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Real sea monsters once inhabited the Etowah and Coosa Rivers

Real sea monsters once inhabited the Etowah and Coosa Rivers

(above)  Visitors to the Funk Heritage Center Museum at Reinhardt University are greeted by Creek Indian caricatures of Dixie’s own Nessy.

The Feathered Serpent was a real animal, but its home was the Etowah River in North Metro Atlanta, not Mesoamerica. 

Mother Nature is sometimes stranger than fiction.  A standard artistic theme of the advanced indigenous cultures of the Southeast was a strange creature that seemed to be a cross between a large eel and a dragon. The creature is typically called “the Feathered Serpent.”  It is a common motif on the indigenous art seen at Moundville, Alabama, Etowah Mounds, Georgia and Cahokia, Illinois. It is also a very common artistic theme in Mesoamerica.

Many people, including anthropologists, confuse this tradition with the horned serpent and sky serpent artistic traditions, which apparently were imported from the Southwest or Mesoamerica. The Horned Rattlesnake is indigenous to Northwest Mexico and the Southwestern United States.  It probably has never lived in the Southeastern United States.

The Itza Mayas definitely worshiped the Sky Serpent-Sun God.  Both in the Chiapas Highlands and in the Southern Appalachians, one can find mountaintop Sky Serpents created out of field stones.  They were originally coated with clay and decorated with brightly colored patterns. Both the Itza Mayas and the ancestors of the Creeks in Georgia fabricated copper breast plates for their priests.  Copper was used infrequently by other Mesoamerican civilizations.  Note that in this copper plate, the Sky Serpent is wearing a crown that is identical to that worn by the Great Sun or Eagle Man.  (See below at right.)  The wings on Etula’s (Etowah Mounds) Great Sun symbolized the wings on the Itza Sun God.

The Itza Sky Serpent-Sun God was portrayed as a horned, feathered snake with a man’s abdomen and head at the end.   The Itza’s art was a bit more realistic than other branches of the Mayas or the civilizations farther north in Mexico.   Their portrayals were more abstract and included many feathers.  Such Mexican civilizations such as Teotihuacan, the Totonacs, the Toltecs and the Aztecs never attached a man’s head to the snake-like body.   The heads of these feathered serpents strongly resemble the dragon heads on Viking longboats, but predate them by at least 500 years.

Even authors of books, published in the early 1800s, noticed the similarity of the Feather Serpent artistic traditions in Mesoamerica and the Southeast.  They also noticed that there were both stone pyramids and earthen mounds in Mexico that were virtually identical in shape to the pyramidal earthen mounds in the Southeast.  The presumption by cultural diffusionists from then until the present has been that the cultural traditions, associated with the Feathered Serpent motif accompanied the transportation of corn, bean and tobacco seeds from Mesoamerica to North America.   That might not be the case at all.   

Our discovery last week that numerous symbols on the Late Archaic or Early Woodland petroglyphic boulders in the Georgia Highlands (2400 BC – 400 BC) are the same as those in the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BC – 500 BC) and Mesoamerican Classic Period (200 AD – 800 AD) strongly suggests that much of what we thought was Mesoamerican in origin, in reality flowed from north to south.  There was a dramatic scene in the premier of “America Unearthed” when History Channel host, Scot Wolter, asked this question to the Chief Archaeologist at Chichen Itza, Dr. Alfonzo Moreles:   

There are some people, who theorize that the Mayas visited Georgia and may have migrated there.  What are your thoughts on that theory?”

Dr. Moreles responded, “Yes, of course, it is not a theory.  The Mayas went to Georgia and Florida many times.  However, we now have evidence that your Indians also came here sometimes to Chichen Itza.”

The river monsters thrived in this section of the Etowah River near Long Swamp Creek in the 1800s.  The channel can be 25 feet deep here.

Home grown monsters

The Feathered Serpent is not a European tradition, so it would have been a product of excessive indigenous imagination in Dixie . . . or was it imagination?  You see . . . forgotten by everyone in academia is the fact that there was a giant, prehistoric-type creature living in the Etowah River, when white settlers first arrived in the 1830s.  It was a silver-scaled fish with an anaconda shaped body, which could grow up to 12 feet long.  It had numerous feather-like fins, which apparently resembled those of a Siamese Catfish. 

This was a dangerous carnivore that hunted by laying still in shallow water then ambushing anything as large as a fawn or dog, when it came up to the edge of the water.  The creature could breath air like a walking catfish or hagfish, but since it had scales, it could not have been closely related to a catfish.

The two largest populations of this strange creature were in the deep sections of the Etowah River between Cartersville and Rome, plus the even deeper channel upstream between Ball Ground and Canton.  Near Ball Ground, the river can be 25 feet deep and contains crystal clear mountain water.   Fishermen were very careful to not stick there feet in the water, but did lose hunting dogs from time to time.

During the mid-1800s, steamboat companies blasted a channel through the shoals on the Coosa River between Rome, GA and Cedar Bluff, AL.  Soon thereafter, residents living around Gadsden, AL began to see the giant creatures in the river.  They “freaked out.”  Eventually, one was killed by irate picnickers, while it was stalking for fresh meat in a shallow inlet.  After frequent steamboat traffic developed between Rome and Gadsden, the river monsters were seldom seen . . . both near Rome and downstream all the way to Gadsden.  After the massive 1886 flood, which enabled steamboats to paddle down Broad Street in Rome, the creatures completely disappeared on the Coosa and Lower Etowah River.   

Allatoona Dam

Sighting the creatures on the Upper Etowah River became an increasingly rare event as Canton and Woodstock grew. For many decades they dumped their raw sewage in the Etowah River.   The construction of Allatoona Dam, between Woodstock and Cartersville, right after World War II, seems to have called the Monster of the Etowah River to become extinct.  The last reported sighting of the creature was by some people walking along the top of the dam.  They saw a giant silver monster circling in the water near the dam.   Of course . . . many bodies have disappeared into the deep waters of Lake Allatoona.  Could it be that . . . ?

Identifying the Feathered Serpent of the Etowah River

The most likely candidate for Dixie’s own Loch Ness Monster would a now extinct species of oarfish, which parhaps in ancient times swam up the Alabama River to the Coosa River and then the Etowah River, where it adapted to climatic change. 

The oarfish is supersized, has feathery fins and is supersized.   It is very interesting that several Maya stone engravings of the Sky Serpent strongly resemble an oarfish, with a man’s head on it.  The long plums coming from its head could easily be perceived by Native Americans as the feather headdress of a serpent that was half man . . . perhaps even a deity. Also, notice that the head of this species of oarfish on the left has a head that even resembles the stylized feather serpents at the top of the page.

If the feathered serpent fish was in the Etowah River in the 1800s, during earlier times, it could have inhabited most of the rivers in the Lower Southeast.  Several species of oarfish can thrive in temperate ocean waters,  but not in water that gets near freezing.  

The only problem with the oarfish being our definite “feathered serpent” is that all known oar fish species today live deep in the ocean.  However, if species of sharks and dolphins could have adapted to freshwater, there is no reason to doubt that over millions of years, a species of oarfish could have adapted also.  Oarfish in the ocean can grow up at least up to 36 feet long, so a 12 feet long oarfish is “no big deal.” 

So now you know how a strange concept of a deity, who was serpent with feathers and a man’s head came about.   Could it be that the man, who called himself Kukulkan (Feathered Serpent) originated in Southeastern North America?   When King Quetzalcoatl was exiled from the Toltec capital of Tula, he first traveled southward along the Gulf Coast of Mexico to the Maya Country.  According to tradition, he and his followers lived for awhile in Chichen Itza.   Around 1000 AD there was a civil disturbance in Chichen Itza and so King Quetzalcoatl led his followers to the coast of Yucatan then headed NORTH across the Gulf of Mexico to his homeland.  He promised to return some day, but never did.   Currently, the earliest radiocarbon date for the Track Terrace Complex is 1018 AD. 

Mako ~ Hene ~ Ahau ~ Kukulkan means “Great Sun ~ Lord Feathered Serpent”

In the video below, you will see two live oarfish near the edge of the ocean.  It is one of the first times that a live oarfish has ever even been seen.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    That oarfish is amazing, indeed, and so pretty.
    I’ve been reading a lot about serpahims and sometimes wonder if the serpent god couldn’t be a fallen seraphim.


      Karla, I think “generally” speaking you are on the right track. In terms of imagery, and in terms of the “seraphim” in particular, you may want to look into the Point Pleasant, WV “mothman” flap as reported by John Keel.


    Richard, another amazing understanding!!! Yes that does fit with the written codex of the Mexica (Aztecs) stated of Quetzalcoatl (called Kukulkan “Feathered Serpent” by the Maya) That he left by boat with some of his followers. In the codex Tovar, the artwork shows him wearing the same type of hat as the Apalacha nobles of North Georgia when he left Mexico. Now we know that there was an aquatic creature that the peoples of Mexico and the Maya knew existed. Out standing work….Richard. Outstanding!!!


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