We really don’t know for sure what most ancient, pre-literate cultures used many of their monumental constructions for. We’re reasonably sure about things like the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of Greece, but these examples of architecture were constructed during periods in which there was writing, so their builders discussed the significance of monumental architecture in their life times.
But what of Stonehenge? Nabta Playa? The Nazca Lines in Peru? We can make some guesses -some very educated guesses- but we still cannot be as certain of the use and purpose of these sites as we can of those mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The same holds true for the Serpent Mound in Locus Grove, Ohio, which was constructed by local Native Americans at around 1000 CE. Nor do we truly know the purposes of other earthworks in the Ohio Valley -were they fortifications; were they mortuary; were they cult centers; or some combination of these? While not as old as many of the mounds built by the Hopewell and Adena cultures (1000 BCE to about 700 CE), the Serpent mound is, perhaps, one of the most famous and popular of the earthworks in the Ohio Valley -maybe even the United States.
Several decades later, Francis Parry offered a new interpretation which was analogous to symbols found in Southwest Native American cultures. He suggested that the oval was a “Sun” sign and the coil at the tail the “wind” sign. The wavy body in the middle was interpreted by Parry to be the “aboriginal cloud form.”
And, just so we can all rest assured that the cloud of ignorance perpetrated by modern fundamentalist Christians is nothing new, let me mention another interpretation of the Serpent Mound. Reverend Landon West of Pleasant Hill, OH suggested that the mound represented man’s fall from grace in which “Satan beguiled and tempted Eve” to taste of the forbidden fruit. Clearly, Landon thought, this was created by the hand of God directly or, at least, through one of his nutters.
More recently, rational analysis has yielded to a more rational interpretation. By comparing the mound with the anatomy and striking habits of real snakes, researchers now see the oval portion at the head of the snake as its mouth and the triangular-shaped portion behind the head as the neck, which is
“puffed out” by inflation in certain species when agitated. Native American cultures were careful observers of nature, to the point that I would characterize them as “scientists” of a sort -they observed the habits and behaviors of animals and the universe, making predictions and assumptions that held true when hunting, or just determining the seasons. It’s very likely that the snake was a totem figure and venerated by the culture that built the mound in the same way it was venerated and respected by cultures around the world. If one is to create a mound to honor a snake, then the logical course of action is to show it in the position of action: striking!
Incidentally, the Serpent Mound is situated on a ridge that is on the edge of a massive crater, probably created about 300 million years ago when a small asteroid impacted the region. Its very doubtful that the Native Americans that constructed the mound had any clue of this, but it is interesting that the head and the tail both are situated near cliff-faces of the ridge (there’s an overlook at each end). Though completely unaware of the asteroid impact, the mound’s builders may have, indeed, been aware of other details of astronomical significance, namely the summer and winter solstices. This is consistent with the level of knowledge and technology of other mound-building societies of the world, suggesting a need to have an accurate method of tracking and celebrating the seasons for agricultural purposes.
Because of this, I rather liked the interpretations that include an egg being consumed or ejected by the snake, since most societies rightly view the egg as a symbol of fertility and fertility is necessary for agricultural societies.
I was at the Serpent Mound just a two weeks ago and I have to say that the nearest town, Locust Grove, is aptly named. There were thousands of cicadas, close cousin to the locust, in the trees buzzing in unison and, occasionally, dropping down on the heads of unassuming passersby. Here’s one such cicada. Colorful little buggers.