Enduring Motives: The Archaeology of Tradition and Religion in Native America

Enduring Motives: The Archaeology of Tradition and Religion in Native America

by Linea Sundstrom

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Enduring Motives examines tradition and religious beliefs as they are expressed in landscape, the built environment, visual symbols, stories, and ritual.
Bringing together archaeologists and Native American experts, this volume focuses on long-lived religious traditions of the native peoples of the Americas and how religion codifies, justifies,


Enduring Motives examines tradition and religious beliefs as they are expressed in landscape, the built environment, visual symbols, stories, and ritual.
Bringing together archaeologists and Native American experts, this volume focuses on long-lived religious traditions of the native peoples of the Americas and how religion codifies, justifies, and reinforces these traditions by placing a high value on continuity of beliefs and practice.

Using clues from the archaeological record to piece together the oldest religions of the Americas, Enduring Motives is organized into four parts. Part 1 creates continuity through structure, iconography, and sacred stories that correspond to culture-specific symbolic representations of the universe. Part 2 explores the encoding of tradition in place and object, or how people use objects to enliven tradition and pass it on to future generations. Part 3 examines stability and change and shows how traditions can evolve over time without losing their core cultural significance. The final part recognizes deep-time traditions through the evidence of ancient cosmology and religious tradition.

Spanning cultures as diverse as the Aztec, Plains Indians, Hopi, Mississippian, and Southwest Pueblo, Enduring Motives brings to light new insights on ancient religious beliefs, practices, methods, and techniques, which allow otherwise intangible facets of culture to be productively explored.
Wesley Bernardini / James S. Brown Jr. / Cheryl Claassen / John E. Clark / ArleneColman / Warren DeBoer /
Robert L. Hall /Kelley Hays-Gilpin / Alice Beck Kehoe /John E. Kelly / Stephen H. Lekson / ColinMcEwan /
John Norder / Jeffrey Quilter /Amy Roe / Peter G. Roe / Linea Sundstrom

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University of Alabama Press
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The Archaeology of Tradition and Religion in Native America


Copyright © 2012 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5715-3

Chapter One

Structure of the Mesoamerican Universe, from Aztec to Olmec

John E. Clark and Arlene Colman

Our original intent in this essay, which proved impractical, was to explicate Mesoamerican cosmological beliefs known for Postclassic Mesoamericans and then adduce archaeological evidence of these beliefs for the earliest city dwellers of Mesoamerica, the Olmecs. In the Spanish-language literature the beliefs of interest are known as a people's cosmovisión, a generous cognitive category that includes cosmogony, cosmography, and the nature of the gods, humans, and all other creatures, things, and animate forces of the universe (see Brundage 1979 for an excellent summary for the Aztecs). Several attempts to outline a minimum, shared cosmovision for the Aztecs and Maya at the time of the Spanish Conquest proved too vast for the historical exercise possible here, so we restrict attention to the slice of cosmological beliefs dealing with cosmography or "configurations of space" (Brotherston 1992:82)—notions about the structure of the heavens and the earth. We attempt to compare beliefs of the latest Mesoamericans at the time of the Conquest with those of their first civilized ancestors 3,000 years earlier. Looking at the shape and structure of the universe is an excellent place to begin evaluating similarities and differences between the cosmovisions of the first and last Mesoamericans because both built notions of space into their cities and offerings.

Details of Mesoamerican cosmography come from Native accounts recorded before the Conquest, or written soon thereafter, and from ethnographic descriptions of the descendants of Mesoamerican peoples (see López Austin 1994). Beliefs varied somewhat between groups, but there was broad agreement about the shape and organization of the universe, and these similarities appear to derive from a long tradition. Te proposition of a shared tradition is built into the concept of Mesoamerica itself. Mesoamerica is a cultural-geographical term for a region of peoples who shared a common history of city living (Kirchhoff 1943, 1952, 1966). Continuities between early and late Mesoamericans have been known for centuries, and there is no doubt these peoples were part of a single tradition. This does not mean, however, that there were not significant changes through time in core beliefs. In fact, the definition of Mesoamerica as a historical-cultural phenomenon of high civilization dictates that fundamental changes necessarily occurred in the past to effect the transformation from egalitarian lifeways to urban living. Most of these changes probably happened during the emergence of civilization about 1500 B.C.E. What beliefs changed during this revolutionary transition, and how and why, are questions for another time. A first step for addressing the origins of core concepts is to document the earliest Mesoamerican cosmovision. We begin this task here by comparing archaeological indicators of Olmec concepts to those known for later periods. We avoid imposing Postclassic views on these earlier peoples, but we rely on concepts from the Postclassic period to inform the search for their possible beginnings. We first outline late Mesoamerican views on the configuration of the cosmos and then turn to possible archaeological manifestations of these beliefs as known for the Aztecs and Olmecs.

The Postclassic Universe

Mesoamerican myths record that the earth and its creatures have been divinely created and cataclysmically destroyed on multiple occasions. The Maya describe four creations and the Aztecs recount five. Aztecs believed they were living in the last age of the world, which they described as the Fifth Sun (for detailed summaries see Brundage 1979; de la Garza 1978; Gardner 1986; León-Portilla 1963; López Austin 1994; Monjarás-Ruiz 1987). The universe was a complex affair, and the earthly plane was its central pivot. Space extended in six directions from the center of the earth's surface: up, down, and to four directions. The earth was a disk of land floating on a sea. This sea extended out and up until it "merged with the sky, which then appeared to be the ceiling of a towering edifice. Sea and sky were thus one substance" (Brundage 1979:6).

Human beings, gods, creatures, and other beings each had their place in this universe, as specified during creation. For the Aztecs, the First Sun was ruled by their supreme deity, Tezcatlipoca, associated with the earth, moon, and jaguars: "The light of this original sun was only a half light. People existed in this age but were finally destroyed by a race of misshapen giants. Food consisted of acorns and pine nuts. The giants were finally consumed by jaguars and the feeble sun was stricken from the sky" (Brundage 1979:28). The Second Sun was ruled by Quetzalcoatl, a god associated with the planet Venus, fertility, and wind. Food was "acecentli, a cornlike grain which grows in water" (León-Portilla 1963:42). This world was destroyed by winds, and the surviving people were turned into monkeys. Tlaloc, the rain god, ruled the third age. Food was cincocopi, a seed related to maize. The world was destroyed by fire, and survivors became turkeys (León-Portilla 1963:42). The fourth age was ruled by Chalchiuhtlicue, goddess of waters. Brundage (1979:28) describes that "the ending of this age was a peculiar horror for, as an accompaniment to the gushing up of the hitherto impounded waters of the earth, the sky collapsed and fell upon the earth. In the ensuing floods men turned into fish." In the fifth and current age, the god Nanahuatl "sacrificed himself to become the present sun. Maize was grown for the first time, fire was domesticated.... The full apparatus of culture appeared" (Brundage 1979:28). Humans were created from bones retrieved from the underworld by Quetzalcoatl. This world age will end with a large earthquake and hunger.

Aztecs believed that at the center of the earth was a cosmic tree, the axis mundi. Space extended vertically up the tree's trunk and branches to 9 or 13 levels of heaven (depending on the account and interpretation), and the tree's roots penetrated down 9 layers of dark and humid underworld. These two divisions of the vertical world were connected to the central, earthly plane by this center tree. Different layers were inhabited by different gods with diverse powers and propensities. Caves were openings to these other levels. "One of the fundamental concepts of the Aztec religion was the grouping of all beings according to the four cardinal points of the compass and the central direction, or up and down" (Caso 1958:10); these cardinal points also corresponded to different colors. Mercedes de la Garza (1978:55, translation by Clark) aptly summarizes the cyclical creation of Mesoamerican people in their evolving universe:

The gods carried out the creation as a generative process realized by the Sun as the vital and divine cosmic principle, in which progressively appeared the four principal elements and diverse non-human entities, harmonized among themselves, while man, as the central part of the process, underwent successive transformations caused by the essential connection with the other entities of nature, to become a being that the gods needed to survive.

The Earthly Plane

For the Aztecs, the earth was the cleaved body of Cipactli, a fish/crocodile-like creature that floated on, and was surrounded by, the primeval sea. Half of Cipactli's body became the female earth and half the male sky (Bernal-García 2001; López Austin 1994:19, 25). Space extended horizontally in four directions from the earth and its central tree. An image from the Codex Fejéváry-Mayer shows the quincunx arrangement of the horizontal universe, with sky-supporting trees growing in each world quarter and in the central pivot, each tree with its bird, and each direction associated with a different color (see Miller and Taube 1993:187; Townsend 2000:133).

The surface of the earth (tlaltícpac) is a great disk situated in the center of the universe and extending horizontally and vertically. Encircling the earth like a ring is an immense body of water (téo-atl), which makes the world cem-á-nahuac, "that-which-is-entirely-surrounded-by-water." Neither the land nor the great ring of water is considered to be amorphous or to possess undifferentiated qualities, for the universe is divided into four great quadrants of space whose common point of departure is the navel of the earth. From this point the four quadrants extend all the way out to the meeting place, on the horizon, of the heavens and the surrounding celestial water (Ilhuíca-alt).... Contemplating the passage of the sun, the Nahuas [Aztecs] described the cosmic quadrants from a position facing the West: "There where it sets, there is its home, in the land of the red color. To the left of the sun's path is the South, the direction of the blue color; opposite the region of the sun's house is the direction of light, fertility and life, symbolized by the color white; and finally, to the right of the sun's route, the black quadrant of the universe, the direction of the land of the dead, is to be seen" [León-Portilla 1963:57, 59].

Mary Miller and Karl Taube (1993:83–84) summarize things as follows: "The earth was also regarded as a flat four-sided field, with the four directions corresponding to each of the sides. For the Maya, this model is metaphorically compared to the quadrangular maize field."

Mountains, rivers, lakes, and caves were particularly important features of the earth's surface. Mountains and hills represented the scutes on the back of the leviathan that was the earth. The combination of mountain and water was also a key metaphor for civilized humanity.

And they said that the mountains were only magic places, with earth, with rock on the surface; that they were only like ollas [ceramic jars] or like houses; that they were filled with the water which was there. If sometime it were necessary, the mountains would dissolve; the whole world would flood. And hence the people called their settlements altépetl ["water-mountain"]. They said, "This mountain, this river, springs from there, the womb of the mountain. For from there Chalchiuitlicue sends it—offers it" [Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Book n, Chapter 12, in Dibble and Anderson 1963:247].

Upper Worlds

From a human perspective sky was unknown: "Unlike the realms of earth and underworld, which could be penetrated by humans, the sky was a source of mystery, a supernatural realm entirely distinct from that of human beings" (Miller and Taube 1993:153–154). As noted, there is some variation in the number of levels or divisions described for the celestial realm and its configuration. A postconquest, Aztec depiction from Vatican Codex A of the levels of the universe shows 13 levels stacked vertically (Caso 1958:61). Some scholars think that earlier views of the heavens conceived of 9 levels rather than 13; this would have made the levels of heaven symmetrical with the levels of the underworld. Of earlier possibilities Walter Krickeberg (1968:39–40) argues,

According to the most ancient version, the earth is a flat disk sandwiched between the bases of two immense step-pyramids; each step of the upper pyramid represents one hour of the day and one station of heaven, and each step of the nether pyramid represents one hour of the night and one station of hell. The stream which flows around the earth and round the bases of the two pyramids is called the Chicunaulapan, "nine stream," because there are nine heavens and nine underworlds.

Krickeberg also claims that the concept of the layers rather than a "stepped" concept is a later Aztec innovation: "The older idea is more logical; it fits in better with the idea that the sun climbs and descends a pyramid each day (and does the reverse every night), and it also coordinates spatial and temporal ideas better than does the idea of a layered universe" (Krickeberg 1968:40). Other views are that the Aztecs did have a pyramidal concept associated with 13 stations of heaven, with the seventh rather than the fifth level being the apex of the pyramid.

Most commentaries for the Aztec describe 13 separate and stacked layers of heaven, each the domain or abode of gods, and in some instances places for the afterlife existence of humans who died in certain ways. The two highest levels of heaven were "the place of duality" occupied by the original male–female duality, creator gods (León-Portilla 1963:59). The lowest level of heaven was the domain of the moon and clouds. Two groups of 400 stars each were in the second level, as were the numerous constellations. The sun ruled the third level of heaven, and he was aided in his travels across the arc of the sky by men who died in battle or sacrifice and by women who died in childbirth. The fourth level of the heavens was the domain of Venus. Comets and smoking stars were on the fifth level. Between these lower five levels and the two highest levels were the dwelling places ofvarious gods and colors (León-Portilla 1963:59; Matos Moctezuma 2003:30).

The Aztecs had three other non-celestial places that received souls of the dead. Most persons went to the first of these, the underworld, as described below. Others went to two places that Spanish clerics equated with paradise. These two realms of the dead were Tlalocan and Chichihuacuauhco. Tlalocan was a hollow mountain so high that its peak was near the moon, meaning the first level of heaven (López Austin 1994:9, 52).

Tlalocan, described by Sahagún as "the earthly paradise," was the second place of the dead. In this place "never is there a lack of green corn, squash, sprigs of amaranth, green chiles, tomatoes, string beans in pods, and flowers; there dwelled some gods called Tlaloques." The pleasant destiny of going to Tlalocan befell those chosen by Tláloc, the god of rain. He called them by means of ... death by drowning, lightning, dropsy, or gout. The individuals chosen by the god of rain were not cremated but were buried [León-Portilla 1963:125].

The third place for the dead was reserved for children: "It was called Chichihuacuauhco. The name ... means 'in the wet-nurse tree.' To this place went the children who died before attaining the age of reason. There they were nourished by the milk which fell in drops from the tree" (León-Portilla 1963:127).

Lower Worlds

Most people who died went to the underworld. Details for this dark realm come from descriptions of the expected travels of the dead from the earth to the lowest level under the earth. Just as the highest heaven was ruled by a god and goddess pair, so was the lowest level under the earth. All the levels under the earth were known to the Aztecs as Mictlan. The god and goddess of death inhabited the ninth and lowest level. For the Maya, the underworld was known as Xibalba: "Xibalba, and the Maya Underworld in general, could be entered through a cave, or still, standing water ... the Underworld geography includes at least two rivers and varies much like the geography of the surface world, and its realm is vast" (Miller and Taube 1993:177–178). In like manner, Mictlan had a complex geography that included mountains and streams. With the exceptions of the types of death mentioned above, "Persons who died a natural death went there, but on the road the dead had to overcome a number of obstacles. The company of a little dog was granted to the dead person; it was cremated along with the corpse. The Nahuas believed that the tests ended after four years, and that this also concluded the wandering existence of the dead" (León-Portilla 1963:124).

The entrance to Mictlan was a cave or caves (one for each of the world directions) that were hidden among the rocky crags of the mountains (Mendoza 1962:78). One descended toward Mictlan on very steep steps. Mictlan was conceived as a spacious and vast place without light or windows. It was a place of famine, desolation, and death. All that remained of the dead who went there was a skeleton of precious bones (Nicholson 1959:52). The soul/ skeleton had to pass through four years of trials before it came to the lowest level of the underworld. To arrive there one had to first cross a river and travel through a narrow pass between two hills: "Then followed the place of the snake that guards the road, the place of the green lizard, the place of the eight wildernesses, crossing eight passes, the place of the razor-cold wind, crossing the Chicohahuapan River, and, finally, arrival at Mictlan" (Matos Moctezuma 2003:34; see also Sahagún in Anderson and Dibble 1978).


Excerpted from ENDURING MOTIVES Copyright © 2012 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Linea Sundstrom is an independent researcher with the Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Warren DeBoer is a professor of anthropology at CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

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