Drowning, Poisoning, and the Dark Underworld. Meet the King of all Snakes, the wise Great Horned Serpent in Native American Cosmology

Drowning, Poisoning, and the Dark Underworld. Meet the King of all Snakes, the wise Great Horned Serpent in Native American Cosmology

Since longer than history can recall, the western mind has been locked in a pattern of dualistic thinking. In the course of our experiences, the world is defined by a series of opposites, which invade every avenue of perception. This is expressed by the collective in every aspect of western society, from our conceptions of our own psyche—which we divide into conscious and unconscious—to the political arena where we split into two supposedly-opposite groups competing for the control of national policies. Dualistic thinking is perhaps nowhere more ingrained and apparent than in the western concept of the divide between the material realm and the realm of the supernatural. Although we observe many faiths and traditions, and fancy ourselves sophisticated, westerners can sometimes harbor a permanent barrier or wall between the collective phenomena that we detect with our senses—the “material world”—and any concepts existing outside of those senses that require the power of belief, which are collectively assigned to the “spiritual” or “supernatural” world.

Knowledge of the Cosmos

This separation of the seen and unseen realms is utterly foreign to the cosmological view of the peoples known collectively as Native Americans and their distant ancestors. Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands region of the United States and Canada live in what may be called an inhabited universe.

Going back to at least the Late Archaic period (3000-1000 BC), the artifacts and artistry of ancient Americans from southern Ontario to the Gulf Coast depict a layered cosmos consisting of an Upper World, a Middle World, and an Underworld. The Upper World is the domain of the Thunderers, or Thunderbirds, and also the location of the ‘road of the dead’ or ‘river of stars’ (the Milky Way Galaxy), which the deceased must travel upon death to reach the realm of the dead.


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