THE SPIRITUAL MESSAGE OF THE SERPENT MOUND IN OHIO

 

by

Monette Bebow-Reinhard

Historian/archivist

 

 

        Lovely visions of past cultures still dot the American landscape in the form of effigy mounds. One is the Serpent Mound in Ohio. For over a century, interested people have speculated on who built it, and why. This effigy mound is 1348 feet long and three feet high, but its age is hard to determine. The real question is—what is it? Yes, that appears to be a snake, but is its head disjointed? Or is it trying to swallow a bird’s egg? And look, it has a bowtie. What kind of snake has a bowtie? I’m going to try and answer those questions using the CAMD.

Photo 1: An early drawing of the Serpent Mound by Squier and Davis, 1846.

        The Copper Artifact Master Database (CAMD) is a compilation of the pre-contact copper artifacts that I have identified in various sources from Canada through South America, in storage and on display by both museums and collectors—more than 350 have been contacted for this research and the compilation is now at 66,068 pieces (5/31/18 data); the database also uses print sources with an eye on catching duplicates. The CAMD gives us a better picture of what the pre-contact metal industry was like in the Americas because we have more access to what was found in a single location, and can figure out how far certain types traveled.

        The possible builders of the Serpent Mound that have been considered include ROC/Adena (1500-200 BCE), Hopewell (200 BCE-500 CE), the Post-Hopewell Effigy Mound Builders (500-1100 CE), and the Mississippian/Southeastern Ceremonial Complex or SECC (1000-1500 CE). Brad Lepper, Ohio archaeologist, cited two radiocarbon dates to report it was built either by the Adena/Hopewell or the Fort Ancient Mississippian people.  At http://apps.ohiohistory.org/ohioarchaeology/who-built-serpent-mound/ a dating of 1120 CE is shown, and between 1025 & 1215 is according to http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Serpent_Mound?rec=2223). Bill Romain, however, had radiocarbon dates that demonstrated the Serpent Mound was built early, at about 300 BCE. Sources agree that the effigy mounds in Wisconsin were built in the period between Hopewell and later Mississippian culture, or between 700 CE and 1100 CE (Bob Birmingham, Spirits of Earth, 3), and the Effigy Mounds in Iowa were created just previous to the Mississippian era (https://www.nps.gov/efmo/learn/historyculture/effigy-moundbuilders.htm), so effigies sound like a link between the Hopewells and the Mississippians. This would put the Serpent Mound, then, as immediately post-Hopewell, a cultural phenomenon leading to the Mississippian period. But was the answer that simple?

        After doing a survey on the snake and bird iconography in copper artifacts found in the CAMD, the number of snake artifacts validates the Serpent Mound to the ancient snake spirituality of the Hopewells. This mound could be a snake eating a bird egg. Is it possible that the snake (underworld/goddess) spirituality dominated here? Perhaps this effigy mound was built to warn the bird spirituality (sky/god) away. After all, this can be seen much more easily from the sky—like the Nazca Lines in South America.

        In early ethnographic records, a surveyor asked an Indian about effigy mounds in the landscape. The Indian (likely of the Winnebago tribe, today’s Ho-Chunk Nation) related that he had no knowledge but believed they were built by the Manitou to indicate that particular game was plentiful in the world of spirits (Green 2014: 46). This mound surveyor, Stephen Taylor, also noted that most had none to varying ideas what these effigies meant.  We’ve all heard about natives who pray to the animal they had just killed so that the spirit would not be offended—so that game would remain plentiful. Are effigies, like bear, and goose, and panther, in reverence to that idea?  How does that translate to a serpent mound? Did they eat snakes? Probably not.

        These questions demonstrate a problem with pre-contact American research. Artifacts and ruins don’t come with written explanations. Never listen to anyone who says they “know,” because they can’t. We’re all guessing. The CAMD demonstrates with artifacts found, however, that Hopewell presence emerged at many Red Ocher (ROC) sites, which were found all over the Eastern U.S. between 1000 BCE and 400 BCE. There are many effigy mounds built near or around old ROC sites. Cultures in this country were all evolving, communicating, and trading across time. Effigy mounds were likely territorial markers for Hopewell-related tribes, and not requests for more animals. They may have identified which animals were sacred in that particular area.

        Antonio Waring of Peabody Museum noted in his 1968 study of SECC symbolism (12) that they had three gods—bird, snake and cat (jaguar or panther). Birmingham (Aztalan: 25) also related this division of upper and lower worlds in their belief system—snake as lower, bird as upper with cat the middle realm.

        The snake has generally been associated with the female and with the underworld; the bird or hawk was their male symbol, and from the upper realm.  Hawk warriors became an important emblem in Mississippian times, indicating an increased reverence to the sky gods. If women were aligned with snakes, in a snake-revered society, then they were likely the ones making the decisions, referred to as matriarchy.

        So we can see how these spiritual markers created in copper artifacts are telling us more about the people, including how they traded and how they viewed themselves.

        There is a good reason to involve trade in this search for answers. People did not live in static homes or communities. We’re talking hundreds of years of time during which cultural changes happened, because of the movement of people in and out. To understand a key element in the Serpent Mound, it’s important to understand how trade connections work.

This crude map by author demonstrates how waterways were used to travel from Peru and Bolivia

into the U.S. and then up the Mississippi River. Blue star is Lake Superior.

 

        The CAMD includes copper artifacts from Canada all the way down to South America—that’s a lot of trade. The copper toolers up around the Great Lakes were the first metal toolers of the Americas, by around 8000 BCE.  Lake Superior (blue star on map) is the largest source of pure copper, and glaciers pulled chunks of copper southward, leaving it behind as float copper after the Ice Age, after 12,000 BCE. People started tooling with float copper south of Lake Superior before mining it—annealing copper as early as 9000 BCE. In South America they began tooling in copper around 3000 BCE, and by 500 BCE they were smelting copper—yes, they entered a Bronze Age, something that did not happen with the ancient metal industry here in the U.S.

        In Mexico they began tooling in copper just before the fall of Teotihuacan, around 500 CE. Why so late? Their main copper sources were on the western edge of the country, and their civilizations began on the eastern edge with the Olmecs around 2000 BCE, which could be a reason. Trade from South America into the Misssippi River valley would have been through the Gulf of Mexico on the eastern side. But Mexcio got into smelting rather quickly, thanks in part to the eventual travel and trade with South America up their western edge.

 

         In Mexico and South America it seems the bird images outnumber the snakes (see attached table and map). In Mexico, there was a hero god that was represented by Quetzelcoatl, a “feathered serpent,” (also called plumed or horned); petroglyphs and other representations in shell and copper of this image have been found all over North America.

       Several Hopewell ornaments in Ohio appear to resemble a "quotation mark" with a horn or part of one at the top of the head. This could be another Quetzalcoatl symbol, stylized.  You can find these in the Harvard Peabody online catalog. (See at https://pmem.unix.fas.harvard.edu:8443/peabody/view/objects/asitem/search$0040/369/title-desc?t:state:flow=a39731bc-489c-4a87-b6e4-ab3f0197b725)

        Many of the copper artifacts that are birds and snakes really do look like birds and snakes. But what is especially intriguing are designs that appear to be evolutionary. Natives also believed that humans evolved from animals, if we can interpret their wearing of animal masks and depicting humans as half-animals. There have also been copper depictions of the evolution of bird into snake, or snake into bird, and even of lizard into snake or vice versa. Their panther mound was probably not a panther at all but an evolution of snake into lizard. In the drawing above, the Quetzalcoatl snake could be turning into a bird. There are also some etched into copper where the mouth of a bird is screaming, with the tail of a snake. This indicates, perhaps, that the snake was eating the bird. The above might indicate the takeover of the matriarchy by the men (patriarchy), and the other I referred to (not shown) could be the resistance of the matriarchy by turning the bird back into the snake, with the bird screaming in the process.

 

        You will find a variety of depictions of the winged serpent in copper at the Moundville site in Alabama. George Langford in Hero, Hawk & Open Hand (213) speculated that it doesn’t have to mean Quetzalcoatl, as is commonly thought, but is instead a representation of a constellation.

 

        Quetzalcoatl is indicated by plumed feathers, but not necessarily by wings; that tells us something else is going on in those particular representations of winged snakes, and takeover could be one interpretatoin.

Quetzalcoatl in Utah, Brian C. Lee photograph

        In New Mexico, according to Katelyn Bird, the “plumed serpent” is called “awanya,” or guardian of water. And the Serpent Mound in Ohio, too, appears to guard a water resource, which these ancient peoples used for travel and trade—vital to their survival. Another depiction of a snake with horns is shown on a pictograph in Utah (see photo above).

        One of the sites that appears to have resisted the hawk society is at Cahokia in western Illinois at East St. Louis. Known as the largest pre-contact Mississippian site, it was a diverse community of farmers that began to develop around 800 CE, but the height of its cultural growth was reached with its diversity before 1100 CE (Theler & Boszhardt, 144; learn more at https://cahokiamounds.org/). What might have caused this location to become so big? Perhaps coincidentally—supernovas. There were two, in 1006 and again in 1054, potentially twice in a single person’s lifetime. Imagine how star worshipers might have interpreted something so astronomically big to the naked eye at that time. This could be a reason that many turned to the Hawk Warrior Society, as protection from the vengeance of sky gods. But not Cahokia, as snake symbol rule is demonstrated by the wealth of copper artifact symbolism there.

        I believe the Serpent Mound, then, demonstrates a matriarchal society in the Late Hopewell period that resisted the takeover by an early hawk (patrilineal) society. The serpent at Serpent Mound is showing to the hawk sky gods that it can still eat their eggs. But what about that funny “bowtie” on the Serpent Mound? Those could be plumes or horns. In this scenario, the Serpent Mound is another representation of Quetzalcoatl. “The earliest records say (that the Serpent Mound) was a depiction of a serpent that was swallowing an egg. One of the more interesting theories as to the origin of the shape is that it represents an explanation of the phases of the moon, by the representation of a snake swallowing it.” (http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-great-serpent-mound).  

        Why would the moon have that little dot in the center? An egg would, representing fertilization.

        In Mexico and South America, the bird society dominated. In Aztec legend, they had a symbol of an eagle carrying a snake (photo below). Based on the trade map above, Mexico, Central America and northern South America could have been trading with the SECC, whose territory was in the southeastern states of the U.S., using the Mississippi River and the Gulf for a trade route. These religious symbols were carried around on the trade network.

Were the Aztecs patrilineal? This indicates they were, with the bird conquering the snake. From The founding of Tenochtitlan from Diego Durán’s ‘Historia de las Indias de la Nueva España’, folio 14v (Click on image to enlarge); found at http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-us/eagle-and-the-snake  (author also has an article at this site)

 

        I believe here at Serpent Mound we have the representation of a snake eating a bird’s egg, to establish the underworld gods’ dominance in the area. But the question is, when? One thought, to validate Brad Lepper’s belief, is late or post-Hopewell, and could be due in part to the second supernova in 1054 CE. While Cahokia may have gotten huge in response to the supernovas, and the Hawk Warrior Society another response to that fear, the Serpent Mound, built previously, was a symbol of the maternal snake reverence in the area, and of its people’s determination to stay that way. A change in spirituality doesn’t happen overnight.

        But the copper artifact data found in a presentation I made not long ago indicated that the effigy mounds themselves could well be dated back to Early Woodland. If this is the case, and Romain was right about the construction of the Serpent Mound beginning around 300 BCE, then the supernovas only heightened the takeover of the Hawk Society, and invigorated those who became Aztecs to show the Eagle conquering the snake. The Aztecs emerged as a distinct culture in the valley of Mexico by 1175 CE and established Tenochtitlan on an island (now Mexico City) by 1325 CE. More research could help us find more definitive answers. But one thing is for sure. The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), which is situated in the southeastern United States (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia) idealized the Hawk Society during Mississippian times, while those further north, such as Cahokia, Fort Ancient and Aztalan in Wisconsin, remained more snake-oriented. Where eagle conquers snake, men control the women.  This is based on copper iconography found in these areas.

        This is a fairly simplistic approach to how the CAMD can be used to solve pre-contact puzzles, but as I hope I demonstrate here, we can do more research with a dedicated approach.

        Brown & Davis wrote that “Prentice (1986) … [advanced] his thesis for a connection between snakes and the earth goddess mythic theme,” but advised against this “widest possible commonality.” And yet that’s exactly what I’ve done here—matriarchy as snake and patriarchy as bird.  Perhaps they fought over their gods, or perhaps they were peaceably adaptive. We need to understand the possibilities, and realize that guesswork can bring us closer to the truth—if it makes sense, and says something about our common humanity.

****

The artifacts used for this article:

Purple is Mississippian Bird; Blue is Mississippian Snake;

 Red is Hopewell Bird; Green is Hopewell Snake

Download your own Wittry Updated Typology free at https://monettebebowreinhard.com/camd

Map of Mexico & South America: Note that with Mexico being a latecomer to the copper tradition, ALL of their artifacts found were bird related. There was a trace of snake found in South America, but it could have been dropped by travelers there. More data is needed.

Map of the artifact table:

Note the black star is Spiro, a site where it’s been discovered that many Mississippian ritual snake and hawk plates were made. The black circle is the site of Cahokia (not Little Rock), and the black “flower” is the site of the Serpent Mound.

This does not include my effigy mound research.

Summary from table of totals:

Green = Hopewell snakes = 19

Red = Hopewell birds = 10

Blue = Mississippian snakes = 50

Purple = Mississippian birds = 25

****

After earning a master's in history in 2006, Bebow-Reinhard first volunteered and then became curator at the oldest copper burial museum in the country. She'd already developed an interest in the pre-contact trade network in the Americas in her grad work and creating her copper artifact master database was a great addition to discovering more about that trade. Her database is now over 66,000 pieces and she's starting up her copper newsletter again, with retirement pending, free to subscribers.  She's also a published novelist, a professional editor, and writes movie scripts. Learn more at www.monettebebowreinhard.com