This post originally appeared on this site on July 19, 2019.
Ohio’s serpent mound was first discovered by white people in about 1846. It was difficult to survey or even to find due to being covered in trees and brush. When the brush was partly cleared, it became obvious that the mound, perched on a cliff at the confluence of a creek (which cliff itself resembles the head of a serpent), was a really remarkable earthwork and was designed to be visible from the nearby valley.
The following article will draw on the book The Serpent Mound by E.O. Randall, published in 1905, which is a compilation of maps, surveys, and speculation about the mound by archaeologists of the time; and on my own visit to the mound. One advantage in using these older sources is that we get a variety of voices, we can learn what the Mound looked like when it was first (re)-discovered, and we get an archaeological perspective that is different from the modern one. For example, one source in Randall’s book says the mound appears to be “not more than 1,000 years old, nor less than 350 years” (p.50). This is not very precise, but I actually prefer it to a super-confident proclamation about the mound’s age based on dating methods and assumptions that might be suspect. In fact, the uncertainty of this early source is echoed by the informational video in the mound’s museum. It features an archaeologist saying that we could get “a million different carbon dates” from the mound because the earth was that used to build it was already old and had been through multiple forest fires, etc. He adds that it’s basically impossible to carbon-date earthworks.
On the Road to Serpent Mound
To get to Serpent Mound (at least from where we are), you get in your car and head south over the Ohio highways. You leave behind the urban build-up and progress into farm country. Eventually, the landscape becomes less Midwestern and more Appalachian. Hills and hollers take the place of open farmland. Finally, after hopping from one rural route to another, you find yourself winding through thickly wooded hills in southern Ohio. You approach the Mound from the South. Though it stands on a bluff overlooking Brush Creek, the area is so heavily wooded that you can’t catch a glimpse of the Mound on your way in.
This land was purchased in 1885. At that time, the land was owned by a farmer and the Mound was “in a very neglected and deplorable condition” (Randall 106). To save the Mound from “inevitable destruction,” a Prof. F.W. Putnam arranged to have it bought by the Trustees of the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, where he was Chief of the Ethnological and Archaeological Department. Putnam later worked to have a law protecting it passed in Ohio, the first law of its kind in the United States (Randall 108). Today the Mound is a National Historical Landmark. Besides the Serpent itself, the area includes some additional burial mounds, a picnic shelter, and a tiny, log-cabin-style museum.
You disembark in the parking lot. The heat, the humidity, the strong sweetish green smells, and the variety of insect life remind you of your Appalachian childhood. They also remind you why you are planning to move out West.
The Serpent Mound Itself
Serpent Mound is difficult to describe in words, so please see the associated maps and photographs. It is 1335 feet long (winding over an area of about 500 feet), varies from three to six feet high, and slopes downward from the spiral tail to the jaws and egg which stand on the tip of the overlook. The head faces West towards the sunset at Summer Solstice. The body includes three bends which may sight towards the sunrises at Summer Solstice, Equinox, and Winter Solstice (short lines of sight and the gentle curves of the Serpent make it difficult to tell whether these alignments were intended for astronomical viewing).
It was made apparently by hand on a base of clay, followed by rocks, more clay, dirt, and then sod. Though it cannot be carbon-dated, there is evidence that it is not as ancient as some megaliths elsewhere in the world. The bluff it sits on and the creeks that surround it cannot be older than the retreat of the glaciers. The burials near it date to the Adena period, which runs 600 B.C. to 100 A.D., though there is no way to tell if the burials are contemporaneous with the Serpent or were added later. There has even been speculation that the Mound could have been built by the Fort Ancient culture, which flourished around 1000 A.D.
The “egg” which the Serpent contains in its jaws (or, the Serpent’s eye) used to have in its center a stone altar which bore traces of fire. (In the largest burial, too, the corpse was placed on a bed of hot coals and then covered with clay while the coals were still smoldering.) We assume, then, that the Serpent was the site of ceremonies, but we have no way of knowing anything about their nature.
The Serpent, despite its name, does not give a spooky or “wrong” feeling. The scale of it is very human and does not overwhelm. The shapes and proportions of the curves are pleasing and give a sense of calm and beauty. The Serpent is, in fact, inviting to walk on. One is tempted to walk along the curves, climb down into the oval of the egg, step into the middle of the spiral tail. One cannot do this, of course, as it is strictly forbidden.
The only problem with Serpent aesthetically (if this is a problem) is that it’s impossible to view it all at once. This is mostly because of the bend in the tail. In modern times an understated observation tower has been placed next to the Serpent, right near the tailmost curve. But even from the top of this tower it is impossible to take in the entire Serpent with either eye or cellphone camera. Looking to the left, we get a view of the spiral tail. Looking to the right, we see the undulations stretching off into the distance and falling away with the slope of the hill, but even then we cannot see the entire head because it takes its own slight curve and is blocked by trees.
I can’t help but think this effect is intentional. This monument is not designed to be taken in all at once, looking along a line of sight, and to overwhelm the viewer. Instead, it’s apparently designed to draw us on, tantalizingly offering small charming vista after small charming vista. There is no one best place to view it. Perhaps the architects among us can explain what this says about the minds and intentions of the people who designed it.
Fort Ancient, another hill-and-plateau complex in southern Ohio, is also sprawling, hard to view, and offers the same “please explore me” effect.
“Effigy Mounds” in North America
The Serpent is definitely not the only large animal-shaped mound in North America. There are many of them, called by archaeologists “effigy mounds” (not the usual meaning of the term effigy).
“The effigy mounds appear … in various parts of … the Mississippi Valley. They are found in many of the southern states; many appear in Illinois, but Wisconsin seems to have been their peculiar field. Hundreds of them were discovered in that state … In Wisconsin they represent innumerable animal forms: the moose, buffalo, bear, fox, deer, frog, eagle, hawk, panther, elephant, and various fishes, birds and even men and women. In a few instances, a snake. In Wisconsin the effigies were usually situated on high ridges along the rivers or on the elevated shores of the lake. Very few effigy mounds have been found in Ohio – though it is by far the richest field in other forms of mounds.” (Randall 31)
So Ohio’s serpent mound is not unique. It is, however, impressive and well-done, and tends to strike people as mysterious and significant.
The Serpent Mound is a Giant Rorschach Blot
Whatever else it might be, the Serpent Mound reliably functions as a giant Rorschach blot. It appears significant but ambiguous. Everyone who is not content to admit that we don’t know its purpose tends to bring their own interpretation.
Here are four examples.
One example, roundly mocked in Randall’s book, is the “amusing and ridiculous” “Garden of Eden fancy” (p. 93). This theory, put forward by a Baptist minister of the day, is that the Mound was built by God Himself to commemorate the eating of the forbidden fruit and to warn mankind against the Serpent. The oval object, which many people take to be an egg, is on this view the forbidden fruit itself, which the Serpent is taking in its jaws as if to eat or offer. Furthermore, the three streams that come together nearby represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “Pain and death are shown by the convolutions of the serpent, just as a living animal would portray pain and death’s agony … America is, in fact, the land in which Eden was located” (pp 99, 101).
Now, here’s another interpretation, based on the accepted anthropology of the day: “Students of anthropology, ethnology and archaeology seem to agree that among the earliest of religious beliefs is that of animism or nature worship. Next to this in the rising scale is animal worship and following it is sun worship. Animism is the religion of the savage and wilder races, who are generally wanderers. Animal worship is more peculiarly the religion of the sedentary tribes … Sun worship is the religion of the village tribes and is peculiar to the stage which borders upon the civilized. ‘Now judging from the circumstances and signs,’ says Dr. Peet, ‘we should say that the emblematic mound builders were in a transition state between the conditions of savagery and barbarism and that they had reached the point where animal worship is very prevalent’” (pp. 37 – 38).
This theory of the slow development of man’s religion as they rise out of “savagery” into “barbarism” and finally into “civilization” is reported with much more respect than the Baptist pastor’s theory, but it is in fact just as fanciful. It is based on an overly neat-and-tidy and, frankly, snobby view of the history of religion that was popular for many years but that actual history does not support. But, again, Rorschach blot.
Many other observors have linked the Mound with its oval to the “egg and serpent” origin mythology that crops up in many places in the world, including Greece and India. This theory receives many pages in Randall’s book.
To take just one more out of many other examples, on this very blog we learned from a book review that Graham Hancock’s latest book prominently features the Serpent Mound as part of his latest theory that North America is, in fact, the source of the Atlantis legends. He believes that the Mound is meant to represent the constellation Draco and was built during an era when Draco was ascendant. Or something like that.
I, too, have taken the Serpent Mound Rorschach test and here is what I see. I see more evidence that serpent mythology (with or without eggs) and the strong motivation to build large, long-lasting religious monuments are both universal in human culture. I personally think that these things didn’t arise independently in every corner of the world but were carried distributively and that they represent distant memories of certain events in human history, which are hinted at but not fleshed out in the early chapters of Genesis. However, I am not fool enough to think that the existence of Serpent Mound “proves” any of this. It is, as I said, a Rorschach blot.
Other Serpent Mounds Around the World
Otonabee Serpent Mound sits on the north shore of Rice Lake, not far from the city of Toronto, Ontario (Randall 114). It is 189 feet long. The head faces “a few degrees north of east,” with an oval burial mound in front of the head which could represent an egg (115).
In Scotland, there is the stone serpent of Loch Nell:
“The mound is situated on a grassy plain. The tail of the serpent rests near the shore of Loch Nell, and the mound gradually rises seventeen to twenty feet in height and is continued for 300 feet, ‘forming a double curve like the letter S’ … the head lies at the western end [and] forms a circular cairn, on which [in 1871] there still remained some trace of an altar, which has since wholly disappeared, thanks to the cattle and herd boys. … The mound has been formed in such a position that worshippers, standing at the altar, would naturally look eastward, directly along the whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake to the triple peaks of Ben Chruachan. This position must have been carefully selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible. General Forlong … says, ‘Here we have an earth-formed snake, emerging in the usual manner from dark water, at the base, as it were, of a triple cone – Scotland’s Mount Hermon, – just as we so frequently meet snakes and their shrines in the East.’” (Randall pp. 121 – 122)
Speaking of Mount Hermon. This large, lone mountain sits at the northern end of the Golan Heights in Israel. It is so high that it is home to a winter ski resort. In ancient times, this region was called Bashan. It was known for its large and vigorous animals (the “bulls of Bashan”), and for its humanoid giants. Down to Hellenistic times, Bashan was a center for pagan worship (the Greek god Pan had a sacred site there). And guess what else it has? A serpent mound.
“The serpent mound of Bashan has ruins on its head and tail. The ruins are square (altars?) on top of small circular mounds” (Van Dorn 144).
This serpent mound is less than mile from a stone circle called Gilgal Rephaim (“Wheel of the Giants”). (Stone circles, as sacred sites, are also found throughout the world.) “The Wheel contains some 42,000 tons of partly worked stone, built into a circle 156 meters in diameter and 8 feet high on the outer wall. It is aligned to the summer solstice. The area is littered with burial chambers … If you go due North of the Wheel, [sighting] through the serpentine mound [and proceed] for 28 miles, you will run straight into the summit of Mt. Hermon” (Van Dorn 145).
Serpent, altar, circle, and sacred mountain. I don’t know about you, but the site in Golan sounds a lot scarier to me than Ohio’s Serpent Mound. However, it also makes me wonder whether people in Ohio – and Scotland – were trying to re-create this arrangement.
Giants: Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado, 2013.
The Serpent Mound: Adams County, Ohio: Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent: Various Theories of the Effigy Mounds and the Mound Builders, by E.O. Randall (L.L., M., Secretary Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society; Reporter Ohio Supreme Court), Coachwhip Publications, Greenville Ohio, 2013. First published 1905. This book is a compilation: “The effort has been made not merely to give a description, indeed several descriptions, of Serpent Mound, but also to set forth a summary of the literature concerning the worship of the serpent. … It is hoped that this volume, while it may not solve the problem of the origin and purpose of the Serpent Mound, will at least add to its interest and give the reader such information as it is possible to obtain.” (page 5)