The Wampus Cat

Writing took a strange turn last night. I ended up with almost a 2,000 word discussion of various mystery animals in the woods of Tennessee–the dog with the face of a rabbit that was the first manifestation of the Bell Witch, the Thing (obviously), and the Wampus Cat. For those of you unfamiliar with the Wampus Cat, it’s basically a sort of mountain lion looking thing that walks upright on two legs and scares the shit out of East Tennesseans.

I also read that East Tennesseans used to have a demonic boar, but I couldn’t find any actual stories about said boar. If you know of any, please let me know. I did download a bunch of copies of “Wild Hog in the Woods” so I will know what tune to hum to myself as I am being attacked by said demonic boar, should that come to pass. Since I don’t have any legends to base my behavior on, I have to rely on music.

Anyway, back to the Wampus Cat. There are two legends I’ve heard/read about the Wampus Cat, both about Cherokee women (the Wampus Cat is pretty much considered the same as the Ewah in Cherokee mythology, though I need to do some more digging into non-Wampus cat references to the Ewah before I understand why). At the Tennessee State Museum, at their awesome ghost story thing, they told a tale (which I have seen repeated elsewhere) of a Cherokee maiden who wanted to learn the men’s hunting magic, so she disguised herself in a mountain lion pelt and sneaked up on the hunting camp and listened in as they did it (I think part of the presumption here is that a woman hearing the men’s magic would then ruin the magic, hence the taboo on her trying to learn it). She’s caught and cursed into some kind of half-mountain lion/ half-woman beast which wanders the land scaring the shit out of people.

The second is that there’s a demon in the woods and when it finds a hunter, it looks him in the eye and drives him mad, thus rendering him useless for anything but women’s work. So, one day, a hunter comes back all demon-fucked and his wife is like “I will have my revenge on you, demon asshole.” So she confers with the tribe’s magic people and they give her a dried mountain lion mask to wear and she goes out in the woods to surprise the demon and scare the shit out of it with her creepy dried mountain lion face. And so she does. And the demon runs off. Though it occasionally returns and she has to go scare it off again. And even now, her ghost haunts the hills of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia (and Oklahoma, Arkansas, and wherever. She’s ambitious.), looking something like a half woman half mountain lion.

Now, both of these stories have some elements that make them nice stories. The first one seems to tell you a little about why different genders can and can’t do different things. It seems to reveal that hunting, for the Cherokee, was as much magic as skill. And it seems to reinforce important gender taboos.

The second one seems to provide a reasonable explanation for why some Cherokee guys might not be big hunters–they’ve been ensnared in a demon’s gaze–and seems to give us insight, again, into gender roles and familial obligations.

But we’re never not telling stories about ourselves, you know? So, when contemporary people tell those stories, they tell them for reasons and those reasons can vary widely depending on the teller. It’s easy to imagine a Cherokee mom telling the first story as a way to illustrate how different things are now. It’s easy to imagine her telling the second one to illustrate the bravery of Cherokee women.

But every widely available version of the legends seemed obviously told by white people. And, obviously, we have different motivations for the stories we tell about Cherokee people than they would. Stories are funhouse mirrors, you know, designed to reflect ourselves back to us in ways that allow us to say “Oh, that’s not really us.”

But I still wonder which, if either, of these stories is actually similar to the stories the Cherokee told/tell about the Ewah.

I was thinking that this is one of the things that kind of pisses me off about how our culture works. If I told you I knew a legend about an Irish-American guy who is transformed into a mountain lion man and in one version of the story, set in the pre-Vatican II days, he sits down for a huge steak dinner on Friday and in another version of the story he doesn’t, we’d all kind of know that the chances of the non-Friday meat eating story being the probable story told among Irish Americans is pretty high. It’s a little cultural tell. Likewise, if both stories had Friday steak dinners, we might say “Well, I’m not sure that’s really an Irish American story” or we might say “Hmm, even though it doesn’t really seem like it, I wonder if this story used to be about the taboo of eating meat on Friday.”

Similarly, I am positive that, to a Cherokee person, there are tells in those stories that make one or the other or both or neither of them actual plausible Cherokee stories. Something in those stories is a cue to whom the story belongs.

But I don’t know those cues. Along the way, our society decided that those were not necessary cues for a gal like me to learn. And, honestly, I’m doing better than most to even know that I’m missing them.

So, the Wampus Cat. What can we say about it? It’s a gal and a mountain lion and it will scare the shit out of you.

Is it a precursor to the Thing? To the rabbit-headed dog in the Bell’s yard?

I have to think so.

But what’s the real story?

I don’t know.

8 thoughts on “The Wampus Cat

  1. I’d love to hear more about this from you – I don’t think I’ve heard of the Wampus Cat, despite growing up in east TN. Most of our big cat-related tales when I was growing up were basically along the lines of, “they say there are no mountain lions around here, but….”

  2. It has been years since I’ve heard anyone talk about the Cattywumpus — and in fact, I didn’t know that anybody outside of our immediate region knew anything about it. By the time it got to my ears, it was no longer a gal/mountain lion but some force in the wood that would knock you “cattywumpus” (that is, disorient you so that you could not find your way home). Really interesting.

  3. Holy shit, of course the Wampus Cat would make you kattywapus. I am embarrassed I didn’t realize that right away. But I would say that your fragment argues for the version in which someone loses their wits being the older story.

  4. A slight tangent, but there’s some speculation that the Wampus Cat legend fills the same mythological ecological niche in Appalachian culture as Bigfoot fills elsewhere–a not-quite human, not quite beast that lives in the woods.

  5. When I asked my mom what a cattywumpus was, she perked up and said “oh hell, I don’t know, it’s just something out in the woods that scares the hell out of you when you’re hunting so you can’t get back home…” So, she knew it was a supernatural being (eighty years ago, the belief was sufficiently strong to describe a being, though not a woman or a mask) — but by the time it got to me, it was just a a condition of disorientation. I guess that’s how belief decays over time.

    When I then told her about the stories you describe above, she was tickled to find out that there was something older behind it. But she also said “The older people believed in it but I don’t know as it’s real.”

  6. I grew up in very rural Bedford County, in middle TN, and our across the road neighbor – a woman who was kind of a legend in the TN Walking Horse Industry and who ran her own farm, always told me that the wampus cat was actually a real animal. She said it was a big cat like a small panther – and that there were many more in the woods when she was a child but there were still some around and they would sometimes kill and drag off her baby goats. The state wildlife people told her she was nuts on this point, just like they told her she was nuts to insist coyotes were killing her goats until she shot one, boxed up the carcass and had it delivered to the TWRA. (Now of course coyotes have made a huge comeback in TN, but in 1977, TWRA was claiming they did not exist in Bedford County. Just like the wampus cat.)

  7. What a fantastic article to come upon! My since-passed-on grandfather used to warn me not to wander off as a young lad, because the Wampus Cat would “git me”. Used to scaaaaaaaaaaare the piss outta me, as a little kid. I remember staring out the window at night, trying to catch a glimpse of it. I’m sure there are regional differences but the same creepy basis. My grandfather was from northern Mississippi. The deep backwoods near the Alabama border. Thanks for making me smile thinking of my dear ol’ grandpa!

  8. to Anonymous above~ I live in East Alabama and my dad used to tell me the story you stated in the above note. Don’t wander off~the Wampus cat will “git you”! Also an army post was close to our home~Fort McClellan, Al. and it was said that during WWII that the army tried to make an animal that was terrifying, very fast, almost indestructible that they could use for ? I forgot~but that the animal escaped and still roams Mt. Cheaha, the last of the Appalachian mountains near here. The cat was supposed to be part wolf, part mountain lion, & I don’t know what else. It had huge 6 toed claws and terrible long teeth and a lot of the “old timers” around here knew tales of it ! You weren’t supposed to go hunting after dark in the mountains if you wanted to see the light of day again!!! My dad was born in 1911 and I heard him and some of my uncles speak of the “Wampus Cat!”

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