Alternate Perceptions Magazine, September 2017
Spiritual Beliefs & Practices of
America’s Ancient Mound Builders—Part 2
by: Dr. Greg Little
The other soul, called the “Free Soul,” was the part of us that contained our memories and personality. The Free Soul is a type of individualized spiritual energy which originates from the “Upper World.” The Free Soul is destined to return to its source by going to the upper or “Sky World” after death, but it first has to make a safe journey through the Underworld. Accomplishing the journey to the Sky World required that the entire tribal community engage in complex rituals involving specific symbolic artifacts within a sacred space designed from earth and configured in a way to create alignments to mark the time of the ceremony and also to specific stars. All of these activities and practices were intended to maintain spiritual balance among the three worlds and the tribe. It was a means to honor the ancestors and the source of spirit and thereby maintain some control.
The Death Journey
Many previous articles have summarized the key elements of the mound builder’s death journey rituals and beliefs. In brief, the rituals for the death journey were held in the Winter, as close to the Winter Solstice as possible. This was for several reasons, with the most important one being that the Scorpius Constellation in the southwest was then below the horizon and not visible. Scorpius was a “Feathered Serpent” and the ruler of the underworld. If souls attempted to jump to the sky while Scorpius was in the sky, it would snatch the soul and take it to the underworld.
It is important to understand that the Death Journey rituals were only one of a vast array of ceremonies held to maintain spiritual balance. Sacred spaces incorporated all of these ceremonies into their construction and the arrangement of mounds and earthworks. However, it is clear that the Death Journey rituals employed very specific visual alignments to stars across key points of sacred spaces utilizing mounds and earthworks—often gaps in the earthworks and connecting corners or earthwork squares and circles.
Mound and earthwork sites encoded alignments to the Winter Solstice sunset that were intended to make a stunning visual impression that clearly established the starting time for the ceremony. The mound complexes were typically made in such a way that the sunset on the Winter Solstice could be prominently viewed from the top of a central mound or corner point of complex earthworks where the sun could be seen setting directly behind a temple situated on the top of another mound a few hundred yards away—toward the southwest. As the time of the solstice got closer, the shaman and tribal leaders announced the timing of the event and plans were made. As this event began to unfold, family groups would bring the bundled remains of their deceased to a prepared area where a cremation ceremony would be held on the night of the event. The ceremony was held on a night when the sky was clear and the shaman determined the exact night. Anthropologists who deciphered the timing of the death ritual ceremony have determined that there was a “window” time period that gave essentially a three-month opportunity for clear skies. The shaman and medicine clans would determine the precise night of the ceremony and give advance notice.
On the selected day, toward the time of the setting sun, the priestly class of the tribe would have gathered in a key area of the sacred space (usually on a central mound) with various ceremonial objects. They would have been dressed in animal skins, be wearing animal heads related to the tribe’s totem animals, and have a ritualistic drink under preparation. These drinks would have contained mixtures of tobacco, other herbs, and hallucinogenic substances. When the sun was seen to set in the precise spot behind a temple on a mound in the southwest, the ceremony began. Fires would be lighted at various spots when specific events took place.
Within an hour after sunset, the ritual would take the next step when the “Hand Constellation”—with a fuzzy slit in the hand’s palm—was fully visible as it rose in the eastern sky. The Hand Constellation was Orion, with the three belt stars forming the severed wrist. The fuzzy “slit” was Orion’s Nebula. This event would have also been viewed from one mound directly across the top of a temple erected on the top of a mound a few hundred yards to the east. When it was first viewed, a fire would be lighted on the mound that it was viewed over. This signaled that the formal ceremony could begin and repetitious drumming, the blowing of whistles, chanting, and dancing began. These activities would be sustained the entire night stopping only when th elite made announcements. The tribal leaders and the priestly class would begin drinking the ceremonial drink along with the relatives of the deceased at the time the rising of Orion was first viewed.
Around 11 pm, attention was focused to the northwest where a “Great Bird” in the sky—an eagle or hawk—was shown to the participants. This Great Bird was the Cygnus Constellation, located at the Dark Rift of the Milky Way. At this point, the tribal Chiefs would emerge from their temple located atop the largest and most prominent mound at the complex. The powerful chiefs were dressed as birdmen, wearing feathers, arms decorated as feathered wings, feather headdresses, and painted like birds with forked eyes. They would be carrying various symbolic objects including stone maces, objects with crosses and the “eye-in-hand” symbol, and wearing gorgets displaying the same symbols. As the Great Bird (Cygnus) descended below the horizon around 11 pm, it would be viewed from the central mound to the northwest where another mound or a gap in an earthwork was located. It symbolized the final destination of the soul, but it could only be reached by the soul making a leap to the West and then following the Path of Souls—the Milky Way, to the North. This ceremony was intended to make clear to the tribe that the elite members of the tribe had the power of life and death, the fate of everyone’s soul in their control, and how the elite were connected to the sky powers.
After making formal gestures and rituals and paying homage to the Great Bird, the participants moved to the cremation area and the cremation fires were lit. This area was often located often at the base of a burial mound within the complex. At that point the entire group drank the ceremonial drink prepared by the tribal shaman and medicine people, and the ceremony continued with the rhythmic dancing, drumming, chanting and whistling. This went on for hours with the drink used several times over the remaining night. Shaman dressed in animal skins performed various dances and ceremonies utilizing the symbolic objects. They also directly interacted with the relatives of the deceased who were to make the journey to the sky.
Within the ceremonial and sacred space formed by the mounds and earthworks, the participants gradually arranged themselves into two columns beginning at the crematory fire leading toward the West. This occurred in the early morning hours, several hours before sunrise. The two lines of people formed a path from the crematory fire toward the West. To the West was another mound or a gap in the earthworks marking the spot where the Hand Constellation was to set just before dawn.
As the Hand descended to the western horizon, at a key point, the priests and tribal leaders gave a solemn homage to the souls of the deceased and they and the other participants urged the souls to leap to the “eye” located in the palm of the now-downward pointing hand. The “eye” was seen as a slit in the sky—an “ogee”—that the soul entered just before the sun rose. The rising of the sun was seen as the end point of the ceremony. The cremation fire was covered over by specifically-tasked tribal members and the resulting mound was enlarged.
With respect to the soul’s journey, the entry into the ogee was seen as a way for the soul to make a safe passage through the underworld so that it emerged the next night on the Milky Way. The Milky Way was the Path of Souls. The soul then started a journey to the North facing numerous trials along the way. When the soul reached the split of the Milky Way, it encountered the Great Bird that judged the soul. If the soul passed all of the tests and was deemed worthy, it was allowed to enter a different Ogee, believed to be the star Deneb. This allowed the soul to exit the sky world to the realm of the ancestors. There is virtually nothing known about this realm.
Regional & Site Variations
It is clear that the Path of Souls idea began at least by the Adena Culture era, perhaps well before 500 BC. During the Adena and Hopewell eras, mounds and earthworks were arranged to facilitate the viewing of these specific stellar elements and the sites sometimes extended for miles. Fires were used as a signal from one mound to another, announcing that the star alignments were visible and signaling for the next phase of the ritual to proceed. The sites (mounds and earthworks) were constructed in a way that took into account the topography and horizon elevations at each location. Because these early sites were widespread and not enclosed by a fortress wall, it seems clear that the tribal members felt safe performing the ceremony in the open. During the later Mississippian era, when large mound complexes were encircled by wooden palisade walls, it is apparent that warring factions might have attempted to take advantage of the population being in the open and exposed to attack. It was important that the tribe be kept safe, thus the sacred space utilized for the Death Ritual was enclosed and fortified. Many mound and earthwork sites from the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian eras incorporated the same alignments to the Winter Solstice, the rise and setting of Orion, and the setting of Cygnus into the arrangement of both mounds and earthworks.
When Did the Idea Emerge?
The idea that the entry and exit point of souls into this world was in the far North sky is very old and nearly worldwide. The obvious conclusion is that the ancients came to believe that the part of the northern sky around which all of the other stars rotated was a “hole.” How Cygnus and its most prominent star Deneb became so crucial in the Path of Souls ideology leads to a remarkable conclusion. Deneb once served as the North Pole star. This occurred some 18,000 years ago. Andrew Collins has engaged in a remarkable amount of research showing that Cygnus was important to the Siberian tribes and at the 12,000-year-old site Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey. Thus, it would seem that the Path of Souls idea is extremely old and the belief system involving it spread from continent to continent in very remote times.