By Sarah Farmer
Our ‘civilization’ has attempted to remove anything and everything that could possibly cause danger, distress, or discomfort. We are too safe, but on purpose.
We are domesticating ourselves out of existence.
Radiating cellphones mindlessly plug the right hands of billions across the world. Our feet no longer touch the earth, our eyes no longer behold the skies, our minds now never contemplate anything other than a menu screen or a bank account, and our hearts are now diseased and atrophied.
We eat inside, sleep inside, work inside, exercise inside, and spend (probably for most of us) over 80% of our lives INSIDE.
When was the last time you got stung by bee? Felt the cold rain start pouring down on your shoulders? Went without air conditioning in the hot summer sun? Got your feet muddy? When was the last time you lived an entire day without checking to see what ‘time’ it was? Or who texted you? Enjoyed a nap or entire night’s sleep outside? When was the last time you traveled somewhere you wished to go, on foot?
By Jason Jarrell
There is a type of powerful interaction that can occur between the mind of the observer and the artifacts and traditions of cultures both ancient and living. In this moment, the observer actually experiences the realization of the cosmological concept embodied in the object or tradition under analysis. This is different from the usual outcome of anthropology as it is usually practiced today, where the artifacts and mythologies of the world are simply catalogued and then attributed to some construct of the categorical western mind, such as “culture” or “tribe”. Realization is itself a form of experience, and the two usually travel united. The “transcendence” of Transcendental Anthropology is therefore the realization and experience of the meaning of a symbol, myth, or belief. The creative step, which follows realization, is an attempt to somehow communicate the resulting insights into some form of art, usually literature.
One of the greatest American Transcendental Anthropologists was Alfred Hallowell, although his work is today subsumed under the category of “Psychological Anthropology” in academia. Hallowell’s brilliant, insightful work on the Algonquian tribes represents one of the essential building blocks of modern American anthropology. But what is often missed is that the source of Hallowell’s brilliance was not in his method of observation, but rather his ability to subjectively experience the world and its inhabitants as the Indians did, and therefore to understand the very empirical elements behind their world view.
A Transcendental Anthropologist needs no degree, although those who view the indigenous world through this lens usually do hold some official credentials. There is no expensive permission slip for engaging in the process, and the only necessary prerequisites are a desire for experience and a will to communicate. What makes a Transcendental Anthropologist stand out is usually their propensity for groundbreaking work. Non-anthropologists have also approached the fold. The stay can be brief or it can become a lifelong pursuit for casual explorers, who are often driven by some creative need. Their output, too, can and often does capture powerful insights.
To summarize, as an experience, Transcendental Anthropology is a moment when the worldview of an ancient or existing culture is taken on by the anthropologist. Stepping in to the paradigm represented by a particular set of cultural artifacts and mythology, the observer may obtain a type of first hand understanding by analyzing the cosmology from within. As a process, Transcendental Anthropology encompasses the act of articulating the insights the observer has gained from experiencing the cosmology under study.
In some ways, this type of anthropological inquiry becomes a form of shamanism: the researcher “visits” the world or perspective of the subject and then attempts to articulate or communicate what he (or she) has learned for the enhancement of human knowledge and awareness. The Transcendental Anthropologist visits the Olympus of cosmology and attempts to bottle some of the eternal, archetypal fire which burns there and return with it to the world of mortals.
by Jason Jarrell & Sarah Farmer
Located south of Baraboo in Sauk County Wisconsin, Devil’s Lake is a place of natural wonder and legend. The central feature of the biggest State Park in Wisconsin, Devil’s Lake covers 360 acres, surrounded by quartzite bluffs reaching 500 feet in height. In 1832, a French agent of the American Fur Company named John de La Ronde visited the lake and noted that it was the echo effect of the bluffs and the “darkness of the place” which inspired the French Voyageurs to use the name Devil’s Lake(Butterfield 1880). La Ronde also mentioned an older, indigenous tradition: “The Indians gave it the name of Holy Water, declaring that there is a spirit or Manitou that resides there. I saw a quantity of tobacco…deposited there for the Manitou” (Butterfield 1880: 396).
The quartzite bluffs surrounding this deceptively serene lake are of a unique composition, rendering it with intriguing purple and maroon streaks, which is caused by high concentrations of iron and hematite. This form of quartz is so unique to this region of Wisconsin that it has been named ‘Baraboo Quartz’.
The “Indians” who considered the lake sacred were the Siouan speaking Ho-Chunk people, and their beliefs concerning the lake were part of an ancient and widespread cosmological model of the Eastern Woodlands, the Great Lakes, and the Plains.
Ancient Model of the Cosmos
The model consists of a tiered or layered cosmos comprised of three basic “worlds”. The Sky World is the region above, where birds and flying things live. It is also the habitation of the great Thunderbirds, the stars, the sun and moon, and the creator. The Earth World is the domain of mankind, plants, animals, and natural features. It could be called “our world” or the world of the living. The Earth World is a flat island or disk situated upon—and surrounded by—a primordial sea. The third world is the Underworld, a vast water filled region immediately beneath the Earth World. This Underworld is the home of fish, snakes, and aquatic animals. It is also the domain of the Great Serpent and his minions. These powerful beings often enter the Earth World through natural springs, rivers, and lakes, which are connected to the Underworld oceans by a system of caverns.
Characteristics of the Great Serpent
The Great Serpent manifests in a multiplicity of forms, which fall between two extremes: a gigantic horned snake and a hybrid of feline and serpent features usually known as the Underwater Panther (Lankford 2007). He is also known to be the ruler or Ogimaa(“boss”) of a race of beings of similar form (Ibid). The Great Serpent exerts a deadly influence upon the Earth World. Emerging through natural waterways, the Great Serpent destroys human beings with drowning, floods, and other calamities, including disease. The Underworld powers are also known to kidnap children and infants. The Great Serpent is also considered a source of powerful magic or medicine, which can give victory in the hunt, warfare, love, and curing or cursing individuals or entire populations (Smith 1995). One of the most commonly cited benefits of allying with the Underworld ruler is long life. Among the Anishnaabeg peoples of the northeast, medicine men that deal with the Underworld serpents are often considered practitioners of “bad medicine” (Smith 1995).
Enemies of the Great Serpents
The Thunderbirds of the Sky World wage an endless war upon the denizens of the Underworld. As the Great Serpents or Panthers emerge from beneath, the Thunderbirds bring down lightning and fire upon them. The Thunderers also seize their enemies and carry them into the air, tearing them to pieces. As such, the Thunderbirds are considered the allies and helpers of mankind, and are treated with great respect by Native American peoples (Smith 1995). Their war against the serpents is essential to human survival on the Earth Disk:
“As the elder brothers of the Indians, the thunderers are always active in their behalf, slaying the evil snakes from the underworld whenever they dare to appear on the surface. If they did not do this these snakes would overrun the earth, devouring mankind” (Skinner 1913: 77).
According to a Ho-Chunk account recorded by Folklorist Dorothy Brown (1948:14), a major battle in this ongoing war was fought at Devil’s Lake:
“A quarrel once arose between the water spirits, or underwater panthers, who had a den in the depths of Devil’s Lake, and the Thunderbirds…The great birds, flying high above the lake’s surface, hurled their eggs (arrows or thunderbolts) into the waters and on the bluffs. The water monsters threw up great rocks and water-spouts from the bottom of the lake.”
The Conflict at Devils Lake
The Ho-Chunk tradition has it that the battle resulted in the cracked and jagged rocky surfaces of the bluffs surrounding the lake. Although the Thunderbirds were ultimately victorious, “The water spirits were not all killed and some are in Devil’s Lake to this day” (Brown 1948: 15). According to Native informants interviewed by Thomas George (1885), long ago a Ho-Chunk man fasted and prayed on the shores of the lake until one of the water spirits, “resembling a cat…with long tail and horns” rose from beneath the water and granted him the promise of long life. Brown (1948: 15) also notes that the historic Native Americans made “offerings to the spirits of this lake, by depositing tobacco on boulders on the shore or by strewing it on the water.” Historic Indians of the Great Lakes region made tobacco offerings to the Underworld spirits before water voyages in the hope of appeasing them and guaranteeing a safe voyage (Smith 1995). The Ottawa made similar offerings to “the evil spirit, whose habitation was under the water…this was sacrificed to the evil spirit, not because they loved him, but to appease his wrath” (Blackbird 1887: 79).
Saunders (1946) recorded a Ho-Chuck legend in which a water spirit melted the ice and formed the channels of the Wisconsin Dells. This water spirit also formed all of the wild game and trees of the region from its own body before diving into a bottomless pit beneath Devil’s Lake. This particular water spirit was a seven headed, green serpent entity, which demanded that the Ho-Chunk sacrifice their most beautiful girls to him as offerings. One year the water spirit demanded that the daughter of the chief be sacrificed, prompting a hero named River Child to secretly conspire with an old woman to raise an army to fight the serpent. River Child had been told by Spirit Fish to strike at the left eye of the monster’s center head, apparently its one weakness. On the day of the sacrifice the secret army attacked, and River Child tricked the beast into his net. He then plunged his knife into the left eye of the center head, killing the water spirit. River Child then married the chief’s daughter and the two founded “Old River Bottom” village.
The Ho-Chunk legends of the Thunderers and Underworld powers at Devil’s Lake are rooted in the prehistoric past. Around 1,000 years ago, the Effigy Mound Culture, which spanned roughly 700 to 1100 AD, constructed several mounds around Devil’s Lake. On the southeastern shore of the lake, the ancients constructed a 150 foot long bird effigy with a forked tail, described by Birmingham & Rosebrough (2017:226) as “combining characteristics of a bird and a human being.” In the traditions of the Algonquian and Siouan tribes, the Thunderbirds often assume the forms of human beings. They are often said to become winged men wielding bows, which fire lightning arrows in their conflict with the Underworld serpents. Interestingly, Birmingham & Rosebrough (2017:226-227) point out that a group of effigy mounds along the northern area of Devils Lake represent spirit entities “from the opposing lower world and include a bear, an unidentified animal, and a once-huge water spirit or panther.” The bear is another animal often connected to the Underworld in northeastern cosmology. For example, the Menomini Indians considered the actual ruler of the Underworld to be a Great White Bear (Bloomfield 1928).
Obviously, the ancient mounds of Devil’s Lake align with the same cosmological belief system expressed in the Ho-Chunk traditions regarding the area, which could very well represent a continuity extending back in time to the Effigy Mound Culture. While the theory is by no means universally accepted, there have been many professional researchers who consider the Ho-Chunk to be among the actual biological descendants of the Effigy Mound builders (Green 2014).
Dr. William Romain (2015) has suggested that mound builders of the Eastern Woodlands chose locations, which inspired emotion and awe in the context of the ancient cosmology to build their monuments. The dark depths and the rocky bluffs of Devil’s Lake, where even sunlight seems restricted, would certainly have created an atmosphere ripe with spirit.
The mythic associations of Devil’s Lake would appear to have been widely known long before the raising of the Effigy Mounds. Boszhardt (2006) has reported a large Hopewell monitor pipe found in southeastern Minnesota, which bears etchings of horned lizard-like creatures and long tailed Underwater Panthers. The smoking pipe is made of Baraboo pipestone from one of the outcrops near Devil’s Lake (Birmingham & Rosebrough 2017: 100). The Hopewell mound building culture usually dates to between 100 BC and around 500 AD. Thus, the Devil’s Lake locality may have been considered a dwelling of the Underworld spirits for well over a millennium before the first Westerners entered the region.
Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America: http://www.lulu.com/shop/jason-jarrell-and-sarah-farmer/ages-of-the-giants/paperback/product-23458418.html
(all photos from Wikimedia commons)
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2017. Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, Second Edition, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
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