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The people archaeologists call the Mississippian Culture – or just Mississippians for short – were prehistoric and historic North American Indian mound builders that inhabited the Mississippi river valley and the valleys of its tributaries in the southeastern United States. They were not one people or political entity but rather a collection of diverse tribes that shared specific lifestyles, traditions, symbols and myths with maize agriculture as their central means of subsistence.
The first appearance of this culture in the archaeological record occurs around 800 AD in the central Mississippi valley (northeastern Arkansas, western Tennessee and Kentucky, southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois) when ideas from the high civilizations of Mexico and Central America filtered into the Mississippi valley. The culture reached its apex between 1200 and 1400 AD and finally disappeared in 1732 when the French exterminated the Natchez tribe in Mississippi – the last recognizable Mississippian cultural group.
It is believed that Cofachiqui in northern Georgia - a large Indian community encountered by the disastrous DeSoto expedition in 1539 - was a member of the Mississippian culture, as well as numerous other smaller towns and villages throughout the southeast. Certain modern tribes - principally the Creek, Alibamu Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw tribes - retain some elements of the Mississippian culture in their sacred rites, myths and symbols and are presumed to descend from them.
The Mississippians were a culture of sun worshipers - or rather people who worshiped the all-powerful, all-knowing deity ruling the universe for whom the sun was the physical manifestation. Fire, because of its light and heat, was also symbolic of the sun on earth and a perpetual sacred fire was kept in nearly every village of any size. This fire was extinguished once a year and a new one kindled as part of a thanksgiving celebration at the time of the first corn harvest. This sacred fire - and particularly maintaining its ritual purity - was a central religious feature in village life throughout the year. If the sacred fire was extinguished for any reason, or became ritually polluted, it was a cause for great concern since without the protection of the fire the community was laid open to disaster.
[Ed. Note: From what can be deduced about the Mississippian belief system it is apparent that many elements derive from the technically sophisticated Mesoamerican cultures of Central America at that time. It should therefore not surprise anyone that the arrival of corn - a crop plant created in Mesoamerica - as a large-scale cultivated crop and the rise of the Mississippian culture coincide.]
In their central cities dwelt the sun's representative on earth referred to by the Natchez as the Great Sun. This person was part chieftan and part high priest and always dwelt (with his retinue and retainers) in a large house on top of an earthen mound. He performed ritual duties and led the people in ritual activities during festivals and ceremonies. The Great Sun's position was entirely dependent on his mother's status since (like Egyptian pharoahs) power descended through the female line.
Very little is known (or can be known) about the form of governance in prehistoric communities. It is assumed that they were modified chiefdoms. There was certainly never anything approaching a centralized, political power structure - a Mississippian Empire. Th archaeological evidence suggests regional power centers that more closely approached the Greek city-state model.
Based on what we know of historic communities that exhibited Mississippian traits (principally the Natchez) the chief/high priest was an absolute ruler and maintained his position almost solely due to the belief system of his subjects. However the Natchez may not have been (and almost certainly were not) representative of the Mississippian cultural governance system everywhere and at all times.
From the evidence of archaeology and the obviously public construction works (mounds, palisades, squares, and ball courts requiring large groups of organized laborers and the central planning they imply) we can assume that the position of the chief/high priest in Mississippian communities was an exalted one - certainly with much greater status and much more power to command than that wielded by chieftans in non-Mississippian cultures encountered by Europeans at time of first contact.
Life revolved around farming and agriculture - a task performed almost exclusively by the women - and was supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering - almost exclusively performed by the men. Corn was the chief crop of Mississippian communities but they cultivated a wide variety of other plants as well - squash, sunflowers, cultivated goosefoot, Maygrass, amaranth, knotweed and others. Beans appear to be a late addition to the Mississippian agricultural communities appearing only a century of two before the arrival of the Europeans. Agricultural production was supplemented by gathering wild foods - nuts, berries and other fruit - as well as hunting, with deer, turkey and fish making up the majority of animal protein consumed.
The Mississippians also engaged in extensive trading activities obtaining obsidian from the Yellowstone area, copper from the Lake Superior region, mica from the Alleghenies and shells from the Gulf coast - all areas outside their principal sphere of influence. From what we can discern at this late date these items were used principally for the manufacture of ritual and status items for high caste individuals rather than being integrated into the general economy.
There appears also to have been an element of ritualized warfare. In Mississippian times this may have been performed by a special warrior caste. The exact role warfare played in Mississippian life is unknown and still under active investigation and evaluation.
Our grasp of Mississippian symbolism is only rudimentary. A culture as rich, vibrant and diverse as the Mississippians no doubt had an iconography equally rich and vibrant. Since we do not know the myths and stories attached to these symbols we can only view them "through a glass darkly". What their true meanings were and the emotions and devotion they elicited from those who held them sacred can never really be known. The meanings attached to the following symbols are the best guesses we can make based on the frequency of their occurrence in the archaeological record and their current use and interpretation by contemporary tribes that are presumed to descend from the Mississippian tradition.
For a more detailed discussion and explanation of this symbolism read James H. Howard's: The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex and Its Interpretation - Memoir, Missouri Archaeological Society, Number 6, December 1968.
The trademark symbol for Mississippian culture is the cross enclosed by a circle since it is encountered at every Mississippian site excavated. This symbol apparently reflected the Mississippian's world view of the division of the earth into quarters. It was also used as a symbol of the all powerful Sun as well as the sacred fire (a reflection of the sun).
The Hawk Man
Among the Mississippians it was the hawk (rather than the eagle) that was considered the messenger of the gods. Their art has numerous representations of the sharp-breasted hawk and/or hawk man. Among historic tribes these sharp-breasted hawks were sky spirits who used their razor- like breasts as weapons. As creatures of the sky they were in constant warfare with the spirits of the underworld.
The Horned* Rattlesnake (Feathered Serpent)
Rattlesnakes were/are sacred animals among historic tribes that are presumed to descend from Mississippian cultures. The art of the Mississippians are filled with numerous depictions of horned (and sometimes winged) creatures with the bodies of rattlesnakes and the antlered heads of panthers. These "water panthers" were creatures of the underworld and were locked in a perpetual war with the creatures of the sky. Their battles were responsible for thunderstorms, tornadoes and earthquakes. The horned serpents were also Masters of the Rain and gifts of tobacco and food were sometimes given them to induce rain for parched crops.
* - Antlers and horns signified spiritual power, especially when applied to animals that didn't ordinarily have them - birds, snakes, humans, etc.
The Weeping Eye
The Weeping Eye (aka Hawk Eye) was another presumed symbol of deity. While it was a common motif in Mississippian art its precise attributes are less well defined than many of the other symbols in use by this culture.
The Hand and Eye
The Hand and Eye motif - a human hand with an eye gazing out from the palm - was yet another symbol of deity. It was one of the most common motifs in Mississippian symbology and rock art but like the Weeping Eye its exact meaning is obscure.
The Bilobed Arrow
The Bilobed Arrow is often seen in the headdresses of the Hawk Men although it's meaning is obscure. It is presumed to have something to do with warfare and battle and is (according to Howard) a stylized representation of the atlatl - a weapon formerly in wide use until superceded by the bow and arrow.
The mythology of the Mississippians was based on their view of the earth as a visible sacred landscape that reflected the unseen spiritual one. The earth was alive with spiritual forces - both good and bad - that had to be propitiated and acknowledged. It was the duty of humanity to bring itself into line with, and intercede in, the spirit world so that the many warring and discordant elements of the cosmos could be brought into harmony thereby bringing about order, stability and peace.
The Mississippians lived in a three tiered universe since they (as far as we can tell) divided their universe vertically into three sections:
An underworld ruled by spirit snakes who had command over the waters and who dwelt in deep pools in rivers. When unhappy or affronted they caused floods and tipped over canoes full of travelers....
An upper world ruled by spirit birds who commanded the winds and the clouds. They lived in the far west and on occasion carried a human off for some unknown purpose...
And a world between these two - the earth which itself was divided into four parts that corresponded with their four cardinal directions. It was humanity's unfortunate fate to be caught between these frequently squabbling spiritual superpowers
The powerful spirit beings who ruled the Upper and Lower Worlds were often unhappy with each other and since each possessed prickly egos and were easily offended they were constantly at war with each other. Their battles resulted in crop flattening windstorms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail and floods. It was the duty of humans, by intervening and communicating with these beings, to effect a kind of truce and keep everybody happy.
While it's impossible to know the mythologies of non-literate and prehistoric cultures, archaeologists and anthropologists believe they can approach the reconstruction of some myths based on traditions preserved by historic tribes in the region formerly occupied by the Mississippians. Based on common artistic conventions and motifs discovered archaeologically that are identifiable elements of stories and myths passed down by historic tribes the bare outlines of certain myths can be deduced. The story outline below - while common to many different tribes and cultures - is believed to be a survival of a Mississippian legend:
Spider Steals Fire
At one time humans living on earth had no fire because it was jealously guarded by Others who would not share. The people and the animals held council to procure it and it was agreed that someone should go steal it. Each time the call for a volunteer to do this went out - the Spider volunteered first - but was ignored. Several Animals of various sorts (with greater status or strength or cleverness) were chosen over Spider. They attempted to steal fire from the Others but the fire always burned them and they failed. At last Spider was allowed to go. It spun a basket of silk which it slung on its back, placed a piece of fire in it and returned successfully to the council where the first fire was kindled.
The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri
Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung