Cosmology: Indigenous North and Mesoamerican Cosmologies

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


There are relatively few generalizations that can legitimately be made about Native American cosmology as a whole. Perhaps the most important, if apparently contradictory generalization, is that all cosmologies are local. In other words, each people, each nation, each pueblo, each city maintains its own cosmos. On some level, then, to understand Native American cosmology as a whole one must comprehend a multiplicity of individual Native American cosmologies. There are scholarly works that provide an overview of Native American cosmology through broad surveys of the various traditions. Some of these books are mentioned at the end of this essay, but no such endeavor is attempted here. Instead, the intent here is to blend conventional scholarly methods with indigenous methods of communicating cosmological knowledge in order to give the reader a substantive yet concise sense of the character of Native American cosmology.

Rather than selecting traditional narratives that are intended to symbolize all Native American cosmologies, we turn to two specific indigenous histories. In both cases, we will see how calendric and astronomical practices reflect cosmological views. The first story comes from a late-nineteenth-century Zuni pueblo; the second from the Late Classic Maya city of Copán. Although separated by over a thousand miles and a thousand years, these two events provide insight into the means by which Native American cosmologies might be conceptualized as representing a single Native American cosmology.

For Native Americans, the universe is generally considered to consist of three realms. The region below the surface of the earth comprised the lower world. The region above the reach of the highest trees constitutes the upper world. The region in between is, approximately, the middle world. There is a further "division" of the cosmos based on the movements of the upper realm's inhabitants, the most important of which is the sun. Frequently this division is correlated to the concept of the four cardinal directions. Native American conceptualizations, however, explicitly tie these directions to the reference frame of the sun's motion: east is associated with the sun's entry into the sky; west with the sun's entry into the Underworld; north is the right hand of the sun; and south the left hand of the sun.

All three levels of the cosmos are inhabited by different entities. Most entities make a single realm their permanent home, but some entities have the ability to move between realms, or at least communicate across "boundaries." Within this cosmography, time is controlled by the members of the upper realm. Generalizations about the role of the Underworld in Native American cosmologies are more difficult to make, although it is most frequently considered to be the abode of deceased human beings. The deceased, or ancestors, often play active roles in the lives of the "living," but the precise roles vary according to the tradition and the era. In each tradition, however, there is some ritually maintained center that allows a people to communicate with the different realms. Because each form of communication is specific to a people, many different cosmic centersand accordingly, cosmologiesmust coexist.

It is in this general cosmographic context that we may consider two indigenous histories. For the Zuni case, we turn to the year 1896 and the newly initiated state of New Mexico. At this time, the Zuni pueblo in question consisted of a few thousand people occupying multi-room adobe houses and dependent on rainfall irrigation of agricultural crops. Social life was organized by clans, each of which had specific roles in Zuni ritual life. From among these clans, a council of A'shiwanni, or rain priests, would select a pe'kwin, or sun priest, charged with maintaining the ritual calendar for all Zunis. Although a religious leader of his people, the pe'kwin was elected and so was subject to removal from office should he not fulfill his duties.

Such a case transpired shortly before the appointment of a new pe'kwin in 1896. A severe drought had brought suffering to the Zuni pueblo, and the Shi'wano'kia ("Priestess of fecundity") placed the blame for the failed crops on the incumbent pe'kwin (Stevenson, 1970, p. 108). A trial of sorts was held, accusations of sorcery were leveled, and the pe'kwin was removed from office. Matilda Coxe Stevenson described the succeeding events as follows:

He was impeached and removed and, after much discussion, a young man of the Raven division of the Dogwood clan was selected to fill the place. The Kia'kwemosi dispatched the elder and younger brother Bow priests to make the announcement to the chosen party. The mother, who was present, wept bitterly and begged her son not to accept the position, saying to the elder brother Bow priest: "He is so young, and he might make some mistake, and then perhaps he would be condemned as a sorcerer." The mother's grief touched the heart of the son, and he declined the honor which he most earnestly desired to attain. Another meeting of the A'shiwanni was held, when a man of the Macaw division of the Dogwood clan was chosen, and in due time he was installed in his high office. (Stevenson, 1970, p. 166)

This new pe'kwin did find himself in a predicament shortly after being installed. The Shi'wano'kia questioned whether he had correctly set the ritual calendar, which required an accurate identification of the summer solstice. Fortunately for the young pe'kwin, the council of rain priests discussed the case and came down in favor of his calculations.

The above story provides an entry into Zuni cosmology, for it tells us that "natural" phenomena were ultimately subject to "social" determination. From the "modern," "scientific" point of view the date of the summer solstice is in the realm of observable fact; there is really no discussion required: either the sun was at astronomical solstice, or it was not.

But there is obviously more to it in the Zuni case. For one thing, Zuni astronomy itself is of necessity partly based on interpretation given the inaccuracy of naked-eye observation, and their mathematical model of the sun's course. Determining when the summer solstice has arrived by observing the sunrise is difficult, given that the sun appears to rise over the same geographical feature along the horizon for a period of approximately four days (Zeilik, 1985, p. S17). It is up to the priest to determine on which of these four days the sun "changed its course," a determination based in turn on computation and other solar observations. An element of arbitrariness is thus inherent in the setting of the calendar.

Moreover, the process of setting the date of summer solstice had direct impact on the ceremonial life of the pueblo. Namely, harvests and ceremonies were set by the solar calendar, and that calendar was initiated with the observation of the summer solstice by the pe'kwin. Zuni ceremonial life, then, was intimately tied to the agricultural cycle and to agricultural productivity, and thus, in turn, to the survival of the pueblo. A poor agricultural yield was thought to result from problems in the relationship between the gods and the populace. The pe'kwin was the mediator, so in the end, he was held accountable.

The Zuni gods were neither entirely benevolent nor entirely malicious. Some, in fact, seemed to randomly switch back and forth between reasonableness and juvenile mischief. The pe'kwin had the difficult job of navigating these mood swings to obtain the best possible results for his people. It was his job to read the clues wherever he might find them, and to lay a course accordingly. The setting of the ritual calendar comprised an assessment on the pe'kwin' s part of both the capriciousness of the gods and the needs of his community. The ambiguity inherent in the setting of the date of the summer solstice allowed for flexibility and adjustments to compensate for whatever set of circumstances the pe'kwin perceived.

Furthermore, when the Shi'wano'kia in the story above suggested that sorcery might have been the source of the pe'kwin' s poor guidance, numerous allegations from the populace supported this claim. This tells us that there was a concurrent social negotiation underlying the pe'kwin' s responsibilities. When the Shi'wano'kia relieves the old pe'kwin of his duties and suggests a replacement, she is setting up a social dynamic that affects her people. Namely, if the drought that had begun in the time of the former pe'kwin were to continue, the people could still blame it on his ill practices. If, on the other hand, agricultural yield increased, then the new pe'kwin could be hailed as the reason for the renewed agricultural production. Either way, the psychological health of the community is maintained, either through a release of grievanceswith the old pe'kwin as the scapegoator through the creation of a new focus for community optimismthe new pe'kwin who is seen as righting the course.

We must be careful, however, to note that this does not imply that the job of the pe'kwin was strictly political. If his calculations of the sun's movements were significantly in error, for example, the rain priests, who were also observing the sun's course, would not have supported his case. The point is that the pe'kwin was forced to intimately know his environmentphysical, ecological, religious, and socialin order to maintain the livelihood of the pueblo.

A similar set of negotiations can be observed in the history of another indigenous polityalthough this consisted of some 30,000 people and thrived some one thousand years earlier. At the Classic Maya city of Copán, during the seventh century ce, the twelfth ruler of the dynasty, or ajaw, found himself and his city at a moment of opportunity. Through alliances with its nearest neighbors, and likely profiting greatly from trade goods that passed from the south into the Mayan region, this city experienced a boom in prosperity. Undoubtedly this caused tensions among the local nobility, and the archaeological record provides us with a demonstration of Ruler 12's efforts to ameliorate the conflicts and generate a cohesion that would maintain the health of the polity in the face of rapid change. A quick review of these efforts demonstrates an overlap in cosmological conceptions between the Copánec and Zuni cases that will aid us in characterizing indigenous views of the universe.

During the middle of the Classic period, the twelfth ajaw had begun building up the monumental architecture of Copán systematically. He did not restrict his focus to the civic-ceremonial center, however, but also built monuments among the foothills framing the Copán Valley. These outlying monuments (known as stelae) were critical to maintaining order among the local nobility and populace.

The stelae themselves are unremarkable artistically relative to the far more elaborate monuments raised in the city center. They were carved with long hieroglyphic texts, but did not bear mythological iconography, or a royal portrait as did their counterparts. In fact, their placement was far more important than the textual message they carried. That is, the stelae had been raised in locations that would allow for a marking of the sun's transit along the horizon. In Copán the reasons for observing the sun's movements were different than they were in the Zuni pueblo mentioned above. The stelae did not mark the summer solstice; instead, stelae alignments pointed toward a more detailed integration of sky, earth, and Underworld mediated by Mayan calendrics (Aldana, 2002, pp. S29S39).

To understand this point, we must first recall that each of the Mayan calendric componentsthe Long Count, the 365-day count, and the 260-day countshared a basis in the number twenty. The Long Count tallied days according to accumulations of twenty-day periods; the 365-day year was comprised of 18 months of 20 days each (with one final period of 5 days); and the 260-day count was based on the relationship of 13 numbers to 20 day signs. Not surprisingly, then, the stelae at Copán were set up to observationally and mathematically partition the year into 20-day periods (Aldana, 2002, pp. S29S39; Aveni, 1980, p. 243).

What made this more than a simple astronomical curiosity was that these monuments were set up in the foothills framing the Copán Valley, among the lands occupied by the commoners in Copánec society. Furthermore, the specific hillocks on which the stelae were placed appear to have held sacred associations for the various lineages that comprised Copán nobility (Proskouirakoff, 1973; Aldana and Fash, 2001). Given the explicit records of Ruler 12's forged alliances with nearby polities, and his need to manage a rapidly growing city, we may see a parallel between his position and that of the Zuni pe'kwin : both sought to meet the social and economic needs of their people through observing the activities of celestial deities and by mediating between these deities and the human world. Namely, the twelfth ajaw drew together the various noble clans of Copán by ritually connecting socially affiliated geographic regions through the movements of the sun. Because the sun was itself rhetorically tied to the legitimacy of Classic Mayan rulership, Ruler 12 was creating a cosmic metaphor: just as the sun set the order of the celestial realm, so would Ruler 12 set the order in the social realm.

Furthermore, the stelae were public and outside of the city center, making the observation of this celestial order available to all members of the polity. Here, then, the Copán ajaw was using astronomy to present a model of order to his polity in order to ameliorate the tensions that arose from economic change. The recurrent rise of the sun behind the stelae on prescribed days exemplified the order that ideally should govern the city of Copán.

In the case of the ancient Mayan city, we see the elaboration possible in a large polity, whereas the Zuni case shows us the intimacy of life in a smaller pueblo. Each case, however, reflects a specific example of a number of concurrent negotiations taking place in indigenous cosmological spaces. An orientalizing view of these native cultures might divide the Native American cosmos into realms whose separation had some physical meaning. We have seen here, however, that an indigenous view of the universe requires a different type of categorization. Rather than think of the sky, the earth, and the Underworld as three physical realms, we may now see them as three social realms, or three polities that require the same types of negotiations within and across them as do human polities. In the above cases, the sun played a particularly important role in the negotiation of what modern society would characterize as political and economic issues. In indigenous terms, we might better conceptualize the negotiation as one between the sky clan and the human clan, with the ruler/pe'kwin as the mediator. Cosmology thus becomes the description of personalities and of the relationships among them. In this context, the "laws of nature" can be seen as contracts among clans or lineagescontracts the leaders of communities are charged with maintaining under varying conditions.


Aldana, Gerardo. "Solar Stelae and a Venus Window: Science and Royal Personality in Late Classic Copán." Archaeoastronomy Supplement 33, no. 27 (2002): 2950.

Aldana, Gerardo, and William L. Fash. "Art, Astronomy, and Statecraft of Late Classic Copán." Forthcoming in a collection of papers presented at "Science, Art, and Religion in the Maya World," a conference at Copán, Honduras, July 14, 2001.

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers. Austin, Tex., 2001. Revised and updated edition of Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico (Austin, Tex., 1980).

Irwin, Lee. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman, Okla., 1994.

Proskouirakoff, Tatiana. "The Hand-Grasping-Fish and Associated Glyphs on Classic Maya Monuments." In Mesoamerican Writing Systems: A Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, October 30th and 31st, 1971, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 165178. Washington, D.C., 1973.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. The Zuñi Indians. New York, 1970. Originally published in the Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, D.C., 1905).

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Native American Religions: North America. New York and London, 1989.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Native Religions and Cultures of Central and South America. New York, 2002.

Zeilik, Michael. "The Ethnoastronomy of the Historic Pueblos (1): Calendrical Sun-Watching." Archaeoastronomy 16, no. 8 (1985): 124.

Gerardo Aldana (2005)

More From