Serpent Mound, Ohio

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

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

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 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.

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 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).  

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)

It’s Time to Talk about Bigfoot

This is a re-post from 2019, but let’s face it: Bigfoot never gets old!

Cryptids Large and Small

Bigfoot is a cryptid, which means “hidden animal,” i.e. an animal whose existence has not been proved. Cryptid is a big category. Some cryptids, when researched, turn out not to exist (for example the Loch Ness Monster, as far as we can tell). Others eventually get moved from the category of cryptid to that of actual animal. (Europeans did not believe in the existence of gorillas until the corpse of one was brought to Europe.)  Other cryptids are 100% hoax (the Fiji mermaid, constructed by sewing a preserved monkey torso onto the preserved tail of a large fish). This post will argue that Bigfoot is in the gorilla category. In fact, he is almost exactly like a gorilla: a large, elusive primate native to the deep forests of North America.

My Sources

Obviously I did not research all this stuff myself. My source is the research done by Jeff Meldrum, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. He has written a lot of stuff, but the source I am using is his book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science (Tom Doherty Associates, 2006).

By the way, I had already read the book, but last month I got to attend a Bigfoot conference in Pocatello (home of Idaho State University) and hear Meldrum give a talk. Turns out he’s a very nice guy, with none of that defensiveness that we might expect from a cryptid researcher. The pictures in this post are from that event.

It’s hard for a blog post adequately to cover a scientific topic like this one. (And yes it is scientific: detailed analysis of footprint casts, human and primate gaits, fossils, local legends, and more.)  I’ll just try to summarize some of Meldrum’s main arguments, but obviously, if you want to delve deeper, you can buy the book yourself.

Many Casts of Prints

Bigfoot is often reported in places that are conducive to taking casts of footprints, such as a muddy forest floor at a logging site. Many casts have been taken of footprints in such places. Some are up to 17 inches long.  None of them match the stiff, narrow, 15-inch wooden fake feet supposedly used by Ray Wallace and his family to fake all(!) of the Bigfoot tracks in the Northwest. Some have a step length of 50 – 60 inches and a depth that indicates whatever made them weighed more than 800 pounds (Sasquatch chapter 2).  There is even an instance of a very large club foot (page 238), a few knuckle and hand prints (105 – 111), and a hilarious butt print where the sasquatach apparently sat in the mud, then leaned on its left forearm to reach for a fruit (111 – 115).

Large, deep tracks with a 65 – 70 inch stride have also been photographed in the sand on the Oregon coast, after a sighting the previous evening (190).

“Patty,” the Lady Bigfoot

The famous October 1967 Patterson film “was shot during the day, in full sunlight, out in the open on 16mm film.  Independent researchers examined the location immediately after the encounter, and footprint casts and countless measurements and photos were taken … and yet this film remains controversial, written off as an obvious hoax by many” (134 – 135).  

Not surprisingly, the star of the video, dubbed “Patty,” has had everything about her analyzed, from her gait, to her saggital crest, to the speed of the film, to the color of the soles of her feet. The book covers this in more detail over several chapters.  The upshot is that experts, when asked to view the Patterson film, tend to be very impressed at first, then panic, back off, and start thinking the film is a fake is because if it isn’t, they would have to “believe” in Bigfoot. One typical protest is that this film is suspect because it was shot by someone who was specifically looking for evidence of Bigfoot.  It’s hard to imagine, though, how we could get such a film from anyone else.

It’s also hard to imagine how the creature on the film could have been faked. Consider:

The Bigfoot in the Patterson film appears to have breasts, and as it walks, you can see its muscles moving underneath the hair.  An experienced Hollywood costume designer who has designed many ape costumes opined that it does not look like a man in a suit. He felt that instead of a suit it would have to have been a minimum ten-hour makeup job in which the hair was glued directly to the actor’s skin (158).  (The actor would then have to have been delivered to the film site and just as quickly spirited away, without leaving any vehicle tracks.) A computer graphics animator adds that “the boundaries of the human form do not even fit within the form of the creature” (176).  Six-foot men have tried to re-create “Patty’s” walk in the same spot, and have found it difficult to match her stride and impossible to make footprints as deep as the ones she made.

Native American Knowledge of Bigfoot

Many Native American tribes, all over the continent, have Bigfoot legends. This is particularly true in the Northwest, where you can see stylized carved stone heads, masks, and statues of the buk’wus (a Kwakiutl word), or his female counterpart, the dsonoqua. Their faces look ape-like and distinct from similar carvings of bears.  (In the picture below, some of the souvenirs are adapted versions of this native art.) The Northwestern tribes seem to have more zoological detail in their legends about Bigfoot and have testimonies of sightings right down to the present day. They also, of course, ascribe spiritual qualities to the creature, as they do to other animals.

The earrings, which do not look like Native art, are based on “Patty” from the Patterson film.

As we move farther East, Bigfoot becomes a more purely spirit-like figure.  This may imply that the creatures died in out first in the eastern part of the continent, where they are remembered only as a myth. 

On Painted Rock, in central California, there is a large (2.6 meter high) pictograph of Hairy Man with tears streaming from his eyes. According to the local creation story, Hairy Man is crying because people are afraid and run away from him. 

At any rate, these legends definitely pre-date Ray Wallace, who supposedly “created” Bigfoot all by himself. The descriptions of Bigfoot’s behavior in the Northwestern native traditional knowledge match well with what has been reported in sightings and surmised from the behavior of other great apes.

Great Ape Behavior

Much of the Bigfoot behavior that is sometimes reported in sightings has parallels in the intimidation behavior of other primates.  This includes grimacing, throwing things, banging wood on trees, pushing snags of dead branches at an intruder, hair bristling, emitting a pungent stink when agitated (male mountain gorillas do this), and vocalizing (chapters 9 and 10).  There are also behaviors that resemble that of other primates but are not intimidation behaviors, such as making sleeping nests from branches.  Of known primates, the one that Bigfoot most seems to resemble is Gigantopithecus (89 ff).

But Isn’t It Really Just a Bear?

A page from Meldrum’s “Sasquatch field guide,” showing differences between Bigfoot and bears

Bigfoot’s range, as determined by footprints and reported sightings, overlaps almost perfectly with the range of the bear.  To a believer, this means the two animals share a similar habitat: temperate forests and rainforests. To a skeptic, this means that all “Bigfoot” sightings are actually bears.

This was the subject of the lecture by Jeff Meldrum that I attended.  It is certainly true that photographs of black bears have been put forward as photographs of Bigfoot, only to be exposed later. Meldrum showed a series of bear photos which, at first glance, can look surprisingly humanoid, especially if the animal is skinny and is standing on its hind legs.  However, he went on to point out, telling the difference between a bear and a huge, bipedal ape “isn’t rocket science.”  Bears do not have a clavicle, so when standing, they don’t have protruding shoulders. Their legs are much shorter in proportion to their body. And, of course, there are the prominent round ears.  

Bear tracks don’t resemble Bigfoot tracks at all, except in cases of multiple, overlapping, unclear bear tracks.  A bear’s inside toe is its shortest, their feet are shorter and very narrow at the back, and they leave claw marks.  Their stride is, of course, very different, although when a bear is walking quickly its footprints can overlap, “giving an impression of elongated footprints spaced in a two-footed pattern.”

Skeptics have also raised the question of whether two large animals can fill the same niche. Bigfoot, if it exists, is probably a fructivore like the other large primates and like Gigantopithecus, whose jaw and teeth are designed for grinding, not for predation. Bears, while also ominivores, have a very different shaped set of chompers. So even if the two animals share a range, they would not be occupying exactly the same ecological niche.

(Fun near-fact: based on his estimate of how many Sasquatch compared to bears a given region of wilderness can support, Meldrum estimates there could be as many as 175 individual Bigfoot in the state of Idaho.)

Bigfoot Outside the Great Northwest

It turns out that, despite usually having much less wilderness than the Great Northwest, nearly every state in the Union has its own version of the Bigfoot legend. I’ll let you make up your mind about these on a case-by-case basis. In Ohio, until recently my home state, we have “the Grassman.”  Here is a Hubpages article about him.  If you follow the link and read the comments, you will no doubt see many personal testimonies about Grassman sightings.

Update: another WordPress blogger, The Traveling Maiden, had an experience while camping in the Great Northwest that may have been Bigfoot. Read about it here.

Giants

This is actually just a person in a tunnel, but imagine that it’s Polyphemus, blocking your way out of his cave.

How creepy, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you find the idea of giants?

I must confess, I was never particularly bothered by them. They have never struck me as uncanny. Just extra-large people, right? This might be partly because of portrayals like Disney’s, where the giants(s) are not too malevolent and certainly not too bright.

And the Iron Giant, and Gulliver when he was in Lilliput. In all of these cases, the fact of a person being huge creates some interesting logistical problems, but it certainly isn’t horror in the same category as anything unnatural, undead, or even as really depraved human evil.

All that to say, if I had set about, unguided, to pick a force of evil for my story, giants would not be the first place I would have gone.

Nevertheless, giants ended up in my first novel because they are featured in Genesis.

[The] story is told succinctly in Genesis 6:1 – 4, one of the most enigmatic and misinterpreted passages in the Bible. Here is how it reads in the oldest surviving copy … the Greek Septuagint:

“And it came to pass when men began to be numerous upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God having seen the daughters of men that they were beautiful, took to themselves wives of all whom they chose. … Now the giants were upon the earth in those days; and after that when the sons of God were wont to go in to the daughters of men, they bore children to them, those were the giants of old, men of renown.”

[In this book], we will proceed upon the premise that this passage tells of a time in the remote past when heavenly beings entered the abode of humans, and through our women were able to spawn a race of half-breed children, giants that all cultures throughout the world remember as powerful and often wicked, ruthless demigods.

Douglas Van Dorn, Giants: sons of the gods, pp. 2 – 3, emphasis in the original

In other words, that there were once, in actual history, giants that were half human, and that could in some sense be called demigods.

In the rest of the book, Van Dorn looks in detail at this passage and others, and answers arguments about whether this passage, and other passages that seem to assume the same background, should be interpreted to be talking about literal giants or about the people of God versus humans who had rejected God. He also delves into Hebrew terms for other demonic and paranormal creatures, terms that often get rendered as various animals in modern translations.

I am not going to get into the exegetical discussion in this post. But I am going to touch on how Van Dorn’s thesis – that this stuff actually happened, way back in the mists of human history – is backed up by what is usually called mythology.

It is a really strange fact that every culture has stories about giants, gods, and various other supernatural creatures (including chimeras, but that’s another topic). This fact does not strike us as strange – at least, it didn’t me – precisely because these stories are so old and so universal. We just accept it as a given that human “legends” and “myths” deal with threatening creatures that we do not see today. We don’t look for an explanation of why this should be. I am sure that Jung could give you a psychological explanation for the universality of giant stories. Jordan Peterson could give you a Jungian, evolutionary explanation.

And certainly, the idea of a giant as a large and threatening presence is deeply embedded in the human mind. But why? How did this idea get there? Why aren’t our symbols of evil just bears and saber-toothed tigers, if those were the only threats our ancestors were dealing with?

If you go to Bali, you can see sculptures of an ugly, bearded giant being attacked by an eagle as he attempts to carry off a beautiful girl with an elaborate crown and hair that falls to her ankles. This is an illustration of a scene from the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic that, in the millennia since it entered Indonesia, has there acquired its own flavor. In the Indonesian version, the beautiful girl is Sinta, bride of the prince Rama. The giant (raksasa) captures her through deception, carries her off, and is able to fly to get her back to his castle. The heroic eagle (garuda) attacks him in the air. This is a favorite scene for sculptors and illustrators, who still exist in great numbers in Bali and are insanely talented. The story is also told in shadow-puppet plays and operas.

In Borneo, where I had the privilege to live for a few years, they have their own local legends. One common theme in these is that you should not marry outside your clan, because if you marry a girl from an unknown people, she might turn out not to be human. In one story, a young man marries a foreign girl. When she goes down to the river to bathe, he goes to spy on her and is shocked to see her take off her head.

One area, where we lived for about a year, had a large local mountain with a distinctive jagged top. As the story went, this mountain once reached the clouds. A giant used to climb down it in order to eat the people down below. Then a female hero used a machete to hack off the top of the mountain. The giant, now trapped in the clouds, looks down upon the people but cannot eat them anymore. It drools, and the drops of drool become the bloodsucking leeches that live in the jungle on the slopes of the mountain. Still trying to eat the people, you see.

These few stories from island southeast Asia illustrate features that show up associated with giants again and again: kidnapping/rape, and eating people. (I mean, that is virtually all the giants and demigods do in the Greek myths, for example.) I mention these stories from Bali and Borneo to show just what a wide geographical area the human consensus on giant behavior seems to cover.

Given all this, giants are starting to look more like what we in our house would call a “horror creature.” To review: based on Genesis and numerous myths worldwide, the giants:

  • are not fully human, but are some sort of human/supernatural hybrid
  • are nevertheless fully physical and present in actual history
  • seem to like kidnapping human women
  • seem to like eating people
  • are smart enough to practice deception

Ok, now this is starting to get scary. If we accept that these myths are historical memories, then all of a sudden, hearing giant stories is sort of like hearing about atrocities committed by people during the Holocaust, or the Communist takeover of Cambodia, or any other of humanity’s many periods of pure, unrestrained, depraved evil. But it’s scary in another way too. Given the purported origin of these giants, it’s like hearing about a successful genetic experiment, or like finding out that demon possession is real.

I’ve always kind of longed to live in the really ancient ages of the world. But, the more I learn, the more relieved I am to be living in modern times. We slam the door to the giants shut behind us, and lean against it, panting.

The “Never Have I Ever” Tag for Writers

How appropriate that just as I am starting to do a bunch of posts about publishing, the orangutan librarian should tag me with this bunch of questions about the writing process! The original idea was created by the Long Voyage- so definitely check out the original here!

This tag asks writers about whether they have ever engaged in a number of (mostly disreputable) behaviors. The headings will say the behavior, and then I’ll comment about whether it applies to me.

Never Have I Ever …

. . . started a novel that I did not finish.

I have started, and not finished, a number of novels. You know that whole idea that an artist can create a complete work in his or her head and then it’s irrelevant whether they ever put it on paper or canvas or whatever? That’s baloney. The actual process of enfleshing the work forces you to include so much more detail than you do in your head when you see the end from the beginning.

. . . written a story completely by hand.

(gets dreamy look)

As teenagers, my BFF and I used to write stories together. We would pass a notebook back and forth. Each of us controlled certain characters. We would write notes to each other and argue with each other in the margins.

My parts of those particular stories were the worst tripe ever written. We all have to write our awful tripe on the way to becoming writers.

. . . changed tenses midway through a story.

What?

. . . not researched anything before starting a story.

It’s never possible to do enough research.

But the experts don’t agree.

Also, if you research too long, you can end up talking yourself out of the premise for your story, at which point you’ve ripped out its heart.

So far, my stories have been inspired by cool theories (“research”) about the ancient world. So, I take the premise from the research. (See the ‘ancient world’ tag on my blog for all the stuff that interests me.) I have, so far, avoided setting my stories in really well-documented periods of ancient history (such as Rome) because of the sheer amount of research that would be required so as not to make glaring errors about the details of daily life.

Anyway, see the Bibliography page of this blog for a constantly slightly outdated, constantly growing tally of my sources.

. . . changed my protagonist’s name halfway through a draft.

I like stories that feature someone assimilating to a foreign culture. A total or partial name change is often part of this. So my protagonist Nimri starts out being called Nimri, which is basically Sumerian, but as they get to know him, the people around him eventually start calling him Nirri and that’s how he finishes the story. This is kind of an inconvenient feature, actually, because it makes it difficult to refer to him in summaries.

As for changing a name completely, just for the heck of it, I haven’t done so yet. But Find & Replace will make it easy to do if someone ever comes to me and says, “This name means [dirty word] in [major world language].”

. . . written a story in a month or less.

Short stories, yes.

. . . fallen asleep while writing.

What?

. . . corrected someone’s grammar irl / online.

Scene: Husband and I have been married less than a year, visiting a friend of his.

Friend: I need to go get some groceries. [Names several cleaning supplies, none of which are edible]

Me: Those things are not normally included in the core definition of ‘groceries.’

Friend: Well, excuuuuse me!

Me: (laughing) You are talking to a linguist.

Friend: That’s not the word that I thought of.

. . . yelled in all caps at myself in the middle of a novel.

No.

. . . used “I’m writing” as an excuse.

More like finding other tasks as an excuse not to write.

. . . killed a character who was based on someone I know in real life.

Mmm sooo …. I used to create characters based on my crushes and then kill them off. Yes, I was a sick puppy. Putting the best possible construction on it, I had figured out that killing off a character was the most poignant thing you can do in a story and I was overusing that tool sort of like a kid constantly dropping a new vocabulary word.

. . . used pop culture references in a story.

I avoid these because I am certain to use them clumsily, plus they will soon become dated. It’s part of the reason that my novels are set in the distant past, and that I may never try a “contemporary” novel.

. . . written between the hours of 1am and 6am.

Only at university, when finishing a paper due the next day. (Fun fact: if I stay up all night, I throw up!)

. . . drank an entire pot of coffee while writing.

While writing papers in college, yes, remembering that my “pot” only made two or three cups at a time. Also, vending machine brownies. Good times!

. . . written down dreams to use in potential novels.

Only once, age eleven.

. . . published an unedited story on the internet / Wattpad / blog.

No, but I have turned in a crummy first draft of a devotional essay to a church magazine. I believe the editor used his discretion and didn’t run it.

. . . procrastinated homework because I wanted to write.

Well, this gets into the whole topic of my work habits, which I’d rather not discuss …

. . . typed so long that my wrists hurt.

Not that I recall. I tend to take pauses for thinking.

. . . spilled a drink on my laptop while writing.

No, but that’s probably just dumb luck. I don’t take care of my equipment nearly as well as I should.

. . . forgotten to save my work / draft.

No, and I have even been known to send copies of Word documents to relatives so that copies exist out there in case my house burns down.

. . . finished a novel.

Two and counting.

. . . laughed like an evil villain while writing a scene.

… Um … I don’t think so? Not aware of the sounds I make while writing. Possibly grunts.

. . . cried while writing a scene.

Even in real life I am more likely to cry when angry, frustrated, or humiliated, rather than when sad. I’m not sure what that says about me. Nothing good, probably.

But I have certainly given myself the sads with my writing.

. . . created maps of my fictional worlds.

. . . researched something shady for a novel.

Giants and chimeras in history

horrible pagan practices of the ancient world

abusive husbands

what happens when a person falls into a super-hot sulpherous pool, as at Yellowstone National Park

All equally terrifying.

Now, Your Turn

In the comments section, tell me all your writerly habits! Or, judge mine!

Mid-Year Moment of Preternatural Calm

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Many of my fellow book bloggers are doing posts called “mid-year freakout.”

I can definitely relate.

But it happens that at this particular midyear, I am in a pretty good place.

I don’t normally blog about my professional writing life, because up until now I haven’t had much to report. But now I do have something to report. So this post is going to be about my progress getting my novels published as of mid-2020.

If you know me personally, you are probably already familiar with the material in this post. So please feel free to skip it if you’ve heard these stories before or simply don’t like writers writing about themselves. I will be back next week with exciting blog content, though (pantser that I am) I don’t yet know whether it will be about the ancient world, my favorite authors, or perhaps the equally fascinating subject of … grammar.

Birth of a Book Series

I have been telling and writing stories my whole life, but every writer says that, yadda yadda. Lucky for you I won’t start this story in the 1970s. It begins in late 2016.

2016

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Some time in late 2016 or early 2017, I took a story prompt that I had written years before. It was about a man who falls from the Tower of Babel. I only got as far as the fall in the prompt I had written, but I had had it in my mind that this man could be rescued by people who didn’t speak his language (we linguists call this being in a monolingual situation), and being brought with them on a long journey as the peoples scatter throughout the world. So in late 2016 or early 2017, I felt ready to turn this thing into a full novel. I don’t remember why the stars aligned at that time, but they did.

2017

By summer 2017, I thought my paraplegic-man-in-a-monolingual-situation novel was finished. My working title for it was Babel. It was about 50,000 words, which I had been told was a minimum length for a first novel. I excitedly showed it to some family members, and they said nice things, as family members do.

Then I followed the directions for Getting Traditionally Published. The first step was to Find An Agent. (A few publishing houses accept unagented submissions, but most don’t.) The way to find an agent is to look through the acknowledgements section of a book that’s a lot like yours, because sometimes authors thank their agent. I did, and sent my first query.

The agent (and may God bless him for this), replied. “This looks interesting, but it’s too short for the genre. In this genre, anything shorter than 120,000 words is practically a novella.”

For example, The Protector’s War: 483 pages!

I went back to the drawing board. Lo and behold, the agent had been right. There was a lot more potential material in my story, which in haste or laziness I had failed to develop. I figured I would give myself a year to rewrite it, but the story took over and it went much faster. By the end of 2017, I was finished. Turns out the 50,000 word version was barely more than an outline. My finished product was 113,000 words.

2018

In January 2018, I began querying agents for Babel, now called The Long Guest. (I had decided the titles of all the novels in my series would be The + Adjective + Noun. Creative, I know, but I wanted to give them cohesion.)

As I queried, I was also busy learning about the industry, about what agents and publishers want, about how to write a kickass query. (Still not sure I’ve mastered that one.) There was a lot to learn. I bought a book called Writer Mama. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. In fall 2018, I even attended a writer’s conference. It happened to be about indie publishing, which I was not pursuing at the time, but I went because it was the only conference being held that year for which I would not have to travel.

Meanwhile, I was also working on the sequel to The Long Guest, which would eventually be called The Strange Land (working title Land Bridge). The reason I started it was sort of like having to sneeze: it was an urge. It wasn’t strategy.

Setting for The Strange Land

2019

By July 2019, I had hit my goal of querying 100 agents with The Long Guest. I had also, some time during that year, finished The Strange Land, shown it to some beta readers, and done some minor revisions. I began querying agents (mostly all the same agents, one of whom had actually said “query me with future projects”), with The Strange Land in August of 2019. The process went more quickly this time because I already had experience writing queries and had a list of literary agencies to check. Also, I had finally figured out my books’ genre (epic fantasy that is light on magic). Writing the synopsis was still excruciating though.

In the fall of 2019, my family and I moved across the country.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

2020

Hmmm, well, we all know how 2020 has gone. Or maybe we don’t know exactly. Different ones of us have had different experiences of it. In my case, I continued settling in, home schooling, and querying throughout the winter and early spring months. My husband’s job and our living situation, providentially, were minimally affected by the quarantine.

About April 2020, I had had enough of querying. No agents had shown any interest in either of my novels. It was getting to be an emotional ordeal just to look at an agency’s web site, because when they described what they were looking for and it sounded like a fit with my books, I could no longer get my hopes up. For me, querying agents was like going on 180 blind dates and getting rejected 180 times.

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

Meanwhile, I had noticed that the shakeup caused by Covid was causing many people to change careers, reconsider their living situations, or start new charity ventures or businesses. I decided I would ride this wave, indie publishing being its own small business. By this time I had been around the industry for a while. I had developed relationships with book bloggers and with other indie authors. I felt ready(ish?). I stopped querying for The Strange Land, even though I hadn’t hit 100. The relief was incredible.

There followed a rest period of a few months while I saved up the money for self-publishing. (But I did start mentioning to other bloggers that my books might be available soon!) Oh, and by the way, during this time I was also drafting the third book in the trilogy, The Great Snake. I had started this back in 2019, not long after I finished The Strange Land. Again, I had planned to take a break, but the story started coming irresistibly, sort of like a sneeze. (The fact that it came that way doesn’t guarantee that it’s good, of course. We’ll see.)

Serpent Mound, Ohio

So that brings us up to the present. Through providential circumstances, I have been able to find a copyeditor who gets my books and gets what I am doing. Next step will be cover design. Then I’ll be ready to indie publish. It is my hope and prayer that I’ll stay on track to publish TLG and TSL in rapid succession, before the end of the year, and start selling them on this web site and elsewhere. Meanwhile, I am learning all about self (indie) publishing, which is just as steep a learning curve as learning about the traditional industry.

You, my bloggy friends, have been just great and I hope you’ll stay with me.

Meanwhile, in the Fallen World …

There is something I should mention, lest this post create in other writers misplaced jealousy or unwarranted despair. We live in a fallen world, in which things go wrong a lot. We have our own flaws: laziness, lack of self-discipline, vanity. These slow our progress as writers. Also, this fallen world does push back, in self-defense, against anyone who tries to do something about it. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

So, though I have written out this summary of the steps I took in a (fairly?) matter-of-fact way, never doubt that like every other person, I am familiar with what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance.

What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. (page 31)

Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself in this naked form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear. Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization. What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. (page 55)

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. (page 18)

from The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

For example, immediately after a phone consultation with a potential editor, within a few hours I was faced with failures in the areas of parenting, cooking, and gardening. Later that same week I found my copyeditor, but that day was kind of hellish. That’s just an example from this year.

Lord, Have Mercy

Resistance will no doubt continue. Who knows whether it will get me. Though I have written confidently about my plans for this series as if they are actually going to happen, let me hasten to add …

“If the Lord wills, we will live and also publish this or that.” (James 4:15)

Kyrie Eleison.

Gobekli Tepe, the World’s Oldest Temple?

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I wonder whether you’ve ever heard of Gobekli Tepe. I hadn’t until just a few years ago, which makes sense because it wasn’t rediscovered (and so, presumably, begun to be excavated) until the 1990s.

It’s called the world’s oldest temple because it dates back more than 10,000 years. In the article I will link to below, dates of 11,500 years ago and even 15,000 years ago are mentioned. This puts it in the Neolithic: the Stone Age. Like many other ancient complexes that have been given more recent dates, it is made of megaliths placed with geometrical precision.

The Dating of Gobekli Tepe

It sounds really to cool to say that a til-recently-unknown stone structure in Turkey with an exotic name is the “world’s oldest temple.” But as we sometimes mention on this blog, it’s very possible that some of the other megalithic structures found around the world are in fact older than conventional dating would have it. An argument has been made, for example, that the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza are closer to 20,000 years old. Gobekli Tepe, then, is the oldest megalithic temple that has been able to convince mainstream archaeologists of its bona fides. At any rate, it clearly hails from a very ancient time when people all over the world were for some reason (and with some method???) building stuff with megaliths.

The ancientness of Gobekli Tepe creates a problem for its excavators when its obvious sophistication comes into a head-on collision with their beliefs about the abilities of Stone Age humans. That clash happens several times in the Jerusalem Post article Israeli researchers unveil architecture secrets of ‘world’s oldest temple.’

Two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, PhD candidate Gil Haklay and his supervisor, Prof. Avi Gopher, have now unveiled new secrets of its sophisticated architecture, highlighting an intricate geometrical pattern that was conceived before humans had even discovered agriculture or pottery.

Ibid

… Um, are you sure they hadn’t discovered agriculture or pottery, Professors?

Göbekli Tepe features dozens of monolithic pillars four to five meters tall placed along at least 20 concentric rings, which archaeologists refer to as “enclosures.” The pillars are decorated with remarkable reliefs depicting animals including gazelles, jaguars, Asiatic wild donkeys and wild sheep. …

“We found that there is a center point in each enclosure, which we identified not only in the three in the main excavation area, but also in others located outside it,” Haklay explained. “We also found out that the center of these enclosures was always located between the two large central pillars aligned with the front side. These pillars also presented an anthropomorphic structure and they have a front side. In each enclosure based on the surrounding peripheral pillars was found an alignment with the narrow front side. This was our first observation: an abstract design rule.“We later noticed that the role of those center points extended beyond an individual enclosure, because the three center points of enclosures B, C and D form an almost perfect equilateral triangle,” he added.

Haklay highlighted that they went on to verify whether the geometric pattern was confirmed by further observations, for example the orientation of the central pillars. They found many other elements supporting it. Among others, the main access to the structure was located between the only two pillars carrying anthropomorphic as opposed to animal reliefs.

Ibid

But how was all this accomplished?

[I]t is not clear how long its construction took but it might have been centuries if not more, with different people initiating it and adding to it.

Ibid

But yet later, we get this:

This discovery also overcame a previous theory common among researchers that the enclosures were conceived and built in unrelated stages.

Ibid

Huh? So it was built over hundreds of years, added to a little at a time, but yet planned by one or a few masterminds?

“We are talking about hunter-gatherers, but at the same time we see signs of a very complex social structure,” Haklay said …

But how could such a complex design be envisioned by people who did not even know how to create a simple pottery vessel?

Ibid

Oh, stop. Just … stop.

Gobekli Tepe in Fiction

There is one novel that I know of which focuses squarely on Gobekli Tepe: The Genesis Secret, 2009, by Tom Knox. See my review of it here. Interestingly, though Knox is not a believer in the Judeo-Christian God (quite the opposite, in fact), he takes seriously the accounts of giants walking the earth in Genesis 6 and, in fact, his novel ends up revealing that Gobekli Tepe was built at the initiation of a violent, giant race who left large, misshapen skulls behind them.

In film, within the last year I saw on a Netflix a Turkish show called The Gift. In it, a young artist who lives in Istanbul finds that a symbol she has spontaneously drawn all her life has recently been uncovered at the ancient site of Gobekli Tepe. I enjoyed this show, but be warned it has some entirely gratuitous sex scenes.

And Now, for a Really Wild Speculation …

People who take Genesis seriously as history have speculated about the location of the original Garden of Eden. Genesis mentions four rivers as arising from the Garden (or running into it; the linguistics are ambiguous). Two of these are the Tigris and Euphrates. The other two (the Gihon and the Pishon) have been lost to time.

Of course, to try and locate the original Garden is probably impossible. If you suspect, as I do, that the Flood was a result of continental-drift like changes in the Earth’s geography, then nothing anymore is located where it was in Adam’s day, including rivers. On this view, the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates are probably just named after some much more ancient rivers, which could have been in a completely different location.

But if we assume that the continents look more or less the same now as they did in Adam’s day, we can try to guess the region where Eden once stood. One likely candidate is northeastern Africa, or even what is now the floor of the Red Sea (sea levels having risen).

Another candidate is the mountainous region of eastern Turkey, near the headwaters of the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates, along with several other rivers.

And also not too far from Gobekli Tepe.

Just sayin’.

The Maya Microcosm of Humanity

The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.

They Are Surprising to Other People

I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”)  And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.

Tree destroying a stone arch. From Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 165

A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:

“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 22

They Got Romanticized

In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.

Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read.  Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,

… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.

The Magnificent Maya. p. 33

Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound).  As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.

They Were Shockingly Cruel

First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed.  (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)

from The Magnificent Maya, p. 108

But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.

Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.

If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.

The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140).  Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 136. Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. The reclining statue holding a bowl is the chacmool.

Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95).  This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.

Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”

They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart

from Fingerprints of the Gods, photo plate between pages 134 – 135. I have no idea how this light and shadow serpent effect was accomplished, but if true, it’s an amazing piece of engineering.

And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.

The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year.  Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.

All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:

As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:

“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”

Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162

Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”

“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)

Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.

The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012.  It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.

Bottom Line, the Mayans are People

I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.

So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.

Humans are smart.

Humans are evil.

Humans are wonderful.

Humans are everywhere.

Sources

Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.

Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.

Time-Life books, editors, The Magnificent Maya. 1993, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia.

The Diamond-Shaped Face

Who is this handsome fellow? He is Lord Pacal (or Pakal), denizen of the most spectacular tomb ever discovered from the Mayan civilization. This is the tomb at Palenque, the excavation of which reads like an archaeological thriller. The limestone slab covering Lord Pacal’s coffin is the location of the famous Mayan “astronaut” carving, the actual cosmological significance of which is explained here.

This watercolor of him is my own interpretation, done from a photograph of a sculpted head of him, reproduced below.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 85

Though I did my best, in the sculpture his face is even longer, leaner, more angular, more … well … Mayan. I took a guess about skin, hair, and eye color. I also had to interpret his hairstyle and headdress, after staring for some time at the textures in the statue. As near as I can tell, his hair has been arranged to cascade upward and forward over some sort of cone-shaped crown, which I imagined to be jade, a stone the Maya valued. The hair style is apparently meant to accentuate the tall, narrow shape of the head, which was a head shaped valued by the Maya if we go based on their other art. The headband I rendered as a buff-colored woolly material, again based on its texture, though given Pacal’s status it could have been red or gold.

I spent maybe an hour or two on this watercolor, but no doubt the sculptor spent much, much longer on his or her rendering of Lord Pacal, which was probably the most important work of his or her lifetime.

You can see that it’s a dramatic face. You can see why I wanted to paint it.

In my watercolor, Lord Pacal came out looking surprisingly sensitive and gentle. In real life, he probably wasn’t, at least not by the time he reached the age of his death. He was buried with six teenaged human sacrifices, and he came from a culture that produced statues of torture victims.

But my main concern here is with the shape of his face. I am fascinated by the wildly varying types of shape that can and do work as recognizable, and indeed attractive, human faces. Lord Pacal’s face is almost a perfect diamond. It’s widest at the brows and cheekbones, narrowest at the chin and forehead.

As I went to draw this face, I was reminded that I had once drawn another face with a similar shape.

Here is a pen portrait I did from life. This man’s jaw is a touch wider than Lord Pacal’s, but the main difference between the two faces is the nose. This model has a small, rather flat nose with a very low bridge, unlike Lord Pacal’s knifelike nose with its very high bridge, extending all the way up into his forehead, which seems to have been a convention in Mayan portrait art. Whether it this was an ideal of beauty or a real-life physical feature, I don’t know. I do know that low nose bridges are not valued in the culture that the second portrait came from … though I think both kinds can be perfectly beautiful.

And my second model for a diamond-shaped face came from … Borneo. Land Bridge, baby!

Source

The Magnificent Maya, Lost Civilizations series, by the editors of Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993.

(Much more has been discovered about the Mayan civilization since the publication of this book. In particular, Lidar and UAV aerial imaging have revealed that the Mayan cities were much larger and more numerous than was known in 1993. However, though the context for their interpretation might have changed, the artifacts documented in The Magnificent Maya have not ceased to exist, so I am using the book as an introductory source.)

Quote of the Week: Brilliant Native American Botanists

Matthew Stirling, Chief of the American Bureau of Ethnology, [says] ‘Among the plants developed by these ancient botanists are maize, beans (kidney and lima), potatoes, and sweet potatoes, now four of the leading foods of the world. Manioc, extensively cultivated by the natives of tropical America is now the staff of life for millions of people living in the equatorial belt. Other important items, such as peanuts, squash, chocolate, peppers, tomatoes, pineapples and avocados might be added. In addition, the Indian was the discoverer of quinine, cocaine, tobacco and rubber …’

Kenneth Mackoman adds to this list, the custard apple, strawberry, vanilla bean, chickle, and cascara, besides a number of others less familiar. His whole list of important plants made up by Indian’s agriculture is impressive, for it contains 50 items, not one of which is an Old World species … The Indian devised a useful method for extracting a deadly poison (cyanide), from an otherwise useful plant, manioc, without losing the valuable starch it contained.

M.D.C. Crawford gave a list of vegetables which were cultivated by the American Indians prior to 1492, which adds the following: Aloe, Alligator Pear, Arrowroot, Star Apple, Cacao, Chili pepper, Jerusalem Artichoke, Cotton, Pineapple, Prickly pear, Pumpkin.

‘The pineapple … originated in America and was the unknown to the people of the Old World before its discovery.’ Just where the Indian found the original plants which they improved upon to produce modern pineapples, we do not know. None of the existing [wild] varieties compares with the domesticated plant … This was … a deliberate and intelligent breeding process … we cannot now retrace the steps by which it was first accomplished.

Arthur C. Custance, Noah’s Three Sons, Zondervan 1975, pp. 166 – 168