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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 30 Mar 2017/4 Flower
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The universe was woven like a mat!

(Click the pictures in order to see them in a separate window)
In ancient Mexico people had to base their ideas of the earth and universe on what they saw around them, by carefully observing the human body, nature’s forces, and the night sky...
Ancient Mexicans often referred to their worlds in layers, a bit like pyramids. In fact, for years experts thought ancient Mexicans imagined their worlds to be like a pair of pyramids, one upside-down under the other.
BUT! We now know that most of the important things in life for ordinary ancient Mexicans - including sacred items - were made of much simpler materials than stone - think reed, grass, cactus fibre...
In Maya and Aztec art, folded bundles of cloth were often sacred offerings, and the structure of the universe - the cosmos - was likened to the ’folds of the heavens.’ Can you spot the bundle of cloth in this Maya art?
Before the Conquest, most houses were basically ‘woven’ together: their cane frames, walls, and roofs were (and are) made of flexible canes which are literally interwoven. For the Aztecs ‘the heavens were just like a house’.
As for the underworld, ancient Mexicans saw it as a dense, crowded, disordered space similar to the ball of tangled, knotted fibres with which the spinner has to work. So, the higher up you go in the heavens, the tidier things become...
emoticon Q: How did ancient Mexicans banish someone to the underworld?
A: They just told them to GET KNOTTED!

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Article more suitable for mature students

Professor Cecelia Klein, Aztecs ‘Ask the Experts’ Panellist

How did Mesoamericans envision the cosmos?

We are honoured and privileged to upload this introductory essay written specially for us by Professor Cecelia Klein, Professor of Art History at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). It takes its theme from Professor Klein’s 1982 article ‘Woven Heaven, Tangled Earth: A Weaver’s Paradigm of the Mesoamerican Cosmos’.

Pic 1: Mexica astronomer-priest studies the night sky, Codex Mendoza folio 63r (detail)
Pic 1: Mexica astronomer-priest studies the night sky, Codex Mendoza folio 63r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Today we know that the earth revolves around the sun in a seemingly infinite and expanding universe filled with cosmic matter, including stars, planets, meteors, comets, galaxies, and gases. In ancient Mesoamerica, in contrast, the cosmos was envisioned according to what people could see of, or logically work out from, the world around them. Many Mesoamerican understandings were based on what we call naked eye astronomy - observations of events taking place in the celestial vault as seen from Earth - as well as the structure, internal components, and natural workings of the environment and the human body.

Pic 2: Inverted pyramids - a mirror of the ancient view of the cosmos?
Pic 2: Inverted pyramids - a mirror of the ancient view of the cosmos? (Click on image to enlarge)

The manmade environment, however, also provided models of the universe. Because we have many references to Aztec and Maya belief that the upper- and underworlds were layered, scholars have long suspected that some Mesoamericans envisioned their cosmos as two temple-pyramids. Mesoamerican pyramids were typically constructed in tiers. Some people may have imagined the upper world as an upright pyramid joined at the base with a second pyramid, which was upside down. The four corners of the pyramidal bases would have corresponded to the four world directions (the four cardinal points), with their platforms marking the central world direction and the axis mundi of the entire universe.

Pic 3: Weaving every-day objects today from cactus fibre
Pic 3: Weaving every-day objects today from cactus fibre (Click on image to enlarge)

Because most Mesoamerican temple pyramids were built of stone, the notion of a universe shaped like two pyramids joined together would have made sense to people familiar with masonry architecture. For many Mesoamericans, however, their most important buildings and household belongings were made not of stone, but of flexible filaments and fibres. Their view of the cosmos therefore was based not on the typical temple-pyramid, but on the raw materials and products of the lowly house builder and the weaver. Even the most sacred structures in many communities were made with these inexpensive materials.

Pic 4: A bundle of folded cloth (left), feathers and jade make an offering being presented to the Maya god Itzamná; clay polychrome vase, Alta Verapaz
Pic 4: A bundle of folded cloth (left), feathers and jade make an offering being presented to the Maya god Itzamná; clay polychrome vase, Alta Verapaz (Click on image to enlarge)

Conquest period Maya references to the “folds of the katun” or the “folds of the heavens” may have been based on the image of a folded piece of fabric or a pile of folded fabrics. In Maya and Aztec art, bundles of folded cloth appear frequently, just as one often sees undulating forms with rounded corners. That the cosmos was understood in terms of the products of the weaver’s loom is implied by a Yucatec reference to the “folds of death” as babies’ swaddling clothes.

Pic 5: Examples of traditional Maya house-building techniques still in use today
Pic 5: Examples of traditional Maya house-building techniques still in use today (Click on image to enlarge)

According to the 16th century chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún, the Aztecs “thought and took as truth that the heavens were just like a house.” Similarly, the Zinacanteco of Chiapas today see their houses as microcosms of the upper universe. Before the Spanish conquest, as today, many Mesoamerican houses were essentially woven. Described as “wattle and daub” structures; their cane frames, walls, and roofs were (and are) made of flexible canes or poles which are literally interwoven. Many Mesoamericans therefore conceived of the upperworld as a gigantic, spacious, uncluttered, and carefully woven building much like the houses in which they lived.

Pic 6: Double-headed Maya serpent with knotted middle section, containing what may be a representation of the watery underworld; from Altar O, Copán
Pic 6: Double-headed Maya serpent with knotted middle section, containing what may be a representation of the watery underworld; from Altar O, Copán (Click on image to enlarge)

But how did Mesoamericans’ envision the underworld? In contrast to the upper world, the region beneath Earth’s surface appears to have been conceived of as a dense, crowded, disordered space similar to the tangled, knotted ball of fibres with which the spinner has to work. Colonial period Yucatec Maya texts frequently refer to an evil-knotted underworld full of roads that lead nowhere and everywhere, in contrast to the “good roads” that can lead to heaven. Similarly, the Aztecs said that the sea enters the land beneath its surface, where it “goes in all directions.” These underground waters, like Tlaloc, the Aztec god of water, can appear at any opening on the earth’s surface.

Pic 7: The woven earth and the tangled underworld of the Mesoamerican cosmos: a model
Pic 7: The woven earth and the tangled underworld of the Mesoamerican cosmos: a model (Click on image to enlarge)

One gets the impression that the surface of the Earth was likened to a piece of outspread but wrinkled fabric marked by depressions or openings leading to the tangled, unruly filaments below. The image of a twisted underworld was further tied to notions of illness, death, and immorality. Aztec diviners, for example, might throw tangled or knotted cords on the ground to predict a patient’s fate. If the cords remained entwined, the expectation was death. If they unraveled, the patient could expect to recover.

Pic 8: Household Mexican objects plaited from natural materials
Pic 8: Household Mexican objects plaited from natural materials (Click on image to enlarge)

In older time, Mesoamerican homes were full of objects made of woven, twisted or netted cords. These included hammocks, cradles, bags and baskets, floor mats, and blankets. Mesoamerican bodies were clothed in woven, embroidered, and sometimes netted fabrics. Among the Aztec elite, as for most Mesoamerican groups, one of a woman’s principal duties was to spin and weave, and wealth was measured in terms of numbers of mantas, or pieces of cloth. Much of the manmade world in which the average Mesoamerican lived therefore would have consisted of things woven, netted, and plaited, things softer and far more flexible than the cut stones used to construct a temple-pyramid. As such it is they that served as the principal models for Mesoamericans’ understanding of the shape and the nature of the cosmos.

Pic 9: The plaited surface of the earth - Mexica chinampas (detail from a mural at the Museo Nacional de Antropología)
Pic 9: The plaited surface of the earth - Mexica chinampas (detail from a mural at the Museo Nacional de Antropología) (Click on image to enlarge)

SUGGESTED READINGS:-
• Cecelia F. Klein. “Woven Heaven, Tangled Earth: A Weaver’s Paradigm of the Mesoamerican Cosmos.” In Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropics, ed. Anthony F. Aveni and Gary Urton. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 385 (1982): 1-35.
• Lok, Rossana. “The House as a Microcosm: Some Cosmic Representations in a Mexican Indian Village,” in The Leiden Tradition in Structural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of P. E. de Josselin de Jong, ed. R. de Ridder and J. A. J. Karr Mans (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1987), 211-23.
• Prechtel, Martín, and Robert S. Carlsen. “Weaving and Cosmos amongst the Tzutujil Maya,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 15 (1988): 122-32.
• Schaefer, Stacy. “The Loom as a Sacred Power Object in Huichol Culture,” in Art in Small Scale Societies: Contemporary Readings, ed. Richard Anderson and Karen Field (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 118-30.
• Tedlock, Barbara, and Dennis Tedlock. “Text and Textile: Language and Technology in the Arts of the Quiché Maya,” Journal of Anthropological Research 41(2) (Summer 1985: 121-46.

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: Scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 (London) facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• Pic 2: Graphic by Debs Tyler/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Photos by Jimena Larraguivel/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: Photo courtesy Justin Kerr/Mayavase
• Pic 5: Photos L (top & bottom) courtesy Anabel Ford/El Pilar conservation project; R (top & bottom) courtesy Gapforce UK
• Pic 6: Scanned from our own copy of The Eagle, The Jaguar and the Serpent by Miguel Covarrubias, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1954, p. 53
• Pic 7: Drawing by (and courtesy of) Henry F. Klein
• Pic 8: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 9: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 01st 2010

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