The Great Serpent Mound
The mystery surrounding the Great Serpent Mound in rural, southwestern Adams County, Ohio has baffled scholars since its discovery in the 1800s. One theory suggests the large serpent effigy was built 2300 years ago in the Early Woodland Period by the Adena Culture, and then modified or rebuilt 1400 – 1500 years later by the Fort Ancient Culture during the Late Prehistoric Period. Another theory proposes the Fort Ancients were responsible for creating the mound 1000AD to 1600AD. Carbon dating on the mound supports both time periods. Regardless of which theory you support, the Great Serpent Mound has alignments and features that support strong archaeoastronomy characteristics. The mound’s alignment to the solstices and lunar orbit advocate for a celestial meaning to its orientation and features.
The Great Serpent Mound measures approximately 1340ft long and 3ft in height. The mound is oriented in a north/south direction with the head turning to the NW and its coiled tail curving to the SW. The serpent consists of six coils that ends with a clockwise spiral shaped tail. The mouth of the serpent spreads out into a triangular shape appearing to swallow another smaller oval shaped mound. To the west of the Great Serpent Mound, a small ravine leads down to the Brush Creek, which follows the body of the serpent above to the east.
For the purposes of this paper, the celestial objects involved in these events will be explained according to their Azimuthal heading (Az), which ranges from 0° – 360° like a compass. A heading of 0°Az is true north, 90° is due east, 180° is due south, and 270° is due west. See the diagram for a visual to the meaning of Azimuth and other terms associated with viewing celestial objects.
Native American Solar Symbols
The Native American tribes used many symbols to represent important aspects in their way of life. The symbols they used had great power and meaning and the Great Serpent Mound is a filled with this symbolism. Historically, the serpent symbol alone symbolizes rebirth, resurrection and initiation. This coincides with the solar symbolism at the head and tail of the Serpent Mound.
The small circular mound at the mouth of the serpent is an ancient solar symbol. The Native American culture had diverse meanings for the circle symbol and the Sun was one of them. The oval shaped mound at the head of the Serpent Mound could represent an egg. The egg is a symbol of birth and it represents the origin of life. The Orphic egg is usually represented as an egg surrounded by a coiled serpent. The egg symbolizes the belief in the Greek Orphic religion that the universe originated from within a silver egg. The egg seems to have the same meaning throughout the World by many ancient cultures. It would be naïve to believe the Native American cultures viewed the symbolism of the egg any differently. The egg yolk reminded them of the sun, which was regarded as life giving.
The clockwise spiral symbolism at the tail is a known Native American solar symbol in the southwest. The clockwise spiral was viewed as the “correct or good path”. The clockwise spiral is linked to the ascending life force and rebirth.
“The Spiral is known as an ancient symbol of evolution. One of the oldest symbols of human spirituality in existence, the spiral has been found carved into cave dwellings, rocks and tombs all over the world. It is said to symbolize the evolution of the universe, the never-ending cycles of growth, change and eternal life as well as the cycles of the seasons.”
Another meaning for the spiral is migration. The migration swirl symbol is found at countless petroglyph sites in the Southwest. It represents the circled migration patterns of Native American tribes. The Hopi believe that they migrated from the south, in Southern Mexico and migrated for many years in search of where they were meant to settle. They believe they migrated West, North, and East until they circled back to discover the three mesas in Northern Arizona where they call home. The setting sun on the winter solstice has an azimuth bearing of 239 degrees. From the Serpent Mound following that line across the United States leads to the SW and northern Mexico. If the spiral symbol at the tail of the Serpent Mound does represent “migration”, then the alignment to the SW could be a marker leading to their original home in the SW.
Native American Solar Myths
Depending on the Native American culture, solar myths varied from tribe to tribe and region to region. One Native American solar myth involves the Hare God and the Sun God. Several Native American cultures honored the rabbit with great respect. In this myth the Hare God is in the woods waiting for the Sun God to rise. The Hare God becomes tired of waiting and falls asleep. While sleeping, the Sun God rises and comes to close to the Hare God and burns him. The Sun God knew what he had done and hid himself away in the underworld (This means the sun had set in the west. It’s the Native American belief the sun retires to the underworld when it sets). The Hare God awoke and was made at the Sun God. He planned his revenge and set after the Sun God to the edge of the world. When the Sun God rose from the underworld, the Hare God was waiting with his bow. He fired several arrows at the sun, but each arrow would burn up when they got too close. However, the Hare God had a magic arrow in his quiver that could hit any target. He shot the arrow at the sun and shattered the sun into thousands of pieces, burning the world in flames. The Hare God tried to run from the fire, but eventually the flames caught him. The Hare God’s head was only left to roll across the world until heat caused his eyes to explode and release a river of tears that extinguished the fires across the face of the Earth. When the Sun God was beaten, he was sentenced to follow a regular path across the sky with day, night, and the seasons.
This myth has celestial influences in the constellations. The Constellation Lepus, the Rabbit is a 2nd Century Ptolemy constellation that was placed along the path of the sun on the winter solstice. In this position, it appears to be running along the solar path chasing the Sun God. This planning and placement of constellations relates to the Serpent Mound, which will be discussed in the next section. As the sun sets on this day, Lepus rises in the east and as Lepus sets, the sun rises in the east. This pattern of opposites occurs with other constellations in the sky, such as Orion, the Hunter and Scorpio, the Scorpion. Even though Ptolemy was unaware of the Hare God myth, there must be a similar myth in Greek, Roman, or Egyptian cultures.
The Archaeoastronomy of Serpent Mound
The summer and winter solstices, along with the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, were very important to ancient cultures throughout the World. The ancients knew the sun provided life and rebirth to nature. It was no different to the Native American tribes in the Ohio Valley. Past research on the mound has shown alignments to both solstices.
The head of the serpent points toward the setting sun on the summer solstice, while the tail of the mound aligns to the setting Sun on the winter solstice. These are the azimuth bearings for the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstice and the both equinoxes at the Serpent Mound. However, the alignment for the rising Sun on the winter and summer solstices is not so easily noticeable. However, both solstice lines do fall within Coils 1 and 6. Although not perfectly, they are close.
The six coils of the serpent are thought to follow the lunar phases or the azimuth bearings for the northernmost and southernmost rise and set of the moon every lunar cycle. The coils appear to be approximately 15 degrees apart starting at approximately 53 degrees at the northernmost coil and ending at the southernmost coil at about 128 degrees.
Although these two coils have bearings that follow the lunar path, they align with many other celestial objects. For one, the northernmost coil closely aligns very closely with the rising sun on the summer solstice at 59 degrees, while the southernmost coil is very close to aligning with the rising sun on the winter solstice at 121 degrees. Furthermore, the path of the sun travels the complete length of the serpent’s coils between these two points throughout the year. Some have suggested some of the coils align to the Sun on the Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes. The azimuth bearings for Coils 1 and 6 of the Serpent Mound follows the lunar northernmost and southernmost rise and set bearings for the moon.
Another alignment in the archaeoastronomy of the Serpent Mound involves the Constellation Draco. Draco, the Dragon is a Greek Constellation in the northern sky. The Constellation Draco has been a circumpolar constellation at this latitude for approximately 8000 years. Draco, being a circumpolar constellation is a strong candidate due to its overall shape and northern position in the sky. The star, Thuban, in Draco was the pole star approximately 5000 years ago, which encompasses the Adena and Fort Ancient Cultures time frame for construction. The stars of Draco are suggested to match certain locations on the mound as seen in the picture. However, the Constellation Draco fails on one major aspect in relation to the mound. It doesn’t interact with the sun in the sky. If the Serpent Mound is a solar symbol, any celestial representation must also interact with the sun. I would like to propose an alternate constellation that possesses similar characteristics paralleling those of Draco in relation to the Great Serpent Mound, plus aligns to the sun in the sky as the mound does on the ground. The constellation is Hydra, the Water Snake, another serpent constellation.
The Constellation Hydra, the Water Snake
The Constellation Hydra is another Greek constellation first cataloged by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century, although astronomers believe Hydra is much older and originated from the Babylonian astronomers. Hydra is the longest and largest constellation in the sky and measures 1303 sq. degrees. It’s interesting the Serpent Mound measures approximately 1340 feet in length.
The brightest star in Hydra is Alphard, magnitude of +2.0, which means “the serpent’s heart” or “the solitary one”, because the star seems more noticeable by lying within a fairly blank region of sky. Alphard is a pale reddish orange color, which corresponds to the Native American legend of the Horned Serpent having a reddish eye. Researchers have chosen the red giant Antares in the Constellation Scorpio as the eye for the Native American Horned Serpent. Antares does have one interesting aspect. Antares rises before the Sun at the same location as the Sun on the winter solstice. The red star follows the path of the Sun. Antares and Alphard are both red giants and either could be the red eye of the Horned Serpent of Native American legend.
The serpent is an ancient symbol used by many past cultures across the world. In southwestern portion of North America, the Hopi believed the serpent was a powerful deity the Horned Serpent that represented the rattle snake, the king of the snakes. The Mayan and Aztec revered the Feathered Serpent in Mesoamerica. In other Native American cultures, the Constellation Hydra is called the “Horned Rattler”. Horned serpent deities figure in the mythology of most Native American and Mesoamerican peoples. Most of these horned and/or feathered serpents are associated with rain and thunder, or waterways. These cultures believed the Horned Rattler was in charge of the underground water channels. The serpent was the guard of the underworld. When the sun sets, according to Native American tradition, it goes to the underworld. If the Horned Serpent is the guard of the underworld, then the symbolism of oval shaped mound at the mouth of the serpent represents the Horned Serpent biting and pulling the sun down into the underworld as it sets below the horizon.
The Constellation Hydra lies just above the Milky Way when it’s positioned to the western sky. Hydra appears to slithering on the Milky Way. The ancients perceived an analogy between a quick flowing river, and the swift gliding of a huge glistening serpent (Olcott). The fact that Brush Creek is located to the west, the Milky Way may represent the water below.
The next sequence of pictures shows the orientation of the Constellation Hydra on the winter and summer solstice from 0AD, 500AD, 1000AD, and 1500AD. The orientation of Hydra is more angled at 0AD when compared to 1500AD. In the 1500AD, Hydra is almost parallel to the horizon. This evidence would support a Fort Ancient Culture building of the Serpent Mound if the Constellation Hydra was used for the archaeoastronomy of the mound.
In the sky on the summer solstice, the head of the Constellation Hydra points directly at the sun from rise to set. The serpent appears to be chasing the Sun during the daylight hours. This would be invisible to the people at Serpent Mound, but they would know it was there.
On the winter solstice, the spiral tail of Hydra points to the rising sun instead of the setting sun as the mound does each year. This alignment improves in the later years, such as 1500AD and beyond. In 1000AD, the tail begins to align with the rising sun on the winter solstice. So, if the Serpent Mound is the constellation used by the Native American Culture occupying the area, then the tail of Hydra should align with the setting sun and not the rising sun. During these later years, the tail of Hydra follows the path of the sun on the winter solstice. The tail of Hydra rises and the same azimuth bearing as the sun on that day. So, the tail rises first and the sun after.
Another interesting behavior of Hydra on both solstices is the fact that the constellation is in approximately the same position in the sky when the sun rises on the winter solstice and sets on the summer solstice. The two versions of Hydra are from the Serpent Mound on the winter and summer solstice in 1000AD. They are almost identical.
The two pictures below show how the Constellation Hydra is oriented to the west in relation to the Serpent Mound. Hydra seems to run parallel to the mound when the Sun interacts with the mound on the solstices. The first picture shows the position of Hydra when the Sun sets on the winter and summer solstice. The second picture shows the constellation’s orientation in relation to the mound. The red and green lines match the same azimuth bearing in each picture.
There is strong celestial evidence the Fort Ancient culture constructed or at least rebuilt the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio during the period of 1000 – 1600 C.E. for the primary reason to worship Sun and the solstices. The stars within the Constellation Hydra, the Water Snake, cataloged by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century, must have been incorporated into a separate serpent constellation by the Fort Ancients, maybe the Horned Serpent or Horned Rattler of the Southeast or Feathered Serpent of the Southwest. The later the occupation of the Fort Ancient in the Ohio Valley area, the flatter the Constellation Hydra orients to the horizon and aligns with the sun on both solstices.
The head of the Constellation Hydra and the Serpent Mound both point to the Sun on the Summer Solstice and the oval shaped mound in the serpent’s mouth is a representation of the Sun, as an egg. Considering the serpent was from the underworld, the oval shaped mound in the mouth of the Serpent Mound may represent the Sun being pulled into the underworld by the serpent as the Sun sets to the west.
The spiral tail of the mound, a known Native American Sun symbol, aligns to the setting Sun on the winter solstice. The tail is a known symbol representing rebirth “migration”. The line following the 239 degree line from the tail leads to Northern Mexico and their possible home.
In the sky, the tail of the Constellation Hydra points toward the rising Sun on the winter solstice. Although this differs from the tail of the Serpent Mound, the tail of the Constellation Hydra rises at the same azimuth bearing as the rising Sun on the winter solstice, 121 degrees.
The Constellation Hydra is positioned in approximately the same orientation and placement in the western sky at the rising of the Sun on the winter solstice and the setting Sun on the summer solstice. This fact leads me to further believe Hydra is the Serpent Mound. Brush Creek below the Serpent Mound to the west may represent the Milky Way under the Constellation Hydra in the night sky in the same direction.
The Lunar alignments with Coils 1 and 6 are evident. However, I need to spend more time examining the lunar cycle more closely before I can make any judgement concerning the four middle coils. These alignments seem to be more complicated. In the future, I plan to research the coils of the mound in more depth. The degree range between 53 – 128 degrees has much more celestial activity than the lunar cycle. There are many stars and planets that rise and set between those two bearings. I need to determine with any of these celestial objects follow the pattern of the coils. I know some have claimed the planet Venus has an alignment with the mound.
There is strong evidence that the Constellation Hydra is the source for the construction of the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. Considering the parallel orientation to the mound to the west and the constellations interaction with the Sun on the summer and winter solstice, which matches the Serpent Mound, Hydra must be considered as an alternative representation for the Serpent Mound.