As you can see in the video below, Dave Rubin did an off-the-grid August last year. (He starts talking about it at 1:57). I heard him say he was going to do the same this year, and invite all of us to join him.
I thought that was a great idea, as August is also the month that I’m going to be moving to an undisclosed location. (Yep, that picture above. That is exactly where I’m going to be living.)
Unlike Dave Rubin, I have not pre-taped episodes of this blog to play throughout August in my absence. I will not be posting until September.
What is a crannog and would you like to live on one?
Turns out a crannog is a small artificial island made by piling rocks in a loch (that’s lake to you non-Scots), on which people lived.
These things are really widespread. Check out the map in the Ancient Origins article that shows their locations all around Scotland and the outer Hebrides. And apparently they exist in Ireland too.
According to the two articles above, crannogs once were thought to date to the Iron Age or even to medieval times. Now a few of them have been dated to the Neolithic era. I am a dating skeptic, but given what we suspect about the brilliant engineering capabilities of ancient man, the Neolithic idea sounds as plausible as any.
And if they are indeed Neolithic, the crannogs were probably built by pre-Celtic people. If we follow Arthur C. Custance, it’s likely the builders were Hamite. Imagine the engineering ability that it would take to create a livable artificial island that is still around thousands of years later.
I can’t imagine what would make people think they needed to live on these tiny, inconvenient islands, but it can’t have been good.
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,
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
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
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
There are, of course, large animal-shaped terraforms in other parts of the world, such as the Uffington and Westbury White Horses in Britain and the Nazca Lines in Peru.
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 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
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 Mounds “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.
Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado,
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)
Yes, you read that right: “Woodstock” and archaeology in the same sentence.
Imagine how fun it would be to excavate Woodstock.
There are people still alive who were there. There are documents and maps and photographs. We know what the purpose of the gathering was and how many days it lasted. We know what to expect.
Nevertheless, the article includes this line:
“By examining surface vegetation and rocks in the area, now covered in forest, the team was able to identify 24 booth sites and 13 other ‘cultural features’ that were made by people, but whose function is not known.”
On a dig at a site that is just 50 years old, still in living memory, there are man-made features whose function is not known.
So many things to speculate about here. Are the structures additional snack booths? Port-a-Johns? First Aid tents? Opium dens? Bases for journalists or event security? Hideouts built by parents who were checking up on their children? Just really big and elaborate tents made by unusually enterprising attendees?
Further speculation. What if this site were 1,000 years old? 5,000 years? What if we didn’t know exactly how old it was? What if we weren’t sure whether it had been used annually for 500 years by 1,000 people or once, for three days, by 400,000? What if it were a refugee camp, a religious gathering, or some sort of pagan orgy? Perhaps we would find the names of the gods and goddesses who were worshiped here. (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead. The latter were probably entities less like gods and more like the Valkyries or the Furies, though in this case they seem to have been male.)
What if Herodotus had told us a little something about this gathering, though he only heard about it third-hand and didn’t seem to know much about it, and we are not even sure this is the same one he meant?
Please, speculate a little more in the comments. Go wild.
A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please. She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population.
I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation
She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory. I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of. I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader. So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect.
Is This Persecution?
However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing. Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people. It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there. This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages.
When religion does play a major
role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil. That goes double for Christianity.
What is the reason for this?
Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution. I agree. I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below.
Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters
They don’t know any Christians in real life. Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular. One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America. Another is L.A., home to Hollywood. If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career. There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian. It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people. And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.
It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good. Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue. A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt. So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain. The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal. Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.
Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader. Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad. This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.
They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality. The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart. These are the tools with which we write fiction.
Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality. If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people. This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt.
Stephen King, again, is a great example of this. He is a brilliant writer. I love his work. I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other. After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)
Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution. It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction. It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates. And some authors do hate Christians.
Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters
They wish to have wide appeal. Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people. It is enough to make people put down a book. That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity. After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader. We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.
They fear being defensive. If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion. Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!). They just want to tell a story. This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing. So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.
They fear being unoriginal. As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new. Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative. (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.)
Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom. In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry. Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible. But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power. An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around. The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.
Religion is just too big to control in our writing.
This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers. If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God. We have just unleashed God into our book. This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose. It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral.
What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person. I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it. Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it. My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up. I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal. My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.
Dostoevsky can do it. Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow. But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.
Despite this healthy skepticism, we do try to use sound reasoning and pay attention to evidence. For this reason, there are certain wild historical theories that I’ve never felt the need to engage with. One of these is the flat-earth theory.
Luckily for us, someone has already done the work for us.
Faulkner got interested enough in the flat-earth movement to study it. In this short piece, he gives a handy overview of the movement and a critique of its reasoning. The reasoning appears to depend on a radical skepticism not just about things that have earned some skepticism like social science and carbon dating, but about any and every kind of research or scholarship.