The Mound Builders' Moon Goddess: Grandmother of the Eastern Woodlands


“With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.”

--C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

During a period spanning roughly 500 BC—500 AD, the Eastern Woodlands of North America were the location of the most ambitious earthworks construction episode in world history. These earthworks were the products of two variations of a single cultural continuum known as Adena and Hopewell, respectively. Adena and Hopewell circulated the same exotic power materials, participated in similar patterns of dispersion and coalescence in periodic gatherings to bury the dead, and expressed the same cosmological model in artifacts and earthworks construction.

It is now also understood that both groups came together and participated in the co-operative construction of large-scale ritual landscapes sharing common patterns of astronomical alignments and employing the same measurement unit (McCord and Cochran 2008; Romain 2015a, 2015b). For these reasons and others, archaeologists have come to refer to both cultures together as Adena-Hopewell.

Aerial View of Serpent Mound. (The Archaeological Conservancy)

Aerial View of Serpent Mound. ( The Archaeological Conservancy )

Earlier Adena mounds range from just a few inches to massive structures over 60 feet (18.29 meters) in height, such as the Grave Creek Mound in Marshall County, West Virginia and the Miamisburg Mound in Ohio. The first Adena earthworks other than mounds consisted of circular earth wall enclosures with interior ditches and single causewayed entry points. After the beginning of the Ohio Hopewell “phase” in Ohio (ca. 50 BC), the earthworks program evolved to include construction of massive ritual landscapes incorporating large earth wall squares, polygons, octagons, and abstract forms.

Cosmology of Adena-Hopewell Mound Builders

Archaeologists have established that the cosmology expressed in Adena-Hopewell earthworks corresponds to that of the Native American tribes who inhabited the Eastern Woodlands at the time of historic European contact (Hall 1979, 1997;Romain 2015a). This cosmology is divided into three interconnected worlds: the Above World of the sky and heavens, the Earth World, and the watery Underworld, located beneath the Earth World. The Above World is also the location of the Milky Way galaxy, considered in the Native spirituality to be a “Path” or cosmic “River” which the souls of the departed must navigate to reach the entrance to the Land of the Dead.

The Above World is also the location of the Milky Way galaxy. (CC0)

The Above World is also the location of the Milky Way galaxy. ( CC0)

The three worlds of the Woodland cosmos are inhabited by beings which westerners have considered “supernatural,” although this term is misleading and does not actually represent the Native conception. They are more properly understood to be “other-than-human” entities possessing powers beyond those of regular humankind. One well-known Algonquian term for such a being is Manitou ( Manitouk for plural). The Manitouk are not anthropomorphized spirit beings, but rather exist as literal inhabitants of the tiered cosmos (Smith 1995:49).

As explained by the notable anthropologist Alfred Irving Hallowell (1934:399), the Manitouk “represent a continuum with the ordinary world of sense perception. They are an integral part of reality and are not super-natural beings in any strict sense of the term.” Elsewhere, Hallowell (2002:38) elaborates, “Other-than-human persons occupy the top rank in the power hierarchy of animate beings. Human beings do not differ from them in kind, but in power.”

The occupants of the Above World consist of the stars, sun and moon, and the great Thunderbirds. The Underworld is a watery abyss filled with aquatic creatures and a malignant race of serpent-like beings ruled over by a powerful Manitou known to some Algonquian speakers as Mishebeshu. Mishebeshu is depicted on birch bark scrolls, rock art, and earthworks in two major and widespread forms: a gigantic horned serpent or a hybrid of dragon, feline, and serpentine features known as the “Underwater Panther” (Smith 1995).

Two tie-snakes and a hand-in-eye motif in a graphic based on a ceremonial stone palette found at the Moundville Site in Moundville. (Herb Roe/CC BY SA 3.0)

Two tie-snakes and a hand-in-eye motif in a graphic based on a ceremonial stone palette found at the Moundville Site in Moundville. (Herb Roe/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Earth World is the sensible terrestrial world of living humans, plants, and animals, and is usually envisioned as a flat Earth Disk or island floating above the waters of the Underworld. Water sources such as springs, lakes, rivers, and oceans function as passages between the Underworld of Mishebeshu and the Earth World. The inhabitants of the Above World and Underworld are engaged in an endless and eternal war, which unfolds on the Earth Disk, and both sides interact with the human race. In fact, the actions of the Manitouk—whether they are experienced in altered states of consciousness or in waking life—are considered to shape and control the world and the spiritual and physical lives of human beings,  (Smith 1995:49).

The Adena-Hopewell aligned their earthworks to solar, lunar, and other celestial events, as well as natural landscape features, which referenced both astral phenomena and other cosmological concepts, such as the watery Underworld, the Above World, and the Milky Way path of souls. The Adena-Hopewell burial mounds are believed to have served as symbolic representations of an Axis Mundi—a sacred tree or holy mountain—which united the three worlds of the Woodland cosmos (Carr 2008; Romain 2015a). By burying their dead within the Axis Mundi, Adena-Hopewell practitioners may have sought to manipulate the journey of the souls of the deceased so that they entered the “Path of Souls”—the Milky Way Galaxy in the Above World—and followed it to the entrance to the Land of the Dead (Romain 2015a, 2015b).

People participating in the Adena-Hopewell Culture likely considered themselves to have a reciprocal power relationship with the Manitouk inhabiting the worlds above and below them. Romain (2009:161) has suggested that large caches of artifacts made from exotic materials such as copper, mica, shell, and other substances that have been found in large Hopewell burial mounds in southern Ohio and Indiana could represent the return of power-imbued objects to the Manitouk in reciprocation for benefits associated with them, including abundant crops and good health.

Indeed, in historic times Native Americans were still known to make offerings of shell and copper at waterfalls, whirlpools, and other natural watery features in thanksgiving for health, long life, and abundance of plant and animal food (Romain 2009:160). The Algonquian speaking peoples of the Great Lakes region have maintained the very ancient tradition of burning tobacco to the Thunderbirds in exchange for protection from the Great Serpents, whom they continually strike down with powerful lightning and tear apart with their claws (Smith 1995).

Archaeologists have long recognized that the copper breastplates and headdresses, copper and mica effigies, smoking pipes, engraved stone and clay tablets, and effigy mounds of Adena-Hopewell often portray Manitouk of Eastern Woodlands cosmology, such as the Thunderbirds or the Great Underworld Serpent. But there are other ancient Manitouk represented in the earthworks and artifacts which have not yet been fully realized in major studies of Adena-Hopewell. In this study we will utilize the discoveries of archaeology and archaeoastronomy, as well as the traditions of Native American tribes, to unveil the identity of a powerful “other-than-human” entity who was at the very heart of the Adena-Hopewell ideology.

Serpent effigy, Hopewell culture, Turner Group, Mound 4, altar, Little Miami Valley, Ohio, 200 BC to 500 AD, mica - Native American collection - Peabody Museum, Harvard University. (Public Domain)

Serpent effigy, Hopewell culture, Turner Group, Mound 4, altar, Little Miami Valley, Ohio, 200 BC to 500 AD, mica - Native American collection - Peabody Museum, Harvard University. ( Public Domain )

A comprehensive overview of the archaeoastronomy of Adena-Hopewell earthworks in Ohio is far beyond the scope of the present study. Neither is this the place for a complete review of all relevant features of the sites mentioned. Therefore, the reader who is interested in learning more is encouraged to study the excellent publications by archaeologists and archaeoastronomers cited in the text. In particular, the work of Dr. William F. Romain (2009; 2015a; 2015b; 2018) is an invaluable resource for researching this subject. Adena-Hopewell spans roughly 500 BC to 500 AD, and archaeoastronomers usually determine the solar and lunar azimuths for earthwork alignments in southern Ohio using dates that overlap this time period (usually around 100 AD) (Romain 2015a:37).

The people participating in the Adena-Hopewell Culture were not the first to raise burial mounds and earthworks in Eastern North America or to incorporate celestial alignments into these ancient structures. For example, Archaic earthworks in Louisiana such as Poverty Point (1600 BC) and Watson Brake (3500 BC) have been found to incorporate solar alignments. However, as Romain (2018:329) has emphasized, the practice of incorporating lunar alignments to track the 18.6-year cycle of the moon “seems to first enter the record during the Woodland period, with Adena-Hopewell groups.” The greatest testimony to the emergent lunar consciousness of Adena-Hopewell is the emphasis placed upon the moon at the largest and most perfectly aligned earthworks landscape ever constructed: the Newark Earthworks in Licking County, Ohio.

Newark Earthworks. (Zack Frank /Adobe Stock)

Newark Earthworks. ( Zack Frank /Adobe Stock)

The Newark Earthworks

The Newark Earthworks originally covered more than 4 square miles of a river valley where Raccoon Creek and the North and South Forks of the Licking River join to form the main Licking River. The massive site is believed to have been in use by the Hopewell between 100-400 AD (Lepper 2016). Although awareness Newark is eclipsed by the fame of sites such as Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid, the earthworks nonetheless represent an achievement unparalleled among astronomically aligned ritual sites from around the world.

As stated by Romain (2015a:55), “The Newark Earthworks Complex is the most sophisticated and intricate earthwork complex of its kind in the world.” Pioneering archaeo-astronomers Ray Hively and Robert Horn (2016:90) recently observed, “There is no precedent for prehistoric earthworks with the combination of scale, geometric accuracy, and precision we find at Newark.”

The earthworks at Newark were constructed so as to emphasize the extreme minimum and maximum rises in the 18.6-year lunar cycle. Hively & Horn (2016:76-77) have pointed out the remarkable fact that the sheer number of lunar alignments at Newark would have required a great period of exploration and astronomical observations spanning multiple generations prior to the building of the earthworks themselves, which would only have been possible “if a significant portion of the population shared enchantment with the moon and fascination with the power of those who could reliably anticipate it.” The ancient astronomers first noticed that four natural hilltops around the Newark valley were aligned to the winter and summer solstice sunsets and sunrises, and once these alignments were recorded, the earthworks were subsequently constructed in the valley below “so that lines between the designated hilltops and the centers of major figures marked the extreme north and south moonsets and moonrises” (Hively & Horn 2016:68). Such a project as Newark could only have been motivated by a sense of reverence, awe, mystery, and fear associated with “the cosmic power represented by the moon” (Hively and Horn 2016:72).

Unfortunately, large portions of the Newark Earthworks have been destroyed by centuries of “development,” and one of the surviving components is even the location of a modern golf course, perfectly symbolizing the elevation of amusement and the mundane over the numinous that characterizes the civilization that has been built over the ruins of the Adena-Hopewell. Surviving components of Newark include the Great Circle and the Observatory Circle—Octagon Complex, while destroyed features include an elliptical earthwork enclosing at least 11 burial mounds and a near-perfect square with walls averaging 931 feet (283.77 meters) long. There were also once many burial mounds, smaller circular earthen enclosures, and other structures, which are poorly documented.

The site where the objects were found is known as The Newark Earthworks, Newark, Ohio, USA. 19th-century plan of the Works (Public Domain)

The site where the objects were found is known as The Newark Earthworks, Newark, Ohio, USA. 19th-century plan of the Works ( Public Domain )

The Great Circle

The Great Circle is a circular earth wall enclosure roughly 1,178 feet (359.05 meters) in diameter and which varied between 5 and 14 feet (1.52-4.27 meters) in height during the first surveys in the 1800s (Romain 2015b:62). A large ditch follows the interior of the circular wall, which varied between 28 and 41 feet (8.53-12.50 meters ) in width and 8 and 13 feet (2.44-3.96 meters) in depth at the time of the early surveys, when it was still observed to sometimes be half filled with water (Lepper 2016:48). There is a single, wide causeway entrance in the eastern section of the circle.

The wall of the circle was originally constructed in a multi-stage sequence that employed soils of different colors and textures for the inner and outer facings of the circle, and a radiocarbon date of 2110 +/- 80 BP has been obtained from the base of the wall (Lepper 2016:47). From the very center of the Great Circle, the azimuth of the moon’s minimum north rise was established and the causeway entrance was built in that direction. Thus, the Great Circle is aligned to the moon’s minimum north rise from the center through the entrance (Romain 2015a:63-64.).

The walls and interior ditches at the entrance to the Great Circle at Newark. (Author Provided)

The walls and interior ditches at the entrance to the Great Circle at Newark. (Author Provided)

The center of the Great Circle is also the location of an effigy mound that early observers recognized as being made in the image of an eagle or some other bird. Early witness and investigator Isaac Smucker (1884:12) described Eagle Mound as “in the form and shape of an eagle in flight, with wings outspread…clearly of the effigy class of the works of the Mound Builders.” Smucker (1884:12) dug into the center of the Eagle Mound and found “an altar built of stone, upon which were found ashes, charcoal and calcined bones”.

In 1928, Emerson Greenman conducted further excavations at the Eagle Mound, discovering the postholes of a wooden temple or house, which predated the covering mound (Lepper 2016:47). The timber structure was nearly 100 feet (30.48 meters) long and 23 feet (7.01 meters) wide, with wing-like walls extending out from both sides at a 40-degree angle from the central axis. In the center of the temple Greenman found a rectangular clay basin, which showed evidence of extreme and repeated burning episodes. He also found points, lithic fragments, pieces of mica, charred matting, bone fragments, and a 5.5 inch (13.97 cm) long copper crescent on the temple floor (Lepper 2016:47; Romain2015b:63). As will be described later, copper crescents have been interpreted as Adena-Hopewell lunar symbols.

Romain (2015a:64) has superimposed the postmold pattern of the wooden temple with LiDAR imagery to demonstrate that the major axis of the Eagle Mound temple itself was aligned with the minimum north rise of the moon as it would have appeared through the gateway of the Great Circle. Furthermore, a crescent shaped earth mound was once located within the Great Circle directly adjacent to Eagle Mound, the concave center of which was bisected by the azimuth for the moon’s minimum north rise (Romain 2015a:64). Circular earthworks with interior ditches such as the Newark Great Circle have been considered models of the island earth surrounded by a primordial sea in the Woodland cosmos. In the case of the Great Circle, the model would appear to be closely associated with the power of the moon and the symbol of the Thunderbird.

Observatory Circle—Octagon Complex

The Adena-Hopewell utilized a measurement unit of 1,054 feet (321.26 meters) to serve as the basis for the construction of numerous ancient earthworks in the Ohio Valley, as both a standard and in multiples and submultiples (Romain 2015a). This unit (often referred to as the “HMU”—or “Hopewell Measurement Unit”) is perfectly expressed in the diameter of the Observatory Circle at Newark, which is precisely 1,054 feet in diameter (Romain 2005). The Observatory Circle is connected to the large Octagon by a short set of parallel walls.

The Observatory Mound is an artificial platform 10 feet (3.05 meters) in height, situated on the major axis of the Observatory Circle and incorporated into its perimeter directly opposite of the gateway and parallel walls leading to the Octagon (Romain 2015a:68). From the Observation Mound, the maximum north rise of the moon is visible through the set of parallel walls connecting the Observatory Circle to the Octagon (Romain 2015b:62). Also, when viewed from the interior entryway of the Newark Great Circle, the summer solstice sunset aligns with the Observatory Mound (Romain 2015a:68).

Platform Mound, Newark Octagon. (Author Provided)

Platform Mound, Newark Octagon. (Author Provided)

The Octagon connected to the Observatory Circle was apparently built around a square that would be equal to one HMU on each side (Romain 2015b:59). The walls making up the Octagon are each around 550 feet (167.64 meters) in length and between 5 and 6 feet (1.52-1.83 meters) in height, and each of the eight corners of the earthwork is marked by a gateway between 50 and 90 feet (15.24-27.43 meters) in width.

Rectangular platform mounds measuring roughly 100 feet (30.48 meters) long, 80 feet (24.38 meters) in width, and 5-6 feet (1.52-1.83 meters) in height block each of the eight gateways (Lepper 2016:48). Built into the Octagon are alignments to the lunar minimum and maximum north rises, the maximum north set, and the maximum south rise and minimum south set (Romain 2015b:62).

Top Image: Moon goddess. Credit: jozefklopacka / Adobe Stock

By Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

Jason and Sarah are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America . Visit their website:

This article is an extract from a long-form article titled The Moon Goddess of the Adena-Hopewell Mound Builders: Archaeology and Mythology of Our Grandmother of the Eastern Woodlands’


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