Pilgrimage to The Great Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound

I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit the world heritage site: The Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio. Given how famous the mound is within my readings, I’m surprised that I haven’t gone sooner. Along the way, I stopped at a couple of locations from my Mysterious Ohio wall map, which included a visit with a fascinating curator of fossils and stones.

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Serpent Mound is the worlds largest snake effigy and is at least 1000 years old—perhaps even older. It was surrounded by burial mounds, though the snake structure itself contains/contained no artifacts. It is a mound of turf about three feet tall and over 100 feet long. Its full shape can only be appreciated from the air.

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At ground level, the coils of the serpent rise at both ends following the contours of the land. From the middle the serpent appears to be a series of terraces on the left and right. Its tail is a tight spiral that can be appreciated from ground level while the head forms an oval depression.

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The Head or Egg

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The Coil Tail

It is thought that burnt offerings were offered in the middle of the head. The serpent’s head points to the setting point of the Sun on the summer solstice. A line between the tip of the tail and head points directly north and the coils line up with several other solar and lunar events during the year. The tip of the tail provides a good platform for viewing the various equinox and solstice events, especial the winter solstice. The head is located on a promontory and the rest of the serpent follows a cliff along the path of a couple of intersecting creeks.

The head, which many interpret to be a snake swallowing an egg, may symbolize a world serpent swallowing the dying sun (the common mythological interpretation of the shortening of days after the summer solstice). While the tail might have been imagined to be the place it was reborn during winter solstice. Like the sun, the spirits of the dead may have been imagined to be swallowed and born again.

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Two trees suggest a gateway along the modern path around the Serpent.

Travelers to Serpent Mound might also be interested in visiting a rather old cemetery, Locust Grove Cemetery, located along the road to the site. Another stop along the way is the historic Wickham Inn, which looks to be a private residence, and is rumored to be haunted.

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The “Haunted” Wickham Inn

My trip ended at a very interesting shop. Before the turn-off road that leads to the Serpent Mound site, there is a fossil and mineral shop called House of Phacops.

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A phacop is a trilobite, an arthropod that has been extinct for hundreds of millions of years.

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The shop has a great collection of trilobits and offers fossils and minerals for sale—many are local. The shop appears to be a destination for New Agers as well, and some space within is dedicated to mystical speculation on the Serpent Mound, alongside news articles about crop circles that have mysteriously appeared on nearby farms.

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The visit was a powerful experience for me—to walk in the paths of people who created such a majestic structure. The Serpent Mound is more than a monument, it’s a device for sending souls to the next life, either here or beyond. Its power, I feel, is still active—alive, if one lets themselves be open to its spirit. For me it was more than a visit to some famous “thing,” like the Empire State Building or worlds biggest ball of yarn. It was a pilgrimage.

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Labyrinth of the Giants

Rujm el-Hiri is an ancient megalithic monument, consisting of concentric circles of stone with a tumulus at center. It is located in the Golan Heights, some 16 kilometres east of the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee. The picture shows an aerial view of the archeological site. Photo by Itamar Grinberg.

Photo by Itamar Grinberg.

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I read an article from the Huffington Post that I’d like to share with you all. It involves an archeological ruin in the Golan Heights. It is currently called Gilgal Refaim, the “Hill of Giants” in Hebrew, owing to the belief that giants lived in the legendary Middle East before the Israelites conquered Canaan.

At the center of the complex is a mound tomb that once held an important local individual. In the ancient east, Mediterranean  cults existed dedicated to ancient heroes, men who were half-god, half-human, and of great power. In later Hebrew myths, these demi-god spirits were equated with the Greek Giants and Titans of myth.

It is not yet definitive whether the tomb and the circles surrounding it are of the same age. The walls are thought to date from around 3000 BCE while the tomb is thought to date from around  1550-1200 BCE. It is reasonable that some later potentate was entombed on what was regarded as a mysterious artifact from antiquity, made by the Jinn or ancient heroes.

The walls remind me of the ancient Mediterranean labyrinth, but they also bear similarity to the structure of the walls comprising the megalith at Gobeki Tepe. However, circles are a pretty popular shape for megaliths separated by time and space, and while close to Gobeki Tepe, that site is nearly 6000 years older than Gigal Refaim. See the links at the bottom to read more.

With so many competing ideas for why this site was built we can only conclude….

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A video explaining the site YouTube

Theories for the labyrinth:
Biblical Archeological Society
Popular Archeology

The Shamanistic Mysticism of Catal Huyuk 5800 B.C.

Paintings have been recovered on the walls of what are described as shrines from Neolithic sites in Turkey. These images, shown below, depict animals being set upon by what appear to be hunters.

Catal Huyuk c.6000 BC (source: Charles Burney, “The Ancient Near East” Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1977)

Reconstructed Catal Huyuk shrine based on archeological remains (compare the fragment above with the reproduced image on the wall) (source: Seton Lloyd, “The Archaeology of Mesopotamia” London, Thames and Hudson, 1978)

But are these simply depictions of hunts? Images from South Africa created by a paleolithic people, the San, have a similar composition, and it is known what they depict (see below). The hunts depicted in San rock-art do not take place in the earthly realm, but in the spiritual world. The San create these pictures to manifest the power of shamanistic vision quests created in altered states of mind, achieved by way of rhythmic dancing (other methods are used by different societies to achieve similar mind states, including drugs, meditation, and physical stress).

In these mystic states souls can interact with the spirit creatures that the San believe exist in the rock and control nature. The animals are called rain animals because they are said to bring rain. The capture of the rain animal by the shaman allows them to bring its rain into the material world.

Clouds are themselves described as a beast, with the columns of rain its feet. The spirit animals, like earthly animals, give nourishment. Just as this nourishment is not obtained in the normal way humans obtain nourishment from animals, their existence is not apparent like earthly animals. Instead they provide nourishment in a magical way and can only be directly observed by shifting one’s consciousness into the magical world of spirit beings.

Recent San rock paintings from South Africa. ( http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/rari/page6.php )

This concept has also been applied to similar images found in the caves of Ice Age Europe (see below). The Cro-Magnon peoples did not use human forms nearly as much as the San, but the images of Shamans stalking bison, and the depictions of such animals being assaulted by spears may carry the same function- to show the shaman leading animals out of the spirit world through the womb of the earth goddess and into the material world. That paleolithic Europeans believed a spirit woman birthed animals is an interpretation supported by the commonness of this theme around the world and the frequent occurrence of female figurines among the Cro-Magnon.

Cave art from Ice Age France see ( http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/My%20Documents/Therianthropes.htm )

In fact their closest relatives today, the Basque, have retained myths of the mother goddess living in caves and birthing the gods from there. Note in the lower left corner of the image from Turkey the figure of the mother goddess is very similar to the styles used for thousands of years in Europe. The paintings in Turkey may be evidence of the retention of the ice age religious practices by the first towns, with the walls of the shrines becoming an artificial cave or rock wall.

Left, from Catal Huyuk, right, an Ice Age Venus

The walls at Catal Huyuk could be concretized shamanistic journeys where the spirit animals birthed by the goddess could be captured by shamans. The rituals may have included part of the general community in order to help enact the spirit hunt. Or perhaps only select elite interacted with the images. Either way, the animals may not be representing simply animals but spirits that control the beast, or given the agricultural focus of these sites, the weather.

It should be kept in mind the association of sky gods with bulls throughout the ancient near east and Greece. The close resemblence between the pictures at Catal Huyuk seem to indicate that not only did the priests there owe their traditions to people who sought shamanistic visions though altered mindstates, but likely that they still did.

References:
Lewis-Williams, J. David. The Mind in the Cave. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Michael Everson, “Tenacity in religion, myth, and folklore: the neolithic Goddess of Old Europe preserved in a non-Indo-European setting” Journal of Indo-European Studies 17 Numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1989, pp. 277-95. http://www.evertype.com/misc/basque-jies/basque-jies.html#ft5

Basque Mythology http://www.buber.net/Basque/Folklore/aunamendi.mythology.php