Introduction to Mesoamerican Cosmology

Ancient Mesoamerican cosmology expresses ideas of the organization and function of the cosmos, including the world in which human beings live. 

We conceive of our world as having four cardinal directions. The same happened in Mesoamerica. However, instead of the cardinal directions being represented as set points on a compass, for Ancient Mesoamerica, the cardinal directions were spatial areas. 

For the Western world, North is at the top of our cardinal directions, because of our magnetic compasses. Mesoamericans, however, would put East at the top, because that was the direction that the sun rose from, meaning that West would be at the bottom, South to the right and North to the left. This is the way that Mesoamericans conceived of the world. Now note again these are not points– they are spatial areas. 

A good example to use here is the Codex Fejervary-Meyer. This is an Aztec/Mexica Codex that represents the four directions. Although the Aztec/Mexica culture is quite a bit later than Teotihuacan, the cosmology shown remains the same. The four cardinal directions are represented here, each shown within a trapezoid shape. The one at the top is East, as referenced by the sun disk on the temple. The other directions are found in their appropriate locations. Each one of these directions are spatial areas– and inside each one is a tree with a bird at the top (a concept which will be referenced below). 

Frontispiece of the Codex Fejervary-Mayer. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Another important aspect of Mesoamerican cosmology is the quincunx. “Quincunx” is a Latin term that references the number five. As mentioned above, there are four cardinal directions in Mesoamerican cosmology. There is also a fifth, central point. When represented in art, these elements tend to appear stacked on top of each other; however, if seen as if on a horizontal plane, the quincunx mimics the idea of landscape. This causes the center point to appear as the point in space where all different layers of the cosmos intersect. 

An example of this is seen in the Olmec-style Rio Pesquero celt, or inscribed jade stone. It represents the same cosmological ideas. In this inscription, we see a representation of the four directions of the cosmos, with the ruler standing in as the center point. This center point is known as the axis mundi, which is another Latin term meaning “axis of the world”. In this case, then, the ruler is setting himself up as the center of the world, and the point at which all layers of the cosmos intersect. 

Rio Pesquero Celt. Drawing by Catherine Nuckols Wilde. Do not use without permission.

Ancient Mesoamericans conceived of their world as existing on three planes. The middle plane is the world that we live in: the terrestrial. Above that is the upper world, and below is the underworld. It is important to emphasize that the underworld and upper world do not match Western Christian conventions of heaven and hell. These are different layers of the universe, and they’re not necessarily connected to concepts of good and bad. 

Each level of the cosmos is also associated with certain animals that live in that realm: 

The upper world is the world above this one. It’s where the sun lives, as well as the moon and the stars. Birds and butterflies are associated with the upper world because they fly. These are animals that typically live up high in the sky, in the space designated as the upper world.

The terrestrial world, as mentioned, is the world in which we live. Animals considered to belong to the middle plane are, for example, tapirs, anteaters, rabbits, deer, and turtles. There are, however, some animals that are considered more powerful because they can traverse different realms of the cosmos. An example of this would be a monkey, which lives primarily in trees but also comes down to the ground.

The underworld is a watery, dark place with caves and underground rivers– very similar to the karstic, cenote-filled region of the Yucatan peninsula. It is inhabited by very powerful animals. First, the alligator. They live mostly in the water but they come up to the surface to sun themselves: they are not limited to just one area. Another example is the jaguar. Jaguars are land cats that also swim. Both of these animals are conceived of as extremely powerful. The jaguar is used frequently in representations of rulership, and the alligator is always used in representations of the Underworld. 

Now let’s talk about how these worlds are represented. Possibly the most frequent representation of the multi-layered cosmos is that of a tree. Trees live (for the most part) on the surface of the world. However, they are not limited to this world. The branches and leaves of trees extend up into the sky, and their roots extend all the way down through the earth, to the underworld. In this way, trees represent the axis mundi that connects all three layers of the universe. When a ruler takes the place of the axis mundi, they are doing the same thing: reaching up into the upper world and down into the underworld, all while existing in this middle plane. 

Izapa Stela 25 provides an excellent example of this concept. In this scene, we see a representation of a world tree or an Axis mundi. A bird rests in the top branches of the tree. As the tree trunk descends, it becomes increasingly more rough. At the very base of the tree is the head and upper torso of an alligator or a crocodile. Its head goes down below the surface of the earth, and its claws become the roots of the tree. So here we have an example of all three layers of the cosmos represented on the World Tree. The branches with a bird represent the upper world. The trunk of the tree and the ruler nearby exist in the terrestrial realm. At the base, the alligator extends down into the underworld. This is a very clear example of how ancient Mesoamericans conceived of the world around them and represented those concepts in their art.

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