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Slithering Toward Solstice : Ancient Native American artifacts in the form of discarded snake skins may have been seasonal signposts.

Displaced a little each day by the Earth's orbital motion, the Sun's daily path accumulates on the sky, like a snake's coils, between its southern limit in December and its northern limit in June. As the Sun now slithers toward summer solstice, nights are short in the Northern Hemisphere, and at least one insomniac serpent on our gatefold star map stays up all night to hiss at the sunrise. Serpens, the Serpent, is charmed in the southeast by Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder, when the night begins, but by dawn the celestial snake handler is setting the serpent down in the southwest.

This nocturnal reptile works a short shift in June because summer solstice, which strikes North America on the 20th of this month, signals the year's longest days and briefest nights.

For many ancient and traditional peoples, the summer and winter solstices meant seasonal change. Watching the sunrise gradually shift north from its winter retreat in the southeast, they saw it finally stop in the northeast, rise more or less in the same place for several days, and then begin migrating back toward the south. At the winter solstice, six months later, the sunrise performs the same trick at the other end of its excursion and then commences another pilgrimage to the north. Year in and year out, the solstices put a cyclic beat into the passage of time and rattle out an annual rhythm of growth, decline, and renewal.

Snakes also operate as symbols of renewal. Shedding their skin, they seem to regenerate themselves. Egypt's Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.) Pyramid Texts, magical incantations inscribed for the benefit of the deceased pharaoh, mention Khebawet, the Celestial Serpent, who refreshes the king's soul and prepares him for immortality. In ancient Greece, the snake coiled around the emblematic rod held by Asclepius, the god of healing and medicine, symbolizes recovery and renewal, and as the stellar incarnation of Asclepius, the serpent-holding constellation Ophiuchus is the very picture of health.

Linking snakes with renewal, people sometimes enlisted them as symbols of seasonal transformation. A pair of serpent effigies on the terrace of the Little Miami River in southern Ohio may reflect this role. Both were discovered by chance. Youngstown State University archaeologist John R. White found the first one in 1981. Because the site is just across the river from the Fort Ancient prehistoric hilltop enclosure and about 500 meters south of Anderson Village, an Upper Mississippian agricultural settlement occupied between A.D. 1100 and 1450, White thought the river terrace might shed light on the Indian people who had lived nearby centuries ago. Fort Ancient is a famous Ohio antiquity, and though it was first attributed to the late Fort Ancient Culture that also farmed Anderson Village, we now know it was originally built much earlier, between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300, by the Hopewell Culture. Much later, the Fort Ancient people adapted part of it for reuse.

Constructed from numerous rocks and stones, the symbolic serpents, now known as the Kern Effigies, are just west of Fort Ancient. The first was fully exposed by an excavation in 1983 and found to be 26.79 meters (87.9 feet) long. When first assembled, the rocks were stacked about a half meter (almost two feet) high. From the head, at the northeast, to the beginning of the tail, toward the southwest, the serpent's body is straight, but a gentle bend begins 19.5 meters from the head. The tail ends in nine distinctively larger and flatter flagstones that identify the effigy as a rattlesnake. Radiocarbon analysis of charcoal samples recovered from the snake date it to A.D. 1200 and assign it to the Fort Ancient people.

White found the second Kern Effigy closer to the riverbank in 1983. It is similar in construction to the first but almost twice as long. The tail of the second snake is also delineated by large, flat stones. Unlike the first rocky snake, however, the second does not curve. Its orientation is different, too. The head is toward the northwest and its tail is in the southeast.

Early European contact with the descendants of prehistoric Indians of the Mississippi Valley left explicit references to the Sun's ritual and calendrical importance among these peoples. Alignment studies of arrangements of timber posts at places like Cahokia, in southwest Illinois, and SunWatch Indian Village, near Dayton, Ohio, suggest prehistoric interest in the seasonal movement of the Sun. Against this astronomical background, White suspected the northeast-southwest layout of Kern Effigy No. 1 might indicate solstitial interest. Monitoring the sunrise on June 22, 1983, he confirmed that the straight section of the snake's body does point to the Sun's first gleam in a gap in the Fort Ancient walls on summer solstice. He speculated that a tall pole, installed near the snake's head, could have cast shadows that would have taken advantage of the bend in the snake's tail to anticipate the approaching solstice by a few weeks.

There is no curve in the body of Kern Effigy No. 2, but its tail does indicate winter-solstice sunrise over the Fort Ancient ridge. Prehistoric interest in the summer solstice can be understood in terms of a growing season defined by last and first frosts and in a ritual landscape seasoned with the corn ceremonialism that still prevailed in the historic Mississippian era.

Not many snake mounds are known in North America. An earthwork in Serpent Mounds Provincial Park, near Keene, Ontario, Canada, basks with ophidian pretensions beside Rice Lake, but its shape is not especially serpentine. Ohio is the real nest of vipers, and its most monumental snake in the grass is the Great Serpent Mound overlooking Brush Creek, about 6 kilometers northwest of Locust Grove. As wide as 6 meters (20 feet) and 410 meters (1,345 feet) long, it crawls on its belly like a reptile on top of the bluff with a coiled tail, seven hairpin turns, and what looks like a gaping jaw about to gulp down an egg. American archaeologist Frederick Ward Putnam first excavated it in 1887-89 and spearheaded the campaign to preserve it. His studies prompted him to assign the snake's construction to the Adena people, who built nearby burial mounds and populated a village there about 2,000 years ago. In 1991, however, new excavations provided bits of charcoal for radiocarbon dating, and we now know the Great Serpent Mound was a product of Fort Ancient Culture in the 11th century A.D.

This revised date revives interest in an astronomical alignment noticed in 1988 by Robert Fletcher and Terry Cameron. The long axis of the oval in the snake's mouth connected the back of the triangular neck with a cairn that once stood at the center of the egg. This line continues northwest to the horizon where the Sun sets on summer solstice. Nine centuries ago, the northernmost sunset was nearly in the same spot, and the great snake, then as now, watched the Sun get swallowed as a prelude to Midsummer's Night.

Three independent astronomical alignments suggest the snakes in southwestern Ohio slithered toward solstice as emissaries of seasonal change. The rattlesnake pairs and quartets of feathered rattlers that partition Mississippian iconography may in a related way refer to world directions and to seasonal divisions of time. The historic Shawnee, thought to be descendants of the Fort Ancient Culture, regarded rattlesnakes as "separators of the seasons." In ancient Mesoamerica, the seasonal connotations of the feathered rattlesnake are well documented, and symbolic use of the rattlesnake in Mississippian tradition may be an extension of this tradition. With the same annual rhythm that drives rattlesnake hibernation, emergence, mating, and reproduction, we see the Ohio Sun engaged in a regeneration of vipers.

E. C. Krupp is tempted by the serpent at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:snake formations in the sky, as summer solstice approaches, serve as a reminder that snakes an ancient symbol of renewal
Author:Krupp, E. C.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:1304
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