Culture Magazine

Southern Death Cult: Data & Meaning

By Cris

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s piece on America’s ancient cave art has prompted some thinking — always the sign of good writing. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Here are some of the things that have me cogitating:

Simek the Scientist v. Reilly the Symbolist

This is not a lawsuit — it is the tension that Sullivan establishes between Jan Simek, the data oriented anthropologist whose theoretical stance is that we cannot access the meaning of the cave symbolism, and F. Kent Reilly, the meaning oriented anthropologist whose theoretical stance is that we can use the cave symbols to access the thoughts of those who were making them. This opposition, if it actually exists, roughly approximates the age old debate in anthropology about our approaches to other cultures.

Should we view it as an outsider, fitting the data into our own theoretical frameworks (etic), or attempt to access it as an insider, viewing it as might a member of that culture (emic)? There is a sense in which this is a false binary, for the approaches are not mutually exclusive and indeed are complementary — ideally, we should be looking at our data both ways, kaleidoscopically shifting our perspectives between the etic and emic. In this passage, Sullivan illustrates Simek’s approach:

A conspicuous percentage of the caves, Simek said, had birds for their opening images. “What does it mean?” I asked. “We don’t know,” he said. I learned that this was his default answer to the question, What does it mean? He might then go on to give you a plausible and interesting theory, but only after saying, “We don’t know.” It wasn’t grumpiness—it was a theoretical stance. Woodpeckers could be related to war, he said. In other Native American myths they carry the souls of the dead to the afterworld.

And in this one, Reilly’s:

When it comes to meaning, not everyone is as skeptical as Simek. Over the past decade a group of scholars, led by the archaeologist F. Kent Reilly in Texas, has been using a combination of historical records— nineteenth­-century ethnography, mainly—to work their way back into the Mississippian worldview, with its macabre warrior gods and monsters and belief in a three­-part cosmos: the Upper World, This World, the Lower World…Reilly described some of the group’s achievements. Using intense motif analysis, two of its members identified an exotic-­looking geometrical shape, which appears on various Mississippian objects, as a butterfly… “We think we may have identified a new deity complex—based purely on artwork,” Reilly said.

Simek “doesn’t go in for that talk” and wants data. Reilly is dismissive of “corns, beans, squash” archaeology and wants meaning. Who is right? Neither — we need both. I am nonetheless sympathetic to Simek’s contention that symbolic analysis, if not anchored in data, can construct elaborate worlds that never existed — the Southern Death Cult weltanschauung cannot be accessed through art alone. But I really like the idea of looking for survivals of this world view in ethnohistories of successor tribes such as the Natchez, Cherokee, and even Creek.

Shamans and Bird Symbolism

Many of the “unknown caves” are adorned with birds, especially at the entrances. This makes considerable sense and here we have evidence of continuity. Before the rise of any mound building society based on agriculture, Native Americans were organized into smaller hunting and gathering groups whose primary form of supernaturalism was shamanic. As Mircea Eliade, Piers Vitebsky, and many others have demonstrated, shamans the world over have long been enamored of birds. Why? Birds fly, as do shamans’ “souls” when they experience altered states of consciousness.

I find it interesting that birds have equal importance in later foraging cultures, such as the Plains Indians, some of whom may have been linked in deeper time to Mississippian societies. Is this a survival, evidence of continuity with the more ancient mound building past? It is a distinct possibility.

Power and Religion: The Rise of Complex Societies

One thing is certain: the creation of complex mound building and Mississippian societies required more elaborate forms of supernaturalism. Shamanic practices are not especially conducive to the creation of power and legitimation of elites. It is not easy to transition from the rough egalitarianism of hunting-gathering culture to the inequality and stratification that inevitably characterizes more complex societies. This transition requires the amplification and systematization of earlier practices — shamans become priests. We know this occurred in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, and it undoubtedly occurred as mound building cultures began to appear in America.

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