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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, October 2017

Spiritual Beliefs & Practices of America’s Ancient Mound Builders-Part 1

by: Dr. Greg Little

From the moment that Native American tribes were unexpectedly found in the “New World,” they were typically derided as savages, primitive, and incapable of erecting the mounds and earthworks that dotted the landscape. Early depictions of the native tribes described them as “sun worshipers,” in part, because it was customary for the chief or priest to stand outside each morning at sunrise. Many native symbols depicting crosses or circles were always—and wrongly—interpreted as sun symbols. The typical interpretation of “animism” was applied to their religious beliefs as an effort to deride their spirituality. Animism is usually thought of as meaning that all material substance is alive and has some degree of consciousness. All of these oversimplifications and derisions were, and still are, grossly inaccurate and misleading. The Native American cultures had a deep and exceedingly complex belief system that was held secret and sacred. It has only been in recent years that some of the core ideas of their belief system have been fully understood. Perhaps the most unexpected thing about their central spiritual belief system is that it leads us directly to the time frame when the ideas emerged.


An understanding of the Native American beliefs begins with spirit. To them, everything has a spiritual nature, everything has at its core, a spiritual essence, an essence sometimes referred to as coming from the “Great Spirit.” Before the material, physical world manifested, what existed were two powerful spiritual forces created by the “Great Spirit,” each of these with its own individual powers and forces. This can be thought of as similar to two forces of nature maintaining a balance, like yin and yang. Within these two spiritual forces numerous powers emerged. When the physical world came to be, it was formed from the spiritual essence emanating from these two balanced forces that were then the most primordial energies in existence. This material world, the physical world we reside upon, lies in the middle of the spiritual universe. The material world is actually a double reflection, reflecting both an upper and lower spiritual world and the middle world receives power or energy from both.

Native American cosmology depicts this concept as a 3-part universe that is usually subdivided or sectioned in various ways. But for our purposes we’ll discuss the basic 3-part world. The physical world—the land, stones, water, plants, animals, and humans—are all part of the “middle world.” The middle world is encased within a massive sphere extending above and below. The earth—the middle world—is supported by 4 ropes or poles that represent the four cardinal directions. Within the “Upper World” a host of powers and beings reside. These include the Grandfather Sun, the Thunderbird, and various mythical beings. The “Lower World” begins below the vast waters, and it, too, is inhabited by various powers. It is ruled by a gigantic snake or a “water panther.” Often overlooked by many people when thinking about this cosmology is the reason why the middle world came into being. While there are many tribal legends that explain how the earth was formed, the underlying reason for it is usually unmentioned. The middle world was formed to bring balance to the Upper and Lower worlds. Maintaining this balance was an obligation of each tribe.

One key element in this cosmology is the idea that these three worlds are intimately connected and bound together—physically. The connection is depicted by a tree or a striped pole extending both through the earth to the Upper and Lower worlds. The idea about this connection is central to the functions of tribal priests and shaman in maintaining balance. All three parts of the world are like a semipermeable membrane and forces or energies from any of the three portions could, under the right conditions, manifest in other realms. That is, the three worlds intermingle. We’ll return to this idea soon.

Covering the interior of the sphere surrounding the three worlds are the stars and the Milky Way. This idea is also a critical component in their belief system and actually is the key to understanding how we can infer when the belief system arose—and why it did. But for the moment, let’s return to the middle world.

In essence, all animals, plants, rocks, and earth are spiritual manifestations of the primordial essence making up the universe. The physical world represents a revelation of this spiritual essence. Animism, as Native Americans practiced it, was a way of showing reverence to the true nature of the spiritual universe. When animals were killed or crops harvested, it was important to give reverence to their spiritual nature. Everything was sacred because everything has spirit. The most primordial or basic spiritual physical substance of all was earth, the ground and dirt. The purest form of spiritual energy was fire. The most condensed form of spiritual energy was rock, especially quartz crystal. All of these forms of spirit were used and manipulated by tribal leaders and the priestly class. Understanding these components and how they connect was essential for shamanic practices.

The Two Souls

According to Native American beliefs, as well as in many tribes from South America, humans have two souls. One soul was called the “Life Soul.” It was derived from the earth and was the essential primordial spiritual substance that animated the physical body. Native Americans were well aware that humans derived their physicality from plants, animals, and the minerals that came from earth. Thus the idea of “Mother Earth” emerged. The Life Soul had no memory, or personality, or individuality, but it was necessary for the physical body to be animated.

The second soul was called the “Free Soul” because it existed independently of the physical body and could be released from the Middle World after death. The Free Soul was what most people would think of as a human soul. It contained the memories, personality, and character of the individual. It was the Free Soul that shamans could release through ritualistic practices. These two soul ideas were crucial in burial practices because how the body was handled after death could determine if the individual could reincarnate, return to the place of origin, or be trapped on earth to wander as a ghost.

The practice of excarnation, the defleshing of a body after death, allowed the flesh to return to the earth and back to its primordial state. After excarnation the bones were often stored until a special time when a ceremony could be held to release the Free Soul. This was often done through cremation with the remaining bones sometimes ground down to the smallest substance possible. Then they were placed in earthen burial mounds. Children were sometimes buried without cremation in the hopes of reincarnation as were some special leaders who played important roles in tribal history. The release of the Free Soul was the key concept employed in maintaining control of the masses and an explanation of the creation of many mound complexes and geometric earthworks.

Mounds & Geometric Earthworks

A crucial component of native spiritual practices was connecting to the earth, and doing so in a way that the primordial energies could be communed with. Certain landforms, special places, and waterflows were seen as sacred spiritual places because they were intersections where the physical and spiritual world came together. Land could be altered to create ceremonial spaces that served as spiritual fields or portals where the spiritual world could manifest and humans could intermingle with it—a form of communion done at regular times. The importance of this idea hinges on a key belief. It is that conditions on earth and in the Middle World could be controlled and somewhat manipulated based on the spiritual interactions with the Upper and Lower worlds. Both the present and future fate of a tribe were dependent on maintaining a spiritual balance.

In Part 2 we’ll go into depth on the use of mounds & earthworks in rituals.


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Friday, December 03, 2021