The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird on the planet, with speeds recorded at over 200 miles per hour. It manages this astonishing speed by tucking in its feet and folding back its wings and tail so that it can dive-bomb its prey. It kills not simply by sheer force of impact, but by strategically punching mid-air with its clenched foot. Due to these characteristics, the Mississippian Indians of North America heralded the peregrine falcon as a spiritual symbol and warfare exemplar.
Mississipians and the Falcon
Great birds of prey like the falcon, eagle, raven and owl are common spiritual symbols throughout many Native American tribes. However, the falcon holds clear and significant meaning to the Mississippian people who resided from appropriately 800 to 1650 A.D. in an expansive area of the southeast. Some of the tribes from this era and geographical area include the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cahokia and Pascagoula. Today, the name Southeastern Ceremonial Complex is used to refer to cultural commonalities among the Mississippian tribes. One of the most dominating symbols of the SECC is the peregrine falcon.
Cosmology and the Falcon
The falcon was regarded for its strong predatory technique and was associated with the upper world -- or over world -- of order and light, the sun and moon. The other two sections of the cosmos — the middle world and underworld — are identified as Earth and a place of chaos and darkness, respectively. The three levels were joined by a cosmic axis that was depicted as a cedar tree. Spiritual beings from the upper and underworld were always at odds with each other. The "forked eye surround" motif found on SECC artifacts like shells, stone tools and weapons and pottery is understood to represent the eye markings of the peregrine falcon and is associated with the upper world. The "eye surround" motif, on the other hand, represents the underworld.
Birdman -- Messenger between Upper and Underworld
Unlike any other spiritual being in the Mississippian cosmos, a bird-man deity, portrayed in this case by the peregrine falcon, moved between the upper world and middle world, serving as a messenger from the gods. As sky creatures, the bird-men constantly warred with the underworld spirits. To draw on the power of the falcon warrior in a time of warfare, the Mississippians held dances where participants wore costumes of wings and masks. It was believed that the masks would assist in connecting them with the spirits, thereby activating their falcon power.
Birdman at Cahokia, Mound 72
Many of the Mississippian people built earthwork mounds. Some were used for burial, others served as platforms for temple and house construction. One famous mound at Cahokia Mounds in Illinois — Mound 72 — exemplifies the significance of the falcon as a warrior avatar. Aside from its complex "woodhenge" structure, Mound 72 is a significant Native American cultural site; excavation in the 1970s produced valuable artifacts. Importantly, the body of the tribal leader buried there was honored with a bird-man burial. More than 20,00 shell beads laid out in the shape of a bird served as a bed for the corpse. Elsewhere in the grave were found two stone tablets carved with the bird-man avatar.
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