Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Waterspirit

Some strange petroglyphs were recorded in 1673 by a French missionary named Father Marquette:

"While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspire awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf: they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three colors composing the picture."

These figures, alas, disappeared and no drawings or photographs survived, if, indeed, any were made. By 1838 only one figure was left, and in 1847 the entire rock face was removed for use as construction material.

After years of research on these effigies, I would propose that this strange image described hundreds of years ago is of the Fort Ancient culture "Waterspirit." (view videos here)

Waterspirits were said to rule the underworld and were not inherently bad or good but could be either or, depending on the circumstances. As a result, offerings were reported to be given to the waterspirits by lakes and rivers where the ancients believed they were and demanded respect in the form of offerings.

“Waterspirits can be very dangerous, creating whirlpools that have sucked under many a canoe. In the deep water off Governor's Island in Lake Mendota, there lay a den of Waterspirits who caused great disturbances in the water and overturned canoes. The Waterspirit of Green Lake created whirlpools by swirling her arms up. Those who did not make the proper offerings, would be sucked under.” Charles Edward Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place Legends (Madison: Works Progress Administration, Wisconsin, 1936)

Although we find many references to Waterspirits in Wisconsin, we actually have evidence of this same belief system at work in Pennsylvania.


Interestingly, this particular Waterspirit shows it's "lifeline" that reaches his heart - which usually is on petroglyphs of hunted beasts and thought to illustrate the hope on the hunter's part to kill the beast. More on that in a bit...

It is important to remember that Waterspirits can (and usually do) assume the shape and form of an animal and even humans, but have their own distinctive theriomorphic shape, (that which was described so clearly above by Marquette,) having a nearly human face, antlers, a scaly body or an endless tail which from my own research is usually drawn in a spiral shape or long and straight. This makes it hard sometimes to pick out a Waterspirit from another form made out of earth or in a petroglyph so long ago - that is, until you realize that if the form is meant to show an animal with Waterspirit mixed with it, there will always be a feature of the waterspirit that you can identify clearly, such as the horns or the spiraled or elongated tail or both.

Another important note is that all of these petroglyphs and mounds have the same style in which they are depicted. In other words....mounds are drawn as full body outlines with very little drawn inside them, the petroglyphs are drawn the same and could actually be thought to be drawings of the mounds themselves- as opposed to stick figures or highly detailed or ornate drawings.

For example, the great Serpent Mound in Ohio which is a serpent with horns and a spiraled tail. The mound is 1/4 of a mile long and is credited to the same Fort Ancient culture that made many effigy mounds in the region for its creation.

There is one specific animal that the waterspirit seems to have been "merged" with more than any other however, and that was a panther.

"There is another representation of one that has a strangely feline appearance, looking like a panther in the fore parts, but having a huge serpentine tail that can wrap round an entire hill. " - Richard L. Dieterle, University of Minnesota,(

Mound Shapes

On a handful of a occasions, we also have evidence of the waterspirit seemingly merging with a man. Such is the case with those Man Mounds in Sauk County, Wisconsin. I would suggest when merged with a man, that it could very well be that they are representing a medicine-man or shaman who had the powers of this spirit. Whatever the intent, the powers of the Waterspirit are clearly represented.

(Picture made available by The Sauk County Historical Society, Wisocnsin)

(Picture made available by The Sauk County Historical Society, Wisconsin)

And that is also the case for those petroglyph "matches" found on the Susquehanna River:

On a side note: When looking at the petroglyphs at Safe Harbor, I must add that both horned men clearly are making motions of raising or lowering their arms...

"The Waterspirit of Green Lake created whirlpools by swirling her arms up. Those who did not make the proper offerings, would be sucked under.” Charles Edward Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place Legends (Madison: Works Progress Administration, Wisconsin, 1936)

I would suggest then that the petroglyphs were made in a way to portray the wish that that the waters be calmed by the waterpirit/men, or that people should be aware that the waterspirit is making rough waters and that an offering is needed....

The Fort Ancients believed that the Waterspirit had an enemy that was never far away, that was said to hunt the waterspirit and eat of it's flesh. This was the Thunderbird. Although the Thunderbird is a popular creature of many belief systems in North America, when it is shown with a Waterspirit counterpart and in the design we have described, I would propose that it is being used as a part of the Fort Ancient belief system.

"It is one of the old traditions that when the Thunder Birds or Winaxí first appeared, they lit fires (by lightning) somewhat indiscriminately, striking everything they came across, even to the Waktcéxi or Spirits of the Water and Under Earth, whom they kill and eat of -- that is the Indians say whenever the lightning kills or blasts anything, they "eat it"; ... that is the substance is extracted and taken up. They say that whenever a hill is struck by lightning ... it is because a Waktcéxi is concealed under it (that is in its water-springs) whom the Thunders thus kill and eat." Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2,: p. 3, col.3, quoting the interpreter Menaige (ca. 1850).

In fact continuing with this opposing force/balance theme - we can see that just as there are Waterspirits merged with men, we also find Thunderbirds merged with men as well:

Mounds in Wisconsin
(click to enlarge above image to read chart)
*note the reference to BIRDMEN
by Sauk County Historical Society

Furthermore, when we take a closer look, we can see that the wherever the Thunderbird or its powers are represented- the Waterspirit or their powers were believed to have existed and vice versa.

Using this thought process, if we look closer at that same Waterspirit that was found at Parker's Landing in PA above, we see that the Thunderbird images are all around the Waterspirit, and as a result the lifeline/hunting motif seems to be very fitting. This petroglyph taken in context again with being on rocks right along a stream that could have had made travel dangerous seems to send a clear message that the artist(s) were calling for a "calming of the waters" for safe passage.


As I continue to study the mounds and the petroglyphs of the Waterspirits and the Thunderbirds, I have come to believe that there was a "balancing act" that was being used in these works. By this I mean that if the ancient travellers were in fear of dangerous waters, they would try to level out the strong power of the Waterspirit by using the opposing force, the Thunderbird, causing a sort of balance. Thus the more Thunderbirds depicted on the rock, the greater the power of the Waterspirit they were trying to balance out.

Using this theory I have looked at many mounds and petroglyphs over the past few years and without failure it seems that this formula to create balance seems to be in practice as opposed to the popular belief that these images were created to honor any specific spirit or god.

For example - the largest Thunderbird mounds that I know of can be found at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, adjacent to Governor's Island on Lake Mendota...

“Waterspirits can be very dangerous, creating whirlpools that have sucked under many a canoe. In the deep water off Governor's Island in Lake Mendota, there lay a den of Waterspirits who caused great disturbances in the water and overturned canoes"- Charles Edward Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place Legends (Madison: Works Progress Administration, Wisconsin, 1936)

This also seems to have been done in reverse at the great Serpent Mound in Ohio. This mound is placed on a place probably believed to have been VERY strong in Sky Spirit (Thunderbird) since it was built in a huge jut of land that was thrown up into the air after an impact of a meteorite. Thus - if this piece of land were the place where lightening often struck or was believed to be the cause of storms, tornadoes, and other sky-related dangers to the ancients, they very might well have placed the huge horned serpent with a coiled tail on this place in hopes to create a balance that would make their lives more safe.

I could go on - but now that you have the information, I would suggest that you take this and try it out for yourself when trying to explain these motifs that include a Waterspirit and Thunderbird in them and see if it helps you to understand what these pieces of art from so long ago were trying to say.

Questions that still remain:
The tribe referred to as the Winnebagos by the earl
y Europeans in Wisconsin and presently who refer to themselves as "Ho-Chunk"- are said to be the relatives of the Fort Ancient culture who made the great effigy mounds in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Illinois. Although I cannot say that they founded the belief of the waterspirit and the thunderbirds - I can tell you that it is deeply imbedded in their belief system. As you look at the Winnebago clan circle - you will find the thunderbird clan at the top as well as the waterspirit clan at the bottom.

You can also find the Waterspirit and Thunderbird heavily represented in their region not only in the effigy mounds, but in their legends as well:

I have to believe that the same Fort Ancient Culture must have made the petroglyphs in PA as well. However, very little is known about the people that lived in PA and along the Susquehanna River prior to the Susquehannocks. Still more is unknown about the relationships, trade routes, and reach that a culture such as the Fort Ancients must have had as represented by petroglyphs and mounds that are identical yet over 1,000 miles apart.

I invite you to send me your thoughts on this posting as I realize that it is something that has never been reported before that I am aware of and believe that we all can bring even more research together and possibly find even more associations and important things to share.

We at SRAC consider it our mission to continue to research our prehistory, to share what we know publicly, and to invite others to join the conversation.

It's OUR history, don't let it fade away.

SRAC's 5th Annual DrumBeats Through Time is on October 25, 2008!

Mark Your Calendars! SRAC's 5th Annual DrumBeats Through Time is on October 25, 2008! download flier here

11:30 – 1PM 2008 SRAC Annual Membership Luncheon
SRAC members and invited guests only can attend this special meeting lead by the leaders of SRAC where updates on current projects and goals for the coming year will be shared. A private tour of the building and first look at the special collections of the event will follow in this very personalized portion of our event for our supporters. Lunch will be provided.


1:30 – 2:30PM “Flowers for the Dead: New Research into the World of the
Hopewell Moundbuilder Culture.” by Dr. DeeAnne Wymer, Bloomsburg University
Using traces of organic and other unusual materials preserved in association with ceremonial copper burial objects, Dr. Wymer will give the audience an intimate view of the ceremonies of the ancient Hopewell Moundbuilder culture. Simply a breathtaking presentation!

3 – 4PM “Buffalo Creek“ Native Indian Dancers!
The Village of Waverly has agreed have the street closed down for this very special opportunity for the community to learn and enjoy the dance and culture of these authentic Seneca Native Indian dancers!

“DrumBeats Through Time” is held at SRAC at 345 Broad Street Waverly, NY and is Free to the Public!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Monday Sept 15th - All About Our Gridstone and Others Found at Mound Sites

SRAC and the Andaste Chapter of PA Archaeology will be holding their joint meeting on Monday Sept 15th and Deb Twigg, executive director of SRAC will be presenting all the theories about the Gridstone found below Spanish Hill that she has been able to find from other research done on these stones.

This meeting is open and free to the public to attend!

Come and be a part of the research and discussion! (This one could really be a BIGGIE.)

Collectors are always invited to bring pieces from their collections to share and discuss!

Hope to see you there!