Thursday, June 29, 2017

Best Stories in the World: The Uktena

In Cherokee myths, the sun is female, and she hates humanity because whenever people look up at her they scrunch up their faces against the bright light she shines. The moon, on the other hand, likes us.

Among the various beings populating the earth are the Little Men, who are the children of Kana'ti and Selu, who are the Lucky Hunter and Corn, respectively. Well, the Little Men are sort of their children, since one of them is definitely their son, but he doesn't have a name, and the other is really a wild boy (I'nage-utasun/hi: He-who-grew-up-wild) whom they seem to have kidnapped but might also just be their son whom they threw in the water and left there for a while until their other son started playing with him and then they brought back home; it's weird, especially since the boys eventually kill Selu because she's a witch, and in part this story explains why corn grows in only a few places and not everywhere, and also why there aren't as many wolves as there used to be, and the boys are also Thunder, and they're responsible for teaching people the right songs to sing for hunting, these stories are just great, aren't they?). The Little Men are also called the Thunder Boys, and they like to help people.

So the Sun wanted to kill all the people with her heat, out offrustration and jealousy, and the people asked the Little Men for help. They changed one of the men into a big snake, called Uktena, and sent him to kill the Sun. He failed because the sun was so bright, so they created a rattlesnake to do the job. Uktena was jealous and angry, so the people forced him to go away, though he left other snakes behind.

Uktena is said to be "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 can not be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and its life." The diamond is known as ulûñsû’tĭ (which means transparent). It's an item of great power, but only one person has ever stolen it from the head of Uktena, since they're so dangerous. The jewel itself is dangerous, and has to be fed blood twice a year or it will kill the person who stole it and his family. However, it grants success in hunting, love, and other pursuits.

The only one to get one is called Âgăn-uni’tsĭ. He was a Shawano, who are all magicians. His name means The Ground-hog's Mother. He was about to be killed by his captors when they spared him because he promised to find the jewel. He had heard that the uktena would lie in wait in the haunted, dark passes of the Great Smoky Mountains. He went to one gap in the mountains, but found only a monster blacksnake. He went to another pass but found a moccasin snake. He went to a third pass he found a gigantic green snake, and he called all the Cherokee to see it, but they only ran away in fear. He kept going south, finding other monsters but not the one he sought until he arrived at Gahu/ti mountain, where the Uktena slept.

He laid a trap for the Uktena by digging a trench and surrounding it with a circle of burning pine cones. Then he shot the Uktena in its heart, under the seventh spot, and fled when it woke up. It chased him, though soon the wound overcame it. It died while spitting poison at him, but most of the poison was destroyed by the fire--all save a single drop, which struck him on the head. The blood that flowed from its wound, as poisonous as its venom, filled trench. In its death throes, the Uktena destroyed trees all along the mountain. The man called birds, which came to eat the monster's flesh and bones. 

Seven days later the magician and retrieved the gem from a tree branch, where a raven had dropped it after feasting. Returning to the village, the man became a great magician, though a tiny snake hung from the place where the venom had hit him. The Uktena's blood formed a lake, and there women dye the cane for their baskets.

I was reminded of this story by Daniel Bayliss and Fabian Rangel "Son of the Serpent," recently published as part of the Storyteller series of comics based on the old Jim Henson tv shows. It's a pretty good little comic, though it doesn't hew too closely to the Cherokee original recounted above. Bayliss says he combined several stories from different traditions.

I believe that I haven't done the Cherokee story justice here. It's a long tale, and in James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee it demonstrates the way myths often build on each other over time. Mooney numbers the myths he has collected, and the Uktena and the Little Men figure in tales 3, 5, 50, 51, and 52. You can find these stories here. Mooney was told this story by a man named Swimmer, another man named John Ax. There are many sources for the different parts, though. Here's one that's more recent, by David Michael Wolfe, which brings into the story the Tlanuhwa, which Bayliss and Rangel make the thunderbird.

There's something of a coda to this story later in Mooney's book. In a section called "Historical Traditions" the first story is "First Contact with Whites," in which Mooney writes

At the creation an ulûñsû’tĭ was given to the white man, and a piece of silver to the Indian. But the white man despised the stone and threw it away, while the Indian did the same with the silver. In going about the white man afterward found the silver piece and put it (351) into his pocket and has prized it ever since. The Indian, in like manner, found the ulûñsû’tĭ where the white man had thrown it. He picked it up and has kept it since as his talisman, as money is the talismanic power of the white man. This story is quite general and is probably older than others of its class.

 So why is this one of the best stories in the world? I like the way it sprawls through creation, hitting highs of heroism, oddity, absurdity, and sanctity. These stories, the symbols and characters in them, are semantically rich as well as narratively compelling. They've got a little of everything.


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