they felt, insured “success in hunting, love, rainmaking, and other undertakings, but the greatest use is in divination, so that when it is evoked for this purpose by its owner the future is mirrored in the transparent crystal as a tree is reflected in the quiet stream below.”
For the most part, Uktenas lived on the margins of the Cherokee world — like dark shadows in a dream — in the deep pools of rivers or lonely passes in the high mountains. From generation to generation, these sites were carefully designated as “where the Uktena stays” to warn the unwary not to venture near them.
But if a Cherokee warrior was brave enough to venture into the dreaded place where an Uktena resided, he could evoke the spirit of the Upper World in the guise of the Mythic Hawk to accompany him.
Together, they would be able to slay the serpent, extract the ulunsuti from its forehead, and bring it home to the Ani-Yun-wiya to restore peace and harmony in the mundane world ... yet another story about the eternal battle between order and chaos.