The state of Ohio is home to an important and mysterious snake effigy that archeologists have said is "arguably the most recognizable icon of ancient America." Built by the Indigenous people of North America, the 1300-foot long undulating serpent has been declared "the largest survivng effigy mound from the pre-historic era" and National Geographic listed it as a "Great Wonder of the Ancient World".
In my research for this blog post, I also came head-on with the side-phenomenon around Indigeneity in general, which I think psychoanalyst Carl Jung would call projection-- when we desperately want something to mean something associated with our unprocessed psychological shadow. I'll talk about this later, but for now let's examine the Serpent.
To the indigenous, the Serpent was afforded a special place in mythology because it had the unique ability to travel over and under land. It represented the underworld while its equivalent, the Thunderbird, who caused the thunder and lightning, represented the upper world. (Apparently, the Indigenous had built a Thunderbird counterpart mound, and while there is a site called Thunderbird mound in Toronto, Canada, it's not clear upon cursory research if there is any connection to the Ohio Serpent mound.) When George Washington, who wanted to expand westward into Ohio territory, overcame Indigenous resistance in 1794, Ohio was quickly parcelled out, and over time, any possible archeological clues about the serpent's meaning have been stolen, destroyed, or compromised.
All manner of theories have been put forth as to its significance, and its meaning could depend on how we interpret what the head of the snake to be doing. Is he swallowing an egg or some other animal? Or is the oval at the head of the snake just one enormous eye? Occasionally, someone will suggest that maybe it’s not a snake at all- it could be a sperm swimming towards an egg to fertilize it, which is not entirely impossible, as the ancient Egyptians seemed to also have known what a sperm looked like long before microscopes were invented. Either way, snakes are often associated with regeneration and fertility in mythology, given their ability to shed their skin and begin anew. The fact that snakes were able to navigate under as well as above ground meant they were able to communicate with the rain gods in the underworld, so perhaps, as with other mounds, there were annual gatherings here to request blessings of vitality, virility, fertility, and rain.
There is one famous snake who has an association with eyes-- the biblical devil, disguised as a snake in the Garden of Eden, who promised Eve that if she ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, her eyes would be open and she would “be like God, knowing good and evil”. When her eyes were opened, though, she anti-climatically noticed she was naked and she was cast out of the garden.
One other interesting theory that is not dependent on pre-historic intercontinental communication, is based on the direction of the snake is facing. While the snake is roughly aligned along the east-west axis, “the head of the serpent aligns with the summer solstice sunset while the tail points to the winter solstice sunrise. As such,” posit some archeologists, “ancient peoples may have used the structure to mark time or seasons”. Could they have been using the mound as a calendar of sorts, to know when to plant and when to harvest?
One archelogist sees in the serpent "an array of six lunar alignments corresponding to the curves in the effigy's body." This is significant because "if the Serpent Mound were designed to sight both solar and lunar arrays," he says, "it would be reflect the consolidation of astronomical knowledge into a single symbol."
One thing is certain-- the Serpent can serve as an invitation into mindfulness. In my very limited research for this post, I was surprised to learn how many non-indigenous people had such intense emotional reactions to it. We all know that Indigenous people have been trying to have their voices heard for centuries, but for some reason, non-indigenous people have an incredible amount of opinions, verbose explanations, anger, and conversely, fascination about Indigenous artifacts-- at least on the internet where they can speak anonymously. The spectrum of reactions stretches from an intense, raging desire to explain away their significance to a curiosity and fascination that would seem to put Indigenous people in a glass display case.
Pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung wasn't known for his cultural sensitivity, but I believe a more enlightened version of him would say that the whole topic of Indigenous people is a target for psychological projection. Indigeneity, he would say, is used as an object upon which the non-indigenous person's psychological shadow is cast. The shadow is the part of our psyche that is unexamined, and has yet to be acknowledged and incorporated into the conscious self. As long as our shadow stays unacknowledged, it distorts reality and inhibits individuation, or in other words, becoming a truly self-aware and emotionally intelligent adult. Very little else can explain this acute need to constantly correct, judge, and invalidate Indigenous voices.
In the Enneagram world, we will often "type" a culture, so for example, the USA has been typed as One-ish, Three-ish, and Seven-ish. France and Canada are often seen as Four-ish. Someone observed South Korea as Six-ish. I see Indigeneity as a Four-ish stance in the world. I would need to back up this theory with a separate blog post, but in my very limited research, I saw the range of healthy and enlightened to unhealthy and struggling type Four traits in their way of being.
Again, speaking in Enneagram terms, we know that while all the other personality types over-identify with either the ego or the id, type Fours can, under stress, over-identify with their shadow in their dive toward Source and Origin, and when in the average and unhealthy zones, often serve as unwilling scapegoats for the unprocessed psychological material of those around them. On the other hand, some of the creative reconciliation work Indigenous people do today feels very healthy-Fourish.
Anyway, while I was reading about the Serpent and other mounds, I found myself sifting through the theories about their significance and rooting for particular theories that I really wanted to corroborate my own worldviews. Moreover, small, silent opinions, caveats, and explanations arose, begging for a reaction, saying "Yes, but...!", "Yes, and...!". As a Canadian, I share in a collective shadow over the treatment of Canadian Indegenous people, so my ego has a hand in the game of projection as well.
At some point in my reading, I realized the most appropriate response was to let my attachments go and allow the Serpent's meaning to just "be", to allow its meaning to be held by Indigenous people, whose truths may not have yet reached the first page in Google search results, and hold any remaining mystery loosely instead of trying to make it conform to my worldview.
Taking a Buddhist approach here doesn't mean to not be curious, it just means to be responsible for our own unprocessed psychological material, and where there are answers and questions, to just be in awe of this pretty impressive, massive, mysterious creation.