Halloween is almost here! Get ready with a Cherokee legend about a terrifying creature from Western North Carolina.
“Ulagu, The Giant Yellow Jacket”
from Mountain Ghost Stories and Curious Tales of Western North Carolina
by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” wrote Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He certainly wasn’t thinking of Nantahala Gorge. There the woods are scary, dark, and steep.
Some of the most dramatically rugged scenery in western North Carolina can be found in the Nantahala Gorge, which runs along U.S. Highway 19 between Wesson and Nantahala in Swain and Macon counties. Cut ages ago by the Nantahala River, the gorge is so steep that it was called Land of the Middle Sun by the Cherokee because daylight reached the bottom of the gorge only when the midday sun was directly between the high cliffs on either side.
The bottom of the gorge was a dark and forbidding place where numerous monsters were known to dwell. One of the most ferocious beasts who lived there was a giant yellow jacket known as Ulagu, the Cherokee word for boss or leader.
Ulagu developed a taste for children. For many years, the yellow jacket terrorized the Cherokee by swooping down out of the sky to carry off children who were shocked into immobility by the suddenness of its attack. The appearance of Ulagu, its body as large as a house, was always accompanied by a wind created by the beast’s huge wings. Its whirring flight drowned out all other forest sounds and was said to be as loud as a persistent roll of thunder.
Ulagu was also a rapid flyer. While the Cherokee men often tried to track the yellow jacket that was carrying off a screaming child to its secret hiding place, it always flew too swiftly to be followed.
In a desperate attempt to discover Ulagu ‘s nest, the Cherokee set traps of fresh meat for the monster yellow jacket. White strings were tied around the meat. Cherokee hunters believed that Ulagu could be traced more easily with a string dangling from its clutches. Yet each time the horrific Ulagu carried away the meat, it darted so swiftly that the yellow jacket was out of sight before the string could be followed. The Cherokee hunters increased the size of both the bait and the string until a whole deer was finally offered. The meat was tied with a long string the thickness of a rope.
The giant yellow jacket returned once more and seized the bait. This time, however, the load proved heavy enough to slow Ulagu’s flight and to cause the monster yellow jacket to fly much lower in the sky. The rope could be followed as it dangled just above the tops of the trees. A group of hunters pursued Ulagu along a high ridge, then watched as it flew across the gorge and disappeared into the side of the cliff opposite.
The hunters marked the spot in their minds where the white rope had disappeared into the face of the cliff. With a great shout, they ran down into the dark gorge and up the other side. There they discovered a hidden cave out of which a strong breeze blew, the air stirred by the working of Ulagu ‘s enormous wings.
Standing outside, the hunters saw that the top of the cave was covered with a thick comb of six-sided chambers made from a waxy, papery material. The cave was teeming with yellow-colored wasps of normal size. Afraid they would be stung to death and eaten by Ulagu, the Cherokee hunters decided to kill the great beast and the smaller wasps by filling the cave with smoke.
A fire was built and tended at the mouth of the cave until the nest was entirely filled with choking smoke, killing Ulagu and most of the smaller yellow jackets. A few of the normal-sized wasps, though, managed to escape. According to Cherokee legend, the escaping wasps flew into the forest and multiplied until they lived everywhere in the world.
The offspring of Ulagu continue to be a stinging nuisance to people today. Whenever a Cherokee is stung by a wasp, he is likely to be reminded that long ago a much greater evil inhabited the earth. A visit to Nantahala Gorge inspires the feeling that when monsters inhabited our planet, they must have chosen the spookiest of places to live. And those who know the legend of Ulagu are apt to drive through the Land of the Middle Sun with the windows rolled up.
Check back for more terrifying tales in out Haunted Halloween Countdown or pick up one of the spooky books they come from.