I often think about the civilizations that occupied this continent before us. We know so little of their rise and fall. It’s not easy to connect the dots and create a meaningful picture when you can barely find the dots. Once in a while, though, something happens to shine a light upon the dark mysteries.
Many months ago, I posted “gravity is the source of lightness” recounting my meanders along the Tuckasegee River to contemplate ancient fish weirs and recent stacks of stones. In that story, I mentioned Peter Waksman, who had discovered arrays of stacked stones in Massachusetts. Soon thereafter, I had the good fortune to hear from Mr. Waksman and to learn about his Rock Piles blog, which reports on unusual assemblages of rocks in New England.
A couple of weeks ago, Waksman described a recent discovery that had reminded him of something I had mentioned in my story about the Tuckasegee. I had included a photograph of the place in the river that the Cherokee called “Datleyastai” or “where they fell.” As I went on to explain, the “they” in this case were:
…two Uktena tangled as though in combat, rose from the river, and fell back into the water. Uktena, in case you’ve not seen one lately, is a monstrous snake, as big around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, a bright, blazing crest like a diamond on its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire. Whoever is seen by the Uktena is so dazed by the bright light that he runs toward the snake instead of trying to escape.
The arrangement of rocks that Waksman found near Westford, MA bore a resemblance to the Uktena with a horned head and a contrasting piece of quartz in the neck. Upon further examination, Waksman found a smaller creature following the first and it, too, had a strategically placed piece of quartz in its body.
After studying his story and photos, I consulted James Mooney (1861-1921), the anthropologist who recorded much of what we know about the Uktena. Mooney stated:
Myths of a jewel in the head of a serpent or of a toad are so common to all Aryan nations as to have become proverbial. Talismanic and prophetic stones, which are carefully guarded, and to which prayer and sacrifice are offered, are kept in many tribes.
Since it is likely that some of the Algonquin tribes were active in what we now call Massachusetts, this comment from Mooney really caught my attention:
The Uktena has its parallel in the Gitchi-Kenebig or Great Horned Serpent of the northern Algonquin tribes.
The effigy discovered near Westford just might be an Uktena, or more accurately, Gitchi-Kenebig. The piece of quartz in its head could be the magical Ulunsuti sought by the conjurer. It is fascinating to read the accounts of the earliest European travelers through Cherokee country, who wrote accounts of the talismanic stones treasured by the natives.
If you want to visit the home of the Uktena, then you should travel to Gahuti, or Cohuttta Mountain, in Murray County, Georgia. This was the place where the Shawano captive, Aganunitsi, attacked the Uktena. (Could this explain the enormous stone wall built upon the nearby Fort Mountain?) Mooney tells us:
The Shawano, who at one time occupied the Cumberland region of Tennessee immediately adjoining the Cherokee, were regarded as wizards by all the southern tribes.
Finally, D. G. Brinton explains how the Shawano shared the news of the Great Horned Serpent:
Among the Algonkins the Shawnee tribe did more than all others combined to introduce and carry about religious legends and ceremonies. From the earliest times they seem to have had peculiar aptitude for the ecstacies, deceits, and fancies that make up the spiritual life of their associates. Their constantly roving life brought them in contact with the myths of many nations, and it is extremely probable that they first brought the tale of the horned serpent from the Creeks and Cherokees.
So, do I believe there is a more-than-coincidental connection between the Uktena of the Tuckasegee and the Gitchi-Kenebig of Westford, MA?
Of course I do.