Horned serpents are powerful magical beings in many Native American mythologies. They feature in the legends of both the Creeks and the Cherokees. Both groups apparently got the idea from what is called the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, network of cultural influences that spread across much of what is today the United States. As such, the creature is known by a number of names in various languages of the American Southeast, including:
chintoosakcho: Alabama (“crawfish snake”)
sint holo: Chickasaw, Choctaw
sinti lapitta: Choctaw
The horned serpent is a creature of chaos, the underworld counterpart to the “thunderers” or “thunder beings” who represent order and live in the sky. Beyond that, there are some distinctions between the Cherokee and the Creek horned serpent.
In Cherokee mythology, the word for horned serpent is uktena. These malevolent and deadly monsters inhabit deep underwater pools as well as the high mountains.
An uktena is as large around as a tree trunk. Its scales glitter like sparks of fire. It has horns on its head, naturally, and a bright, diamond-like crest on its forehead. This crest is greatly prized, as one who can retrieve it is supposedly imbued with the power to become a great wonder-worker. This is a dangerous quest, however, because the uktena’s dazzling appearance draws people toward the creature when they should be running away.
For the Creeks, the story is pretty much the same, though their horned serpent does not seem as outright evil or destructive as that of the Cherokees. It might even appear to wise young men. The Creek horned serpent is a huge creature armed with crystalline scales, with an extremely bright crystal adorning its forehead. As with the uktena’s diamond crest, this crystal is said to grant mystical powers to whoever might retrieve it.
The Creeks have another supernatural serpent called the tie snake, and accounts differ as to whether they two are the same or whether they are, in fact, distinct creatures—though sometimes called by the same name. I’ll tackle tie snakes in a later installment.