Cherokee Folklore: The Strange Legend of Tsuwe’nähï and the Secret Town

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Pilot Mountain, North Carolina – Image Credit: Wahkeenah – Public Domain

In his book Myths of the Cherokee People (1902) the American ethnographer, James Mooney (1861-1921) compiled a large bank of folklore, legend, and mythology of the Cherokee people that provides a remarkable insight into how they viewed and made sense of the world around them.   Some of these legends tell of a secret or invisible tribe of Cherokees who live either inside Pilot Mountain or in some hidden valley only reached by passing a concealed entrance in the mountain’s side.  The following work is a rewrite of the legend called Tsuwe’nähï: A Legend of Pilot Knob from Mooney’s book that tells of these secret people and their hidden town.

Lazy Tsuwe’nähï

There was once a lazy man whose name was Tsuwe’nähï.  He lived in an old town called Känuga that was situated on the banks of the Pigeon River.  He was too lazy to build his own house so instead, he lived with friends and relatives moving frequently from one to another.   Although he liked to spend all of his time in the woods he never bothered to hunt to bring back game as thanks to those who kept him through their good nature.

At last the good nature of his friends and relatives ran thin and they tired of him living off their generosity and they told him so.  Tsuwe’nähï pleaded for a last chance and asked them to prepare some parched corn for him to take on a hunting trip.  He promised them he would bring back deer, or some other kind of game, telling them if he failed he would never bother them again.

So his friends and relatives gave him a pouch with enough corn to sustain him on his hunting trip and he headed off into the mountains.   Many days passed, and weeks turned to months but he did not return and everyone thought they would never see him again.  Then one day he appeared in the town with a strange tale to tell.

The Strange Tale of Tsuwe’nähï

He told his friends and relatives that he had followed the trail towards the mountains and as he passed across a ridge he had met a stranger.  They greeted each other in a friendly fashion and stopped to talk to each other.  The stranger asked him where he was going out in the wilds on his own.   Tsuwe’nähï told him that his friends had relatives had driven him out of their homes telling him he was lazy.  He told him that he must bring back game to share with them or they would not have him back and ruefully he explained he was not a very good hunter.  The stranger smiled at him and said, “Come and visit my town. It is not far and you will see that you have relatives and friends there.”

The Secret Town on Pilot Mountain

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Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain – Image Credit:AnDrew McKenzie – CC BY-SA 3.0

Tsuwe’nähï was very grateful for the offer.  He was ashamed about how he had lived off his family and friends for so long and did not want to return empty handed, so he accepted.  The stranger led him towards the mountain called Tsuwa`tel’da which is also known as Pilot Mountain or Pilot Knob.   Eventually, they came to a bare rock face and the stranger led him to a hidden cave and gestured and said, “Please follow me!”

Tsuwe’nähï followed the stranger into the cave and down along a passage that ran into the heart of the mountain,  Eventually the passage opened out into a wide and beautiful valley. Looking down into the valley Tsuwe’nähï saw a great town thronged with many people.

Tsuwe’nähï and the stranger walked down the valley towards the town.  The townsfolk seeing him coming ran to meet him greeting him in warmth and friendship and showed him to the house of their chief.   The chief greeted him warmly and told him he was welcome and offered him a seat beside the fire.  Tsuwe’nähï gladly accepted and sat down but was surprised to find the seat moved underneath him.  Then he looked down and saw there was a turtle’s head poking out of its shell and realized he was seated upon the back of a huge turtle and jumped up in surprise.

“It’s alright,” said the chief, “he is only looking to see who you are!”   Tsuwe’nähï sat down gently and carefully and the turtle drew its head back into its shell. He was then offered food the kind of which he was accustomed to and he was encouraged to eat and drink his fill.  When he had finished the chief took him on a tour around the settlement and introduced him to many of its people.  Eventually, Tsuwe’nähï grew tired and was allowed to rest.  After he had rested the chief led him back to the mouth of the cave he had entered the strange country from and showed him the path that led back to the river telling him,  “Although you are going back to the place you call home you will never again be happy there. Nevertheless, you have seen us and whenever you are ready you can come to us as you now know where we are.”

Tsuwe’nähï Returns Home

The chief turned and left. Tsuwe’nähï made his way back down the mountain path towards the river following it until he found his way back to Känuga.  On his return, he told his story to his family and friends but none of them would believe him and laughed calling him foolish.   After his return, he would often go off alone into the forest sometimes being away for several days at a time.  When he came back he would tell folk he had been visiting the hidden people on Pilot Mountain but still, no one believed him.

Then one day after returning from such a trip he told a group of friends about his visit to the hidden people.   Most laughed at dismissed his story and walked away but one man stayed and told him he believed him and would like to go with him to see for himself the next time he visited the hidden people on Pilot Mountain.

At Last Someone Believes Him

Tsuwe’nähï was pleased that he had, at last, found someone who would listen to him and readily agreed to his company. A few days later he took the man into the forest and the two of them made their way to Pilot Mountain.    After a good trek, they decided to make rest and Tsuwe’nähï said to his companion to remain at the spot and set up camp while he went on ahead telling him he would soon return.

So his friend set up camp and waited for the return of his guide.  While he waited he did some hunting and set up a fire to cook his game.  After two days and two nights the man heard  Tsuwe’nähï approaching but although he appeared to be alone he was talking to someone else close by him.  Although he could see no one the man heard the voices of two girls who were talking to Tsuwe’nähï and he to them.

As Tsuwe’nähï stepped into the firelight he greeted his friend and said,  “Look I have returned with friends and they say that in two nights time there will be a dance at their town and they are inviting us to go.”  

His friend liked the idea of a dance at the strange town and readily accepted even though he could not see who else he was talking to.   Then Tsuwe’nähï spoke as if to someone nearby saying, “He accepts and thanks you for the invitation” and turned to his friend and said, “Our sisters ask for some venison”

His friend said, “What parts would they like?” and the girls said,  “Mother has asked us to request ribs,” and although he could not see who was speaking he cut them generous portions of ribs and handed them to Tsuwe’nähï.

“Thank you,” said Tsuwe’nähï taking the ribs and said, “We shall return for you in two days,”  and then turned about and disappeared into the forest night.  The man watched him disappear and listened as the voices faded into the forest and then all was quiet.

Just as he said two days later Tsuwe’nähï returned but this time the man could see he was accompanied by two girls who went and stood by the fire to warm themselves.  The man thought they were very handsome girls but one thing struck him as strange.  He noticed that their feet were not like human feet but more like the paws of a wolf.  As soon as they realized he had seen their feet they sat down to cover them up but said nothing about them and he decided out of politeness not to ask.

The party ate a meal together and then set out along a nearby creek to the trail that led to Tsuwa`tel’da and the hidden land.  They came to a bare cliff face where they entered a cave that was hidden by folds in the rock.  They made their way down a passage which opened up into a broad valley and walked down the path to the town below.  The man was surprised by everything he saw but found his legs became very weak and began to give way under him and he fell to the ground.

Tsuwe’nähï and the girls tried to help him to him to his feet but he could not move so one of the girls ran and fetched a medicine man.  The medicine man told him he could not walk because he had not prepared himself by fasting.  He then took out some old tobacco he kept in a pouch at his side and rubbed it on the legs of the man and placing it under his nose told him to smell it.  After this, the man was able to walk and went with others to the dance which had not yet begun.

The Dance

Tsuwe’nähï took his friend to the townhouse and gave him a seat close to the fire.  His friend looked warily at the seat.  It was covered in the long thorns of the honey locust and he was worried they may pierce his skin if he sat on it.  However, his Tsuwe’näh told him it would be safe to sit on so he sat down and found the long thorns soft and comfortable.

The drummer entered the townhouse and was followed by the dancers and the dancing commenced.  A man followed the dancers around crying, “Kû! Kû!” and Tsuwe’nähï explained that he was not one of the dancers.  He told him that the man had once got lost in the mountains and had gone round in circles calling out to his friends.  Eventually, the hidden people found him and took him in but he had lost his voice and was only able to say “Kû! Kû!” ever after.

Return to Känuga

When the dance finished Tsuwe’nähï and his friend went back to Känuga.  They told the people of Känuga all about the town on Pilot Mountain and how good and kind the townsfolk were.  This time because there were two of them the people listened and some said they wanted to go there.  Tsuwe’nähï told them that they had to fast for seven days while he went up to Pilot Mountain to tell the hidden people so that they could prepare for their coming.  After seven days he returned and led the people of Känuga who wanted to go to the town on Pilot Mountain.  The people who remained behind never saw those who went with Tsuwe’nähï to the secret town again.

© 22/02/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 22nd, 2017 zteve t evans

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North American Mythology: The First Hummingbird

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Hovering male rufous hummingbird – Image by Ryan Bushby(HighInBC) – CC BY 2.5

In her book, The Book of Nature Myths (1904) Florence Holbrook collected over fifty traditional Native American myths and legends many of which tell of the origin of how things came to be.   What follows is a rewrite of The Story of the First Hummingbird.

The Great Fire Mountain

In a time when the earth was still young and growing there were two hunters in the forest searching for game.  They had followed the trail of a deer for many days and had traveled a great distance from their village, much further than they or any other villager had ever been before.  When evening came and the sun began to slowly sink and darkness fell all around them they stopped to rest for the night.  Huddling together for warmth they looked out over the western sky and saw a bright light glowing in the distant darkness, flickering, red, yellow and orange.

“What can that be?” said one.

“It must be the moon,” said the other.

“Surely not.  We have seen many moons and we have seen it round and full and we have seen its shapes and it is not like we have seen before.  Could it be the northern lights?”

“We have seen the northern lights and they are not like this,” replied the other.

“Whatever can they be?” said the other.

“Perhaps it is the fire of the Great Spirit and maybe he is cooking?” one asked.

“Perhaps he is angry with us and will punish us with flames!” said the other.

With nothing else to be done until sunrise, they sat up all night watching as the lights flickered red, yellow and orange in the western sky.  At sunrise, they were astonished to see flames of red, yellow and orange flickering on the distant horizon and thick plumes of dark, blue smoke rising high into the clear blue sky.   They had no idea what the flickering flames could be so they decided they would go and see.  As they drew near they could see the flames and the smoke more clearly and saw they were rising from the crest of a steep mountain way off in the distance.

“It looks like a great mountain of fire, what shall we do?” said one.

“Let’s go a bit closer and see more,” said the other.

So they trekked on until they came so close they could see fire leaping out of splits in the mountainside and flickering around its peak like a fiery crown.

“It is a mountain of fire!  This will be of great help to our people.  Let’s go on,” said one,

They came to the foothills and climbed steadily up the sides of the fiery mountain until they stood right on its to top and looked down into its center and saw a sea of red hot molten rock with flames dancing across it.

One turned to the other and said, “We have discovered the secret of the fire mountain and our people will be so glad to have this.  Let us now go and tell them.”  Quickly, they made their way down the mountain and back through the forest to their village.

 “We have been far, much further than anyone else had ever been from the village and we have discovered a wonderful secret,” said one excitedly to the people who gathered around to greet their return.

“We have discovered the secret of where the Fire Spirit has her home.  We have found where the flames are kept that warm the children of the Great Spirit,” continued the other.

“We have found the fire mountain where the flames dance and the blue smoke rises day and night and at its top there lies a lake of fire and molten rock.  Come with us and we will lead you there,” said the first.

“And we shall never be cold again and always have a flame to cook with!” said the second.

The people were glad to hear this for they suffered greatly in the cold and snow of winter and needed flame to cook their game.  They all agreed it would be a wonderful thing to go and live on the Fire Mountain so they packed up their belongings and made ready to leave.

The two hunters led their people to the foot of the mountain of fire where they set up their village and were glad.  The Fire Spirit looked down and saw them come and was glad for them for she was a kindly spirit.  She knew they would benefit greatly from her fire when the hard, bleak,  months of winter came.  The people lived for many years at the foot of the mountain and gave thanks to the beneficence of the Fire Spirit who gave her flames to stop them perishing in the winter and to cook their food with.

The Dance of the Flames

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Image Attribution Dr. Carlos Costales Terán [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Many moons passed and the people lived happily in their village at the foot of the Fire Mountain.  Often on summer evenings the children would gaze up to its summit and watch in wonder as the great flames flickered and danced and lit up the night sky and would ask,

“Father, what are the beautiful lights that dance upon the mountain top?” and the father would answer,  “The mountain is the home of the Fire Spirit and it is her flames that dance around the mountain top.  She is our friend gives us her flames to warm us in winter and for us to cook by.”  With that, the children would settle down and sleep safely and gently until dawn.

One night the flames on the mountain danced themselves into a frenzy leaping and jumping upon the molten lake like warriors dancing a great war dance.  In their excitement, they caught hold of great rocks and threw them high in the air.  Great plumes of blues smoke issued from from cracks and gaps that appeared on the mountain and billowed into the sky blackening out the moon and stars.  From deep within the mountain, the throbbing, beating sound of drums shook the ground and the flames danced wildly, higher and higher. In their frenzy, they left the fiery lake at the center of the mountain summit and ran wildly down the mountainside.

The gentle Fire Spirit was alarmed at her excited children and called to them, “Quiet now, calm yourselves, you will frighten the people of the village.  They will not understand that you are just dancing!”

The flames continued dancing wildly and were too excited to listen.  They ran down the mountainside burning flowers and trees and anything else that was in their path. They drove the animals away and hunted them in the woods below and frightened the birds causing them to take to the air.  Burning rivers of molten rock and flame annihilated all that stood in the way.  The Fire Spirit begged and pleaded with them to stop but they would not and headed towards the village.

In the village, all slept soundly unaware of the danger, but the acrid smell of the smoke awoke one of the warriors who looked out and saw the danger.  Crying out warnings he quickly roused the villagers.  In fear, the terrified villager quickly abandoned the village and ran into the forest as the flames descended upon their settlement and greedily ate the homes they had grown to love.

Thankfully all the villagers escaped into the forest unharmed though still terrified.  They huddled together and debated what they should do.  The two hunters said they would go up to the mountaintop and see what could be seen and they set off.  When they returned, they shook their heads sadly and one said, “All the flowers are burnt.  All the grass is burnt.  All the trees are burnt and the birds and animals have fled.  Nothing lives on or around the mountain.”

The other said, “It is bare and burnt nothing can live on or near the Fire Mountain.  The Fire Spirit is still there as her flames can be seen in the cracks and the fissures and smoke still rises, though it is much lighter.  We think the Fire Spirit will never again be our friend.”

The Hummingbird is Born of Flame

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Female rufous hummingbird – Photo Credit: Peter Pearsall/USFWS – CC BY 2.0

The Great Spirit looked down and saw what damage the flames had done and he was angry.  “The flames must perish.  No longer will they dance and flicker in the night sky!”

The gentle Fire Spirit trembled for her wayward children.  “Great Spirit have mercy upon them!  It is true they grew wild and out of control, but they know not what they do.  They have burnt the flowers and grass, burnt the trees and driven away the birds and the animals and frightened off your own children and ate their village.  They have been cruel and unkind but they know not what they did.  

For many, many moons, in the coldness of winter, they have given their flames so the people and their children would not perish of cold and they could cook their food.  For many moons, they listened to me and were of great benefit to your children on earth, but in the wildness of their dance, they lost control.  How will your people keep warm and cook if the flames die completely from the earth?”

The Great Spirit heard the pleas of the gentle Fire Spirit and thought for a while but then said, “The flames must perish.  They lost control and were cruel to my children and they and their little children now fear them.  I hear what you say and the flames will not be lost entirely and they will still warm the people.  Because the people once loved them and because they know not what they did, the beauty of the flames shall live and warm and gladden the hearts of whoever looks upon them.”

Taking up his war-club the Great Spirit struck the top of the mountain a mighty blow.  The fires flickered and faded and the smoke slowly vanished and all the flames shrank slowly to condense into one small shining, flickering flame.  It was of such purity and glory and in its heart of hearts one tiny flame flicked with brilliant intensity.  The Great Spirit looked upon what he had done and was pleased.  It was looked like a star from the night sky but much brighter and much more beautiful.

“Although the fire of the mountain must perish this gentle flame shall have wings to fly and all my children will love her as I do myself!”  Thus, spoke the Great Spirit and from the mountain, a tiny bird fluttered up and hovered briefly.  Then it flew swiftly from the mountain into the blue sky.   As the sunshine caught upon its feathers they flickered, red, gold, orange and yellow and all the wonderful colors of the flame flickered from the bird.

So it was from the heart of the fiery mountain the bird of flame called the hummingbird was born and all the children of the Great Spirit that walk upon the earth rejoice whenever they see it.

© 12/07/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 12th, 2016 zteve t evans

Sacred Texts – THE BOOK OF NATURE MYTHS BY FLORENCE HOLBROOK [1904] – THE STORY OF THE FIRST HUMMINGBIRD

 

Petrification Myths: Saints, Snakes and Ammonites

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Asteroceras, a Jurassic ammonite from England – Image by Dlloyd – CC BY-SA 3.0

Petrification Myths

There are many petrification myths where people, or living things, are turned to stone for various reasons.  In legend and folklore this often occurs through the action of some powerful individual such as witches by sorcery, or by saints calling upon God, or by some other form of divine intervention when rules have been transgressed.  In the examples that follow it is divine intervention called down by St Hilda and St Keyne that turn snakes into stone to end their infestation of religious sites. The proof of these miraculous events was seen in the existence of what appears to look like petrified snakes coiled up and found naturally in certain places such as Whitby in Yorkshire that was associated with St. Hilda and Keynsham in Somerset, associated with St. Keyne.   In fact these stone snakes were not snakes at all but fossils known as ammonites.  Presented here is a brief description of ammonites followed by the legends of how Saint Hilda and Saint Keyne cleared their respective religious sites of snakes by turning them to stone.

Ammonites

The name” ammonite” comes from the Egyptian god Ammon, or Amun, who was often represented wearing tightly coiled ram’s horns.  These type of fossils are usually found in tightly coiled spirals, which are indeed,  similar to ram’s horns though usually smaller.  The size of the ammonites varies depending on the period they originated in and with species. Ammonites are extinct marine mollusks that died out millions of years ago and look very much like coiled, headless stone snakes after they became fossilized.  Sometimes they were called Snakestones and there was a belief that if they were broken, inside a headless, coiled snake would be found.

People found them in, or on the ground and along the beaches, in riverbeds and many other places and generally regarded them with superstition.   Sometimes they believed they had magical or healing properties and many strange and wonderful stories were told of their supposed origin.  In the early days of human existence, people did not know where they came from and many myths and legends evolved around them.  Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, the origin of fossils was the subject of myth and conjecture.   It was not until the 19th century that scientific research began to unravel the secret of their origins.

St. Hilda

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St. Hilda monument detail in Whitby. Note ammonites at feet – Image by Wilson44691 – CC0

Among fossil collectors, Whitby Beach is a prime site for finding ammonites. A local legend tells how the Saxon abbess named St. Hilda (614-680 A.D.) rid an area of snake infested ground to found an abbey upon.   For the early Christian church the idea of sharing their sacred ground with snakes was abhorrent because of their connection with Satan, so the site had to be purged before the building of the abbey could take place.  According to the legend, after St. Hilda prayed the snakes began to coil up.  She then used a whip she cut their heads off and their coiled up bodies petrified into stone and she threw these over the cliffs where they landed on the beaches of Whitby and can still be found to this day.

For a long time, local people have carved snake heads on the petrified bodies to make them look more realistic.  They have then been sold as mementos, souvenirs or charms and are still sold today. The favorite type of ammonite used for this was Hildoceras named after St. Hilda, and Dactylioceras.

St. Keyne

St. Keyne lived in the 5th century and is known by several names including Keane, Kayane,  Cenau, Cenedion, Ceinwen. She was a daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog in South Wales.  Some say King Brychan had twelve daughters while another source claims he had twenty-four, all of whom were said to be saints.

She was said to possess great beauty and was much sought after in marriage but instead decided to pursue her religion and took a vow of virginity.  The Church of St Keyne, in the village of St Keyne in Cornwall, is also associated with her and has a magnificent stained glass window featuring her holding an ammonite.  There is also a holy well that takes its name from her.

She is also associated with Keynsham, near Bristol, which has a legend that St. Keyne turned all the snakes in the area to stone.  Ammonite fossils are often found in the red sandstone of the area.   In Wales, in Brecon cathedral, she is depicted with ammonite-like snakes all around her.

Saints, Snakes, and Ammonites

The idea of ammonites being snakes that were turned to stone by these saints praying to God may be seen as illustrative of Satan, who is often represented by the snake, being defeated by the power of God through his agents on earth, St Hilda and St Keyne. In those days people had no idea where ammonites came from, or what they really were. It may be that using ammonites and their resemblance to coiled snakes as examples that can be found naturally to emphasize the power of God, may have seemed like a good strategy and indeed, it probably was.

© 01/02/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 2nd, 2017 zteve t evans