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The pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica shared a world view or "cosmovision". This cosmovision was an attempt to explain and better understand all that surrounded the society, including its place within the cosmos, or universe. It is known both from textual sources - the Popol Vuh and the Cuauhtinchan maps - and from the archeological record. Persisting throughout Mesoamerica over long periods, the cosmovision profoundly influenced the way in which society was organized and evolved over time, informing cultural practices including the construction of ceremonial urban centers, worship of rulers and ancestors, and human sacrifice. Elements of the old cosmovision can be seen in the present-day Mexican ceremony of Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos).
- 1 Duality
- 2 Three themes in Mesoamerican cosmovision
- 3 Human sacrifice
- 4 Evidence
- 5 Cosmovision in modern ceremony: the Day of the Dead
- 6 References
- 7 Sources
The Mesoamerican understanding of the universe was guided by parallelisms, or dualities. In the Mesoamerican universe, everything formed a part of a pair. One of the most fundamental dualities was that of "macrocosmos", or the divine powers in the universe, and "microcosmos" or life on earth. Mesoamerican cosmovision linked space and time in a way that provided necessary structure to life.
Three themes in Mesoamerican cosmovision
The Mesoamerican world was made or structured to reflect their cosmovision. Societies were organized around huge, urban ceremonial centers, which were in turn constructed to reflect the cosmos through architecture, placement with relation to celestial bodies, and artwork. Mesoamericans, who viewed their landscape in terms of cardinal directions, saw these urban centers as axis mundi, places where divine power reaches the earth, and is diffused from there. These centers held ritual events that gave people access to “making” or generating a world that aligned with cosmovision.
Its rulers and ancestors centered the Mesoamerican world. Ancestor worship, deification of rulers, and reverence for royal lineages were the foci in societies throughout Mesoamerica.
Worldrenewing or rejuvenation was achieved through a variety of ritual practices, ceremonial sacrifice, and adherence to calendar systems.
Mesoamericans did not understand human sacrifice as a malicious act, but rather sacrifices were carried out in an effort to renew and center their world, as well as pay debts to the gods. Mesoamericans carried out ritual sacrifice in order to balance, center, and renew their cosmo-magical world, which hinged upon ever-present duality: the human and the divine (the earth and the cosmos).
Cosmovision is understood as one of the structures that is found throughout Mesoamerican history. It is evident that the concept was one adopted in varying forms by all Mesoamerican cultures, and aided in perpetuating a cultural cohesion. Although the cultural construct evolved over time as it was utilized by various Mesoamerican cultures, the three core themes of worldmaking, worldcentering, and worldrenewing were central to its use. Primary sources in the historical and archaeological records make it clear that themes of worldmaking, centering and renewal can be found throughout Mesoamerica.
Textual primary sources
Cosmovision themes of worldmaking, centering, and renewing are described extensively in the Popol Vuh, an ancient Mayan book, which describes the Mayan belief system concerning the creation of the world, the deities and their roles within the cosmos, as well as the importance of rulers. The survival of this text through translation, first as a hieroglyphic text and later as an alphabetic text, indicates that this book was paramount in preserving Mayan culture, which was inextricably linked to Mayan cosmovision. Throughout the Popol Vuh, the themes common to Mesoamerican cosmovision such as the concept of axis mundi, ritual sacrifice and ceremony, and duality and parallelism, are repeatedly presented. Worldmaking, centering, and renewing are all depicted in the hero stories of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, One Hunahpu, and Seven Hunahpu, as well as the story concerning the conception of humans in the Popol Vuh.
The importance of cosmovision as a long lasting and unifying theme in Mesoamerican culture is also evident throughout the archaeological record. According to Gordon Willey’s theory concerning settlement patterns, excavated sites (considered primary sources) provide evidence for religious organization (Willey, 205). If one considers the major urban centers throughout Mesoamerica, such as Copan, Tikal, Teotihuacan, and Tenochtitlan to name a few, it is possible to discern very obvious, shared characteristics. These distinctive attributes include things such as architecture and celestial alignment that reflect Mesoamerican cosmovision. This is apparent in the building of massive pyramid sites, which represented the axis mundi in societies. They were places that embodied worldmaking, representing the creation beliefs, visually paralleling notions of the way in which the cosmos was organized. These urban sites also centered the Mesoamerican world by providing places where rulers could give people in society physical, and ultimately spiritual, access to their cosmovision. Finally, these urban centers provided a place for worldrenewal, where ritual ceremony and sacrifice took place.
A final example, the 16th century Mapa de Cuauhtinchan, illustrates how powerful and enduring the Mesoamerican cosmovision was. According to Elizabeth Boone’s interpretation of the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan, cosmovision influenced the culture of Mesoamericans so heavily during the Colonial Period that they used their origin story as justification to claim native lands. Ancestor worship is a common theme in Mesoamerican cosmovision. The northern, Nahautl-speaking people all shared a common origin story, which is depicted in the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan. This map serves not only to center the Mesoamerican world through the stories of its ancestors and rulers, but also depicts urban centers, which reflect worldmaking. Finally, the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan also reveals ceremonial rituals, an essential component of worldrenewing. All of these themes are clearly important to native Mesoamericans right up through the Colonial Period.
Cosmovision in modern ceremony: the Day of the Dead
Again, we see the three main themes of cosmovision (worldmaking, worldcentering, and worldrenewing) in the modern ceremony: of the Day of the Dead. This ceremony begins with great preparation.
Special food and drinks are prepared. Decorations are made and collected. Once all is in order for the festivities, the altar is made ready. Altars are located in family homes, in churches, in town centers, and in graveyards. The altar is decorated and oferenda (offerings) are laid on the altar for ancestors who will visit.
Finally, the actual ceremony, during which the dead ancestors come together with living descendants, represents the concept of worldrenewing. Through this process, the Mesoamerican world is renewed.
Boone, Elizabeth. “The House of the Eagle.” Cave City and Eagle’s Nest: an Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2. Ed. David Carrasco. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.
Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2014.
Castillo, Bernal Diaz del. The History of the Conquest of New Spain. Trans. David Carrasco. University of New Mexico Press, 2009.
Fash, William. Copan: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. SAR Press, 2005.
Fash, William, et. al. “The House of New Fire at Teotihuacan and its Legacy in Mesoamerica.” The Art of Urbagnism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery. Ed. William L. Fash and Leonardo Lopez Luhan. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2009.
Restall, Matthew and Kris Lane. Latin America in Colonial Times. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Popol Vuh. Trans. Tedlock, Dennis. Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Wheatley, Paul. “City as a Symbol.” H.K. Lewis & Co Ltd London, 1967.
Willey, Gordon. “Mesoamerican Civilization and the Idea of Transcendence.” Antiquity 50, 199 (1976), 205-215.