Articles

THE HORNED WATER SERPENT BOWLS

 

The stories probably began in the prehistoric period and continued as the European explorers began to overwhelm the continent beginning in the sixteenth century AD.  Many of the natives, who lived in the eastern half of the country that would eventually become the United States, perpetuated the stories with their beliefs in a fabled creature with several names.  Some Indian groups supposedly used the titles Cat Monster or Cat Serpent for this supernatural being while others preferred to call it the Great Serpent.  Additional bands called the mythical beastie Underwater Panther and many applied the designation Great Horned Water Panther or Horned Water Serpent.  The Cherokee and Creek nations favored the word Uktena for this water living imaginary demon and factions along the riverine systems in the upper and central midwest dubbed the supposed being as a Paisa.  But regardless of the name, the natives who lived in the latter part of the Mississippian Cultural Period, or circa AD 1400 to 1700, constructed ceramic vessels to acknowledge and worship this Manitou or natural spirit of depravity but occasionally goodness.  These vessels are, today, known as the Horned Water Serpent Bowls.

 

No one, today, realistically knows when the ancient American people conjured up this critter.  It is believed that the superstition began as early as 1,000 BC but that is just guesswork based on the words of the Indians who talked to the early Spanish/English adventurers in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries AD.  All these words, though, were only passed-along oral histories since the natives had no written languages at that time.  Based upon these verbal tales along with actual effigy pottery and etchings made on shell and stone, the descriptions of this giant heathen monster amalgamation came into being.  Apparently all the ancient Indian peoples, regardless of whether they resided along the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, the Georgia coastline or anywhere between, had basically the same understandings, beliefs and portrayals of this deity.  It was generally described as a very large and lengthy snake-like creature with wings on the back and horns on its head.   But that is a rather simplistic description since each regional clan had differences in their explanations and narratives of the supposed immortal.   But most do feature horns or stubby antlers atop a snakes head, though not all have these bony extrusions.  Certain groups believed this serpent was a celestial god while the majority of these ancient people reputedly accepted it to be an underwater or Underworld deity.  The general sectarian opinion seemed to be that there was evil underwater, whether in lakes or streams or deep in watery caves and the Horned Water Serpent could keep the wickedness in check, if the people stimulated it to do so.  Or it could unleash the maliciousness onto the human population if it was not accepted and treated as a supreme being.

 

We will probably never know just when or how the tales of this leviathan were begun but the cultural shamans or priests along with the regional kings probably had much to do with propagating the myths.  For eons, around the world, society leaders have conjured up stories of devils or dragons or demons so as to gain control over their uneducated subjects.  And there are no reasons to believe that the ancient Americans did not do likewise.  By dreaming up this large and fearsome serpent-like apparition and convincing the general populace that it actually existed, the communal principals could have gained supreme authority.  If the priests and monarch wanted most of a township population to work the cornfields, they would have only to convince the villagers that the titanic water serpent commanded it be done.  And three hundred or more years ago, the natives probably believed this.  Even today, many modern and enlightened humans are both transfixed by and fear the unknown.  Do ghosts really exist?  Is Bigfoot an actual entity?  Can fifty feet long constrictors be found?  Did ancient outer space aliens visit our planet?  Then imagine how the American people felt hundreds of years ago.  The ethnic leaders could have exercised some controls over the ordinary citizens by regulating economic goods and services but they could have really directed the lives of the average man and woman by creating fear of the unknown.  And then by convincing the populace that they, the rulers, could control this unknown, complete dominance could have been theirs.

 

As the American Indians moved past the Archaic into the Woodland Period, they began living in permanent villages usually adjacent to a good water source such as a river or large stream.  They began to make usable vessels from fired clay, beginning over four thousand years ago, in the coastal southeast and the craft rapidly moved inland.  These early ceramic pots would have been very simple and used only for cooking and eating but as time evolved and as the skill of making pottery advanced, the natives began creating more elaborate designs.  The Hopewell Cultural artisans along the Ohio River basin became masters at depicting their everyday observed birds and animals in ceramic and stone art.  As the years again passed, the natives further south developed the highly religious Southeast Ceremonial Complex Culture and they continued to make art objects depicting the natural world in shell, stone and ceramics.  These articles included lifelike frogs, fish, turtles, birds and humans but they also began making combinations of animals and people into single artistic units.  These zoomorphic and anthropomorphic design combos are often almost impossible for us to understand today.   They apparently were made as mixtures of supposed living creatures into single imaginative elements.  And one of those strange compositions is the ancient horned water serpent.

 

Many of these vessels, regardless of where found, are reasonably identical in form.  They are composed of circular or oval shaped bowls with relatively short sides.  Mounted on the rims of opposite vessel sides are appliques in the form of the tail of a snake and the head of a zoomorphic animal.  The body of this mythical monster is the plain bowl itself but it is the head and tail that are important.  Some archaeologists and collectors choose to refer to the head as a cat or puma or panther and it often does seem to be of the feline form.  Considerable written texts, today, do state that these vessels are “cat-serpent” bowls but that is probably not correct.   The stylistic heads and the coiled tails on these pots would have originally been meant to represent the leading and following ends of the water serpent immortals with the heads having modeled or incised eyes, mouths and noses.  There are often projections on the top of the head that vaguely resemble a cat’s ears, which is why certain people choose to refer to the vessel sculptures as grimalkins.  But if one studies the narratives of the ancient natives and the bowls themselves, it will be realized that these protuberances were most likely meant to be the boney head growths of the legendary horned water serpent god.  Certain of these vessel heads have forked tongues exiting the open mouth but others feature no such muscular organs.  Or are these not tongues but instead replications of flames from the mouth of a fire breathing dragon-like creature?  Particular ones are modeled with sharp and vicious appearing fangs while their counterparts are completely toothless. A goodly number of the heads on these bowls are clearly engraved with the inverted V shaped facial markings as described by the Indians to the initial European explorers – those descriptive markings being reminiscent of the dark feather streaks on the face of the peregrine falcon.  This is, today, commonly called the “weeping eye motif” since the engravings appear to be watery tears flowing down the face from the animal’s eyes.  Directly on the opposite side of the bowl, from the head, is a long and usually loop coiled modeling that is easily construed to be a serpent’s tail.  And the tip of the tail may or may not have simulations of a rattlesnakes type rattles.  There are not any facsimiles of the water monster’s wings since the hollow bowl serves as the body of the serpent thus allowing no place for these feathery factions.  Some few of these vessels have been found that are in a tetrapodal (having four legs) bottle or jar form but very few.  Many, if not most, of the Horned Water Monster vessels are finished with highly burnished surfaces called Bell Plain greyware but a meager quantity are coated with Old Town Red or Nodena Red and White clay paint slips.  And most seem to have unadorned and simple polished exterior surfaces but a neligible few exhibit carved finishes such as Rhodes Incising or Walls Engraving.  A large percentage of the bowl rims are plain while some have treatments called “piecrust rims” being named that because of the resemblance to the crimped edges of modern fruit pies.  This decoration method was probably done by the potter using chipped gravers or fingernails or a small stick while the shaped vessel clay was still slightly damp and pliable.  A small number of these bowls feature a swastika, which was an ancient design element composed of a cross with four equal right angle arms.  They were often engraved on the backside of the head and the current belief is that this motif represented the dark and dreary Underworld or Beneath World.  A small number of these monster bowls have hollow serpent heads inside of which are tiny pebbles that rattle when the vessel is moved or shaken.  Even more rare patterns have small modeled birds and animals, such as ducks or rabbits, on the rim of the vessel directly opposite the head.  This motif, which replaces the serpent tail, is commonly called the “tail rider” form.          

 

  The population of the American Indians probably numbered in the millions during the few centuries before and immediately after the Europeans began exploring this country a few hundred years ago, and they would have made tens of millions of common utilitarian clay pots.  These water god/monster ceramic vessels, though, were probably ceremonial, not utilitarian, and are, today, very uncommon.  They were made and used primarily from modern day Arkansas east to Georgia and north into Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri and mainly during the AD 1400 to 1700 time period.  Regardless of whether you wish to believe the vessels symbolize a snake or a cat, this writer tends to accept the natives belief that they symbolize the sacred but really non-existent water living serpent deity.  And because of their religious convictions, many Indian ceramists constructed similar renditions of the rare and beautiful Horned Water Serpent Bowls.

 

REFERENCES:



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Maus, James E.                                                                                   2005

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Morse, Dan F. & Phyllis A. Morse                                                       1983

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O’Brien, Michael J.                                                                             1994

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Reilly, F. Kent III & James E. Garber                                                   2007

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