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As Halloween approaches and the time comes for telling ghost stories around the campfire, remember the Cherokee legend of Spearfinger, a shape-shifting witch with stone skin and a long obsidian spear in place of one of the fingers on her right hand.
Spearfinger roamed the mountains between what would become North Carolina and Tennessee. And they say, even though the Cherokee caught and destroyed her, you can still hear her shrieks and cackles through the mountain night.
Spearfinger had a taste for human livers – especially those belonging to Cherokee children – so parents used the legend of Spearfinger to warn children to stay close to the village.
In the autumn, the Cherokee tribe would burn brush fires to clear the land so they could find fallen chestnuts for the winter, but Spearfinger would use the fires to locate their village.
She would come in the guise of an old woman, fooling Cherokee children into trusting her because she appeared to be a village elder. She would offer to brush their hair until they fell asleep, then she would stab them with her finger through the back of the neck or the heart and withdraw the liver which she would devour. She is described as having a mouth red with blood.
She had a song that she’d sing as she moved through the mountains with her raven friend “Liver, I eat it.” It flows better, I assume in the original Cherokee.
Though she most often appeared as an old lady, she could be anything she wanted, another child, a friend, an animal. She was made of stone so no weapon forged by man could stop her. Her only weakness was her heart, which she carried in her hand for protection.
Her enemy, Stone Man, also ate livers so he wasn’t exactly helpful to the Cherokee.
She and Stone Man also had powers to move boulders and rock. Spearfinger created a great rock bridge through the air to travel from mountain to mountain, angering the higher beings, who destroyed it with lightning. The remnants of the bridge remain visible today near her hunting ground of Whiteside in Jackson County, North Carolina, which is far to the south, close to the Georgia border. Known as Thunder Mountain, Whiteside offers some of the highest sheer cliffs in the Appalachian range.
But Spearfinger didn’t limit herself to a single place, she moved through the mountains along streams and through the Nantahala passes of Western North Carolina. She frequently came to Chilhowee Mountain and walked down to the Little River in Walland in Blount County, seeking out her prey.
Spearfinger was a creature of stealth. Her attacks left no scars, even as she used her finger to draw out her victims’ livers. It often took days for her victims to die.
The death of Spearfinger
Eventually the Cherokee set a trap for Spearfinger, digging a deep pit and disguising it as you would a tiger trap. They then set a fire to attract the mountain witch’s attention. Soon, an elderly woman came along the trail and fell into the pit, revealing herself to be the witch.
The Cherokee warriors’ arrows, however, had no effect on the stone-skinned witch, who taunted them with her liver-eating song, which part of me wonders if it wasn’t at least part of the inspiration for the MeowMix jingle.
Eventually, a titmouse came and told the hunters to aim for her heart. But the hunters, not knowing the witch carried her heart in her hand, aimed for her chest with little impact. When that didn’t work, the hunters caught the titmouse and cut off its tongue, and the bird is forever known to the Cherokee as a liar. Although, in fairness to the titmouse, it sounds a little bit like miscommunication.
Finally a chickadee came and landed on the hand which carried the heart. The hunters severed her heart from her hand and killed the witch, earning the chickadee a reputation among the Cherokee as a truth-teller. Now, if the bird perches near a loved one’s home while they are away, you can expect a safe and happy return for the traveler.
Stoneman saw Spearfinger’s death as a warning to himself but soon went back to his liver-eating ways. Stoneman was even more powerful with rock and stone than Spearfinger and moved about the mountains with a staff that could command stone and lead him to his victims.
The Cherokee eventually conquered Stoneman as well. Stoneman could not bear the sight of a menstruating woman and, according to legend, the sight of seven menstruating women would kill him. The Cherokee arranged seven women along the trail where Stoneman, in the guise of an old man, would come. By the second woman, Stoneman was vomiting blood and by the seventh, he had fallen weak. The medicine man pinned him to the ground and built a great fire over him. Stoneman called for bear and deer and all the animals of the mountains, but he eventually succumbed to the burning pile.
Do you have any ghost stories from the Smoky Mountains? Share them in the comments below.
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