Uncanny Georgia: Water Cannibals

Cherokee mythology includes a number of supernatural beings: some friendly, some neutral, some definitely hostile. In this last category are the ama yvwigisgi or “water cannibals.”

Water cannibals live at the bottoms of deep rivers. As their name implies, they are partial to the taste of human flesh, especially that of small children. According to James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1900),

They come out just after daybreak and go about unseen from house to house until they find some one still asleep, when they shoot him with their invisible arrows and carry the dead body down under the water to feast upon it. That no one may know what has happened they leave in place of the body a shade or image of the dead man or little child, that wakes up and talks and goes about just as he did, but there is no life in it, and in seven days it withers and dies, and the people bury it and think they are burying their dead friend. It was a long time before the people found out about this, but now they always try to be awake at daylight and wake up the children, telling them “The hunters are among you.” (349)

Kidnapping children and replacing them with a magical decoy sounds like the tactic of a European troll or faery. I can’t help but wonder if this detail came about after the Cherokee had dealings with Europeans or whether it reflects a more universal mythical theme, perhaps a way to rationalize the sudden death or sickness of a child.

Water cannibals have yet to appear in the Into the Wonder Series, although a character refers to them at one point in Children of Pride. Similar creatures from Choctaw mythology called the okwa naholo do appear, however, in The Devil’s Due.

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