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The Moundville Serpent Disk

The Moundville Serpent Disk

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Published by Cliff
A continuation of a series of papers related to understanding Native American written gesture signs. The Moundville Disk is much more than imagery of Serpents and an Eye-Hand composition. This is an important artifact because it seems to connect nicely with oral tradition.
A continuation of a series of papers related to understanding Native American written gesture signs. The Moundville Disk is much more than imagery of Serpents and an Eye-Hand composition. This is an important artifact because it seems to connect nicely with oral tradition.

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Published by: Cliff on May 09, 2009
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Illustration 1: Photograph Courtesy of Moundville Archaeological Park, The University of Alabama

The Moundville Rattlesnake Disk by Clifford C. Richey May 2009 Revised 06-21-2009

Illustration 2: Drawing Courtesy of Moundville Archaeological Park, The University of Alabama This sandstone disk is from Moundville. Alabama and is about 12 inches in diameter. While the imagery on the disk is obviously of Serpents and a Hand-Eye design, one should not be distracted by this. One should focus first on the overall Form of the disk which is a Circle with notches on its edge. This means a location that has holes (holes as viewed from horizontal section as opposed to the usual overhead bullseye style) in its surface. The locational sign is relatively large and this sign is also used as the number one (made by counting the Finger Tip). Therefore the statement, The Great One. Next we need to look at the Secondary Form created by the total imagery. From this pattern we see that it is the image of a Buffalo Head. There is a line on the Buffalo's Nose that points to one of the the hole signs. This message may be based on a metaphor relating to a buffalo wallow.

Illustration 1: Buffalo Form The Great One Buffalo (at) His Hole (in) The Ground's Surface Exactly what this Associational Form (the Buffalo Head) meant to the Native American that composed it is unknown. However, we can find some historical information as to what the Buffalo Form meant to the Winnebago Tribe. Perhaps similar meanings were held by other Buffalo hunting tribes. The following is material from Paul Raden's Notebook.1 “The spirit of the buffalo, an animal that seems to traverse the whole earth in its migrations, is the very essence of the land. When Earth maker created our world, he saw that his creation was unstable and moved about uncontrollably, so he created the land to help anchor it. This land is in spiritual origin a gigantic buffalo. However, the chief of the buffaloes is the complex deity Blue Horn. As it is said in Blue Horn's Nephews, "He was one of the chief Water spirits, that was why he was called "Blue Horn". He was a Buffalo Spirit. He was the chief of the buffaloes, but he was a Water spirit, it is said. Blue Horn is also associated with the blue sky and the Evening Star. Esoterically, the buffaloes over which he has command are the vast herd of stars who undertake the massive migration across the dark plain of the celestial sphere every night from east to west, only to come to ground or to disappear below the ground at the end of their journey. What makes them Buffalo Spirits is the mysterious journey they make from west to east, either somehow across the land or perhaps subterraneanly, traveling until the herd reemerges in the east following after the setting sun. As the Evening Star (Red Star) who lies close to the horizon of the sunset, he leads this herd of stellar buffalo across the sky. So the
1 Paul Radin's Notebook 58, a manuscript with numbers corresponding to the pages of a lost syllabic text. Pages 104-107 were found as a single loose page fragment inserted in another notebook (#59). The translation is in the style and hand of Oliver LaMère. collected by Sam Blowsnake, ca. 1912 Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Buffalo Spirits, like Blue Horn himself, seem to be split between a celestial home and an abode in the underworld.” As we shall see there are some elements of the above description that fit well with our translation of the signs found in this disk. The description by Raden (above) provides several links to this disk's message. As we know from previous translations the Serpent imagery means a river, a stream, or current of water. There are two Serpents in this composition and they appeared to be tied or bound together as shown through the two knots on either side of the composition. The Knots are compound signs created out of the Circle sign for location, an opening sign (“V” shaped) and a rectangular place sign. The general meaning of this is that of streams of water that are intertwined and bound or tied together. The Knot on the right side of the disk should be considered as in the West. The common Native American associations with the West are the setting sun, darkness, and death. Here the Knot has the opening “V” shaped sign pointing downward, covered over by the location sign and meaning the opposite of opening-up, a held-down place. The place sign is below the location sign. The intent is to show that the stream of water is moving downward in the West and all the internal, to the Serpent, place signs are compound thus incorporating the held-down sign. The places are within the streams of water and they are places that hold things in. The lowest parts of the Serpents Bodies are shaped into the sign for contained as in a bowl. Above this is the second loop of the Serpent's body whose internal signs are composed of multiple Feet. An upright Foot sign is interlocked with another that is upside down (a Foot is the sign for a walk or journey. -these journeys are thus intertwined or interlocked). In written gesture sign language a human or animal body that is upside down indicates that it is dead. Thus the many upside down Feet mean a deathwalk or journey of a multitude. Together the Feet indicate a journey above and below the surface. The surface is indicated by the line that makes up the upper surface of the Serpent. The Double Lines of the Serpents Body means that whatever in internal to the Serpent (within the Serpents Belly) is hidden or unseen. This walk or journey is within the Serpent thus within the streams of water and hidden from view. Because of the two, double, Loops created by the Serpent Bodies ,one above the other, the disk is effectively divided into and upper-side and a lower-side. In other words the upper and lower worlds, the walks or journeys take place below the earth and above the earth. The Serpents, The Streams Tied Together Above and Below A Multitude of Journeys Above and Below The Journeys Up and Down the Sides (of the earth)

In The West Unseen Movement on The Side of Earth-Female The Unseen Turning Places The Serpent's Mouth, The Water Source The Many Doorways The Hole in The Surface The Doorway The Doorway to Turning Below Beneath The Surface The Serpent's Throat a Vertical Place of Water and Transformation The Location The Knot, The Tie That Holds Down The Axe in The Place Below The Under-Half, The Underworld The Serpents, The Underground Streams Within Them A Multitude of Journeys on the

Sides A multitude of Openings and Places Descending The Tail of The Serpent The Many Captives The Doorway Its Entrance on the Surface The Knot on the Left or East side of the disk represents the well known Native American conceptualization regarding the East, the rising sun, light, and rebirth. Here the knot has the “V” shaped opening sign facing upwards. The journey that was initiated downward into in the underworld now turns upward and continues through a opening-place to the upper world and the arc of the sky. The Heads and the Tails of the Serpents are likewise opposites in meaning. Starting on the Left there is the wavy double lined sign for unseen or invisible movement -a turning movement. This movement enters the Mouth of the Serpent (a sign for a source of water or moisture) through the Fang (the triangular sign for earth-female) . The Lower Jaw of the Serpent is created from the signs for female- places (earth-female-places). The “U” shape of the Serpent's Mouth is the sign for turning-female. This sign indicates that the Male Buffalo has turned Female. This is another way of stating, through metaphor, that the Buffalo has died. The Eye of the Serpent is the obsequious hole sign and attached to it is a “U” shaped sign that repeats the horizontal view of a hole as seen along the disk's edge. The two lines at the bottom of the “U” is the sign for a doorway or gateway. There appear to be two Horns on the Serpent's Head. The first is the Triangular earth-female sign while the second, larger, Horn is a Finger pointing to the Edge of the Disk just next to the hole-inthe -surface sign. The Neck or Throat of the Serpent has the jagged signs for water Criss-Crossed with each other thus forming a second sign which is the “X” for an exchange or a transformation. The other part of the Serpent's Throat has a vertical-place sign and a Double Line meaning unseen. The Serpent's Head on the Left side of the disk is, of course, presents just the opposite meaning of the Head on the Right side. It will be noted that there is a very subtle difference in the composition of the Serpent's Tongue. Here, on the right, the double lined wavy movement actually touches the hole or turning sign on the edge of the disk rather than touching the Line for surface. We are thus informed that here the Serpent's Mouth is a place of exit as opposed to an entrance. The exit to the upper-world. The Serpent's tail on the Right is in the Form for descending while the Serpent's tail on the Left is the sign for ascending. The Rattles on both Tails are created out of the signs for three captives (the three is used as a shorthand for many). The distinction is that the last Rattle is the sign for a doorway or gateway. On the Right an entrance into the earth while on the Left an exit from the earth. This distinction is made by the orientation of the Tails. The right side Tail the gateway sign is

under the surface line sign while on the Right it on top of the surface line sign. The Maya had a constellation known as The Tail of The Serpent whose ascension and dissension may have signaled some ritual event. Perhaps, in this case, the event would have to do with the Hand-Eye sign at the Center of the composition. The Serpent's Face, Its Appearance Below in The West The Unseen. Movement on The Side of Earth-Female The Unseen Turning The Places of The Mouth, The Water-Source The Serpent's Eye, The Water-Hole in The Surface The Doorway, The Exit to The Ark of The Sky (at) The Hole in The Surface The Serpent's Throat, The Water Passageway Here The Place of The Journey Unseen in The Water(s) of Transformation The Knot, The Tie

The Location Opened-Up by The Axe, The Arm The Place The Multitude of Journeys Above and Below The Tail of The Serpent Ascending The Multitude of Places The Many Captives (Those spirits trapped in the stream of underground water) at The Doorway, The Exit to The Surface The Place of The House of The Journeys Up and Down The Side of The Eye, Venus Contained

Illustration 2: The Axes and the Knots In the above illustration we can view how the Knots were positioned in the West and East. In the West the Knot (yellow) is drawn so as to present the signs for location (the entire Circle even though the Circle is cut) and held-down (the upside down “V” shape). The Axe (gray) is drawn beneath the above signs so it is the Axe that is held-down. The “handle” of the Axe is the double lined sign for unseen. Furthermore this sign is “U” shaped thus indicating it is turning back upwards. In the East the Axe (gray) cuts open the locational Circle (yellow) or Knot/Tie and its “handle” is in the form of the sign for ascending-unseen.(orange) and at the top of this ascending sign is the form of an Eye (light orange) (Venus). It is quite possible that all the imagery of knives, spear points, arrow points, axes etc. that appear in the glyphs are signs that could have been generalized into the word for arms. Thus in many glyphs it is the Arms and Hands of the Sun that are the subjects. So in this glyph we have the Arm and Hand of the Sun descending into the underworld in the West and after “cutting itself free from it watery bonds”, ascends in the East. The Knots in on both sides of the composition appear to give a “pinched” appearance to the rather oval appearing sign that surrounds the Hand-Eye signs. In one sense the pinched area gives further definition to the Upper and Lower Halves of the composition but it may also represent a Grooved Stone axe. If the Axe sign was used to indicate a warrior then its relative size would indicate that Buffalo was indeed a great warrior and perhaps, this Large Axe indicates the Sun. The Great Axe, The Great Sun His Great Hand, His Great Steward His Great Eye, Venus

Finally we will look at the Hand-Eye compound sign. The Wrist of the Hand is the sign (relative size) for a great place. The Hand means a servant or steward (of the Great Axe, The Sun). This is not clearly spelled out for us in this composition but the Hand as the sign for a servant or steward to the Sun seems to hold true as a trend among a series of glyphs. The Wrist making the sign for a Great Place leads us to believe that the House of Venus and probably also related to a Temple of the Sun Clan). The Buffalo Clan men were probably also Warriors of the Sun. The Thumb has the sign for earth-female as the Thumbnail. The earth-female is aligned (Stance) with the angle of the bent Thumb meaning, on the side (of the earth-female). The Tips of the Fingers provide us with a count of the earth-female number four (the four directions or four corners of the earth).

His Great Hand, His Great Steward His Great Eye, Venus Its Location Its Great Place on The Side of Earth-Female Her Four Locations, The Four Corners The Eye in the Center of the Palm has a sign turning above- over surface. The surface-location sign is thus centered on the hill sign, a surface location, hillside. This curved line over the Circle is the hill sign as there are short straight lines (the ground's surface on either side of it). Beneath the locational Circle is the held-as in a bowl sign. It is also a possibility that the Eye imagery is a Dual imagery Bird Head looking in two directions. If this is so, then the meaning would be flight in both directions (East and West). Thus the ascending of the Serpent's Tail (in all likelihood, a constellation as would be the Head of the Serpent) might have signaled the rising of the Eye-of-the Sun (the Warrior's Star, Venus). Two constellations may have been observed so that when the Head of the Serpent descended below the horizon the Tail of the Serpent would arise. The two constellations would act like the opening and closing of a door. From what we have gleaned from this translation we have the outlines of the warrior cosmology, the death of warriors, and their journey through the watery trails of the underworld within the form of underground streams. Eventually these streams rise to the surface where the warrior spirits make their exit to their journeys in the sky as Venus. Metaphorically compared to the Buffalo arising from its wallow. The multitude of journeys (the multitude of Foot signs) below the earth and above it could be compared with a Herd of Buffalo stars. We take one final look at the Large Disk , The large Circle, (The Great One)and see that the space between the imagery and the edge of the disk on the Left side is in the shape of a Large Hand (The Great Servant). The Right side is in the shape of a large Bird's Head (His Great Flight). The Great One, The Great Steward His Great Flight, The Buffalo.

Illustration 3: Right Buffalo Horn, The Water Horn There were certain problems that arose in translating this composition. The first problem was the Form of the Buffalo. In many glyphs the Secondary Form is not easily recognized and even when recognized its meaning or association may not be known. It is in such cases that we have to look for historical sourcs that may give us clues to the associations such as we found about the Buffalo in this paper. There does appear to be quite a difference between the manner in which the two Buffalo Horns were drafted. The Horn on the left is quite straightforward but the Right Horn (gray), in terms of its Form, appears twisted. Another way of looking at the notches around the disk's perimeter is that instead of a just a horizontal view of the land's surface broken up by holes it is possible that the intent was to show that it was the land surface itself that is moving up and down. The Crook in the Horn of the Serpent would become the sign for taking-downward. This all seems to make a good fit for the description we have read about Blue Horn. Under circumstances where color could be added in as an actual image of a Buffalo it would have been easy to simply color one Horn blue (thereby indicating a Water-Horn). But is this composition the Buffalo is found in Form only and can not be colored. But the right Horn does contain the Wavy sign for movement and the Head and Mouth of the Serpent which equates to a stream and source of water. In the West the Land Surface Moving Up and Down, Shaking (thundering herds of buffalo with their feet shaking the ground?) Taken Downward Here (The Finger pointing downward below the surface sign -the edge of the notched circle) Beneath The Surface The Serpent, The Stream

The Mouth, The Water-Source The Turning Places The Many Doorways etc. Despite the problems described above the overall message is very similar to that of the story of the cultural hero, Blue Horn.

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