Dante's Heritage: Questioning the Multi-Layered Model of the Mesoamerican Universe

Article excerpt


A recurring methodological discussion in Mesoamerican research has centred on the extant use of ethnohistorical and ethnographic analogies (Trigger 1981; Quilter 1996). Although we find this approach both inevitable and productive, the present study will emphasise how important it is to investigate and trace the development of any cultural element in time and space with extreme care. In the present study we will suggest that a generalisation has taken place regarding the idea of a multi-layered Mesoamerican universe, showing that this cosmic structure has been inferred primarily from post-Columbian central Mexican sources and not from pre-Columbian evidence such as hieroglyphic texts or iconography. Secondly, and more importantly, we put forward the hypothesis that the notion of a multi-layered universe is not genuinely an autochthonous Mesoamerican concept, and that it was only introduced into the area in the sixteenth century, and ultimately derives from European visions of the cosmos. A main objective of our research has been to examine under which circumstances and by whom, sixteenth-century sources on Mesoamerican religion and cosmography were composed.

Layers or regions: the topography of the otherworld

The early Colonial K'iche' Maya manuscript known as the Popol Wuj describes how the Hero Twins have to face particular ordeals in six houses in the underworld of Xib'alb'a (Christenson 2003: 160-74). Each house is named according to the particular ordeal it presents to the protagonists. For instance, the second house is called 'Blade House' and is filled with sharp cutting blades. In the description of the setting, it appears that all houses are arranged on the same level, as though chambers in the cavernous Xib'alb'a. The geography of the Popol Wuj underworld in many ways resembles the layout of the Aztec underworld according to the Codex VaticanusA (c. 1566-89, Glass & Robertson 1975: 186; Miller & Taube 1993: 177-8) (Figure 1). In the Vaticanus A, the first realm beneath the earth is called 'Water Passage', while the second is named 'Where the Hills Clash Together' (Nicholson 1971: 406-8). In the Popol Wuj the Hero Twins begin their journey to Xib'alb'a by passing through great river canyons, that is, narrow spaces where the rocks come together, and they cross the big rivers called Pus and Blood. The realms named 'Obsidian Knife Hill' and 'Where Someone Is Shot with Arrows' in the Vaticanus A can be compared to the 'Blade House' in the K'iche' epic, in the sense that they are places where blades inflict pain on humans. The Aztecs called the eighth realm of the underworld 'Where Someone's Heart Is Eaten' and illustrated this place by a carnivore devouring a human heart. The obvious K'iche' parallel is the 'House of Jaguars'.


But while the K'iche' highland Maya of the mid-sixteenth century presents an underworld horizontally divided into a number of departments or regions, the contemporaneous Aztec Vaticanus A places these departments on top of each other, forming a vertically arranged underworld of multiple layers. Is this simply an example of two alternative Mesoamerican concepts? Or can the difference best be explained by other historical developments and cultural mechanisms? As indicated, it cannot be verified that the vertical multi-layered structure is an indigenous pre-Columbian model of the cosmos. Thus, all known sources that make references to such a multi-layered cosmological structure are of post-Columbian origin. We therefore suggest that the concept of a multi-layered universe was introduced by the Spanish intruders, and more specifically the Franciscans and their Dantean world-view with its nine layers in both heaven and underworld. Yet today, the existence of a pre-Columbian multi-layered cosmos is taken for granted.

Common knowledge and where it came from

The majority of textbooks available describe how the ancient Maya and Aztecs divided the heavens and the underworld into a number of layers (e. …