Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Apr 1st - Apr 7th, 2005

Cherokee Dragon

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      While on my quest across the Southeast for the trail of the Dragon, I stopped at Moundville, Alabama, the second largest Native American artificial mound site in the country after Cahokia. I met with Betsy Gilbert, the Educational Director there, and she turned me on to various people and resources, one of which was a tale of a great serpent, the most horrible of the creatures of the Cherokee's mythological realm. The following is from 'The Southeastern Indians,' by Charles Hudson.

      (The World) "...was sometimes frequented by Under World monsters who came out of the rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and mountain caves, all of these being entrances to the Under World. They lurked around lonely spots like mountain passes, making mischief or even causing great misfortunes for people. There were giant frogs and giant lizards among these monsters, but the most horrible of all was the monster the Cherokees called Uktena, a creature combining features of all three categories of normal animals. It had the scaly body of a large serpent, as big around as a tree truck, with rings or spots of color along its entire body, but it had deer horns on its head, and it had wings like a bird. On its forehead it had a bright diamond-shaped crest that gave off blinding flashes of light. A similar monster existed in the beliefs of most Southeastern Indians. The Koasatis, for example, called him “snake-crawfish,” a snake with horns." p. 130. Uktena

      "...the Uktena was believed to have originally been a man who was thus transformed and given the task of killing the Sun, the most sacred Southeastern deity, who had sent down a plague to destroy man. But the Uktena failed miserably in this task and was subsequently full of jealousy and resentment for men. Uktenas were believed to inhabit deep pools of water and also high mountain passes, on the boundaries of the Cherokee world, where they would kill people whenever they could. Merely to see an Uktena brought misfortune to a man, and to smell an Uktena’s breath brought death..." p. 144.

Serpent       "Snakes were associated with the Under World, with a particularly close connection with lightning, thunder, and rain, and they had influence over other plants and animals. Snakes, deer, and ginseng, a root used as medicine, were said to be allies. The Cherokees never killed a snake unless they needed it for medicine or some other important purpose, and then they only did so with elaborate ritual precautions. James Adair tells of killing a large rattlesnake, whereupon his Indian companion became very upset and predicted that they would soon be in danger, and as it so happened, their lives were soon threatened by a party of warriors from the Creek town of Okchai." p. 165.

      Many of these traits dovetail with mythological clues of dragons from other cultures. The Imperial Dragon and Dragon of Revelation has horns on its head. Lightning, thunder and rain (as well as floods) are a universal motif found from China to Greece. The twin stars of Draco have been variously thought of as the eyes or jaws of the dragon. The head of the constellation in fact forms a diamond shape. For the Dragon to look or breathe upon you was thought to be instant death. Wings are found on serpents from Quetzalcoatl to Beowolf. Is it any wonder then that Draco is thought of as 'The World Wide Serpent?'

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