The Serpent and The Celestial Bird Become The Dragon

The dragon, the winged serpent, is the most widespread mythological beast in the world. Dragons appear in Old World myths from Europe, India, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, as well in the New World in the form of the feathered serpent from Indian tribes in North America and Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures from Mesoamerica. Dragons have been represented on the gates of Babylon, Chinese vases, pictographs above the Mississippi River, and bones carved by Inuit artists in the Arctic.

The oldest versions were snakes, but after the Middle Ages, dragons were often pictured with legs, either stubby reptilian legs or sturdy avian or feline legs, usually two or four. Most have one head, though some have two or even three. Most are associated with bodies of water and rainfall.

Where did this image of the flying snake come from? In The First Fossil Hunters, Adrienne Mayor suggests that fossils of dinosaurs such as Archaeopteryx or skeletons of whales spawned the legend. Others suggest crocodiles, giant goannas (in Australia), or the Komodo lizard (in Japan). Anthropologist David E. Jones suggests that dragons were the sum of ancient people’s fears: snakes, birds of prey, and big cats.
All of those arguments may have some merit, but none explain the universality of the image. I think the people saw the winged serpent in the stars, specifically, in the combination of Ursa Major and Draco.

The Big Dipper

One of the most familiar asterisms in the night sky is the Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major. It’s easy to find because the stars are so bright.

The constellation Ursa Major

The constellation Ursa Major

For many, the seven bright stars look like the outline of a giant ladle or dipper, but other people see the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper as a plough, a wagon drawn by oxen or a carriage drawn by horses, a camel, a skunk, a fisher cat, a salmon net, a butcher’s cleaver, a coffin with three mourners following behind, a saucepan, or a basket. In some places, the seven stars represented people, such as the Seven Sages or Seven Brothers.

Many northern peoples saw the Big Dipper as a giant bear, a mother bear being followed by three cubs, or a bear being chased by three hunters. The bear image itself is subject to debate. Some see the Big Dipper as fitting in the bear’s back while others make the handle of the Dipper into a very long tail, which is strange since bears have such stumpy little tails, though the problem is often explained away with a story.
Let’s look at it a different way: take the Big Dipper as the body and wing of a great bird instead. Add the other wing from the bright stars already included as part of the Great Bear constellation that you can see in the illustration. Then you’ll have the body and both wings of the bird. The tail comes out at the bottom of the bird’s body, and the head comes from stars not included in the constellation grouping.

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Always Circling the Center

The Big Dipper is a circumpolar asterism, meaning it rotates around the unmoving center of the night sky, which we now call Polaris, or the Pole Star, in the course of the night. It also marks the seasons, in that it rises in different positions at twilight during winter, spring, summer, and fall. It would be easy for ancient people to tell what time it was at night by the position of the Dipper, and to know the seasons from the Dipper’s position at dusk.
When you consider all the seasonal positions of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, you get a whirling pattern like the one in the diagram.

Big Dipper and North Star

Dipper around pole

Draco the Dragon

The other half of the dragon is Draco, the constellation that snakes around between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. While Polaris is currently the closest star to true North in the night sky, 5,000 years ago it was Thuban, one of the stars in Draco. Farther back yet, it was the dark space between the stars referred to as the Cave of Creation.

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

In North America, many images of the whirling logs or swastika design appear to incorporate the movements of the Dipper. Some include both the winged figure and the serpent.

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

Whirling winged serpents

Whirling winged serpents

This piece shows the whirling pattern incorporating both horned rattlesnakes and winged figures with feline heads, combining forces of the earth and sky. As far back as 1901, Zelia Nuttall recognized the role of the Big Dipper in the whirling logs or swastika design so common in American Indian artifacts. The review of her article “The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations” from the Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, notes that Ms. Nuttall suggested that the swastika symbol was “believed to have originated in the revolution of the stars of Ursa Major about Polaris….” In fact, she suggests that the swastika itself is merely a representation of the Big Dipper at all four seasons.
If indeed, the Big Dipper is part of a great Celestial Bird, the Bird and the Serpent together wheel around the Portal of Heaven, the Cave of Creation. Their power as opposites is combined into the force that moves the heavens. They become the Winged Serpent, the Feathered Serpent, the place where earth and sky, male and female join to generate the force that moves the heavens.

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

This is the image I use for the Misfits and Heroes series of ancient adventure novels. It’s my own drawing based on the current positions of the stars in Ursa Major and Draco, designed to be a symbol of the dynamic opposites so important to the ancients, especially in Mesoamerica. It’s a dragon, or at least its parts, momentarily and somewhat artificially suspended in time and motion in its endless circle around the Portal of Creation.

The Eye in the Hand

The Eye in the Hand

It’s curious how the past inhabits the present.  The Eye in the Hand is a good example.  It’s currently found in corporate logos, music promotions, edgy fashion, and scary movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the history of the symbol is complicated and global.

Perhaps the symbol works because it’s arresting.  It combines two of our most powerful data receptors, but the two don’t belong together.  It’s not possible to have an eye in a hand or to see through a hand, so the image conjures up something beyond normal life.  In that sense, the Second Life logo, which features the eye in the hand, is very close to the historical roots of the symbol that is clearly connected to something beyond life.

It’s hard to talk about the eye in the hand without also considering The Evil Eye.  While the ancient artifacts that include the eye in the hand don’t necessarily invoke a protective charm against the evil eye, the current charms certainly do.    Currently, people have two popular choices in charms to ward off the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye charm or the Hamsa Hand.

The Evil Eye

The blue glass eye, known (rather confusingly) as The Lucky Eye or The Evil Eye, promises to protect the bearer from negative energy such as resentment or envy as well as general misfortune such as accidents and disease.  The concept of the Evil Eye, the belief that others have the power to curse you by giving you a malevolent stare, is widespread in the Middle East, Africa, India, Central America, North America, South Asia, and Europe, especially the Mediterranean area.  Damage from an evil eye can include withering, sickness, even death.  Even those who don’t believe in the Evil Eye may refer to the concept in sayings like “She gave me the evil eye,” or “If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”

Because the evil eye is generally thought to be blue, the charms that are meant to protect the bearer are usually blue as well.

The Hamsa Hand

The other popular protective talisman is the eye in the hand charm known as Hamsa (Arabic), Hamesh (Hebrew), Humsa (Hindu), Mano Ponderosa (Italian), or Helping Hand (hoodoo).  In Jewish folk tradition, it is known as the Hand of Miriam (the sister of Moses).  In some Muslim areas it is commonly called the Hand of Fatima (the daughter of Mohammed), despite Islam’s official ban on talismans.  Some Catholic groups refer to it as the Hand of Mary (the mother of Jesus).

Hamsa hands come in a very wide variety of forms, some very male, some very female, some with five fingers, some with three fingers and two very small appendages, some with barely differentiated fingers.  Some have a very large eye; others replace the eye with a circle or star.  Some include other symbols in the fingers and palm.  Most point down but some point up.




There is great debate over the origin of the Eye in Hand.  Some say it comes from The White Tara, the Hindu representation of motherly protection and generosity who is often pictured with eyes in her forehead, hands, and feet.  In some images, she holds the lotus of compassion in one hand.

Others connect the Hamsa to Hathor, the Egyptian Earth Mother, sometimes pictured as a woman wearing a red dress and a headdress of cow’s horns, other times as a cow with a sacred eye, other times as the Milky Way.  The ancient Greeks morphed Hathor into Aphrodite; the Romans made her into Venus.

The Phoenicians used the hand of Tanit, a powerful female sky goddess, to ward off evil.  A fierce warrior, she was sometimes depicted with the head of a lion.  Tanit’s equivalents include Astarte (West Semitic), Anat (Mesopotamian), and Inana (Sumerian), all powerful females associated with love, fertility, and war.

The Female/Sky/Milky Way/Orion Connection    

Since we seem to have a female, heavenly connection with Hathor, Tanit, and others, it’s interesting to note the Arabic origin of the named stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Belatrix, all in the constellation Orion

Betelgeuse comes from yad al-jauza (mistranslated originally as bat al jauza) meaning “the hand of the Central One,” referring to a mysterious and powerful female entity who kneels in the night sky with the Milky Way at her shoulder(pictured).  Rigel comes from the Arabic rijl al-jauza, meaning “the foot of the Central One.”  Belatrix, another star in the constellation, means a fierce female warrior (which suited her character in the Harry Potter stories).

The New World

But the eye in hand symbol also has a New World history.   If you look at the images associated with The Eye in Hand on your computer, you’ll come across several from pre-Columbian North America.  The most famous is the engraved gorget (collar ornaments) from Moundville, Alabama, featuring a hand with an eye (pictured above).  The hand is surrounded by two intertwined, knotted horned rattlesnakes.  A similar piece, also from Moundville, includes the hand with the eye but leaves out the snakes and places the hand between a symbol of a cross inside concentric circles at the top and what looks like an earthen mound at the bottom (pictured).

The two Moundville gorgets shown in the illustrations are quite similar. Both have concentric circles at the  top and a link to the eye in hand.  However, the illustration from Vernon James Knight’s book Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, detailing the finds of the 1905 excavation of the area, has a slightly different design inside the circles and omits the mound at the bottom.

Other pieces found in the southeastern US include the hand in the eye in different though related forms.

Although the designs on the Mississippian gorgets look similar to the modern-day Hamsa Hands, there is no indication that the North American pieces had the same function.  Actually, it’s hard to know how the symbol functioned for those who wore it. Between 500 and 1500 AD, the Mississippian culture included trade-linked settlements that ranged from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, but after the arrival of the Europeans, many of the Mississippian settlements failed due to disease and warfare, and the flat-top mounds typical of their cities were destroyed by the settlers.

The Hand

However, many anthropologists now believe that The Hand constellation, made up of the lower half of Orion, was considered a portal to the Otherworld in Southeastern US cosmology.  (See “Mississippian and Maya cosmology: The Hand constellation and the Milky Way” at  The stars that make up Orion’s belt formed the wrist (top) of the severed hand.

The Lakota and other Plains Indians also saw a star grouping they called The Hand in the bottom half of what we call Orion.

In researching some Mississippian sites, experts have suggested that marks on the palm of the hands symbolized points where the spirit may enter or leave the body.

The Serpents

The snakes in the Moundville pieces have been identified as tie snakes, horned serpents that play an important part in the oral history of tribes from the Great Lakes to the southeastern woodlands.  These Great Serpents were powerful beings from the Underworld who were in constant battle with the forces of the Upperworld, usually represented by the Thunderers, falcon-men.  The combination of these two opposite forces resulted in the winged, horned serpents that wheeled around the center of the world in the swastika, powering the motion of the world through the energy of their opposition.  (See earlier entry “The Flight of the Eagle, The Power of Symbol.”)

The Eye in the Hand

According to the “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” entry in Wikipedia, “The Hand and Eye Motif was common in Mississippian symbolism and may be related to the Ogee Motif, suggesting it represents a portal to the Otherworld.”

The Road across the Sky

For many ancient North American, Central American, and South American peoples, the Milky Way was the path the dead took to the Otherworld.  The Maya saw the Milky Way as having four arms that spread out across the world.  At the center of the Milky Way, the three hearthstones were placed at the moment of Creation.  These three stones are part of the constellation we know as Orion and they became the portal through which the dead entered the Milky Way, the great river of stars that flows next to the hearthstones.

The Apache believed that Yolkai Nalin, the feared goddess of death and the afterlife, controlled the path of souls after death.  The road to the Otherworld that we call the Milky Way passed over her shoulders.


If we put all of these parts together, it seems fairly defensible that we have a Moundbuilder piece that makes reference to a Hand constellation that serves as a portal to the Otherworld, the boundary between this life and the beginning of the next life.

And it’s the logo for Second Life.  Irony abounds.

It’s impossible to tell how much of the symbolism of the New World continues, overlaps, or reflects that of the Old World.  Perhaps the two developed along parallel lines without ever intersecting.  Perhaps not.  Certainly, the modern Hamsa charm, which is most popular around the Mediterranean, bears an eerie resemblance to the ancient Moundbuilder gorget.  Even more interesting is the invocation of the very powerful female figure (Mary, Fatima, Miriam) for protection.  It’s hard not to see parallels between them and The Central One who guards the portal to the Otherworld and bears the Path of the Dead on her shoulder.

Interesting sources include

The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period, by Francisco Estrada Bell


“The Southern Cult, Southeast Ceremonial Complex” archaeology.

“Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” in Wikipedia

“Mississippian Culture” in Wikipedia

“Mississipian and Maya Cosmology: The Hand Constellation and the Milky Way”