Spirits of Land, Water and Sky: Effigy Mounds in the Madison Area
It always amazes when spiritual travelers go halfway around the globe to visit the earthworks of Egypt, Britain or Machu Pichu, but seldom stop to appreciate our own local treasures: the mounds built by the natives of this area more than a millennium ago. Indian mounds in Madison are so thick, most of us pass by them from time to time on our way around town without much notice. Yet I’ve found when I stand close to these mounds and make an effort to keep myself still and present, I feel I’m at a focal point where land, water and sky coming together in a place outside of time. Learning about the mounds, I’ve found this may very well be exactly what their builders had in mind.
The mounds around Madison were built by an Native American civilization that preceded the Ho Chunk who lived in this area when European American settlers arrived. This mound builders had no writing, but left many pieces of their story behind in the form of artifacts–pottery, tools, human remains, and of course the mounds themselves. When archaeologists compare their civilization with other traditional cultures, they note that many cultures see the world in three layers: heaven/sky, everyday life/earth, and underworld/water. In striking ways, the mounds themselves reflect this model.
As soon as hunter/gatherers began forming a civilization, they started building burial mounds. In fact, archaeologists tell us that three important innovations came about at the same time: growing domesticated corn, hunting with bows and arrows, and building animal-shaped effigy mounds. (Corn, bowhunting, and funerals–just add beer, and you can definitely recognize Wisconsin!)
Many mounds were destroyed during Madison’s development, but remaining mounds feature common animals like bears, hawks, wolves, geese, and deer. Other animal shapes come from somewhere beyond the physical world, including mounds shaped like water spirits, thunderbirds, and one that seems to be a bird man. It’s interesting that the mound builders combined real and mythical animals in this way, and there are parallels in other cultures. For example, the four sacred animals of Tibetan Buddhism–tiger, snow lion, garuda (a man/bird) and a dragon–also combine the natural with the mythical.
Some Ho Chunk point out that the shapes we find in the mound parallel animal totems they still use to represent clans, and it is possible this was one significance of the mounds. In fact, many modern people still claim these same animals as personal totems. One thing that has always seemed strange to me is that we don’t see effigy mounds shaped like turtles, even though so many creation stories tell of the Earth growing on the back of a turtle. But maybe people started to notice that the ancient conical mounds, which were built for many centuries before the first identifiable animal mound, look very much like turtles. Likewise, early linear mounds at some point started showing curves and outlines that look very snakelike. From there, perhaps the practical, geometrical shapes of the early mounds evolved into totem animals.
There is no doubt that these mounds were part of a spiritual landscape. While some mounds contain human remains, others don’t, so that their only likely purpose was as a focus for worship and ceremony. Both the shape and alignment of the mounds are important to their elemental connections with sky, water and earth. Bird mounds are usually built in high places, as near as possible to the sky, while bear and deer mounds tend to occupy lower ground. We find many water spirit mounds near springs. Goose mounds seem to represent a coming together of sky and water; a typical goose mound is near a lake, showing the goose flying downhill towards the water. Often the goose wings are even a little bent, just as real geese fold their wings in as they come in for a water landing.
At the turn of the twentieth century, archaeologist Charles E. Brown studied the mounds, and at the same time got to know the Native Americans in the Madison area. (Indians still camped on the lakeshore here as late as 1910.) Among them he found many legends about the mounds:
Marl (a kind of chalky clay) was considered an especially spiritual mineral.* Near what is now Governor’s Island, many mounds were built on the bluffs overlooking a marl deposit under relatively deep water of Lake Mendota. People believed this marl bed was the home of underwater spirits, long-tailed creatures like the ones the mounds depicted. Before taking a canoe into these waters, it was best to offer some tobacco to these spirits.
At an even more ancient site just north of Lake Mendota, there is a conical mound and gravel formation regarded as the nest of a thunderbird. During storms, this mighty bird would leave its nest and fly over the lake, its wings sending down thunder and its eyes lightening. Anyone who’s ever watched a big storm blow in over Lake Mendota will have a good gut-level feeling for this legend.
A later legend concerns a group of conical mounds in what is now Eagle Heights. A spirit horse lived there, and was sometimes glimpsed through the haze on foggy days. This place was very sacred, and people would come there to fast and go on dream quests.
Standing near a mound, it can be hard to tell what shape they are from the ground. It’s as if they’re meant to be seen from above, though even if you climbed a tree and looked down, the shape of the earth would be obscured by grass, trees and other plants. It’s as if they were meant to be “seen from above,” but in a spiritual sense, not with our everyday eyes.
In the mounds that were used for burials, the objects archaeologists find in them tell us a lot about the people. For one thing, we find very few trade items or other status symbols. This points toward an egalitarian society, where wealth wasn’t measured by material goods. Some graves contain arrows or cooking pots–hardly exotic treasures. From this we may imagine a peaceful people who spent more time being grateful for what the Great Spirit gave them than striving for more possessions.
The mound-building culture came to an end around 1100, about the time we start to find signs of war–human bones showing arrow wounds, the building of fortifications, etc. Most likely this is not a coincidence.
* In sacred geometry, the molecular structure of marl exhibits ratios that make it an especially significant mineral. Early Native Americans can hardly be expected to know anything about this, but I love coming across these kinds of coincidences.
© Cathy Douglas, 2013. Much of the information used in this article came from Robert Birmingham’s wonderful book, Spirits of Earth, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.