If you’re planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ve probably read all the articles out there about where to find the best cabins to rent, the best places to hike, bike and take pictures, and probably a million other activities that you can do while you’re in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville or Townsend. You probably have planned out your entire trip, including where you’ll eat breakfast, lunch, and maybe even dinner for every day of your trip.
So here you are, thinking you’ve considered of everything. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the Great Smoky Mountains has a full, rich history of myths; some that have originated from the Cherokee, some that have simply been passed down from generation to generation.
Why is it important for you to know about these myths and legends? Well, you wouldn’t want to pick up a hitch hiker and find out she’s a ghost, now would you? This leads to the first of the legends….
Roaring Fork’s Lucy: When you’re driving around the Roaring Fork, and it’s dark out, and it’s cold, and you see a pretty girl on the side of the road, your first instinct might be to stop and ask if she’s alright, find out what she’s doing out there alone, and probably a dozen other questions. The first question you should ask though is if her name is Lucy.
According to the myth, as told by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett in their joint book, ‘The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee’, the hitchhiking woman is actually Lucy; a woman who died in a fire around 1909.
They say that a year or so later, a young man named Foster ventured out near Roaring Fork after dark and saw a woman on the side of the road. He picked her up, and found that she was exceptionally warm for someone who’d been waiting out in the cold. The next day, he went to look for Lucy, and instead found her parents, and realized the woman he’d given a ride to had died a year earlier! Though, he thought he might have fallen in love in that single night, he eventually decided a long distance relationship between the Afterlife and Gatlinburg, Tennessee probably wouldn’t work out.
Basil and the Metal Bed: Basil Estep was originally married to a woman named Mavis. She was born during a thunderstorm and had a lifelong fear of sleeping on metal beds. All of their life together, Basil and Mavis used wooden beds to ease her fear. After her death, Basil remarried. He and his new wife bought their first metal bed, and the story says this offended Mavis so greatly that she struck him down with lightning, killing him quite efficiently.
Mount LeConte: If you decide to sleep at the top of Mount LeConte, you’re asking to see quite the spooky phenomenon. Supposedly if you wake up at 3:33 am, you’ll see a young girl standing at the end of your bedroll, just staring at you. Nobody knows who she is, or what she wants. Of course, if you see her, maybe you can ask what her deal is, and let the rest of us know!
Lydia: Lydia’s ghost story is quite unoriginal, but still merits a mention. Lydia is the spirit of a young woman who was set to get married in the 1940s. She was completely ready, in her beautiful white dress, long lacy gloves, and her hidden blue garter. Unfortunately her would-be husband had second thoughts, leaving Lydia at the alter.
Lydia went home to what is now the Greenbrier Lodge, tied a rope to one of the banisters on a staircase, and hung herself. Nobody found her till it was too late. Of course, Lydia didn’t stop there. Not only did she kill herself, but she supposedly came back in a big cat form, and mauled her fiancée to death, just days after when their wedding would have been. Now she just haunts the area where she hanged herself.
Atagahi (The Enchanted Lake): If you believe in Cherokee Tradition, then you probably believe that hidden deep within the Smoky Mountains, there is an enchanted lake that people cannot see nor behold. It's known as Atagahi and this mythical lake serves as an oasis for animals of every kind, with thousands of reptiles, waterbirds, fish, and bears that enjoy its water.
In one of the popular stories, a young Cherokee man spent days fasting and praying, and therefore the enchanted lake showed itself to him. The stories say that because of his state of the heart, and the purity of his intentions, the lake would always be available to him. He would always be able to see the beautiful lake and the tons of wildlife that surrounded it. He marked the location of the secret lake with a pile of rocks.
Not too long after his discovery, there was a horrible winter that brought the Cherokee Nation to the brink of starvation. Seeing no other option, the young hunter returned to Atagahi to bring back food for his family. He used his bow to fire at one of the bears that roamed the area. However, the story says that when the bear was shot, it fell into water and then reemerged, completely unharmed. The bear then speaks to the hunter, telling him that he had betrayed the lake and those that surrounded it. Then a furry horde attacked him.
After the snowstorms passed, the Cherokee found the body of the young hunter. It was obvious he had died from a bear attack based on his wounds. However, there were were no tracks of the bears who mauled him.
Although Atagahi was sealed off forever from human intervention after the betrayal of the young hunter, the mythology says that in the early morning, you can still see the mist rise from the magic lake while standing atop Clingmans Dome.
A medicine man battles a horned snake: This is another favorite of the Cherokee legends of the Great Smoky Mountains. It is the tale of Aganunitsi, a Shawnee medicine man, who was said to be captured during a Cherokee battle. However, before they begin torturing the man for information on the other tribe, he strikes a deal with them.
He tells the tribe that if they free him, he will bring the Cherokee great fortune. He promises them the fabled Ulunsuti (a special diamond with magical properties). This magical diamond is almost completely impossible to obtain because it resides in the forehead of Uktena, a fearsome horned snake.
Once he was released from the Cherokee, Aganunitsi began his mission to find this diamond and the serpent who wears its. The medicine man ends up traveling for a long time, searching here and there and everywhere for the appropriate snake. He met many others on the way, but none of them were Uktena.
Finally, after quite some time, and some adventures of his own, Aganunitsi found the fabled beast sleeping atop a mountain. Knowing he must think quickly, and act even more speedily, the magician lays down a trap for the serpent king. After digging a torch at the foot of the mountain, and protecting it with a a circle of blazing pine cones, he awakens the enormous snake by shooting an arrow straight at it’s heart.
The furious Uktena began to come after him, but when the medicine man jumps into his trench, the serpent’s poison cannot pass through the circle of fire. Only a drop of poison lands on the medicine man as Uktena sprays his venom.
Eventually, Uktena died from the arrow that had pierced his heart. The medicine man calls out to all of the birds in the forest, telling them to come and feast on the remains of the huge snake. After waiting seven long days for the corpse to be devoured, Aganunitsi was pleased to find that the glittering diamond awaited him.
With the magic jewel in his possession, the medicine man did not need to return to the Shawnee or the Cherokee. He need not keep his promise with this fabled gem in his possession. He traveled far and wide instead, telling stories of his great capture and murder of Uktena. What he doesn’t notice, however, is where the one spot of venom had landed on his head, a small snake grew. Birds constantly flew after him wherever he went, trying to snatch the snake off his head. Sometimes they succeeded. Then the tiny snake would grow back for the next bird who succeeded. Never once did Aganunitsi consider his broken promise to the Cherokee people as punishment when these birds attacked. Perhaps they had forgotten all about his promise. Or maybe they raise their hands in flocking motions, and the birds follow the trails their fingers make in the air to find Aganunitsi, and remind him that with every action, there is a consequence.
The Great Rabbit Steals a Fur Coat: The Cherokee Indians used to refer to Gregory Bald Mountain ‘Tsitsuyi’, which means ‘Rabbit Place’. The fairly grassy slope was named this because the Cherokee believed it was home the Great Rabbit. The Great Rabbit was said to be larger than your average bunny, as well as a famous trickster. He was believed to the be the chief of all the littler rabbits who lived at Tsitsuyi.
In one of the Cherokee legends from the Great Smoky Mountains, the Great Rabbit commits a scheme to steal the best coat in all of the animal kingdom. The story goes onto to say that all over the mountainside, little critters came together to hold council and decide who’s coat was most impressive. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Otter, who many believed to have a magnificent pelt, far superior to many of the others there.
Great Rabbit saw this as a chance for some mischief, and he journeyed up the creek so he could offer some “help” to Otter. He said he would show him the way to the council. During their trip, Great Rabbit and Otter stop along the water to get a good night’s rest. As helpful as he always was, Great Rabbit ‘warned’ Otter that their campsite was in a place called Di’tatlaski’yi (The Place Where it Rains Fire). Great Rabbit offered to stand guard just in case there was any fire that came from the sky. He told Otter he ought to hang his coat on a limb before he went to sleep so it wouldn’t get burnt. Otter did as Great Rabbit suggested, and then drifted off to sleep.
Once Great Rabbit was sure that Otter was in dreamland, he placed hot coals from the fire onto a paddle and launched them at his poor, sleeping friend. With screams of ‘It’s raining fire!’, Great Rabbit wakes up Otter. Panicking, Otter jumps in the water and hurries away, leaving his coat behind. Legend says that to this day, Otter makes his home in the river to avoid waking up raining fire.
When a fashionably dressed animal made his way up to the council of animals, all of the critters wonder how come Otter is covering his face with his paws. Seeing through the ruse, Bear quickly unmasks Great Rabbit, and takes a swipe at him with his claws. However, Great Rabbit was too quick, and lost only his tail to Bear’s anger.
There are hundreds of other myths,, folk tales, ghost stories, and sometimes amusing, sometimes frightening legends that tell the story of the Great Smoky Mountains in a way that you don’t often get to hear. So when you see an otter playing in the river, think about how a rabbit stole it’s coat. Or if you see a woman on the side of the road named Lucy, think twice before you fall in love with her – trust me, that relationship is doomed for failure!