Drowning, Poisoning, and the Dark Underworld. Meet the King of all Snakes, the wise Great Horned Serpent in Native American Cosmology
Since longer than history can recall, the western mind has been locked in a pattern of dualistic thinking. In the course of our experiences, the world is defined by a series of opposites, which invade every avenue of perception. This is expressed by the collective in every aspect of western society, from our conceptions of our own psyche—which we divide into conscious and unconscious—to the political arena where we split into two supposedly-opposite groups competing for the control of national policies. Dualistic thinking is perhaps nowhere more ingrained and apparent than in the western concept of the divide between the material realm and the realm of the supernatural. Although we observe many faiths and traditions, and fancy ourselves sophisticated, westerners can sometimes harbor a permanent barrier or wall between the collective phenomena that we detect with our senses—the “material world”—and any concepts existing outside of those senses that require the power of belief, which are collectively assigned to the “spiritual” or “supernatural” world.
Knowledge of the Cosmos
This separation of the seen and unseen realms is utterly foreign to the cosmological view of the peoples known collectively as Native Americans and their distant ancestors. Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands region of the United States and Canada live in what may be called an inhabited universe.
Going back to at least the Late Archaic period (3000-1000 BC), the artifacts and artistry of ancient Americans from southern Ontario to the Gulf Coast depict a layered cosmos consisting of an Upper World, a Middle World, and an Underworld. The Upper World is the domain of the Thunderers, or Thunderbirds, and also the location of the ‘road of the dead’ or ‘river of stars’ (the Milky Way Galaxy), which the deceased must travel upon death to reach the realm of the dead.
A Menomini woven bag showing the Thunderers. (Public Domain)
Appeal to the Great Spirit. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin, 1909. (Public Domain)
This celestial realm is ruled by a being known to the Ojibwa as Gicimanitou (or Gitchi Manitou)—the “Great Spirit”. The Middle World is the earth and its environs, where man lives and interacts with plants, animals, soil, water, etc—usually conceived of as an “earth disk” or “great island”. In many creation stories the earth island is situated on the back of a Great Turtle, the whole being known as “Turtle Island”.
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Iroquois man sitting on a turtle, in reference to the Great Turtle that carries the Earth in Iroquois mythology. By the sculpture workshop of Brest, France naval arsenal. (Rama/CC BY-SA 2.0 fr)
The Underworld is beneath the Earth Disk, and consists of a watery abode of aquatic beasts or serpent beings and their master or boss—the Water Manitou (“Water Spirit”)—who is usually depicted as either the “Great Horned Serpent” or “Underwater Panther”. Algonkians know this Underworld ruler as Mishebeshu.
The Great Spirit rules over the celestial realm (Public Domain)
Dance and Mystery Plays
A central Axis Mundi—a world tree or holy mountain—unites the three primary realms of the Woodland Cosmos. The Axis Mundi provides a means of travel between the realms for shamanic practitioners as well as the souls of the dead. Its existence also allows the denizens of the Upper World and Underworld to pass into the Middle World of earth. In Early and Middle Woodland times (1000 BC—450 AD), conical burial mounds in which the dead were interred to facilitate their journey to other realms represented the Axis Mundi as Holy Mountain. Platform mounds which may have been used as stages for the performance of mystery plays (which preserved creation stories and cosmological themes) also represented this concept.
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Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer are investigative historians and avocational archaeologists. They study many subjects including depth psychology, Biblical mysteries, political science, and comparative mythology. They’re also authors of the forthcoming book, Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (2017). Learn more at their website: ParadigmCollision.com
Top Image: The Great Horned Serpent was powerful and magical in Native American mythology. (Public Domain)