A Comparative Look at the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex


A month ago, when we were talking about the myth of the moundbuilders the subject of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex came up.  While I had never heard of the SECC before, I am always interested in religious and spiritual systems and this one sounded particularly interesting.  When Dr. Watrall began explaining some of the beliefs, motifs and practices of the SECC I couldn’t help but notice that the SECC shared many points with pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures.  When I started brainstorming on what to write for this blog post, my mind immediately jumped to the similarities shared by the SECC and pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies.

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Before I compare SECC beliefs with those of the Mesoamericans, I think a brief overview of SECC culture is in order.  The SECC was less an organized religious entity or complex and more of an exchange network where several communities throughout the American Southeast and Midwest traded materials.  From this extended contact and interaction, many of these communities formed similar spiritual and religious beliefs.  Some of the more widely spread beliefs and motifs include the belief in the axis mundi (a way to view the universe as a tree with three parts: the beneath world of chaos and evil, the middle world where humans live, and the above world where spiritual beings like the Thunderers lived), the birdman (a part falcon, part man deity who symbolizes the warrior), and the Corn Mother (also known as the “old woman who never dies”).

One of the most important figures in the SECC was the Birdman, an avatar of warriors and an object of fertility.  The birdman was often shown as a man cloaked in falcon imagery, sometimes even with the wings of a falcon.  In Aztec (and other Mesoamerican) religion there appears a very similar deity in the form of Huitzilopochtli, whose sphere of influence includes war, the sun, and sacrifice.  Much like the birdman of SECC beliefs, Huitzilopochtli is often represented with birdlike imagery, and his name literally translates to “left-handed hummingbird”.  There are many other similarities between Mesoamerican and SECC belief, such as the shared belief in the axis mundi; the story of Red Horn which is strikingly similar to the story of the twins in the Mayan Popul Vuh; the belief in the Corn Mother as a female corn deity; and the annual Green Corn ceremony, which was a ritual celebration of the coming of new corn that both the SECC and the people of Mesoamerica shared.

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It is tempting to look at these vast similarities in belief systems and conclude that the cultures of the SECC had to have had extensive contact and influence on the cultures of Mesoamerica, and vice versa.  This topic is hotly debated by scholars with no real conclusion one way or the other; however, there is no concrete evidence of contact between these two systems of belief.  In fact, there is compelling evidence that the SECC developed completely independent of Mesoamerican societies.

What then can this similarity in belief systems tell us?  I believe that the development of two separate belief systems that so closely mirror one another (as the SECC and Mesoamerican belief systems do) means that their environments must have been very similar.  If we investigate the social, physical and political environments surrounding these two belief systems, we can see that this is indeed true.  For both cultures which followed these belief systems corn was the main source of nutrition which was cyclical and dependable.  Also, both of these cultures lived in areas where water was plentiful and agriculture flourished.  The ability of these cultures to rely on dependent and plentiful agricultural food sources allowed them to develop complex social and political structures dependent on a caste system.  The development of a caste system carried into religious belief where a well-defined pantheon evolved out of similar environmental stimuli, such as the importance of corn and the presence of birds of prey (which could lead to the belief that birds are warlike and so the creation of a war deity so steeped in aviary imagery).

The fact that similar environmental stimuli could produce such similar belief systems is quite amazing considering the very limited (to no) interaction that these cultures shared.  These observations serve as further evidence for how similarly human society will react to similar impetuses.