Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Religion and early cities in Mesoamerica

When you hear "religion" and "early cities" in the title of a work, watch out! Chances are, you are about to read a speculative account about the mystical symbolism of ancient cities. This is a popular topic in some circles. The basic argument is that all ancient cities were highly sacred places, and that this religious symbolism was the reason people moved into cities. Religion shaped peoples' lives, perhaps even more than everyday activities. At its most extreme, this reasoning slips into the silly notion that ancient people worried about death and the afterlife more than they thought about their daily life. Egypt is the most common target of this silliness, although the Classic Maya and other ancient societies have also been implicated. Give me a break! Ancient peoples were no more obsessed with death and the afterlife than you or I.

Now, there is a more respectable line of thought on ancient religious symbolism and cities, but it too is often slips into speculation and even nonsense. Associated with the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, it goes like this. Ancient peoples believed that life on earth was a direct parallel of the cosmos. When cities were built, especially political capitals, they were more successful if they were planned and laid out as models of the cosmos. Since the cosmos are laid out in a four-directional plan (north-east-south-west, with a center point), then cities should follow an orthogonal layout, with a center point where the north-south and east-west axes met. This model does fit some early urban traditions--most notably in China, India, and
Southeast Asia. For early cities in these regions, we have written texts and images that clearly illustrate how cities and buildings were laid out to mimic the organization of the cosmos. Such cities and buildings are often called "cosmograms."

The idealized Chinese city above was a kind of cosmogram, but the Aztec city next to it (actually the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan) was NOT a cosmogram. How do we know? Because we have written and pictorial records that describe the symbolism of the Chinese city, how it was laid out in imitation of the cosmos, and how emperors picked the sacred place to build their new capital city (see below).

For some reason I have yet to figure out, this idea of cosmograms has been so attractive to some scholars that they go out of their way to find cosmograms all over the place. For China or India, this is fine. But when they start talking about cosmograms in ancient Mesoamerica, they are arguing more from personal bias than from evidence. There are NO WRITTEN RECORDS claiming that Aztec or Maya cities, for example, were cosmograms. But that hasn't stopped these scholars from claiming to have found cosmograms. If you haven't guessed, this kind of speculation dolled up as scholarship drives me up the wall. Ten yeas ago I published two critiques of this kind of reasoning (Smith 2003, 2005), but it still persists in some quarters.

So perhaps I can be excused if I got worried at the title of a new book from David Carballo of Boston University: Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico. Would this be the same old kind of speculative account, claiming that ancient people went around pondering the mystical symbolism of their cities? Thankfully, the answer is NO. Carballo finds ways to address the relationship between cities and religion that is based on evidence, and uses contemporary social concepts such as collective action theory rather than the worn-out universal claims of Eliade and his followers.

Rather than worrying too much over the content of religious symbolism, Carballo looks at rituals: actions that people carried out in specific places, that left material traces:
I am less interested in attempting to define religion in an overarching sense and more interested in examining what religion did and the spatiality and temporality of its performance, within the context of urbanization.   (p. 19)
Hear, hear, this is the kind of approach we need more of in Mesoamerican archaeology. For Carballo, ceremonies in formal plazas generated social cohesion in urban populations, contributing to the success of urban life in the centuries leading up to the great Classic-period urban center of Teotihuacan. Carballo does not ignore the content of ancient religious ideas, and his discussion is reasoned and evidence-based:

Issues of greatest collective concern -- such as creation, existential dualisms, and fertility cycles -- fostered cohesion and, in continuing to feature prominently in indigenous religion, have proved the most resilient. In contrast, group divisions along the lines of lineage, status, and community were fostered through other means and saw much greater turnover through time.  (p. 201)

This is an excellent book, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the Mesoamerican past and anyone interested in new ways to look at how religion and urbanization were intertwined in the early states.

Carballo, David M.
2015    Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico. Oxford University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2003    Can We Read Cosmology in Ancient Maya City Plans? Comment on Ashmore and Sabloff. Latin American Antiquity 14: 221-228.

2005    Did the Maya Build Architectural Cosmograms? Latin American Antiquity 16: 217-224.

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