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Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound Receives an Ancient Interpretation

by CHEN Lung Chuan (Laurent)

(in English and Traditional Chinese)

There have been numerous studies about the so-called “Serpent Mound” in Ohio State, US. However, in my opinions, this pattern actually illustrates FOUR ancient Chinese characters (Oracle/Bone Characters, “甲骨文”) and needs to be interpreted in a very conventional Chinese approach to appreciate the meaning. And they do have connections to the summer solstice. Hereunder I will explain them in details.
First of all, let’s take a quick look at the entire view of it (See Figure 1).
Figure 1-serpent mound
Figure 1
Below Figure 2 shows my interpretations in Traditional Chinese and Figure 3 in English so that readers can understand the meaning of these characters.
Figure 2-Chinese descriptions
Figure 2 – Chinese Descriptions
Figure 3-English descriptions
To understand the subsequent illustrations, a certain level of fundamental knowledge about Chinese language may be required. But I will try my best to explain them in a more comprehensible way so that language will not become a serious barrier.

1. Initially, from the Serpent head, people will pay attention to the oval-shaped circle with a “dot” therein, as marked by a closed yellow curve in the picture. This part indicates “the sun” (“日”) in Chinese Oracle/Bone Characters. And it is reasonable to demonstrate this shape (oval) since the shape of the sun may be distorted upon sunset due to air refraction.

2. Next, you can see a Y-shaped figure with a bar connecting the two “branches”, as indicated by a closed green curve. This word can be interpreted as “巳” according to the Chinese Oracle/Bone Characters, you can refer to the following link, for example:

This word “巳” is a part of so-called “十二地支 (子、丑、寅、卯、辰、巳、午、未、申、酉、戌、亥)” in Chinese culture.
Based on the “說文解字” (The Book of Words), this word “巳” means “巳,巳也。四月,陽氣巳出,陰氣巳藏,萬物見,成文章,故巳爲蛇,象形。凡巳之屬皆從巳”

The major points in this phrase are the extension of Yang (“陽”) comes to its upmost, the Yin (“陰”) has been accumulated, and the shape thereof resembles a “Serpent.”

In a year, for the north hemisphere of the Earth, the summer solstice means the longest day, and the sunset point is located at its farthest northern position. We can consider that the Yang (“陽”) means the sun moves towards the northern utmost position and then the Yin (“陰”) means the movement of the sun in the opposite direction (i.e., the sun is ready to move back towards the celestial equator.) Hence, the word “巳” tells people that the sun has reached the solstice point and is now about to move back in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, according to the conventional Chinese lunar calendar, “巳” means the fourth month of a lunar year (“農曆四月”). However, in modern days, the summer solstice is actually in the fifth month of a lunar year (“農曆五月”). My personal thought is this is caused by the so-called axial precession (“轉軸進動”) effect in astronomy, so the equinoxes and solstices are “moved back” in time.

Although this effect may not be obvious in short terms (e.g., couple of years, 10s years or even one or two hundreds years), it can not be neglected for a longer duration of time. Therefore, suppose this ancient mound was built thousands of years ago, this effect may be significant which will make the mound become a summer solstice pointer having a perceptible delayed period (i.e., postponed from the fourth month to the fifth month of a lunar year.) If this mound was completed, say, approximately 3,000 years ago, and the duration for one precession cycle is roughly 26,000 years, we can calculate a possible value of such a delay as below:
which proves the length of such a delay.

3. Then you can see the third part of this mound, which is marked with a blue closed curve that includes the previous “巳”. I am certain everybody can clearly understand this portion looks like a serpent or a snake, or “蛇” in Chinese. However, this word is a little bit complicated, especially from the lingual aspect.

In Chinese language, there is a very unique proverb or idiom called “虛與委蛇”. It is so special that even many Chinese people may read the wrong pronunciation or don’t really appreciate its meaning. It roughly means “pretense at complying with something or somebody”. The reason that this idiom is different is because the pronunciation as well as the meaning of the word “蛇” in this phrase do not emphasize on the property of being an animal, but relate to the “movement” or “action” (that is, “虵”, “迤” or “移”.) Scholars explained that the word “蛇” in this phrase reserves its ancient pronunciation and meaning. You can refer to the following links, for example:

(Sorry, I didn’t find appropriate English webpages for interpretations of this word.)

Herein the blue closed curve in the picture was drawn to include the previous green closed curve (i.e., the portion of the word “巳”) in order to show the “head” of the serpent. However, it is the “body” that indicates the third word.

Since this word “蛇” can be construed as “虵”, “迤” or “移” with regards to its pronunciation and meaning, especially in ancient times, which indicates “to approach or move ahead in a sinuate fashion” (like a snake crawling on the ground to go forward.), it is understandable that the makers of this mound utilized the shape of a serpent to express the “movement of the sun” (“太陽移動”).

4. The spiral shape marked by the light-blue closed circle indicates the word “回”, meaning “to return.” This word is easier to be recognized.

Hence, based on the previous analyses and explanations, this mound in my beliefs actually demonstrates four Chinese characters “日 巳 蛇(移) 回”, which was used to show to people the location of sunset point on the day of the summer solstice in a year, and to describe that the sun is now at the utmost northern position and then about to move back towards the south, thereby perhaps facilitating various possible operations such as time/calendar alignment or correction, religious or political rituals, annual celebration activities or the like that the emperor, the royal/ruler families or the civilians would host or perform in each year.

In addition, another further conjecture of mine is, in Chinese culture, when we say a YEAR, “年”, this term was actually adopted in Chou (“周”) Dynasty; but before then, according to historic documents (e.g., “爾雅”), people said “歲” in Xia (“夏”) Dynasty, and “祀” in Shang (“商”) Dynasty. For example, refer to the following links:

“<爾雅 釋天>:載,歲也,夏曰歲,商曰祀,周曰年,唐虞曰載。”

Therefore, from this Serpent Mound, could this “巳” contained in this Mound actually also symbolize the “祀” in the phrase “ONE END IN EVERY FOUR SEASONS” (“祀”, indicating “四時一終”) on the summer solstice day for the people living there more than 3,000 years ago; i.e., whether they utilized the summer solstice day to identify a “Year”? This remains to be figured out in the future.

CHEN, Lung Chuan (Laurent) 陳隆川 Copyright 10-16-2015 Taipei

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