Pottery vessel decorated with Uktena image. Courtesy of University of Arkansas Museum
Spirit beings associated with the Above World are opposed to Below World inhabitants, which include monstrous snakes, amphibians, and lizards that sometimes come out of caves, rivers, and lakes to visit the Middle World. The most fearsome of these creatures is a serpent with wings on its back and horns on its head. The Cherokees call this monster Uktena, and tell a story about Uktena and Tlanuwa, the great mythic hawks. In ancient times a pair of Tlanuwa had their nest in a cave high on a rock cliff. They were gigantic birds who flew up and down the river, and while passing over settlements sometimes swooped down to carry away dogs or even young children. The people were unable to reach the nest, and arrows shot at the Tlanuwa merely glanced off their feathers. At last the people sought the help of a medicine man. The medicine man made a long rope out of tree bark, and tied loops at the end for his feet. He had the people lower him down to the nest, which he reached with great difficulty. There he found four young birds, which he threw over the cliff into the river’s deep water. The great Uktena rose to the surface and devoured the young birds. The Tlanuwa became enraged when they returned to their empty nest, so they circled over the river until Uktena showed its head. The Tlanuwa plummeted straight down; one caught the serpent in its talons and lifted it into the sky while the other one tore it to pieces. The Tlanuwa carried the flayed serpent higher and higher until they were no longer in sight, and the people never saw them again.