Middle Cumberland Religion by Tristan Collins

When discussing the Middle Cumberland Region, it is natural to focus the majority of one’s attention on the city of Cahokia. Not only is Cahokia the most visually impressive Mississippian historical site, boasting the largest of the Mississippian Mounds (Monks Mound, which still stands around a hundred feet above the surrounding land), evidence suggests that it served as a primary influence for most of the surrounding Mississippian regions. Located on the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, this early civilization which spanned from the tenth century A.D. to the sixteenth century A.D. is believed to have influenced cultures stretching from Minnesota to Oklahoma to Florida. These regions share a number of Cahokia’s mythological stories. However, the religious practice of Cahokia isn’t representative of the surrounding regions. The way the Mississippian subcultures applied the stories as ceremony differed greatly. By studying the distinct applications, one develops a more complete understanding of Mississippian culture as a whole. The ceremonies of the Middle Cumberland Region (the archaeological name for the area surrounding the city of Nashville) is no exception.

Religion in the Middle Cumberland Region

The stories significant to the Middle Cumberland Region seem to coincide with those of Cahokia, though the degree of significance granted to a distinct story by region likely differs. For example, the Earth Mother and Hero Twins characters appear prominently in both regions (alongside the less frequently observed characters of the Birdman and Great Serpent, suggestive of the Above and Beneath Worlds respectively), but the emphasis on and importance of these characters appears to differ between Cahokia and the Middle Cumberland civilizations.

Timothy Pauketat, archaeologist and professor of anthropology at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana,  describes the relative rarity of the Earth Mother figure within the walls of Cahokia. The figure has been unearthed more regularly in the agricultural settlements that surrounded the city, but the city itself seems to have been dedicated almost exclusively to the Hero Twins. One might interpret this emphasis variously. It does, however, seem clear that the leaders of the city were intent on framing themselves in conformity with the heroes; this desire is represented, for example, by ritual burials, in which high-status individuals were dressed in costumes relating to the Hero Twin story before they were lowered into the earth. It might be argued, for example, that the desire of the efforts of the early Cahokians to build a city of unprecedented size and grandeur caused them to be attracted to the Hero Twin story, which details courageous treks into the unknown and courageous efforts. In contrast to the Earth Mother character, who suggests peace and stability, the Hero Twins are distinctly epic characters, like those used by various other cultures to distinguish significant leaders (one calls to mind the Epic of Gilgamesh and the stories of Charlemagne, though there exist almost too many examples to count).

Mississippian Religious Stories

In “Cahokians and the Circulation of Ritual Goods in the Middle Cumberland Region,” Kevin Smith, David Dye, Robert Sharp, three academics devoted to the Middle Cumberland Region, describe the significance of the Old Woman Who Never Dies (the local variation of the Earth Mother) within the Mandan and Hidatsa cultures; the Earth Mother was thought to serve an essential role in such natural phenomena as the migration of birds, the growth of desirable plants, the births of children, and the process of reincarnation. The region represents an unprecedented emphasis on her character. She is depicted on stone statues as well as on effigy bottles most commonly found in children’s burials. The Old Woman also enjoyed associations with serpents generally as well as with the figure of the Great Serpent specifically, a non-human entity thought to have occupied the Beneath World (one of three realms defined in the mythology of the Mississippian culture).

The Hero Twins, often depicted as thunderbirds or “birdmen” were generally understood to be relatives of the Old Woman. Stories of the Hero Twins are generally epic in nature, contrasting slightly with the Old Women, who is a more “stable” figure. Their exploits include battles against giants and journeys into the Beneath World. Often, one of the Twins will die, forcing the other to bring about his brother’s resurrection. The two brothers were strongly associated with the weather. One twin was associated with lighting while the other was associated with thunder.

Smith, Dye, and Sharp compare the symbolic significance of the Hero Twins with that of the Old Woman, writing that “while the Earth Mother was responsible for rebirth and reincarnation, the Hero twins possessed the complementary powers of resurrecting the dead” (Smith, Dye, Sharp 350). The significance of this distinction is not obvious; however, the attempts of Cahokian elites to portray themselves as the Hero Twins in burial performances might be interpreted as a suggestion of their divine power. Rather than prioritize the divine intervention of distinct gods (manifested as desire to be saved by the Earth Mother’s powers of reincarnation), they suggested through their performances that they believed themselves to possess the ability to acquire salvation for themselves, through powers of resurrection attributed to the Hero Twins. By contrast, the late Middle Cumberland Region’s emphasis on the Earth Mother figure perhaps suggests a desperate reliance on divine intervention encouraged by the megadroughts that plagued the region from the end of the thirteenth century AD to the abandonment of the region around the end of the fifteenth century AD.


Much of the recent study on the Middle Cumberland region has been focused on “social houses” and sodalities. As historians continue to delve into the subject, a greater understanding of Mississippian culture will undoubtedly emerge. Presently, however, the published understanding of the subject is limited. Sodalities were known to be prevalent around the Middle Cumberland Region (and the various other territories marked by Mississippian culture). To understand these sodalities, it is perhaps valuable to reference the various subsects of Christianity that emerged from the Reformation. The analogy is imperfect but useful as a framework for conception. The sodalities of the Middle Cumberland Region do not seem to have conflicted seriously in regards to their mythological foundation. They shared similar religious stories. They did, however, differ in terms of their emphasis regarding the stories, their application of the stories as ritual, and the symbols and sacred items they used in their rituals. They played an enormous role in Mississippian life. Those who could afford to join these institutions would, on special occasions, journey to mound centers, where “social houses” (comparable to churches or lodges) were erected atop earthen mounds. At these social houses, individuals performed/learned distinct rituals and created and received important sacred items, such as marine-shell ornaments or effigy bottles used to administer spiritual medicine. The “social house” was simultaneously a place of community, learning, and salvation. There is reason to believe that multiple distinct social houses existed at a singular mound center simultaneously, similarly to how centers of worship for multiple distinct religious sects cohabitate individual towns today. The adjacency of these distinct social houses suggests that they did not regard each other as serious enemies.

The analogy falls apart on the subject of membership. Middle Tennessee State University professor Kevin Smith posits that there may have been three major social houses within the region, two of which were likely dedicated to the figures of the Earth Mother and the Hero Twins. Though these social houses were likely distinct, he does not believe they were necessarily mutually exclusive. Of course, membership in multiple social houses would not have been a possibility for most people, as social houses were exclusive to those who enjoyed the requisite status. In order to attain membership, one had either had to offer resources or complete tasks unfeasible for most members of civilization, who were forced to spend nearly all of their free time struggling to overcome the conditions enforced by the droughts and acquire the bare minimum resources required for survival. Consequently, most members of the civilization were unable to join a single social house. Still, there is evidence that suggests the possibility of membership in multiple social houses; for example, there are instances of burials containing multiple distinct marine-shell gorgets (seemingly symbolic of distinct social houses). This would suggest that the individual interred, or relatives involved in the individual’s burial, attempted to acquire the favor of the deities by remaining open to multiple social houses and, thus, “covering all bases.” This explanation seems plausible when one considers the difficult circumstances plaguing individuals during the latter part of the Middle Cumberland Region’s prominence, namely the frequent droughts, which led to starvation and encouraged conflict between settlements.

Religious Economy

In an essay titled “Cultural Heroes, Inalienable Goods, and Religious Sodalities,” University of Memphis professor David Dye describes extensively the effect of sodalities on interaction between separate mound centers and Mississippian sites. Dye argues that sodalities (among other institutions) allowed influential individuals to “limit and restrict political power and wealth for their own benefit and personal gain” ((43) Culture Heroes, Inalienable Goods, and Religious Sodalities: Long-Distance Exchange in Eastern North America at European Contact | David H. Dye – Academia.edu). They effectively traded their spiritual enlightenment for the resources or acts of service that would have reinforced their authoritative position. Consequently, these sodalities were not simply religious in practice. They were political as well, though this is not to say that they were disingenuous; religion was integrated into every part of life, including politics. It cannot easily be understood as a distinct priority of the Mississippian people; rather, it is more accurately understood as a formative factor in all of the priorities of the Mississippian people. It played a role in their understandings of agriculture, weather, politics, commerce (though it is perhaps true that the implications of the word commerce make it inapplicable to the subject of Mississippian culture), and childbirth. The intersection of religion and politics was natural and implied.

Still, though the fact of this interplay between religion and politics would not have been considered disingenuous, religion likely served as a useful tool for political leaders seeking to legitimize and secure their position over society. David Dye describes how the religion potentially served as a means of political deception; the political climate as espoused by the political leaders and as it existed were two different entities, a difference that was perhaps facilitated by religion (or rather, the religious control of the community leaders). Dye cites the enforcement of such rituals as “gift giving,” “feasts,” and “religious tribute” as useful for political leaders wishing to secure authority.

The sodalities also increased interaction between distinct settlements. Individuals likely traveled between settlements in order to learn from distinct social houses; these pilgrimages most probably accounted for much of the migration of certain cultural artifacts across the region and to regions outside of the Middle Cumberland. These pilgrims likely served as novices (assuming they had the resources required of them in order to be entertained by the religious authorities), learning the rituals specific to the social house, which may have included developing the artistic ability to create the sacred items of the social house, one such example being the female effigy figure.


Much remains unknown about the social houses of the Middle Cumberland Region. At present, most of the specifics concerning the subjects are merely informed speculation. New discoveries continue to emerge, such as two post holes at the site known today as Cahokian Springs, which Smith posits once contained large tree-trunk posts that serve ceremonial purposes, either serving as the central axel from around which dancers may have spun (in a performance similar to one still observed in cultures local to Mexico) or as sort of ceremonial sundial on the occasion of the summer solstice (or perhaps both) (Kevin Smith Interview). The subject, particularly the fraction dealing with social houses, is still new; there is no doubt that historians will produce compelling arguments concerning the nature of the Middle Cumberland Region over the coming decades.