Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I think I've mentioned the Uktena, as it is known to the Cherokee, in earlier posts. It's a giant sort of snake, as big around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a crystal, like a crest, on its forehead. It has spots and is horribly dangerous even to think about. The blazing crystal is called Ulunsu'ti, "Transparent", and some word sleuths believe the name Uktena (pronounced Ookteen with a little cutoff gap after the n.) means "clear sighted". Transparent, of course, has more than one usage.

There are stories, cautionary stories, about people who managed to obtain the Transparent. It's too powerful and dangerous to keep in the house, so they were kept hidden in caves, and had to be fed, regularly, with, of course, blood. The owner would thereby acquire, by proxy, some of the powers of the Uktena, along with its testy and socially problematic personality. Transparent is said to be 4 to 6 inches long, with a blood red streak in the center. Eventually the owner would die, of course, and if they didn't pass Transparent, and its feeding schedule, on to someone else, the slighted crystal would grow enraged, like a pressure cooker left on high, until it exploded and shot out of the cave ever which way, flying through the sky like red hot crystalline fireballs, setting everything it came in contact with on fire and generally destroying things until the power dissipated.

This was not like the New Age crystals.

The image of the horned rattlesnake goes back a ways in the Americas. I saw a bunch of them carved on the pyramids in the Yucatan, like the small one right beside me in this pic from Chichen Itza. This is the temple of Kulkucan, aka The Giant Horned Rattlesnake. The hole is a cenote that they live on the other side of. To the right you can see a stone platform for throwing things, such as people, off of ~ or perhaps they jumped of their own accord. In any event, skeletons were found at the bottom.
Geologists claim that the cenotes mark the boundary of an impact crater made by a nine-mile wide meteorite, the one that killed off the dinosaurs. My Cherokee teacher, Mr. Calhoun, wondered if the Uktena was one that the meteorite didn't get.

About 900 years ago folks all over the Eastern US, and in some places across the Mississippi, were wearing shell gorgets engraved with the images of horned rattlesnakes. There's no proof, as far as archaeologists are concerned, that this has anything to do with Kukulcan, or any of the other giant horned rattlesnakes in central America, nor is there any proof that the gorget rattlesnakes are related to the Cherokee's Uktena, but come on. There's been a lot of speculation as to what, if anything, the gorgets signified. The rounds of shell were cut from conch shells, and engraved, with flint tools. I made one with a diamond tipped rotary tool and I can tell you that was hard work, burned up a bunch of tips, and took all day to make one sloppy approximation - so it took some skill and effort to make one.

Because they are spread all over the place, they would seem to indicate trade, or a widespread idea. The gorgets are found by graverobbers, or archaeologists, if you prefer, in graves of both sexes, and disparate ages. Perhaps they are talismans, or signify membership in a cult or club, or were just incredibly fashionable. They are beautiful.

The thing that amazes me about them is that they display such intriguing variations on a single well-established theme. No two are alike that I've seen, though some look as though they could have been made by the same artist, and all of them share certain traits in common. Some years ago I picked a dozen favorites and made drawings of the images. If you're like me, you can have some fun comparing them. There's probably no way to ever learn what they signified to their owners, but by admiring and comparing the designs, we can know something of how their imaginations worked when it came to horned rattlesnakes.


Cathy said...

They are beautiful. Like alien embryos.

Dan Dutton said...

Drawing these was a real eye-opener. It amazed me how that certain conventions, like the heart-shaped mouth, the cross-hatched ovoids that indicate scales, - the treatment of the eye, etc. - stay relatively stable,
and yet the combinations show such inventiveness. You probably would never guess that the last one even was of a rattlesnake if you hadn't seen the others - BUT, having seen the others, you recognize the variation instantly.

Dan Dutton said...

Speaking of alien embryos, these make me wonder if hallucinogenic plants were involved somehow. There's a psychedelic aspect to my eyes.

Mary Beth said...

I could not help but wonder if each one was a record of the inviduals dream/quest for/vision of the great horned snake. So much is the same, so much is different. It's rather like the tale of the blind men and the elephant.

Dan Dutton said...

I think that is an excellent guess. One thing is sure, each engraver had studied the conventions of the design very closely. None of them vary so far that someone familiar with the design would question their membership in the group.

Horned rattlesnakes were not the only subject of gorget engravings - and not all shell gorgets were engraved. There are four-directional crosses, spiders, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and falcon/men + some very rare images only found on one or two gorgets.
Just a few miles north of dandyland a gorget was found in a small mound with what is believed by some to be a jaguar. The only other jaguar gorget was found in Arkansas. The ID of the image is contested by archaeologists who do not believe there was trade in the eastern US with Meso-America during that period.
The range of the jaguar has been the subject of argument too. They were killed in historical times in Colorado, and were recently photographed in Arizona. 10,000 yr old jaguar tracks and bones were found in a Tennessee cave.
I half-way like to think that the perennial sightings of "painters" we have around here are black jaguars - but most biologists are unwilling to believe that even mountain lions can be seen in KY. If they had heard what I have heard, in the deep woods in the deep dark, they might rethink that. The painter (that's hillbilly for panther) is said to have a scream like a woman - I'd say that's putting a pleasant gloss on it.
I have a special affection for the black jaguar, as well as terror - one appeared, or I should say vocalized, in my first lucid dream. I assumed at the time it was to dissuade me from attempting a 2nd one, and it nearly did. I was afraid to sleep in my studio for a couple of nights afterwards! Eventually (and it took awhile) I became familiar with it and viewed it as a guardian.
So it was a special thrill to visit the pyramid of Ek Balaam in the Yucatan. (Ek =black, Balaam = jaguar in Mayan)
I get homesick for that jungle sometimes - it is so beautiful there.