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Myths & Monsters Volume 55 Number 4, July/August 2002
by Alex W. Barker

Decoding ritual images of a mysterious ancient American religion


Artist's depiction of a Southern Cult ceremony ca. A.D. 1450, based on excavations at Toqua, a Mississippian town in what is now Tennessee. (Courtesy of the Frank H. McClung Museum, University of Tennessee) [LARGER IMAGE]

They're creatures of myth and memory--ancient, fantastic beings that stalked the eastern United States, from Florida to Illinois, and from the Carolinas to East Texas. Huge panthers with feet of bird's claws, horned serpents with wings and rattles, and humans transforming into great snakes, cats, or birds; all were elements of a sophisticated symbolic system shared by the Mississippian cultures that flourished from about A.D. 1000 to 1500.

This system, known informally as the Southern Cult and called the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex by scholars, has long dazzled the eyes and the imaginations of both archaeologists and antiquarians. Few examples of ancient art from North America can rival the splendor of Southern Cult artifacts: copper plates showing striding winged figures clutching severed heads; magnificent engraved shell cups showing a bestiary of fantastic and supernatural creatures; stone effigy pipes depicting priests and warriors; copper-bitted axes carved in the shape of woodpeckers, with eyes of inlaid shell; and complex, ceramic effigies, some painted in eye-popping shades of white, yellow, red, and black. Some of the riches can only be guessed at--rarely preserved fragments of intricately decorated textiles offer a tantalizing glimpse of a sumptuous world lost to passing seasons and passing plows.

For the past decade I've been lucky enough to be part of a group of scholars trying to tease meanings from the Southern Cult. (I use the word cult in its formal sense to indicate a particular form of religious worship.) Originally assembled as a parallel to annual meetings devoted to Maya iconography, our group includes archaeologists, ethnologists, Indian elders and scholars, art historians, linguists, and folklorists. Each brings his or her own expertise and each leaves with an appreciation of the limitations of any single academic discipline in understanding the nuances and complexities of the Southern Cult.

Some aspects of Mississippian iconography seem tantalizingly close to solution. Comprehending the narrative structure of some of the myths being depicted, understanding how upper and lower worlds are symbolically marked in specific contexts, and recognizing death and the passage of the soul in the iconography, are just around the corner.

Much of the rich and vibrant symbolic world of the Mississippians still eludes us. Parts always will. But now and again we catch glimpses of it, through momentary flashes of insight suggesting how things fit together, how meanings were constructed, belief expressed, and the ineffable captured in carved shell and hammered copper. The promise isn't only to hear the echoes of past beliefs and better understand particular aspects of Mississippian religion, but also to understand more generally how symbolic systems worked in the past, and how mute objects can still speak to us so clearly.

Alex W. Barker is curator of North American archaeology and chair of the anthropology department at the Milwaukee.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America