Hopewell Shaman

From Ohio History Central

The Hopewell Shaman of Newark, also known as the Wray figurine, is a small stone sculpture representing a shaman, or spiritual leader, of the Hopewell culture (100 B.C. to A.D. 500). It was discovered in 1881 at the base of the largest burial mound at the Newark Earthworks.

It is a unique naturalistic carving of a man, or woman, wearing bear regalia, including a bear's head and paws. The shaman's left hand is holding the bear's head as if caught in the act of lowering the mask over his face to complete his transformation into a bear spirit. In many tribal societies, the shaman served as a combination of priest, rabbi, and healer. The shaman was believed to be able to bring rain for the crops or aid hunters in locating game animals.

Nicholas Cresswell, while visiting the Delaware Indians of Coshocton in 1775, witnessed a similar figure in person.  He wrote:

"Saw an Indian Conjuror dressed in a Coat of Bearskin with a Visor mask made of wood, frightful enough to scare the Devil."

The Shaman of Newark is holding, what appears to be, a decapitated head in his lap. Some Hopewell burials include separate skulls, which have been called "trophy skulls" suggesting that they are the heads of enemies killed in battle. That may not be the correct interpretation of these skulls, because there is little evidence for warfare during Hopewell times. Since the Shaman of Newark is not a warrior, but a spiritual leader, it may be that the head in his lap is an honored ancestor to whom he is praying for supernatural aid.

The Shaman of Newark may represent a character from a myth, such as Heracles, or it may be showing us a part of an ancient ritual that was enacted within the enclosing walls of the Newark Earthworks nearly 2,000-years-ago.

See Also


  1. Dragoo, Don W. and Charles F. Wray. "Hopewell Figurine Rediscovered." American Antiquity, Volume 30, pages 195-199 (1964).
  2. Lepper, Bradley T. Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio's Ancient American Indian Cultures. Wilmington, Ohio, Orange Frazer Press, 2005. 
  3. Rockwell, David, Giving Voice to the Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear. Niwot, Colorado, Roberts Rinehart Publishers (1991).