I entered an art show–my first ever! We pulled our character/creature out of a hat and I pulled… “The Wampus Cat”. The predominant information at the top of google’s food-chain was a) an Appalachian tale of a vicious, large and oddly shaped cat–(ranging from mountain lion, panther, to bobcat, depending on who is talking)–that terrorized towns, drained livestock of blood, attacked and lunged at hunters and children at play. Then b) the origin story being a myth where a woman gets punished for spying on her husband’s pre-hunting rituals, cursed to be an angry cat of the woods that terrorizes people for the rest of time.
Neither of these satiated the lit teacher in me, and the brief and retold version of a woman being left out of rituals and punished for being nosy, felt very fishy and Christianized. I wanted the newspaper clippings of the sightings and encounters with the huge cat of the woods, and I wanted to get as close as I could, with just the web at my fingertips as a source, to the Cherokee folklore origins. In this write-up is what I discovered (sources included at end), however I am open to any corrections, add-ons and edits you may have or know of! Please comment and share them if ya got em!
Ew’ah & Running Deer
When Europeans colonized the Americas, they were introduced to Native American legends, tales, and folklore stories, which were orally shared. Many of these stories were altered, shortened, morphed and edited by a western, Puritan lens, and often retold in a way that shed negative light on people and ideas they deemed as inferior or “sinful”. If you study folklore around the world, (not to mention the Holy texts in major religions of today, but that is another blogpost), you will find a common theme is that any warrior woman of the tale–sensual, ferocious, angry, wild, undomesticated–is downplayed, made out to be evil and scapegoated in the version retold by the oppressor of that time and place. I do believe that is the case with this one.
The story I found online with the most texture, detail, and cultural accuracy (in that the woman was not excluded from the men’s rituals or practices–Cherokee culture is Matrilineal aka woman are not subordinate, docile or powerless–very much the opposite, holding positions of leadership, healing and council) is the story where a woman is the victor and protector. This is the story of Ew’ah and Running Deer as an accumulation of what I found:
Ew’ah was a dream-eating, spirit-demon lurking and living in the shadows, that caused it’s victims to become lifeless, and zombified from the inside. When anyone looked into the eyes of the Ew’ah, it created such madness and distress for the onlooker that there was no return. This creature was getting out of hand when leaders and tribespeople decided to send their best warrior out to defeat it. That warrior was Standing Bear. Gone for weeks on end, he stumbled back into the village petrified, limp in spirit and stature, and only able to pick berries and play amongst children. His wife Running Deer was heartbroken, and filled with a red rage rooted in justice. Her red energy, combined with a mask of a mountain lion held by the shamans of the community were seen to be a perfect match for the Ew’ah. She was sent out with the cloak-skin and mask of a mountain lion, her body painted in a black paste that hid her scent as well as her body.
Running Deer knew the woods like her own palms, and easily survived on it’s offerings, as she patiently roamed the woods, in a steady awareness, in search of the Ew’ah. One day as the sun was lowering it’s light, she heard a creature near the creek and started her way closer, when the snap of a twig behind her startled her, causing her to break her powerful stance as she swiftly turned her gaze. It was only a fox, but she knew that if it had been the Ew’ah, she would have been another victim, for her fear and haste caused her to rest her own eyes upon the scene. Taking the lesson with her, she continued in power toward the creek, and there she saw footprints of what could have only been the Ew’ah. Using all senses other than her eyes, she inched closer from behind the Ew’ah until deciding all at once to pounce. The eyes of the Ew’ah gazed upon the talisman eyes of the mountain lion’s, and all power of the Ew’ah was drawn into the talisman and Running Deer, to be used for good forever more.
Running Deer became the protector of the village, and is said to still roam the woods in the form of a cat, protecting innocence and communicating with spirits dark and light.
The Wampus Cat
“Catawampus”, “Wampus” and “Wampus Cat” are names still used today, predominantly in the south and Appalachian states, for any figure or cat that is odd or spooky in nature. There are several schools that have The Wampus Cat as their mascot. This stems from unsolved mysterious sightings and encounters of a large cat that terrorized towns and livestock during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Headlines in the news during that period of time include “Reign of Terror Caused by Raids of ‘Wampus’ in the Virginia Swamps” and “Vampire Charges Woman”, and there are towns where men gathered in the woods in hunt of the Wampus Cat. The sightings turned into tall tales and remains a name flown around in reference to anything peculiar, mysterious, or deviating from the norm. It was also used to scare children away from staying out late or doing anything they weren’t supposed to do, similar to the way “the boogie man” is used.
I was very drawn to the story of Running Deer defeating the Ew’ah in the way that she did–eyes closed and other intuitive senses fine-tuned, non-destructive but more alchemizing in prowess. When I started sketching without knowing where I was going, this is what came out. I adore the way the fox in the story serves as a lesson of caution for her moving forward–thinking of all things “Fox Medicine”–a loving, trickster, jester-like being. (I was going to include a fox in the background but the cat wanted more space, and who am I to crowd her?)
The Ew’ah not being destroyed, but taken in and made anew, is a very alchemical-like process of dealing with a shadow or demon. I believe this is how we integrate and triumph over our own individual shadows–a firm and boundary-filled compassion that creates with what is. I also believe this is also how we protect one another best–not by shaming, outcasting, or demonizing, but by using our instinctual and heart-led wisdom to communicate, lead, embody and hold. Deer Woman is led by a rage rooted in justice for the love of her husband and entire community, seeking not to join the Ew’ah in taking the spirit out of the living–but to bring the spirit back into itself–it’s true self, where power and prowess is used for good.
This piece is at ADX Portland as part of The Monster Mash where I and 150 other artist’s pieces are displayed. It is $444 and $222 will be donated to The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.