|The Leech Place|
Western NC is filled with Cherokee stories with almost every mountain, river, animal, plant and location having a story behind it. James Mooney’s “History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee” is an excellent source of information about the area. I grew up living near the Cherokee Indian Reservation. My mother taught at the elementary school on the Reservation for a couple of decades and loved her job. She has a huge collection of Native American books. My childhood was surrounded by a combination of Cherokee folklore, Sundays with Bible stories and the living room bookshelf full of Norse myths.
I have come to realize that myths and legends make the most sense when one lives in the area they are being told. The environment where the story originated influenced the meaning behind it. We do things all the time that really are not connected to anything other than family tradition. For example, my family stands outside on New Year’s Eve and rings bells. We have cow bells and a huge dinner bell attached to the front porch. We are the only people in the neighborhood who perform this noisy tradition every year. It wasn’t until I spent a New Year’s Eve in Munich, Germany that our actions finally made sense because all of the church bells in the city ring in the New Year. My mother’s family came from Germany around 150 years ago and here we had been ringing bells ever since without the connection to the churches.
Recently I visited Murphy, NC which has its own Cherokee legend of a huge leech that lived in the bottom of a deep pool where the Hiwassee and Valley rivers join. Hiwassee is a Cherokee word for large meadow or savanna and according to Mooney, there is not a special story connected with the name other than it applied to two former settlements on the stream. The photo shows the remnants of a stone footbridge leading across the river and beneath that is where the “Great Leech” is said to live. The leech is described as having red and white stripes along its body and is as big as a house. On the one river bank is a steep rock cliff. The story goes that some men were walking on the trail above the pool and saw the leech roll and unroll on a rock and then crawl back down into the water out of sight, and the water then began to boil and foam until a huge column of water shot straight up in the air. According to the legend, the waterspout could be so strong as to carry a person down into the hole and that more than one person was found lying on the riverbank with their ears and nose eaten off. Another story is told of a man who wanted to hunt the leech and is said to have crossed the river halfway when a great wave overtook him and he was swept under never to be seen again.
Written on a sign just above the river it mentions that there is a vein of red and white marble at the bottom of the pool which is visible with low amounts of sediment, so the location of the marble may have influenced the myth. We also have to realize that his river has been modified since the folklore behind the story originated. This river has been dammed and altered that I’m sure a few hundred years ago this was an extremely dangerous place to be and people actually drowned here.