Cherokee

The Tale of the Wampus Cat

Monsters in America

It all started with “chest of drawers.” My particularly accented East Tennessee friend threw her head back at brunch and giggled that she used to think that a dresser (pronounced “chester-dra-wers”) was named after a man named Chester, and she always wondered who this Chester was and why he had so many drawers.

I just wondered why in the hell my family didn’t just call it a dresser?  We talked and talked until we got to “catawampus” and not a one of us could confidently define it, only what we had heard it in relation to. Of course, the first dispute was what the actual word was, and according to Wikipedia there is quite a range:

  • catawamptious
  • catawampous
  • cattywampus
  • cattywampous
  • caliwampus
  • caliwampous
  • cankywampus
  • kittywampus
  • gittywampus
  • skiwampus

For a ridiculous word, why the variation? What’s up with the cats? Was there a cat? Can wampus be a verb? It sent me in a downward spiral which in truth, does not lead to a very interesting etymology (probably old Norse or Scandanavian for crooked).

However, it did lead to some interesting Tennessee lore about the Wampus Cat…

In the hills of Tennessee skulks a creature – half mountain cat, half woman who walks on two legs and howls in the night. The woman was once the most beautiful Cherokee in all the land named Running Deer.  Running Deer’s husband, Great Fellow, went hunting one night to slay the evil spirit Ewah. He came back wild and half crazy, leaving Running Deer to angrily confront Ewah.  She wore the mask of a wildcat on her face for protection and fought viciously and bravely.  Due to her courage, she assumed the role of guardian against all evil spirits on the land. Running Deer is still believed by the Cherokee to protect the sacred hunting ground surrounding her home in East Tennessee, and spark fear in the hearts of white men across the Smoky Mountains.

Many believe that Running Deer is the Wampus Cat, whose legend spans all of East Tennessee.  Everyone’s got some drunk uncle or ex-boyfriend’s mom who has seen The Wampus Cat over there – although the tale of the Wampus Cat is slightly different.  The Wampus Cat was still a Cherokee woman, but she became so as punishment.  She snuck out to her husband’s hunting trip disguised in skins of a wildcat and overheard stories of magic that were only reserved for men.  The medicine man fused the skins to the woman and she was forced to live as an outcast.

Always in the dead of night, the Wampus Cat appears screeching and howling with giant yellow glowing eyes and huge wildcat paws. The Wampus Cat is also known as a harbinger of death for once one hears her cry, someone will die within the next three days.

Have you seen or heard the Wampus Cat?

Uktena

Down the serenely winding roads of an almost European looking corner of Chattanooga, Tennessee is a well-known sculpture garden in the Arts District.  There stands a striking sculpture of Icharus that looks as though he could sail off the side of the cliff into the muddy Tennessee River below.

Some know that Icharus, whose hubris was his downfall, flew too close to the sun with wax wings and fell into the sea where he drowned.  What many don’t know is that directly under where Icharus stands frozen in time, is where a living legend first appeared to the Cherokee people across riverbank.

Uktena

Uktena is the name belonging to the horned serpent, a ‘monster’ which was once human but turned into an Uktena in an attempt to kill the sun.  He failed, like Icharus, but still lives among the people.

The great horned serpent is said to have a diamond on his head, with scales that appear to be ablaze.  The crystal clear diamond has a red streak through the center and can be likened to the Holy Grail quest of Christian traditions.

Only one warrior has ever captured the U’lun sunti (the diamond), but many have tried.  With the diamond, the rightful owner can peer into the future and bring great luck to the people.  But- do not, dear friends, go in search of the Uktena for yourself for as the story goes, it will bring instant death to White Man, and death to the family of the Cherokee  person who sees it.

(From Myths of the Cherokee  by James Mooney,
Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I. [1900])