Friday, August 28, 2009

Nag Mani and the Uktena, II

Part 2 of 4



Much of what I know about the Uktena comes from the anthropological research of James Mooney who worked among the Eastern Cherokee in the 1880s. Mooney referred to old accounts of the talismanic stone found in the head of the serpent, similar to the stone in the head of the Algonquin Gitchi-Kenebig, or the Nag Mani of the Southeast Asian cobra.

In 1762, Lt. Henry Timberlake of Virginia was on a peace mission in the Overhills settlements of the Cherokee, along the lower Little Tennessee, where he heard of this special stone. From Timberlake's Memoirs:

They have many beautiful stones of different colours, many of which, I am apt to believe, are of great value; but their superstition has always prevented their disposing of them to the traders, who have made many attempts to that purpose; but as they use them in their conjuring ceremonies, they believe their parting with them or bringing them from home, would prejudice their health or affairs.

Among others there is one in the possession of a conjurer, remarkable for its brilliancy and beauty, but more so for the extraordinary manner in which it was found. It grew, if we may credit the Indians, on the head of a monstrous serpent, whose retreat was, by its brilliancy, discovered; but a great number of snakes attending him, he being, as I suppose by his diadem, of a superior rank among the serpents, made it dangerous to attack him.

Many were the attempts made by the Indians, but all frustrated, till a fellow more bold than the rest, casing himself in leather, impenetrable to the bite of the serpent or his guards, and watching a convenient opportunity, surprised and killed him, tearing his jewel from his head, which the conjurer has kept hid for many years, in some place unknown to all but two women, who have been offered large presents to betray it, but steadily refused, lest some signal judgment or mischance should follow.

That such a stone exists, I believe, having seen many of great beauty; but I cannot think it would answer all the encomiums the Indians bestow upon it. The conjurer, I suppose, hatched the account of its discovery; I have however given it to the reader, as a specimen of an Indian story, many of which are much more surprising.




"A Priest and a Conjurer" from Robert Beverley, ca. 1705


Around 1890, James Mooney wrote of the stones associated with the Uktena:

The Southern Alleghenies, the old Cherokee country, abound with crystals of various kinds, as well as with minerals. The Ulunsu-ti is described as a triangular crystal about two inches long, flat on the bottom, and with slightly convex aides tapering up to a point, and perfectly transparent with the exception of a single red streak running through the center from top to bottom. It is evidently a rare and beautiful specimen of rutile quartz, crystals of which, found in the region, may be seen in the National Museum at Washington.

Other small stones of various shapes and color are in common use among the Cherokee conjurers to discover lost articles or for other occult purposes. These also are frequently called by the same name, and are said to have been originally the scales of the Uktena, but the Ulunsu-ti—the talisman from the forehead of the serpent—is the crystal here described, and is so exceedingly rare that so far as is known only one remained among the East Cherokee in 1890. Its owner, a famous hunter, kept it hidden in a cave, wrapped up in a deerskin, but refused all inducements to show it, much less to part with it, stating that if he should expose it to the gaze of a white man he could kill no more game, even were he permitted to live after such a sacrilege.

The possession of the talisman insures success in hunting, love, rain making, and all other undertakings, but its great use is in life divination, and when it is invoked for this purpose by its owner the future is mirrored in the transparent crystal as a tree is reflected in the quiet stream below.

When consulting it the conjurer gazes into the crystal, and after some little time sees in its transparent depths a picture of the person or event in question. By the action of the specter, or its position near the top or bottom of the crystal, he learns not only the event itself, but also its nearness in time or place.

Many of the East Cherokee who enlisted in the Confederate service during the late war consulted the Ulunsu-ti before starting, and survivors declare that their experiences verified the prediction. One of these had gone with two others to consult the fates. The conjurer, placing the three men facing him, took the talisman upon the end of his outstretched finger and bade them look intently into it. After some moments they saw their own images at the bottom of the crystal. The images gradually ascended along the red line. Those of the other two men rose to the middle and then again descended, but the presentment of the one who tells the story continued to ascend until it reached the top before going down again. The conjurer then said that the other two would die in the second year of the war, but the third would survive through hardships and narrow escapes and live to return home. As the prophecy, so the event.

When consulted by the friends of a sick man to know if he will recover, the conjurer shows them the image of the sick man lying at the bottom of the Ulunsu-ti. He then tells them to go home and kill some game (or, in these latter days, any food animal) and to prepare a feast. On the appointed day the conjurer, at his own home, looks into the crystal and sees there the picture of the party at dinner. If the image of the sick man rises and joins them at the feast the patient will recover; if otherwise, he is doomed.

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