San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

May 20th, 2009
Scholars examine Native American symbolism

Morning Star, also known as Birdman, is an Ancient American diety from the Mississippian Era.


Scholars expect to unlock significant secrets of Native American symbolism when they meet at Texas State May 27-31 for the 16th annual Mississippian Iconographic Workshop.

“We’re on the cusp of making major discoveries about the nature of the Native American political and ethnic geography of the lower south between A.D. 1300 and 1400 (Mississippian period),” said Kent Reilly, director of Texas State’s Center for the Arts and Symbolism of Ancient America, the workshop sponsor.  “We’re right there. This year’s workshop should be really exciting.”

The archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, folklorists and Native religious practitioners who attend the annual workshop are known in several academic circles as the San Marcos School of Iconographic Interpretation. They are interested in identifying ancient Native American symbols as a way to reconstruct the Mississippians’ ritual activities, cosmological vision and ideology, and to return this lost information to Native Americans.

In the 16 years since the scholars began meeting, they have identified several deities and at least 12 sets of other symbols. Two key identifications have been the deities Morning Star and the Great Serpent. Morning Star, also known as Birdman, is a hawk-like figure that brings up the sun from the Beneath World each dawn.  Morning Star is associated with everlasting life, and rulers at ceremonial sites in Illinois and Georgia seem to have taken on Morning Star’s divine identity.

In contrast to Morning Star is the Great Serpent — sometimes depicted as a winged and horned serpent and at other times as an underwater panther with a snake-like body — that lives in the Beneath World and in the sky. The Great Serpent is associated with the realm of the dead and, as scholars began to discover in the 2008 workshop, with a distinct cultural area stretching from central Louisiana into Mississippi and from Baton Rouge to Memphis.

Also emerging from the 2008 workshop was evidence that key ceremonial sites in Moundville, AL, and Etowah, GA, were not friendly with each other.

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