The Southern Cult - Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

The Great Mississippian Wave of Cultural Change from Cahokia

Detail of Re[ousee Copper Plate from Spiro, Oklahoma
Detail of Repousse Copper Plate from Spiro, Oklahoma. peggydavis66

The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC) is what archaeologists have called a broad regional similarity of artifacts, iconography, ceremonies, and mythology of the Mississippian period in North America between about 1000 and 1600 CE. This cultural melange is thought to represent a Mississippian religion evolved at Cahokia on the Mississippi River near modern day St. Louis and spread via migration and diffusion of ideas throughout southeastern North America, impacting existing communities as far-flung as the modern states of Oklahoma, Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and Louisiana.

Key Takeaways: Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

  • Common Names: Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, Southern Cult
  • Alternatives: Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere (MIIS) or the Mississippian Art and Ceremonial Complex (MACC)
  • Dates: 1000–1600 CE
  • Location: throughout the southeastern U.S. 
  • Interpretation: Major towns with mounds and rectangular plazas spread from Oklahoma to Florida, Minnesota to Louisiana, connected by broad-based religious activities and trade in copper, shell, and pottery
  • Shared Symbols: Morning Star/Red Horn, Underwater Panther

Mound Cities

The SECC was first recognized in the mid-twentieth century, although it was then called the Southern Cult; today it is sometimes referred to as the Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere (MIIS) or the Mississippian Art and Ceremonial Complex (MACC). The multiplicity of names for this phenomenon reflects both the significance of the similarities placed on it by the scholars, and the struggles those scholars have had trying to pin down the processes and meanings of an undeniable wave of cultural change.

Etowah Mound B, Georgia, Mississippian Civilization
Etowah Mound B, Georgia, Mississippian Civilization. Kare Thor Olsen

Commonality of Traits

The core components of the SECC are repoussé copper sheet plates (basically, three-dimensional objects cold-hammered out of copper), engraved marine shell gorgets, and shell cups. These objects are decorated in what scholars call the "Classic Braden figural style", as it was defined by archaeologist James A. Brown in the 1990s. The Classic Braden style focuses on the winged anthropomorphic being known colloquially among archaeologists as the "birdman," depicted on copper plates and worn as headpieces or breastplates. The birdman symbol is nearly a universal component at SECC sites.

Other traits are found less consistently. Mississippians typically, but not always, lived in major towns centered around four-sided plazas. The centers of those towns sometimes included large raised earthen platforms topped by pole and thatch temples and elite houses, some of which were cemeteries for elites. Some of the societies played a game with disc-like pieces called "chunkey stones". Artifacts of shell, copper, and pottery were distributed and exchanged and copied.

Common symbols on those artifacts include the hand-eye (a hand with an eye in the palm), a falconid or forked eye symbol, a bi-lobed arrow, the quincunx or cross-in-circle motif, and a petal-like motif. The Peach Tree State Archaeological Society website has a detailed discussion of some of these motifs.

Shared Supernatural Beings

The anthropomorphic "birdman" motif has been the focus of much scholarly research. The birdman has been connected to the mythical hero-god known as Morning Star or Red Horn in upper midwest Native American communities. Found on repoussé copper and shell etchings, versions of the birdman seem to represent anthropomorphized bird deities or costumed dancers associated with warfare rituals. They wear bi-lobed headdresses, have long noses and often long braids—those traits are associated with masculine sexual virility among Osage and Winnebago rituals and oral traditions. But some of them appear to be female, bi-gendered or genderless: some scholars note wryly that our Western concepts of the duality of male and female are hindering our ability to comprehend the meaning of this figure.

Version of the Underwater Panther on a Mississippian Bowl from Moundville
Version of the Underwater Panther on a Mississippian Bowl from Moundville. CB Moore, 1907

In some communities, there is a shared supernatural being called the underwater panther or underwater spirit; the Native American descendants of the Mississippians call this being "Piasa" or "Uktena." The panther, Siouan descendants tell us, represents three worlds: wings for the upper world, antlers for the middle and scales for the lower. He is one of the husbands of the "Old Woman Who Never Dies." These myths strongly echo the pan-Mesoamerican underwater serpent deity, one of which is the Maya god ​Itzamna. This is remnants of an old religion.

Reports by the Conquistadors

The timing of the SECC, which ended at (and maybe because) the period of initial Euroamerican colonization of North America, gives scholars a vision albeit corrupted of the effective practices of the SECC. The ​16th century Spanish and the 17th century French visited these communities and wrote of what they saw. Further, echoes of the SECC are part and parcel of a living tradition among many of the descendant communities. A fascinating paper by Lee J. Bloch discusses his attempt to describe the birdman motif to Native American people who live in the vicinity of the SECC site of Lake Jackson, Florida. That discussion led him to recognize how some of the entrenched archaeological concepts are just wrong. The birdman is not a bird, the Muskogee told him, it's a moth.

One clearly evident aspect of the SECC today is that, although the archaeological concept of a "Southern Cult" was conceived as a homogenous religious practice, it was not homogenous and probably not necessarily (or entirely) religious. Scholars are still struggling with that: some have said it was an iconography that was restricted to the elites, to help cement their leadership roles in the far-flung communities. Others have noted that the similarities seem to fall into three categories: warriors and weaponry; falcon dancer paraphernalia; and a mortuary cult.

Too Much Information?

The irony is, of course, that more information is available about the SECC than most other massive cultural changes recognized in the past, making it harder to pin down a "reasonable" interpretation.

Although scholars are still working out the possible meanings and process of the Southeastern Cultural Complex, it is eminently clear that it was a geographically, chronologically, and functionally variable ideological phenomenon. As an interested bystander, I find the ongoing SECC research a fascinating combination of what you do when you have too much and not enough information, which promises to continue to evolve for some decades to come.

Mississippian Chiefdoms in the SECC

A few of the largest and better known Mississippian mound cities include:

Cahokia (Illinois), Etowah (Georgia), Moundville (Alabama), Spiro Mound (Oklahoma), Silvernale (Minnesota), Lake Jackson (Florida), Castalian Springs (Tennessee), Carter Robinson (Virginia)

Selected Sources