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Mississippian gorget
AD 1250–1350
Castalian Springs, Sumner County, Tennessee
Whelk shell
10 cm
William E. Myer Collection 15/853

Long ago along the Gulf Coast, a large mollusk, probably a lightning whelk, washed ashore. This gift from the Underworld was passed from hand to hand and community to community along long-since-forgotten trails. Far from where it was found, an artist of great skill carved a glimpse of his world. Much knowledge has been lost with the passage of time and the violent interruption of our ways. Yet some held onto the basics of the old ways until about a hundred years ago, when much of their knowledge was recorded for our enlightenment.

We have given the name Mississippian to the people who produced this shell gorget, and we call their religion the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. In much of the Woodlands, the Morning Star was equated with masculinity—the ultimate warrior, hunter, protector, and defender, as well as conqueror and destroyer.

This gorget depicts a young warrior dancing in imitation of the Morning Star. The severed head held in the dancer’s right hand is proof of that successful imitation. In life, his roached hair would have been painted red like the crest of the woodpecker, an earthly symbol of the red planet that is the Morning Star. The copper ornament pinned through the hair at the back of his head symbolizes the spear-thrower and spear, a weapon that had fallen out of use centuries earlier with the advent of the bow. The eye pattern seen on the dancer’s face is thought to suggest the pattern found on the faces of certain hawks who symbolize swift pursuit and unerring aim in striking an enemy. The flint mace in the dancer’s left hand often was painted half red for the Morning Star and half white for the corresponding female deity, the Evening Star.

—Tom Evans (Skidi Pawnee)

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