Serpent Mound, Ohio

Body of the serpent seen from the viewing tower, looking North

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

Walking south along the serpent (viewing tower in background)

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.

Large burial mound some ways south of the serpent

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

An old drawing of the serpent as it would look if there were no trees around it (Randall p. 8)

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).

Archaeologists have discovered the serpent once had a fourth coil near the head, which was deliberately dismantled.

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.

A close up view of the oval “egg.” It once contained an altar.

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. 

Approaching the tail spiral. In the background, the cliff drops away into a wooded vista.

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.

Fort Ancient is a plateau surrounded by man-made hills with gaps in them, overlooking the Little Miami River, Ohio. It has man-made mounds on it as well.

“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) 

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

Map of the serpent found in the museum

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 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.

We got rained on while at Serpent Mound. Coincidence? I think not!

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).  

The Ohio serpent’s spiral tail, which evokes a stone circle. Viewing tower in the background.

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.

Sources

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)

Leviathan

Some time ago, Rachael requested in the Comments section of my Dinosaurs post that I post a picture of the Leviathan. At the time, I thought that I didn’t have time to do one. (I’ve gotten away from drawing and painting in favor of home schooling, knitting, and a writing career.) But then I realized I had on hand a watercolor that I had done years ago which includes the Leviathan.

The image below is from a version of the Book of Job that I did for my kids when they were little. I made it because there simply were no children’s books that accurately summarized the Book of Job. It’s not a popular topic in the first place, and even when it is dealt with, it tends to be handled very moralistically as being all about Job’s patience and righteousness. But that’s a rant for another day.

The reason the animals are portrayed as being in a tornado is that God “spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.” My son, at the time, was equal parts fascinated and terrified by the idea of tornadoes. The animals shown are unicorn, eagle, behemoth (the sauropod) and, in the lower left corner, Leviathan. (I include a unicorn because the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, mentions “monoceros” or “unicorn” where some English translations render “wild donkey” or “wild ox.”)

I must admit this Leviathan owes more to C.S. Lewis’s description of the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’ve portrayed it as a deep-sea creature. There is no hint of fire breathing or scales bumpy enough to leave an impression in the mud. Sorry, folks.

And … tah dah …!

Dinosaurs in History

Readers of The Long Guest have noticed that it features some “dragons.”

These are not the kind that breathe fire, collect treasure, talk in riddles, and sail through the sky on golden wings. Lord knows, I’ve got nothing against that kind. But The Long Guest is not that sort of story. It’s a speculative novel about what life might have been like in the very ancient world. Its “dragons” are basically animals, part of the milieu through which the characters move as they leave Babel.

They are, of course, dinosaurs. Below is some of the research that prompted me to include them.

Wait, ‘Dragons’ Are Dinosaurs?

The evidence from paleontology is complex, incomplete, hotly debated and far, far beyond the scope of this article. But there is plenty of historical evidence that human beings occasionally saw, and even might have interacted with, various kinds of dinosaur. Often they called them “dragons.”

Dragon ‘legends’ exist all over the world. For example, when my husband and I lived in Borneo, there were stories of a long, skinny water dragon (‘naga’) that lived in the rivers. This dragon was part of the local mythology, but it was also believed to be an actual animal. After all, the other prominent animal in the local mythology was the hornbill (a bird similar to a toucan), which still lives in the interior of Borneo in great numbers.

Dinosaurs in Premodern Art

Let’s start with depictions of dinosaurs in premodern art. All the examples I am going to give below appear in the context of art that features many other animals found in the natural world.

On Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, there is an image that appears to be a stegosaurus alongside depictions of a monkey, deer, and parrots. On Kachina Bridge in Utah, the Anasazi petroglyphs include an animal that looks like an Apatosaurus. Among the petroglyphs at Havai Supai Canyon, near the Grand Canyon, is an image that appears to be a dinosaur with a long neck, standing upright and balancing on its tail.

Then there are the tens of thousands of small handmade clay sculptures that have been dug out of the ground near the foot of El Toro mountain in Acambaro, Mexico. Besides sculptures of people, musical instruments, idols, and so on, there are – you guessed it – hundreds of recognizable dinosaurs.

Finally, we have the Ica burial stones of Peru. These have images incised on them, including lots of dinosaur images. Interestingly, they show sauropod-like creatures with spikes on their backs. When I was a kid, sauropods were shown as large, grey, slow, and reptilian, with smooth backs. But apparently, in 1992 we moderns figured out that sauropods had “dermal spines.”

Visual images, especially petroglyphs, can be hard to interpret. As you might expect, the sculptures and images above are beloved of creation scientists and have been the subject of debunking by those who hold that dinosaurs did not survive to overlap with people. Sometimes the debunking takes the form of “That’s not really a dinosaur”; other times, as in the case of the Acambaro sculptures, the refrain is, “It must be a recent hoax.”

In the links above, I have tried to include a mix of both sympathetic and skeptical sources. I wanted you to be able to see the images; when possible, I took you to a skeptical source so that you can verify that the image in fact exists. Using the links above, the curious can find out more about the controversies (and with prehistory, the controversies never end).

But now we turn from visual images to less ambiguous accounts in the form of writing.

Historical Evidence for Dinosaurs

Once we start taking dragon ‘legends’ seriously as possible historical accounts of dinosaurs, we start seeing that there are a lot of accounts to consider. Here are just four:

The ancient Chinese, of course, had a whole cosmology built around different kinds of dragons. So much could be said, but I just want to note two things here. First, Chinese dragons are strongly associated with the Emperor because, among other reasons, of a legend of an early emperor, Xia Yu, who was helped by a wise dragon. (Note in the link above that Xia Yu’s story has other features common to the early chapters of Genesis. He lives hundreds of years; he is a founder and a culture bringer; he helps tame the dangerous floods. He is also an ancestor and founder who is later worshiped as a deity, as seems to have been the case with Nimrod.)

Secondly, Chinese dragons differ from Western dragons because they tend to be bearded. Some depictions even have a mane similar to a lion’s. This could be a case of combining characteristics of different animals, which is explicitly done in Chinese dragon mythology, but — just a thought — it could also be a depiction of hair-like feathers. “Hairy” dragons made no sense as dinosaurs until a few years ago, when we started discovering that many dinosaurs had quills or even feathers. See the following links: First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber; Top 10 Dinosaurs that Aren’t What They Were; Fossils found in Siberia suggest all Dinosaurs had feathers.

Speaking of feathered dinosaurs: myths about, and worship of, a feathered serpent go way back in a variety of Mesoamerican cultures. This feathered serpent is called Kukulkan in Mayan, but is better known by his Nahuatl name of Quetzalcoatl. He even has a pterosaur named after him, though in reconstructions it looks more like a big bird than like a winged snake. (But compare this myth to the Hebrew “seraph serpents.”)

Continuing with the ancient Hebrew, here is a passage from the book of Job: “Look at the behemoth, which I [God] made along with you [Job] and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar (!); the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. … Under the lotus plants he lies, hidden among the reeds in the marsh. … When the river rages, he is not alarmed …” (Job 40:15-23)

This description, particularly the tail swaying like a cedar, sounds like some kind of sauropod. For comparison, in the chapter before this God has given some poetic, but accurate, descriptions of the behavior of mountain goats; does; wild donkeys; wild oxen; ostriches; war horses, hawks, and eagles.

Job, by the way, apparently lived in the Ancient Near East not too long after Babel, if we go by his lifespan. According to the book of Job, he lived another 140 years after the events he is famous for. In Genesis 11, we see life spans of roughly 200 years becoming commonplace some time between Babel and Abraham. This is also the time period in which my book is set.

And now, we come to my favorite: dinosaurs in Beowulf. For this analysis, I owe Bill Cooper, author of After the Flood (1995).   His book has an entire chapter devoted to zoological terms in Beowulf. Among many other rich ethnological and linguistic details, Cooper points out that in the original Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is nowhere referred to as a “troll.” In fact, ‘Grendel’ appears to be not a personal name but a name for a species: there are place-names in England such as “Grendeles Mere” (Grendel’s Lake), Grindles Bec, and Grendeles Pyt. There is even Grindelwald (“Grendelwood”) in Switzerland. (!)

Looking at the characteristics of Grendel as described in Beowulf:

  • He is in “the shape of a man, though twisted” and “more huge than any human being.” In other words, large and bipedal.
  • He is a “mearcstapa” (a marsh-stepper), who stalks the marshes.
  • He is a nocturnal predator (a “sceadugenga” — shadow-goer).
  • He is a “muthbona,” one who slays with his mouth. He is able quickly to devour human beings (once, 15 in one night). This would be difficult if he had a humanoid type of head and jaw.
  • Hrothgar’s warriors have been unable to kill Grendel for 12 years, and he is said to be invulnerable to ordinary weapons.
  • The way Beowulf kills him is to grip him by his “claws,” at which point Grendel, realizing he is in trouble, tries to get away. But Beowulf twists Grendel’s arm off at the shoulder and Grendel runs off to bleed to death.
  • Later, when Beowulf beheads Grendel’s corpse, it takes four men to carry the head home on a spear (this is my own observation, not Cooper’s).
  • And another of my own: Grendel and his mother are both referred to as having “locks,” but see the discussion above about feathers or spines.

After offering all this evidence, Cooper doesn’t even bother to name the dinosaur. “Is there a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs? There are several such species.” (page 159)

Thus, four different streams of historical record that I think may be more than myth.

I am not suggesting that every story of a dragon is to be taken seriously as a sober historical record of a dinosaur encounter. Fables have been invented about dragons, just as fables have been invented about other animals that have captured the human imagination (i.e., nearly all of them). But this does not invalidate every historical account. No one thinks that foxes do not exist because of Aesop’s story of the fox and the grapes. No one thinks that whales do not exist because of Moby Dick or Pinocchio.

But Do They Breathe Fire?

The “dragons” in my books do not breathe fire. However, I have nothing in principle against the idea of an animal that could. After all, this world of ours contains the electric eel, the bombardier beetle, bat radar, bio-luminescent beaches, and the platypus, which apparently is able with its bill to detect electric fields put off by living things and so home in on its prey. Since all these things are possible, surely an animal could have existed that could expel superheated liquid, gas, or even – who knows? – actual fire. The process that allowed it to do this would likely be chemically based and so perhaps not visible in a fossil.

Dragons in The Long Guest

Dragons in my first book appear as part of the milieu, not as characters. Since they do not play a major role, I can mention them without spoilers.

Early in the book, two of the men go on a hunting/scouting trip. They observe a duckbill-type dragon with a crest with pink coloring. On the way back, they have an encounter with another dragon of the raptor type, which is hunting a wild boar that they are also hunting.

Much later in the book, the tribe has crossed Mongolia and has almost reached what is now the Liao River (home of the “pig dragon” artifacts). There they have a friendly encounter with a group of strangers who are capturing a dragon to take home to their king. The “dragon” in this scene is a Triceratops-like creature that sports dermal spines, blue-and-gold feathers on its crest (because why not?), and smooth feathers over the rest of its body. (My day was made, once about ten years ago, when I read in a newspaper that a Triceratops had been found covered in feathers. I now can’t track down the source … but it’s too late. Feathered triceratops/Chinese pig dragon has already made it into the book.)

Loosely Related Update

A long time ago, Antarctica had a temperate or tropical climate, lots of animal life, and this cute little reptile.

Sources

Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons. Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True Story About Dinosaurs and Humans. Apologetics Press, Inc., 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, Alabama, 1st ed. 2004, 2nd ed. 2008.

Cooper, Bill. After the Flood: The early post-flood history of Europe traced back to Noah. New Wine Press, PO Box 17, Chichester, West Sussex, England, 1995. The creatures in Beowulf are discussed in Chapter 11, p.146 ff.

Kleeman, Terry & Barrett, Tracey.  The Ancient Chinese World.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.