When I was a boy, this is what the old men told me they heard when they were boys.
Long years ago, soon after the world was made, a hunter and his wife lived at Pilot Knob with their only child, a little boy. The father's name was Kanati, the Lucky Hunter, and his wife was called Selu, Corn. No matter when Kanati went into the wood, he never failed to bring back a load of game, which his wife would cut up and prepare, washing off the blood from the meat in the river near the house.
The little boy used to play down by the river every day. One morning the old people thought they heard laughing and talking in the bushes as though there were two children playing there. When the boy came home at night, his parents asked him who had been playing with him all day. "He comes out of the water," said the boy, "and he calls himself my elder brother. He says his mother was cruel to him and threw him into the river." Then they knew that the strange boy had sprung from the blood of the game which Selu had washed off at the river's edge.
Every day, when the little boy went out to play, the other would join him. As he always went back again into the water, the old people never had a chance to see him. At last, one evening, Kanati said to his son, "Tomorrow, when the other boy comes to play, get him to wrestle with you, and when you have your arms around him hold onto him and call for us."
The boy promised to do as he was told, so the next day, as soon as his playmate appeared, he challenged him to a wrestling match. The other agreed at once, but as soon as they had their arms around each other, Kanati's boy began to scream for his father. The old folks at once came running down, and as soon as the Wild Boy saw them, he struggled to free himself and cried out, "Let me go; you threw me away!" However, his brother held on until the parents reached the spot, where they seized the Wild Boy and took him home with them. They kept him in the house until they had tamed him, but he was always wild and artful in his disposition and was the leader of his brother in every mischief. It was not long before the old people discovered that he had magic powers, and they called him Inage-Utasunhi, He-Who-Grew-Up-Wild.
Whenever Kanati went into the mountains, he always brought back a fat buck or doe, or maybe a couple of turkeys. One day, the Wild Boy said to his brother, "I wonder where our father gets all that game; let's follow him next time and find out." A few days afterward, Kanati took a bow and some feathers in his hand and started off toward the West. The boys waited a little while and then went after him, keeping out of sight until they saw him go into a swamp where there were a great many of the small reeds that hunters use to make arrow shafts. Then the Wild Boy changed himself into a puff of bird's down, which the wind took up and carried until it alighted upon Kanati's shoulder, just as he entered the swamp. Kanati knew nothing about it.
The old man cut reeds, fitted the feathers to them and made some arrows, and the Wild Boy, in his other shape, thought, "I wonder what those things are for?" When Kanati had his arrows finished, he came out of the swamp and went on again. The wind blew the down from his shoulder, and it fell back into the woods. The Wild Boy took his right shape again, then went back and told his brother what he had seen.
Keeping out of sight of their father, they followed him up the mountain until he stopped at a certain place and lifted a large rock. At once, there ran out a large buck, which Kanati shot. Lifting it upon his back, he started for home again. "Oho!" exclaimed the boys. "He keeps all the deer shut up in that hole, and whenever he wants meat, he just lets one out and kills it with those things he made in the swamp." They hurried and reached home before their father who had the heavy deer to carry, and he never knew that they had followed.
A few days later the boys went back to the swamp, cut some reeds, and made seven arrows. Then they started up the mountain to where their father kept the game. When they got to the place, they raised the rock and a deer came running out. Just as they drew back to shoot it, another came out, and then another, and another, until the boys got confused and forgot what they were about. In those days, all the deer had their tails hanging down like other animals, but as a buck was running past, the Wild Boy struck it's tail with his arrow so that it pointed upward. The boys thought this good sport, and when the next one ran past, the Wild Boy struck its tail so that it stood straight up, and his brother struck the next one so hard with his arrow that the deer's tail was almost curled over his back. The deer carries his tail this way ever since.
The deer came running past, until the last one had come out of the hole and escaped into the forest. Then came droves of raccoons, rabbits, and all the other four-footed animals - all but the bear, because there was no bear then. Last came great flocks of turkeys, pigeons, and partridges, that darkened the air like a cloud and made such a noise with their wings that Kanati, sitting at home, heard the sound like distant thunder on the mountains and said to himself, "My bad boys have got into trouble; I must go and see what they are doing."
So he went up the mountain, and when he came to the place where he kept the game, he found the two boys standing by the rock, and all the birds and animals were gone. Kanati was furious, but without saying a word, he went down into the cave and kicked the covers off four jars in one corner, when out swarmed bedbugs, fleas, lice, and gnats, and got all over the boys. They screamed with pain and fright and tried to beat off the insects, but the thousands of vermin crawled over them and bit and stung them until both dropped down nearly dead. Kanati stood looking on until he thought they had been punished enough, then he knocked off the vermin and gave the boys a talk. "Now, you rascals," he said, " You have always had plenty to eat and never had to work for it. Whenever you were hungry, all I had to do was come up here and get a deer or a turkey, and bring it home for your mother to cook. Now, you have let out all the animals, and after this, when you want a deer to eat, you will have to hunt all over the woods for it and then maybe not find one. Go home now to your mother, while I see if I can find something to eat for supper."
When the boys got home again, they were very tired and hungry and asked their mother for something to eat. "There is no meat," said Selu, "But wait a little while and I will get you something." So she took a basket and started out to the storehouse. This storehouse was built upon poles high up from the ground, to keep it out of the reach of animals, and there was a ladder to climb by, and one door, but no other opening. Every day, when Selu got ready to cook the dinner, she would go out to the storehouse with a bucket and bring it back full of corn and beans. The boys had never been inside the storehouse, so they wondered where all the corn and beans could come from, as the house was not a very large one. As soon as Selu went out of the door, the Wild Boy said to his brother," Let's go and see what she does."
They ran around and climbed up at the back of the storehouse and pulled out a piece of clay from between the logs so that they could look in. There, they saw Selu standing in the middle of the room with the basket in front of her on the floor. Leaning over the basket, she rubbed her stomach - so - and the basket was half full of corn. Then, she rubbed her armpits - so - and the basket was full to the top with beans. The boys looked at each other and said, "This will never do; our mother is a witch. If we eat any of that, it will poison us. We must kill her."
When the boys came back into the house, she knew their thoughts before they spoke. "So, you are going to kill me?" asked Selu.
"Yes," said the boys, "You are a witch."
"Well," said their mother, "When you have killed me, clear a large piece of ground in front of the house and drag my body seven times around the circle. Then drag me seven times over the ground inside the circle, and stay up all night and watch, and in the morning, you will have plenty of corn."
The boys killed her with their clubs, cut off her head, and put it upon the roof of the house with her face turned to the West, and told her to look for her husband. Then, they set to work to clear the ground in front of the house, but instead of clearing the whole piece, they cleared only seven little spots. This is why corn now grows only in a few places instead of over the whole world. They dragged the body of Selu around the circle. Wherever her body fell on the ground, the corn sprang up. But instead of dragging her body seven times across the ground, they dragged it over only twice, which is the same reason the Indians still work their crop but twice. The two brothers sat up and watched their corn all night, and in the morning, it was full grown and ripe.
When Kanati came home at last, he looked around, but could not see Selu anywhere. He asked the boys where was their mother. "She is a witch, and we killed her, " said the boys. "There is her head up there on top of the house."
When Kanati saw his wife's head on the roof, he was very angry and said, "I won't stay with you any longer; I am going to the Wolf People." So he started off, but before he had gone far, the Wild Boy changed himself again to a tuft of down which fell upon Kanati's shoulder.
When Kanati reached the settlement of the Wolf People, they were holding a council in the townhouse. He went in and sat down with the tuft of bird's down on his shoulder, but he never noticed it. When the Wolf Chief asked him his business, he said, "I have two bad boys at home, and I want you to go, seven days from now, and play ball against them." Although Kanati spoke as though he wanted them to play a game of ball, the Wolves knew that he meant for them to go and kill the two boys. They promised to go. Then the bird's down blew off from Kanati's shoulder, and the smoke carried it up through the hole in the roof of the townhouse. When it came down on the ground outside, the Wild Boy took his right shape, went home, and told his brother all that he'd heard in the townhouse. But when Kanati left the Wolf People, he did not return home. Instead, he went on farther.
The boys then began to get ready for the Wolves, and the Wild Boy, the magician, told his brother what to do. They ran around the house in a wide circle until they had made a trail all around it, excepting on the side from which the Wolves would come - where they left a small, open space. Then they made four large bundles of arrows and placed them at four different points on the outside of the circle, after which, they hid themselves in the woods and waited for the Wolves.
In a day or two, a whole party of Wolves came and surrounded the house to kill the boys. The Wolves did not notice the trail around the house because they came in where the boys had left the opening. However, the moment they were inside the circle, the trail changed to a high brush fence and shut them in. Then the boys on the outside took their arrows and began shooting them down, and as the Wolves could not jump over the fence, they were all killed - excepting a few that escaped through the opening into a great swamp close by. The boys ran around the swamp, and a circle of fire sprang up from their tracks and set fire to the grass and brushes, burning up nearly all the other Wolves. Only two or three got away, and from these have come all the Wolves that are now in the world.
Soon afterward, some strangers from a distance, who had heard that the brothers had a wonderful grain from which they made bread, came to ask for some, for none but Selu and her family had ever known corn before. The boys gave them seven kernels of corn, which they told them to plant the next night on their way home. They were to sit up all night to watch the corn which would have seven ripe ears in the morning. The kernels from the seven ripe ears were to be planted the next night, and watched in the same way, and so on every night until they reached home, and they would have enough corn to supply their people.
The strangers lived seven days journey away. They took the seven kernels and watched all through the darkness until the morning, when they saw seven tall stalks, each stalk bearing a ripened ear. They gathered the ears and went on their way. The next night, they planted all their corn and guarded it as before until daybreak, when they found an abundant increase. But the way was long, and the sun was hot. The people grew tired. On the last night before reaching home, they fell asleep, and in the morning, the corn they had planted had not even sprouted. They brought with them to their settlement what corn they had left and planted it, and with care and attention, they were able to raise a crop. But ever since, the corn, which before would grow and ripen in one night, must now be watched and tended through half the year.
As Kanati did not return, the boys concluded at last to go and find him. The Wild Boy took a gaming wheel and rolled it toward the Darkening Land. In a little while, the wheel came rolling back, and the boys knew their father was not there. He rolled it toward the South and to the North, and each time the wheel came back to him, so they knew their father was not there. Then he rolled it toward the Sun Land, and it did not return. "Our father is there," said the Wild Boy. "Let us go and find him."
So the two brothers set off toward the East, and after travelling a long time, came upon Kanati walking along with a little dog by his side. "You bad boys," said their father. "Have you come here?"
"Yes," they answered. "We always accomplish what we start out to do. We are men."
"This dog overtook me four days ago," said Kanati, but the boys knew that the dog was the wheel which they had sent after him to find him. "Well," said Kanati, "as you have found me, we may as well travel together, but I shall take the lead."
Soon they came to a swamp, and Kanati told them there was something dangerous there - they must keep away from it. He went on ahead, but as soon as he was out of sight, the Wild Boy said to his brother, "Come! Let us see what is in the swamp."
They went in together, and in the middle of the swamp, they found a large panther asleep. The Wild Boy got out an arrow and shot the panther in the side of the head. The panther turned his head, and the other boy shot him on that side. He turned his head away again, and the two brothers shot together - tust, tust, tust! However, the panther was not hurt by the arrows and paid no more attention to the boys.
They came out of the swamp and soon overtook Kanati, waiting for them. "Did you find it?" asked Kanati.
"Yes," said the boys, "we found it, but it never hurt us. We are men." Kanati was surprised, but said nothing. They went on again.
After a while, he turned to them and said,"Now, you must be careful. We are coming to a tribe called the Anada Duntaski, and if they get you, they will put you in a pot and feast on you." Then he went on again.
Soon, the boys came to a tree which had been struck by lightning, and the Wild Boy directed his brother to gather some of the splinters from the tree and told him what to do with them. In a little while, they came to the settlement of the cannibals, who, as soon as they saw the boys, came running out, crying "Good, here are two nice, fat strangers. Now we'll have a grand feast!"
They caught the boys, dragged them to the townhouse, and sent word to all the people of the settlement to come to the feast. They made a great fire, put water into a large pot, set it to boiling, and then seized the Wild Boy, putting him down into it. His brother was not the least bit frightened and made no attempt to escape, but instead, quietly knelt down and began putting the splinters into the fire, as if to make it burn better.
When the cannibals thought the meat was about ready, they lifted the pot from the fire, and that instant, a blinding light filled the townhouse. The lightning darted from one side to the other, striking down cannibals until not one of them was left alive. Then the lightning went up through the smoke hole, and the next moment, there were the two boys standing outside the townhouse as though nothing had happened.
They went on and soon met Kanati, who seemed much surprised to see them, and said,"What! Are you here again?"
"Oh, yes. We never give up. We are great men!"
"What did the cannibals do to you?"
"We met them. They brought us to their townhouse, but they never hurt us." Kanati said nothing more, and they went on.
He soon got out of sight of the boys, but they kept on until they came to the end of the world, where the sun comes out. The sky was just coming down when they got there, but they waiting until it went up again, and they went through and climbed up on the other side. There they found Kanati and Selu sitting together. The old folk received them kindly and were glad to see them, telling them they might stay there awhile but would have to go to live where the sun goes down. The boys stayed with their parents for seven days and then went on toward the Darkening Land, where they are now. We call them Anisgaya Tsvsdi, the Little Men, and when they talk to each other, we hear low, rolling thunder in the West.
After Kanati's boys had let the deer out from the cave where their father used to keep them, the hunters tramped about in the woods for a long time without finding any game so that the people were very hungry. At last, they heard that the Thunder Boys were now living in the far West, beyond the Sun Door, and that if they were sent for, they could bring back the game. So they sent messengers for them, and the boys came and sat down in the middle of the townhouse and began to sing.
At the first song, there was a roaring sound like a strong wind in the Northwest. It grew louder and nearer as the boys sang on, until at the seventh song, a whole herd of deer led by a large buck came out from the woods. The boys had told the people to be ready with their bows and arrows, and when the song was ended and all the deer were close around the townhouse, the hunters shot into them and killed as many as they needed before the heard could get back into the timber.
Then the Thunder Boys went back to the Darkening Land, but before they left, they taught the people the seven songs with which to call up the deer. It all happened so long ago, the songs are now forgotten - all but two, which the hunters still sing whenever they go after the deer.
In looking at this myth, one thing stands out above all the rest - the story is built around two brothers who are twins. Almost every culture on the face of the Earth has some story concerning twins, with one being good and the other, bad. That is not to say that the Cherokee, and specifically this myth, have borrowed ideas from other cultures that came over here. However, it is coincidental, and probably comes from the early part of civilization that began with the Olmec.
Going back to thousands of years B.C., the Olmec's Twins defeated the Lords of Death after a series of tests. The Twins were born and grew up playing the ball game. When they reached manhood, they devised a plan to defeat the Lords of Death and send them to the Lower World. The plan was that they would go through all the tests that the lords would put before them and learn all the tricks. When they at last failed, they would ask the Lords of Death not to cut off their heads. Prior to the test, they had take a trip to the Under World and had been told that if part of their body was missing, they would be the example for their people to follow to ensure reincarnation. In other words, if the Lords of Death decapitated them, they would be reborn again as another set of twins. (The time period between death and reincarnation is approximately fifty years.)
The main point to be remembered is that the Olmecs began the belief of reincarnation through dismemberment of the body, or more importantly, decapitation. So it is with this Cherokee myth, as the twins went through many trials and tribulations to reach the Darkening Land and the place they now live near the West. If one calls on the twins, who are now Thunder Twins, one can use their knowledge so that you can come back again.
I was told when I was being taught by one of my teachers, "The Cherokee have seven successive lives." In each life, there is some lesson or test which your spirit is supposed to learn or pass. When I asked, "What happens if you don't learn the lesson or pass the tests in seven lives? Do you get another one?"
The answer was this, "The Cherokee have seven lives."
Some of the other points in the story which are important to remember include the mention of the gaming wheel and the use of bark obtained from a lightning-struck tree. The gaming wheel is an obvious reference to the "chunkie stone" of the Mississippian Mound Period. The bark or the part of the tree used, that has been struck by lightning, is always collected from the East side of the tree. If the tree is a cedar, this is extremely high spiritual medicine. It was, and is, used the same as sage is used today among the Sioux. Lightning-struck cedar bark, leaves, roots, or any other part of the tree is used in tobacco preparation, storage of eagle feathers, and in many ceremonies. Burning the cedar in a hand-held portable container, (stone should be used instead of shell), and fanning the smoke with an eagle feather is a purification rite to ensure your house, your body, and anything the smoke touches are safe from negative things.