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My Quest to Find the Legendary Uktena Horned Serpent

The Egyptian hieroglyph of a horned viper.

Throughout the history of mankind, and in cultures around the world, generations of people have passed down stories of a legendary horned serpent.

The image of a horned viper is frequently seen among the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.


Four Uktena

Among the Tsalagi / Cherokee tribes, this snake was known as an Uktena. A similar creature exists in the oral histories of many other Native American tribes:

  • Avanyu (Tewa)
  • Misi-kinepikw (Cree)
  • Msi-kinepikwa (Shawnee)
  • Misi-ginebig (Oji-Cree)
  • Mishi-ginebig (Ojibwe)
  • Olobit (Natchez)
  • Pita-skog (Abenaki)
  • Sinti lapitta (Choctaw)
  • Tie-Snakes, Estakwvnayv (Muscogee)
  • Tcinto s�ktco (Alabama)
  • Uktena (Cherokee)
  • Unktehi or Unktehila (Dakota)
  • Unktehila (Lakota)

Above is an artistic rendering of four Uktena serpents by Herb Roe, which was copied from a shell engraving in Spiro, Oklahoma.

Although the only horned viper currently in America is the sidewinder rattlesnake, we have to wonder if at one time there really was such a creature as the Uktena.


Perhaps the best description of the Uktena was recorded by anthropologist James Mooney. Before we start our search for the mighty Uktena, let's review what the legend says about this elusive serpent:

Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney

From Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98


The Daughter of the Sun

The Sun lived on the other side of the sky vault, but her daughter lived in the middle of the sky, directly above the earth, and every day as the Sun was climbing along the sky arch to the west she used to stop at her daughter's house for dinner.

Now, the Sun hated the people on the earth, because they could never look straight at her without screwing up their faces. She said to her brother, the Moon, "My grandchildren are ugly; they grin all over their faces when they look at me." But the Moon said, "I like my younger brothers; I think they are very handsome" because they always smiled pleasantly when they saw him in the sky at night, for his rays were milder.

The Sun was jealous and planned to kill all the people, so every day when she got near her daughter's house she sent down such sultry rays that there was a great fever and the people died by hundreds, until everyone had lost some friend and there was fear that no one would be left. They went for help to the Little Men, who said the only way to save themselves was to kill the Sun.

The Little Men made medicine and changed two men to snakes, the Spreading-adder and the Copperhead, and sent them to watch near the door of the daughter of the Sun to bite the old Sun when she came next day. They went together and bid near the house until the Sun came, but when the Spreading-adder was about to spring, the bright light blinded him and he could only spit out yellow slime, as he does to this day when he tries to bite. She called him a nasty thing and went by into the house, and the Copperhead crawled off without trying to do anything.

So the people still died from the heat, and they went to the Little Men a second time for help. The Little Men made medicine again and changed one man into the great Uktena and another into the Rattlesnake and sent them to watch near the house and kill the old Sun when she came for dinner. They made the Uktena very large, with horns on his head, and everyone thought he would be sure to do the work, but the Rattlesnake was so quick and eager that he got ahead and coiled up just outside the house, and when the Sun's daughter opened the door to look out for her mother, he sprang up and bit her and she fell dead in the doorway. He forgot to wait for the old Sun, but went back to the people, and the Uktena was so very angry that he went back, too. Since then we pray to the rattlesnake and do not kill him, because he is kind and never tries to bite if we do not disturb him. The Uktena grew angrier all the time and very dangerous, so that if he even looked at a man, that man's family would die. After a long time the people held a council and decided that he was too dangerous to be with them, so they sent him up to G�l��'l�t�, and he is there now. The Spreading-adder, the Copperhead, the Rattlesnake, and the Uktena were all men.

When the Sun found her daughter dead, she went into the house and grieved, and the people did not die any more, but now the world was dark all the time, because the Sun would not come out. They went again to the Little Men, and these told them that if they wanted the Sun to come out again they must bring back her daughter from Ts�sgin�'�, the Ghost country, in Us'��hi'y�, the Darkening land in the west. They chose seven men to go, and gave each a sourwood rod a hand-breadth long. The Little Men told them they must take a box with them, and when they got to Ts�sgin�'� they would find all the ghosts at a dance. They must stand outside the circle, and when the young woman passed in the dance they must strike her with the rods and she would fall to the ground. Then they must put her into the box and bring her back to her mother, but they must be very sure not to open the box, even a little way, until they were home again.

They took the rods and a box and traveled seven days to the west until they came to the Darkening land. There were a great many people there, and they were having a dance just as if they were at home in the settlements. The young woman was in the outside circle, and as she swung around to where the seven men were standing, one struck her with his rod and she turned her head and saw him. As she came around the second time another touched her with his rod, and then another and another, until at the seventh round she fell out of the ring, and they put her into the box and closed the lid fast. The other ghosts seemed never to notice what had happened.

They took up the box and started home toward the east. In a little while the girl came to life again and begged to be let out of the box, but they made no answer and went on. Soon she called again and said she was hungry, but still they made no answer and went on. After another while she spoke again and called for a drink and pleaded so that it was very hard to listen to her, but the men who carried the box said nothing and still went on. When at last they were very near home, she called again and begged them to raise the lid just a little, because she was smothering. They were afraid she was really dying now, so they lifted the lid a little to give her air, but as they did so there was a fluttering sound inside and something flew past them into the thicket and they heard a redbird cry, "kwish! kwish! kwish!" in the bushes. They shut down the lid and went on again to the settlements, but when they got there and opened the box it was empty.

So we know the Redbird is the daughter of the Sun, and if the men had kept the box closed, as the Little Men told them to do, they would have brought her home safely, and we could bring back our other friends also from the Ghost country, but now when they die we can never bring them back.

The Sun had been glad when they started to the Ghost country, but when they came back without her daughter she grieved and cried, "My daughter, my daughter," and wept until her tears made a flood upon the earth, and the people were afraid the world would be drowned. They held another council, and sent their handsomest young men and women to amuse her so that she would stop crying. They danced before the Sun and sang their best songs, but for a long time she kept her face covered and paid no attention, until at last the drummer suddenly changed the song, when she lifted up her face, and was so pleased at the sight that she forgot her grief and smiled.

The Uktena and the Ul��s�'t�

H�lahi'yu - Long ago when the Sun became angry at the people on earth and sent a sickness to destroy them, the Little Men changed a man into a monster snake, which they called Uktena, "The Keen-eyed," and sent him to kill her. He failed to do the work, and the Rattlesnake had to be sent instead, which made the Uktena so jealous and angry that the people were afraid of him and had him taken up to G�l��'l�t�, to stay with the other dangerous things. He left others behind him, though, nearly as large and dangerous as himself, and they hide now in deep pools in the river and about lonely passes in the high mountains, the places which the Cherokee call "Where the Uktena stays."

Those who know say that the Uktena is a great snake, as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright, blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length, and can not be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and its life. The blazing diamond is called Ul��s�'t� "Transparent," and he who can win it may become the greatest wonder worker of the tribe, but it is worth a man's life to attempt it, for whoever is seen by the Uktena is so dazed by the bright light that he runs toward the snake instead of trying to escape.

Even to see the Uktena asleep is death, not to the hunter himself, but to his family.

Of all the daring warriors who have started out in search of the Ul��s�'t� only �g�n-uni'ts� ever came back successful. The East Cherokee still keep the one which he brought. It is like a large transparent crystal, nearly the shape of a cartridge bullet, with a blood-red streak running through the center from top to bottom. The owner keeps it wrapped in a whole deerskin, inside an earthen jar hidden away in a secret cave in the mountains. Every seven days he feeds it with the blood of small game, rubbing the blood all over the crystal as soon as the animal has been killed. Twice a year it must have the blood of a deer or some other large animal. Should he forget to feed it at the proper time it would come out from its cave at night in the shape of fire and fly through the air to slake its thirst with the lifeblood of the conjurer or some one of his people. He may save himself from this danger by telling it, when he puts it away, that he will not need it again for a long time. It will then go quietly to sleep and feel no hunger until it is again brought out to be consulted. Then it must be fed again with blood before it is used.

No white man must ever see it and no person but the owner will venture near it for fear of sudden death. Even the conjurer who keeps it is afraid of it, and changes its hiding place every once ill a while so that it can not learn the way out. When he dies it will be buried with him. Otherwise it will come out of its cave, like a blazing star, to search for his grave, night after night for seven years, when, if still not able to find him, it will go back to sleep forever where he has placed it.

Whoever owns the Ul��s�'t� is sure of success in hunting, love, rainmaking, and every other business, but its great use is in life prophecy. When it is consulted for this purpose the future is seen mirrored in the clear crystal as a tree is reflected in the quiet stream below, and the conjurer knows whether the sick man will recover, whether the warrior will return from battle, or whether the youth will live to be old.


Sandstone engraving artistic at Moundville, Alabama

A sandstone disk engraving is located at Moundville, Alabama which has been colorized by an artist.


�g�n-uni'ts�'s Search for the Uktena

In one of their battles with the Shawano, who are all magicians, the Cherokee captured a great medicine-man whose name was �g�n-uni'ts�, "The Ground-hogs' Mother." They had tied him ready for the torture when he begged for his life and engaged, if spared, to find for them the great wonder worker, the Ul��s�'t�. Now, the Ul��s�'t� is like a blazing star set in the forehead of the great Uktena serpent, and the medicine-man who could possess it might do marvelous things, but everyone knew this could not be, because it was certain death to meet the Uktena. They warned him of all this but he only answered that his medicine was strong and he was not afraid. So they gave him his life on that condition and he began the search.

The Uktena used to lie in wait in lonely places to surprise its victims, and especially haunted the dark passes of the Great Smoky Mountains. Knowing this, the magician went first to a gap in the range on the far northern border of the Cherokee country. He searched and found there a monster blacksnake, larger than had ever been known before, but it was not what he was looking for, and he laughed at it as something too small for notice. Coming southward to the next gap he found there a great moccasin snake, the largest ever seen, but when the people wondered he said it was nothing. In the next gap he found a greensnake and called the people to see "the pretty s�likw�'y�," but when they found an immense greensnake coiled up in the path they ran away in fear. Coming on to U't�wag�n'ta, the Bald Mountain, he found there a great diya'h�l� (lizard) basking, but, although it was large and terrible to look at, it was not what he wanted and he paid no attention to it. Going still south to Wal�si'y�, the Frog place, he found a great frog squatting in the gap, but when the people who came to see it were frightened like the others and ran away from the monster he mocked at them for being afraid of a frog and went on to the next gap. He went on to Duniskwa`lg��'y�, the Gap of the Forked Antler, and to the enchanted lake of Atag�'h�, and at each he found monstrous reptiles, but he said they were nothing. He thought the Uktena might be hiding in the deep water at Tlanusi'y�, the Leech place, on Hiwassee, where other strange things had been seen before, and going there he dived far down under the surface. He saw turtles and water snakes, and two immense sun-perches rushed at him and retreated again, but that was all. Other places he tried, going always southward, and at last on Gah�'t� mountain he found the Uktena asleep.

Turning without noise, he ran swiftly down the mountain side as far as he could go with one long breath, nearly to the bottom of the slope. There he stopped and piled up a great circle of pine cones, and inside of it he dug a deep trench. Then he set fire to the cones and came back again up the, mountain.

The Uktena was still asleep, and, putting an arrow to his bow, �g�n-uni'ts� shot and sent the arrow through its heart, which was under the seventh spot from the serpent's head. The great snake raised his head, with the diamond in front flashing fire, and came straight at his enemy, but the magician, turning quickly, ran at full speed down the mountain, cleared the circle of fire and the trench at one bound, and lay down on the ground inside.

The Uktena tried to follow, but the arrow was through his heart. and in another moment he rolled over in his death struggle, spitting poison over all the mountain side. But the poison drops could not pass the circle of fire, but only hissed and sputtered in the blaze, and the magician on the inside was untouched except by one small drop which struck upon his head as he lay close to the ground; but he did not know it. The blood, too, as poisonous as the froth, poured from the Uktena's wound and down the slope in a dark stream, but it ran into the trench and left him 'Unharmed. The dying monster rolled over and over down the mountain, breaking down large trees in its path until it reached the bottom. Then �g�n-uni'ts� called every bird in all the woods to come to the feast, and so many came that when they were done not even the bones were left.

After seven days he went by night to the spot. The body and the bones of the snake were gone, all eaten by the birds, but he saw a bright light shining in the darkness, and going over to it he found, resting on a low-hanging branch, where a raven had dropped it, the diamond from the head of the Uktena. He wrapped it up carefully and took it with him, and from that time he became the greatest medicine-man in the whole tribe.

When �g�n-uni'ts� came down again to the settlement the people noticed a small snake hanging from his head where the single drop of poison from the Uktena had struck; but so long as he lived he himself never knew that it was there.

Where the blood of the Uktena had filled the trench a lake formed afterwards, and the water was black and in this water the women used to dye the cane splits for their baskets.


Citico Creek Tennessee The mouth of the Citico (across the river on the left) along the Little Tennessee River. The ancient Cherokee village of Citico was located at the confluence of these two streams. It is the site of a legendary battle between the Tluwanas and the Uktena.


The Red Man and the Uktena

Two brothers went bunting together, and when they came to a good camping place in the mountains they made a fire, and while one gathered bark to put up a shelter the other started up the creek to look for a deer. Soon he heard a noise on the top of the ridge as if two animals were fighting. He hurried through the bushes to see what it might be, and when he came to the spot he found a great Uktena coiled around a man and choking him to death. The man was fighting for his life, and called out to the hunter: "Help me, nephew; he is your enemy as well as mine." The hunter took good aim, and, drawing the arrow to the head, sent it through the body of the uktena, so that the blood spouted from the hole. The snake loosed its coils with a snapping noise, and went tumbling down the ridge into the valley, tearing up the earth like a water spout as it rolled..

The stranger stood up, and it was the Asga'ya Gi'g�ge�, the Red Man of the Lightning. He said to the hunter: "You have helped me, and now I will reward you, and give you a medicine so that you can always find game." They waited until it was dark, and then went down the ridge to where the dead Uktena had rolled, but by this time the birds and insects had eaten the body and only the bones were left. In one place were flashes of light coming up from the ground, and on digging here, just under the surface, the Red Man found a scale of the uktena. Next he went over to a tree that had been struck by lightning, and gathering a handful of splinters he made a fire and burned the Uktena scale to a coal. He wrapped this in a piece of deerskin and gave it to the hunter, saying: "As long as you keep this you can always kill game." Then he told the hunter that when he went back to camp he must hang up the medicine on a tree outside, because it was very strong and dangerous. He told him also that when he went into the cabin he would find his brother lying inside nearly dead on account of the presence of the uktena's scale, but he must take a small piece of cane, which the Red Man gave him, and scrape a little of it into water and give it to his brother to drink and he would be well again. Then the Red Man was gone, and the hunter could not see where he went. He returned to camp alone, and found his brother very sick, but soon cured him with the medicine from the cane, and that, day and the next, and every day after, he found game whenever he went for it.


Queen Snake or Natricidae Regina Septemvittata

The Alabama tribal history says the "Crawfish Snake" had colored horns of blue, red, white, or yellow. Since I live in Alabama, this was the logical starting point for my search.

The Glossy Crayfish Snake (Natricidae Regina Rigida) is two feet long, slender, and medium-sized with a glossy appearance. They are blackish on top, tan on bottom with two rows of black stripes down the length of the scutes. They have large scales on the head, but no horns. Their young are more brownish on top and are very shiny, thus the "glossy" name.

A Queen Snake (Natricidae Regina Septemvittata) (in photograph) is two feet long, slender, and medium sized. They are dark greenish on top with white line on each side from nose to tail, two rows of black stripes down the length of the scutes. They also have large scales on the head, but no horns.

Both species are water snakes and they typically eat crawfish and other small animals, but they don't have any horns. I wonder if the snake called a "crawfish snake" in modern times is the same one recorded by the Alabama Indians. Although these two snakes are from the area, they are clearly not the mighty Uktena.


Coast Garter Snake or Thamnophis Elegans Terrestris

Each characteristic of the Uktena (except the crystal) can be found in other snakes of the region, but I can find no single snake species with all of those attributes.

The legend describes one unique feature, which is a horrible stench. The Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis Elegans Terrestris) excretes a very foul smelling musk when disturbed.


The last characteristic of the Uktena I will examine is the unusual ability to emit bright light. Could this have been a form of bioluminescence? Most creatures that dwell in caves lose their eyesight and pigmentation, so bioluminescence wouldn't be helpful in the the pursuit of cave creatures. It could possibly help attract non-cave dwellers, as their light might be confused with the cave opening and animals would come towards their light thinking they were escaping. If the Uktena was in deep water, bioluminescence would help attract fish and other water creatures.

As with the other Uktena traits, I like to see if there are other existing animals that have the same characteristics. Could there be a very rare cave creature that has bioluminescence? Yes! In the Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama lives such a creature that is rarely seen in any other place on earth.

When darkness falls on the Dismals Canyon, visitors can witness a plethora of little Dismalites that cling to the rock walls and emit a bluish-green glow to attract their prey.

For more information on the Dismals Canyon Conservatory visit their web site at: DismalsCanyon.com


The following snakes are from the region, but none match the description of the Uktena. I've provided thumbnail images where available. To see larger images, visit SnakesAndFrogs.com.

Common Name

Scientific Name

Photo

Copperhead (Venomous!)

Agkistrodon contortrix

Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix snake

Cottonmouth / Water Moccasin (Venomous!)

Agkistrodon piscivorus

Cottonmouth snake

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Venomous!)

Crotalus adamanteus

Crotalus adamanteus snake

Pigmy Rattlesnake (Venomous!)

Sistrurus miliarius

Sistrurus miliaris miliaris snake

Coral Snake (Venomous!)

Micrurus fulvius

Coral snake

Worm Snake

Carphophis amoenus

No Photo

Scarlet Snake

Cemophora coccinea

Cemophora Coccinea snake

Black Racer

Coluber constrictor

No Photo

Ringneck Snake

Diadophis punctatus

Diadophis Punctatus Edwards II snake

Indigo Snake

Drymarchon corais

No Photo

Corn Snake

Elaphe guttata

No Photo

Rat Snake

Elaphe obsoleta

Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata snake

Mud Snake

Farancia abacura

Farancia abacura abacura snake

Rainbow Snake

Farancia erytrogramma

No Photo

Eastern Hognose Snake

Heterodon platirhinos

Heterodon platirhinos snake

Southern Hognose Snake

Heterodon simus

No Photo

Mole Kingsnake

Lampropeltis calligaster

Lampropeltis calligaster rhombomaculata snake

Eastern Kingsnake

Lampropeltis getula

Lampropeltis getula getula snake

Milk Snake

Lampropeltis triangulum

Autumn milk snake

Scarlet Kingsnake

Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides

Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides snake

Coachwhip

Masticophis flagellum

No Photo

Redbelly Water Snake

Nerodia erythrogaster

Nerodia erythrogaster snake

Banded Water Snake

Nerodia fasciata

No Photo

Green Water Snake

Nerodia floridana

No Photo

Northern Water Snake

Nerodia sipedon

Nerodia sipedon snake

Brown Water Snake

Nerodia taxispilota

Brown Water snake

Rough Green Snake

Opheodrys aestivus

Opheodrys aestivus snake

Pine Snake

Pituophis melanoleucus

Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus snake

Striped Crayfish Snake

Regina alleni

No Photo

Glossy Crayfish Snake

Regina rigida

No Photo

Queen snake

Regina septemvittata

Regina_septemvittata snake

Pine Woods Snake

Rhadinaea flavilata

Rhadinaea flavilata snake

Black Swamp Snake

Seminatrix pygaea

No Photo

Brown Snake

Storeria dekayi

No Photo

Red-bellied Snake

Storeria occipitomaculata

No Photo

Florida Brown Snake

Storeria victa

No Photo

Southeastern Crowned Snake

Tantilla coronata

No Photo

Central Florida Crowned Snake

Tantilla relicta

No Photo

Eastern Ribbon Snake

Thamnophis sauritus

No Photo

Eastern Garter Snake

Thamnophis sirtalis

Eastern Garter Snake

Rough Earth Snake

Virginia striatula

Virginia striatula snake

Smooth Earth Snake

Virginia valeriae

No Photo

To see larger images of these snakes, visit SnakesAndFrogs.com.

The only venomous snakes in the Cherokee homelands of north Alabama are: Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), Cottonmouths or Water Mocassins (Agkistrodon piscivorus), Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus, Crotalus horridus, Sistrurus miliarius), and Eastern Coral Snakes (Micrurus fulvius fulvius). The only horned viper found in the United States is the Sidewinder Rattlesnake which lives in the southwestern deserts.

After a thorough search of the area, I could find no Uktena serpent, but I do believe that it may have once existed. Some Cherokees claim to possess Uktena horns or crystals, but so far no one has come forward with any proof.

Have you seen or have evidence of a real Uktena? If so, please contact me at: Gary@CleverThings.com

Special thanks to all of the biologists, herpetologists, and the Department of Biology & Center for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee who assisted with my research.