[00:00:00] My name is Davíd Carrasco. [I am] a professor in the history of religions, and I would like to welcome you to this introduction to Mesoamerica. One of the most important questions is: Why study Mesoamerica? Mesoamerica was one of the seven areas of what scholars now call primary urban generation—that is, in the history of human culture, there are only seven places in the world where human beings made together that great transition from the world of the village, to the world of the city. And those seven areas are Northern China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Southwestern Nigeria, and two of them in the Americas—the highlands of Peru, and the place where I’m taking you today, which is Mesoamerica.
So, [by] studying Mesoamerica, you’re not just studying one more area where the Third World itself has developed important things, you’re raising questions about this major point of “Where did cities first come from?” Well, Mesoamerica is one of the places where human beings first invented cities. And how can we come to understand this complex urban society that developed in Central Mexico and Northern Mexico starting around 1500 BC? I think one of the most impressive ways for students to understand what happened in Mesoamerica and how it developed into these urban centers is to look at the “cosmovision”—that is, the religious imagination which came to be imprinted in the ceremonial centers and the daily lives and the rituals of these people. And I’d like to introduce you to this whole notion of a cosmovision—that is, a world view—by beginning with a story that will help you get into the major elements of the way in which these Mesoamerican peoples imagined the world.
The Story of Xolotl
[01:48:00] Around the year 1300, a Chichimec warrior named Xolotl—or “Divine Dog”—went to a hill in the basin of Mexico and took out four arrows. He shot these arrows in the four directions of the world and watched them soar through the air and land in distant locations. Then, with his friends, he gathered together some grasses and wove them into a circle and said some prayers and lit a fire and scattered the ashes from that sacred circle into the four directions of the world.
The symbols and actions of this ritual meant that the Chichimec people had arrived at their new homeland. Looking back at this story, we see some of the central ideas in the cosmovision. Throughout Mesoamerica, as you will learn as you move yourself through Mesolore, you’ll find that there were certain crucial shared ideas, regardless of whether you’re looking at the Aztecs, the Maya, the Mixtec, or other peoples. The first was that the world itself was organized into four major quarters—four major quadrants that represented what we call the cardinal points of the universe.
The second idea is that these four parts of the universe were organized around the “Axis Mundi”—the center of the world. And, in the general cosmovision of Mesoamerica, this central section and the four parts around it were surrounded by what they called “Divine Water”—and this Divine Water actually curved up into heaven. Flowing through the central section of the four quarters was a vertical shaft, and this shaft had thirteen layers above the earth, and nine layers below the earth. And the thirteen levels above the earth were where the gods lived—the gods of different celestial forces. And below the earth is where the gods of the underworld lived. But this shaft that went through the center of the world, in the middle of the four quarters, was divided itself into a duality: there was male and female, there was night and day, there was left and right, there was dry and wet.
And each of these thirteen levels above the earth, and the nine levels below the earth, were infiltrated by this duality. So, in the story of Xolotl shooting the four arrows, and then burning the smoke—burning the grass so that it then ascends into heaven—we have a succinct image of the center of the world, the four quarters, the ascension into heaven, the idea of ashes being spread to the four quarters. And it is these particular ideas that came to organize the way in which urban life (and village life) was lived throughout Mesoamerica, and, in what follows, I’m going to take you though a tour of these central ideas.
[4:48:59] I’ve given you a quick summary of the way in which the universe of Mesoamerica was organized spatially. Let me talk briefly about the notion of sacred time. One of the best images of the Mesoamerican conception of sacred time can be found in what is known as the Aztec Calendar Stone—this great stone monolith that was carved by the Aztecs to represent their view of dynamic universal time. Actually this stone is misnamed. It should really be called “the Stone of the Suns,” because what it depicts is the pattern that the universe has passed through—four previous cosmic ages—leading up to the age in which the Aztecs dwelled, or the fifth age.
When you look at the great Aztec calendar stone, focus on the central part, where you will see in the middle, again, our notion of the “Axis Mundi,” the face of the great Aztec god, Tonatiuh, representing the sun. You’ll note that his tongue is actually a sacrificial knife. But, around the central figure, you’ll see four boxes, and each of these boxes has within it an image of a god, or an image of a celestial force. Each of these gods, or celestial forces, represents one of the four previous ages of the universe. For instance, the first age of the Aztec world was called the “Age of Jaguar,” or “Four Jaguar.” And it was believed that during the process of the cosmic creations, the universe had gone through a period of chaos and then came into a period of stability, and this period was when the ancestors first began to live in some sort of vague cosmic past. But jaguars descended on these people and devoured them; therefore, the age was called “Four Jaguar” after the force that had destroyed the world. The universe fell into a period of darkness. And then, as time passed, a second age came to be formed in which another set of ancestors struggled to create some order in the universe. Unfortunately, great hurricanes came—great winds came—and blew these people away. This period, or this age—cosmic age—was called “Four Wind.” Again the universe fell into chaos. And you see this pattern, this pattern of duality, of order and chaos, being repeated in the Mesoamerican cosmology.
A third age was formed, and again the ancestors struggled to bring culture and calendar and corn into the lives of the ancestors. And this time another destructive force appeared—as you see in the image—and the rains came, a rain of fire, and destroyed the people. Finally, there was a fourth age, in which again the ancestors struggling still in Mesoamerica to bring order into the world were destroyed this time by water. But then you come to the age—the fifth age—or the age of the center. You see time itself was organized as space was—four parts around a central age. And this is the age Four Movement or Four Earthquake. Here the idea was that even though the Aztecs had created—and other Mesoamerican peoples had created—culture with great ceremonial centers and trading systems, great artistic traditions, and priestly leadership and kings, this world would also be destroyed. But here, the destructive force would be earthquakes—that is, the world itself would shake. And so this sun was called “Four Movement”—and it was believed that at some future period—future moment—in the world of Mesoamerica, great earthquakes would come and destroy the people. And so, again stepping back from the story, what you have is a reaffirmation of the pattern that you will see again and again through Mesolore. And that is the center of the world with four quarters in some sort of dynamic relationship.
The Fifth Age
[09:00:59] Now, there’s another story that tells us more about the way in which Mesoamerican peoples understood their history and their destiny. And this is the story about the way in which these people imagined the creation of the fifth age. Unfortunately, in the remarkable works of Bernardino de Sahagún—the Franciscan priest who interviewed Mesoamerican elders during the early period of Spanish colonial life—in his interviews with these elders, he collected a number of songs and myths that these people remembered. And one of them is crucial for understanding this last, [this] fifth age of the Aztecs.
The story tells us that at the great city of Teotihuacan—which is the city of the gods—after the fourth age of the world was destroyed and all was in darkness, the gods who had survived gathered together in Teotihuacan and built a fire to warm themselves and to bring some hope for light in the universe. Gathered together around the fire, they realized that in order for the new sun to be created, there had to be some kind of sacrifice—that one of the gods would have to throw him or herself into this divine hearth, this fire. As the story goes, two of the gods, two of the lesser gods, competed with one another as to who would have the courage to run forward and throw himself into the fire. There were several tries by these two gods, vying for fame and creativity, until one of them—Nanahuatzin, the pimply faced one—gathered up his courage and threw himself into the fire. Immediately, the other god followed and threw himself into the fire—and out of the fire flew, first of all, a spotted eagle, and, secondly, out of the fire came a jaguar. You’ll see that throughout your study of Mesolore, that the jaguar and the eagle come to represent two of the most important military forces in Mesoamerican life. They represent the two major military units, the eagle warriors and the jaguar warriors.
Creating the Sun
[11:16:58] But the gods were about creating more than warriors—they wanted to create the sun. And so what then happened is [that] the gods began to look around in the dark universe to find out where the sun would rise and, fortunately, one of them—the famous Quetzalcoatl, the “Plumed Serpent”—said that he knew the direction in which the sun would rise, and he faced east. All of the other gods sat with him facing east, and lo and behold, there above the eastern horizon became—appeared—light. The light got more intense and more intense until, finally, a sun disk rose above the horizon. But the creation was not complete, because when this sun disk rose above the horizon, what happened was that it stopped. And it, as the story tells us, wobbled from side to side. That is a universe was created, but it was unstable, it still had not been completed. You have to imagine the sun, the solar disk up there, moving from side to side as though it might fall out of the sky at any minute. Therefore, the gods gathered together and said, “In order for this sun to develop a solid path—a process across the heavens—more sacrifices are needed.” And so more gods threw themselves into the fire, but the sun did not move across the heavens.
And so one god came forward, named Ehecatl, who was the wind god, and he announced that all the gods would have to die—give their lives, their blood—so that the sun itself would be created and move across the sky, and, therefore, human beings could then have a stable, regenerative universe. And so, Ehecatl then sacrificed all of the gods, and, at that moment, the solar disk in fact began to move across the sky in a regenerative, recurring pattern. This is the story that many Mesoamerican peoples told about a kind of gift that the Mesoamerican gods had to give in order for human life—cultural life—to be formed.
The other important part of this story is that it takes place in the great city of Teotihuacan. This is the great ancient capital where people today go. As a matter of fact, the ruins of Teotihuacan, known as the pyramids, are today the most often visited site of any archaeological zone in the Americas. This leads us to come back to the point that I made at the beginning, which is that Mesoamerica is important to study not only because of these wonderful stories—these myths, or these rituals—and the architecture, but [also] because it is one of the most important places for students to turn if they want to deal with the question: “What had to happen in human history and in the human imagination—and human economy—in order for people to create the social structures that we live within today, all over this earth—that is, the world of the city?”
The Story of Aztlan
[14:07:59] You may remember the story that I told about Xolotl, the warrior who shot the four arrows into the cosmic directions. Remember that he had to walk and travel to this place in the valley of Mexico, and this story of traveling is very important throughout Mesoamerica. Because you’ll find, as you look at the codices and listen to the different presentations, that Mesoamerican peoples were a people on the move, even though they had these cities and great villages and ceremonial centers. There was a great deal of dynamic motion throughout Mesoamerican history, and the idea of dynamic motion appears in a very important story about the Chichimec migration from their original homeland.
You may know that on the flag of Mexico there’s this remarkable image of a giant eagle, which is perched on a blooming cactus in the middle of a lake, struggling in its beak with a serpent. This is the story—this is an image that relates to the origin story of the Chichimec people who became the Mexicas, or the Aztecs. Let me summarize it for you.
The story goes that the Aztec ancestors, the Chichimecas, dwelled in a place called Aztlan—or, the “Place of the White Heron.” And there [they lived in Aztlan in Chicomoztoc, that is, the place of seven caves, and their priest—their priest shaman—had a dream one night, and in the dream the great god Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird On the Left”) came to him and told him that it was time for his people to leave Aztlan and to travel: to travel over the landscape undergoing hardships and finding their way, until they arrived at a lake, in the middle of which would be a blooming cactus and on this cactus would be an image of that great god, an eagle, who would show them that this was to be their new homeland.
He [the priest] spoke to the community and told them that it was time for them to move, and they began to make this journey. Fortunately, we have an image of this journey, which appears in a document called the Codex Boturini, and it shows the entire migration of the Aztec ancestors from the place of seven caves into the valley of Mexico. And what you see is the community traveling over the landscape, coming to other remarkable places in mountains and in valleys, undergoing hardships, having other kinds of religious experiences, learning to develop certain trades—until they finally arrive in the valley of Mexico, and there, sure enough, in the middle of the lake, on a small marshy island, is the blooming cactus with this great eagle perched, struggling with a serpent. The priest told them, “This is the place where we are to build our new community.”
The Importance of Community
[17:09:00] Now this story, which is so important, gives us a sense of how central the idea of a community—founded on an abundant agricultural location—is to Mesoamerican peoples. Here we have the notion of an island in the middle of a lake, with animals, and also the possibility of abundant agriculture. This becomes crucial throughout Mesoamerican history, and, in fact, we have from one of the sixteenth-century documents—a document by the Dominican priest, Diego Durán—an account that he was told by the descendents of these people of what they were to expect when they arrived in this location in the valley of Mexico. Let me read you an excerpt.
It goes that the Chichimec leaders spoke to the community and told them that they needed to leave the place of seven caves and travel until they saw: “a prickly pear cactus standing upon a rock, where it has grown so tall and luxuriant that a fine eagle had made his nest there. When we discover it, we shall be fortunate, for there we shall find our rest, our comfort, and our grandeur. There our name will be praised and our nation made great. The might of our arms will be known, and the courage of our brave hearts. We shall become lords of gold and silver, of jewels and precious stones, of splendid feathers and of the insignias that distinguish lord and chieftains. Our god orders us to call this place ‘Tenochtitlan.’ There, we will build the city that is to be the queen that is to rule over all others in the country. There we shall receive our kings and nobles who will recognize Tenochtitlan as the supreme capital” [Fray Diego Durán, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e islas de la tierra firme. Editado por Ángel María de Garibay K. Mexico, D.F. Editorial Porrúa, 1967].
[19:06:00] All of these cities that you will visit in Mesolore have certain characteristics that are represented in this story: Firstly, that there must be a solid, central location for the city. Secondly, that there will be social stratification. This is one of the most important things for people to think about when they look at Mesoamerican history. Mesoamerican history was a place where social stratification—that is, what we might today call “class society”—was developed very early on in the historical record.
You have a pyramidal society; not only do you have pyramids in Mesoamerica, you have a pyramidal society. First of all, you have at the bottom agricultural workers and hunters, who support the rest of society—that is where the mass of people are. And then, above them—on top of them, in fact—are craftspeople, people who have been trained as artists, as craftspeople, who often serve the temple communities. But above these people are the warriors—the great warrior societies—the eagle warriors and the jaguar warriors that I spoke of earlier. And these people are trained and divided into a series of stratification—warriors who have gained great power and reputation from their exploits. But above them, always, are the priests and the priest-kings. And you see that reflected in this particular story.
And so, when you think of Mesoamerica, look for the social stratification—the relationships between rulers and priest and warriors and craftspeople and farmers and hunters. They are the human story of Mesolore, and the one that we want you again and again to be trying to understand.
[20:45:00] In this speech, we see some of the important social themes that have become important throughout Mesoamerican history. First, very important human actions are dictated by communication with gods. Secondly, that these people were destined to leave their home and travel and find a new location that, in this case, was to become a great city—a great ceremonial center; that [they] would also, thirdly, have great warriors leading them. This issue of great warriors will show up again and again throughout Mesolore when you look at the images and listen to the presentations. And finally, that they’ll find abundant riches in these places. This story leads us to return again to the issue of “What’s the nature of a ceremonial city?”