Unlocking the Mystery of the Rattlesnake Disk

I became intrigued by archaeology and mysteries as a boy trudging through fields looking for arrowheads with my mother and brother.

Since then I’ve visited Indian mounds throughout the Southeastern US, but none have stirred me quiet like those at Moundville.

Moundville, Alabama, just 13 miles south of Tuscaloosa, is home to more than 20 ancient Indian mounds. Adjacent to the Black Warrior River, this site is considered the second largest Native North American complex behind only Cahokia near St. Louis. It’s also home to some of the most famous Indian relics in the United States, including the Rattlesnake Disk.

The Rattlesnake Disk is one of those enigmatic archaeological finds that appeals to my inner Indiana Jones, and there was only one place where I could see the real thing. I was finally here.

My mind reeled as I entered the tall double doors of Moundville’s Jones Archaeological Museum. Pausing to let my eyes adjust to the dimness, I found myself immersed in an ornate display of ancient relics from a lost civilization. “This,” I whispered to my not-as-enthusiastic son, “is way better than an afternoon in a hundred year-old library!”

Armed with two cameras and a keen interest, I took in as much as I could.

There were mannequins dressed in ceremonial costumes. A young bride sat in a wooden chariot carried on the shoulders of four warriors.

Another display showed a royal family consisting of the chief, his wife, and their son, the heir to the kingdom, meeting with a medicine man holding a round tablet.

I took note of the scenes, but the objects behind them caught my eye.

The Rattlesnake Disk

There it was. I could hardly contain my excitement as my eyes beheld the genuine Rattlesnake Disk. Mounted inside a dimly-lit, double-sided glass wall, the 12-inch diameter Rattlesnake Disk was noticeably larger than other less-decorated disks. One side of the disk contained nothing. The other side contained an open left hand with an eye in the palm. Two rattlesnakes, knotted together on both sides of the hand, surrounded the hand. Both snakes had horns on their head, and both had a ribbon streaming from their upper fangs.

“What could this mean, I wondered?”

The mystery began to unravel across the museum.  Other pottery contained variations of images of the hand symbol.  Other objects contained images of birds that were combined with the snake motif.  It became apparent much of the pottery from Moundville was associated with death and the afterlife. 

The Soul’s Journey

Signs scattered throughout the museum told the tale.  At the time of death, one’s soul was released from the body through a portal in the palm of the hand.

“That makes sense. I can see why they might think that,” I thought, “after all, in some cultures we don’t look people in the eyes because they feel like you’re staring into their soul. The eye is the window to the soul.”

The people of Moundville believed after the soul departs the body it embarks onto the Path of the Souls.  This pathway, they thought, was the Milky Way. 

The soul’s journey across the Milky Way led them to the realm of the dead, which was guarded by the celestial serpent- a rattle-snake figure with wings and horns on its head.

Guardian of the Realm of the Dead- the Winged Serpent

Suddenly I realized the Moundville people shared profound beliefs with other groups of people I studied.  Among the ancient Egyptians, the winged serpent, Wadjet, is depicted on Egyptian reliefs, coffins, and in tombs.

Asian dragons also seem to be types of these winged serpents. 

Could the winged serpent be a shadow of the fallen Satan, the angel who appeared as a serpent in the Garden of Eden and is elsewhere named as the guardian of the dead?

A couple of Bible verses suddenly flashed in my mind. “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:2 NIV)

“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit. Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble.” (Isaiah 14:12-16 NIV)

The Mystery of the Eye in the Hand

I hardly had time to process the mystery of the winged serpent when my attention returned to the eye in the hand.

In my studies of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, I encountered numerous variations of the hand and eye symbol, known to them as the ahimsa. For the peoples of India, the ahimsa is the sign of non-violence, non-injury, or peace.  

The eye in the palm appears in Islam, too. Perhaps it was adopted from their Indian neighbors, but for Muslims, the palm and eye symbol is the hamsa, or Hand or Fatima, and is believed to bring people peace and protection.

Similarly, the people of Moundville were seeking a safe, peaceful passage to the realm of the dead, and their hand and eye symbols were an important expression of that belief.

Like the ahimsa and the hamsa, I observed variations of the eye in the hand. One variation in particular blew me away. On one vessel, part of a collection of three pieces recently returned after being stolen forty years ago, a cross appeared inside a hand. Had I visited Moundville when I first wanted to go, I would’ve missed it.

Imagine the mysterious symbol of a cross in a palm- a symbol of a portal into the afterlife- fulfilled by Jesus’ death on the cross when he was nailed through his hands.

Then the full weight of the mystery of the eye in the hand hit me.  Around 700 BC, the prophet Isaiah wrote, But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 NIV) 

Jesus was pierced in his hands!  The violence he endured brought peace to our souls. The piercing of Jesus’ hands is the portal to our atonement with God! Jesus’ suffering wasn’t just for Christians and Messianic Jews.  Jesus suffered so that anyone, anywhere could have peace in Him. 

Where did Jesus go immediately after his death?  He descended into hades, the realm of the dead, to defeat death!  There, Jesus defeated Satan, the guardian of the realm of the dead, then proved His victory when He rose again and was seen by hundreds of people. 

“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and hades,” (Revelation 1:18 NIV)

Paul tells us Jesus is the fulfillment of the mysteries kept hidden since the beginning of the world. (Colossians 1:26)  If the Roman centurian could exclaim, “Surely this was the Son of God!” after witnessing the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, doesn’t it seem reasonable that Christ’s death is a signal to people all over the world to look to Him as their Protector in the afterlife?  

That’s the gospel message:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)


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