Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Serpent Mound–Ohio’s Mysterious Effigy

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

The ancients achieved amazing feats of engineering with the most basic tools and techniques, leaving structures that their descendants would puzzle over for centuries to come. Many such structures come readily to mind—Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the Nazca Lines are just three of the most famous.

However, the building of such structures is not often associated with the Native Americans of North America, with the exception of the massive pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous tribes of what is now the United States did engage in massive projects that could rival even those of the Old World. One of these massive structures is located in Adams County, Ohio. Dubbed the Serpent Mound, the huge effigy remains an enigma to this day.

The Serpent Mound is one of hundreds of mounds built by Native American tribes in Ohio. Most mounds are conical structures used to bury and memorialize the dead, while some of the more massive mounds are effigy mounds, meant to be representations in earth of various animals. The Serpent Mound is among the largest and best preserved of these effigy mounds. Measuring 1330 feet in length and 3 feet in height, the mound is a depiction of an undulating snake with a curled tail, possibly with its jaws open to swallow an egg. There is some dispute as to what the effigy is meant to depict, with some claiming it is not a serpent at all but rather a stylized depiction of a comet streaking through the sky. This is indeed an interesting interpretation, since there is a meteor crater nearby, but no one knows for sure.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

“No one knows for sure,” is a phrase that seems to hover over the Serpent Mound, an effigy shrouded in mystery. Even its age is in dispute. When archaeologist Frederic Putnam studied the mound in the late 19th century, he found nothing in the mound itself that revealed who made it or why. However, conical mounds situated nearby contained artifacts belonging to the Adena culture, who lived in the area from 800 BCE to 100CE. So, Putnam concluded that the site was the work of the Adena. However, evidence uncovered in 1991 disputed this age when radiocarbon dating performed on charcoal found within the mound found it to be only 900 years old. This evidence suggested that the presence of the Adena mounds nearby was happenstance, and the earthwork really was the work of the so-called Fort Ancient culture, who lived in the area from 1000CE to 1500CE. But this finding was itself overturned when a study performed in 2014 found new radio carbon dates suggesting the effigy was constructed around 300 CE, putting it firmly within the time period of the Adena culture.

So which age is right? It is difficult to tell, and more work is needed to pin point the age of the Serpent Mound as closely as possible. However, the difference in the two dates could stem from maintenance performed by later tribes who continued to utilize the site after the Adena passed into history. So, it is possible that the Fort Ancient peoples rebuilt sections of the mound, leaving behind charcoal remnants that were found by the 1991 study.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

If this is the case, it might explain the age of the effigy but it leaves many other questions. Why did the Adena build the mound in the first place, and what is it meant to represent? Clearly the mound served a ceremonial purpose rather than that of a burial place. Curves in the structure show different alignments with the sun, such as with the summer and winter solstices. Could the mound be a sort of gigantic calendar, meant to help Adena and later priests track the motions of the sky? And if it was ceremonial, what sorts of ceremonies were conducted there? These questions might never be answered, as the builders left no written language explaining their thinking. All that remains is the earthwork they left behind, a silent enigma among the green hills of southern Ohio.

 

Author’s Note: The photographs included in this post were taken by me when I visited the Serpent Mound in 2010. I wanted to include a bit about my own feelings and thoughts from visiting the site. Some report visiting this particular mound as a spiritual experience–in fact, I accidentally interrupted a very nice woman who was meditating on the site, who said it gave off good “energy.” I had no such feelings myself, but I did find myself in awe when I was standing up on the observation tower, visualizing the Adena using little more rudimentary tools to transport the dirt and build the mound. Keep in mind, they didn’t have the wheel nor beasts of burden. Everything they built was with sheer manpower. This must have been an extremely important site to warrant such an output of blood and sweat. The Serpent Mound had the feel of the sacred, and it is a unique experience I am glad to have had.

 

Sources:

https://www.ohiohistory.org/visit/museum-and-site-locator/serpent-mound

http://ancientearthworksproject.org/1/post/2014/07/new-radiocarbon-dates-suggest-serpent-mound-is-more-than-2000-years-old.html

http://archive.archaeology.org/9611/newsbriefs/serpentmound.html

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of the Mad King, Ludwig II of Bavaria

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria --- Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.

Among history’s most famous and tragic idealists is King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne. Soon after, he died under bizarre circumstances, the exact cause of his death remaining a mystery even 130 years later.

 

Upbringing and early life

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II was born August 1845 to Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia. The royal couple were aloof with Ludwig and his brother Otto. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else. Despite this restrictive environment, Ludwig II showed early that he had a vivid imagination. He enjoyed playing dress up, play acting, and loved art. He was generous with his possessions as well. Ludwig tended to keep to himself, and already was beginning to see himself as a divine sovereign. These traits would shape and define Ludwig for the rest of his life.

In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.

But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.

 

Castles, madness, and the death of a king

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.

He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry.  He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.

A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.

However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well.  The Bavarian government intervened in 1885. He was declared insane and deposed from the throne. The former king was interned in Berg Palace while the government decided what to do with him. Only a day later, Ludwig II was found floating in the lake, dead, along with this psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden.

 

What happened to the Mad King?

Ludwig II’s death was a mystery from day one. The king, who was a strong swimmer, was found floating in waist deep water. The Bavarian government claimed that the king had killed himself by drowning, and his psychiatrist ad died trying to save him. Few have bought this explanation, given the king’s piety. Many believe he was murdered by an assassin. Some fishermen on the lake claimed they heard gun shots that day, along with his psychiatrist who witnessed the killing. In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, but the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.

 

Sources:

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” neuschwanstein.de. 3/6/16. Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlosser Garten und Seen. http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/ludwig/biography.htm

 

Paterson, Tony. “Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig.” Independent.co.uk. 11/9/2007. Independent. 3/6/16. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/murder-mystery-of-mad-king-ludwig-399742.html

 

“The Death of King Ludwig II.” Lib.cam.ac.uk. 2009-2011. University of Cambridge. 3/6/16. http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/german/spotlight4.html