Space in Ancient Mesoamerica

Rex Koontz. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

The peoples of ancient Mesoamerica (roughly modern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize) developed complex urban civilizations in the 3,000 years before the coming of the Spanish in 1519. An essential aspect of these civilizations was a shared conception of space. Mesoamerican ideas about space can be seen in the construction of buildings, the story of cosmic creation, and the layout of city centers. While the activities involved in building structures or planning urban spaces may seem removed from stories explaining the creation of the universe, Mesoamericans’ basic ideas about space drew all of these together into a coherent, meaningful whole.

Construction Space

Mesoamerican architects used regular lengths of cord to lay out a building. But this unit varied from place to place because it was cut based on different segments of the human body, such as the distance from hand to hand when the arms are stretched out to their maximum. An exact unit of measure, like the modern meter or yard, did not seem to interest these builders. Instead, they were intent on creating certain relationships or ratios between the different parts of the building. In eastern Mesoamerica, in what is today southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, ancient Maya architects began their stone buildings by laying out a rough square with the cord. They would then adjust the square by making sure both diagonals were equal. Later they might modify the square by adding a rectangle. This rectangle had a certain proportion of long to short sides that is called the “golden section,” a ratio that appears in a great many building traditions, including those of ancient Greece and modern Europe. It is clear, however, that the golden section was independently invented in ancient Mesoamerica. Maya peoples living today in Mexico and Guatemala also lay out their houses (and often their cornfields) according to the system of cord measurement described above. They view these proportions as natural and good, comparing them to the ratios found in plants.

Creating the Cosmos

The gods created the cosmos by laying out a square like the one described above. This creation involved stretching cords across space to measure out the cosmos, creating four sides and thus four sacred world directions. The gods then gave each of these directions a particular nature, or essence. They also created the names of the days and related these days to the world directions. All over Mesoamerica, the same days were related to the same directions. In this way, space and time were related through the shared nature of days and directions. Several ancient Mesoamerican books are specifically concerned with relating the day names to the four directions. The Codex Borgia (now in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican) is one of the most beautiful and complete records of the relations between days and directions. These relations were and are particularly important for Mesoamerican diviners, or soothsayers. These religious specialists must undergo rigorous training in the nature of the days and the directions before they can counsel others in the almost endless combination of meanings communicated to us by space and time.

We can see the same spatial conceptions at work in humble village rites recorded by a Spanish priest in the sixteenth century. Before a ceremony could be conducted, the undesirable spirit or energy had to be removed from the area. This cleansing began with four figures who sat on four stools at the corners of the space. They formed a square by stretching cords between each other but omitting the diagonals. This square was like the one seen at the creation of the universe. The priest would then place himself at the very center of this square and conduct the ritual.

Entire cities were organized around the same principles of four directions and a center. This is especially true of the Late Postclassic period, immediately before the coming of the Spanish. The most important temple or temple group was placed at the heart of the city, identified as the conceptual center. This temple could be the home of the patron deity of the community, a significant sacred place, or the burial place of an especially revered ancestor. Around this temple were arranged minor temples, religious houses, and palaces. The four directions were indicated by large roads radiating from the central temple area. These roads eventually served as the main exits from the city, as well as the space for directional rituals that included processions from the outskirts to the central temples.

Center and Wilderness

By creating the four world directions, the gods also created a center. Mesoamericans believed this center existed in the fire kept in the center of each house, as well as in the great temples located in the very center of their cities. The farther one traveled from the center, the more dangerous and unpredictable the world became. The space completely outside the power of the urban center or the house fire, such as the forest, was considered supremely wild and dangerous. This basic division of all space into two types—one civilized, safe, and ordered (the city, town, or house), and the other wild and dangerous (the jungle, mountain, cave, or other area outside human habitation and control)—was of great importance to the way Mesoamericans experienced space.

Many of the most holy shrines, such as certain mountaintops or caves, existed mainly outside the city or town in the wild area. Here Mesoamericans could most easily encounter the supernatural, a process that was also riddled with danger. A key function of the Mesoamerican city was to capture the power of these wilderness shrines and bring them into the city center, where they would be made safer, more orderly, and more available to the religious worshiper. Moving a sacred mountain was clearly impossible, so the Mesoamericans constructed their own mountains of stone. The monumental buildings that are today known as pyramids were called mountains by the Mesoamericans, and they were viewed as equivalent to the sacred mountains in the wilderness. False caves or tunnels were created in some buildings to bring the power of those wild and dangerous spaces into the heart of the city. The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, finished by 150 CE and one of the largest pyramids built by ancient Mesoamericans, contained an entire network of tunnels running beneath it. For centuries, these tunnels were the place of important rituals at that great city.

Redefining Space and Reviving Time

The Aztec New Fire ceremony exhibits many aspects of Mesoamerican thought on space and time. The Aztec lived near Teotihuacan in what is now Mexico City. As a renewal festival that occurred every fifty-two years, the New Fire ceremony was one of the most sacred rites in the Aztec religion. The festival began with the priests and nobles walking out from the city to a sacred mountain called Hill of the Star. They brought with them a captive warrior prepared for sacrifice. Once on top of the mountain, they waited for the Pleiades to appear overhead in the night sky. They then tore out the heart of the sacrificial warrior and made a fire in his chest. This fire was taken back to the Great Temple at the very center of the city, twenty kilometers away. The Great Temple was called both Mountain of Sustenance and Snake Mountain, although it was a constructed pyramid. The sacred fire moved from a wild and sacred mountain to the mountain built in the center of the city, thus capturing the sacred for urban, civilized humans.

From the central temple, the fire was distributed to all Aztec towns and cities. In this way, the priests and rulers associated with the Great Temple were able to assert their primacy in space. The distribution of fire is even more impressive and important when one imagines the absolute darkness that would have enveloped that night, for all fires had been extinguished in anticipation of the ceremony. It is only with the arrival of the sacred fire from the Great Temple that people were able to relight their own torches and hearths.

During the New Fire ceremony, the Aztec were not only redefining space but also reviving time. Every fifty-two years (or more precisely, every 18,980 days), the two most important Mesoamerican calendars—a 260-day sacred calendar and a 365-day solar calendar—returned to the same date. The first day of the new fifty-two-year cycle marked by the New Fire ceremony was the beginning of a new era. Everyone destroyed their pots and commissioned new cookware for the new age. Old ceramics, like old fires, had to be destroyed because they would have been tainted with the essence of the last fifty-two-year period.

Mesoamerican Urban Space

Mesoamericans referred to their largest cities as Tollan (Place of the Rushes) or altepetl (water-mountain). Both these metaphors express fundamental Mesoamerican ideas about urban space. Tollan was viewed as the source of all artistry and urbanity. The Toltec (people of Tollan) are often described as the ultimate artificers. Tollan was described as containing beautiful temples covered in gold and precious materials, the most finely crafted sculptures and paintings, and supremely well-ordered citizens. It was, in short, the sacred, “ideal” city that every actual city strove to be. Little wonder that a description of its basic layout was very much like what we find in the centers of numerous Mesoamerican cities.

Rushes and associated reeds are indicative of swampy areas and the areas near streams and rivers. The Mesoamerican insistence on these plants in their definition of urbanity refers to the presence of streams and rivers near the great majority of Mesoamerican cities. Certainly the first Mesoamerican cities, found in southern Veracruz state (Mexico) and dated to about 1500-400 BCE, existed in a rich, tropical, riverine environment where such plants thrive. Rushes are also found in the highlands around rivers and canal systems, such as the one that supported the enormous early city of Teotihuacan (c. 150-600 CE) near present-day Mexico City. What is certain is that by the seventh century CE, the Maya people referred to Teotihuacan with a glyph resembling reeds and that almost certainly signifies what would later be expressed as Tollan. Towering over Teotihuacan to the north is Cerro Gordo, a mountain containing significant underground streams. These streams are so prominent and so near the surface that one can hear the water flowing while standing on certain parts of the mountain. Here again is a basic Mesoamerican metaphor for the city, altepetl (water-mountain).

Teotihuacan, then, is the first recorded Mesoamerican Tollan, but is it the origin of the Mesoamerican urban ideal? Perhaps, but earlier, preliterate cities may very well have used such symbolism that would now be found only in the art and urban layout. Certainly, the ideal itself would have gone through changes over the course of the 3,000-year history of Mesoamerican urbanism. That said, it is very useful to look at the rich documentation on urban spaces and their meaning immediately before the Spanish invasion (c. 1500 CE) in the largest and most important city in the area, Tenochtitlán.

Tenochtitlán was the capital of one group of Aztec, the Mexica, although both that group and related groups who spoke the same language but may or may not have been allied with the Mexica are often referred to as Aztec. On the eve of the Spanish invasion, the Mexica and their Aztec allies constituted the most powerful and important group in Mesoamerica. Tenochtitlán was the seat of power and the largest urban conglomeration that Mesoamerica had yet seen. But it was not the first city built by the Mexica, according to their own accounts. Instead, the first urban experience for the Mexica was a settlement called Snake Mountain, which is described as near Tollan. These descriptions contain certain landmarks and names that allowed the researcher Wigberto Jiménez Moreno to identify the area of Snake Mountain as present-day Tula, Hidalgo. Tula is a Spanish corruption of the indigenous Tollan.

According to Mexica accounts, the city layout was given to them by their patron god, who commanded them to build a central temple (later replicated in the Great Temple of the New Fire ceremony), a ball court for playing the rubber ball game, and a skull rack for the display of sacrificial victims. Each of these architectural elements was given a specific function and meaning by the actions of the patron deity. For example, when a rival group of supernaturals threatened the patron deity and his mother, the patron defeated the rivals in battle and sacrificed several in the ball court. It is this action that gave the ball court its sacrificial function and meaning, and later Mexica kings were simply recreating the original sacrifice when they took war prisoners and sacrificed them in the ball court.

The Great Temple at the center of the capital of Tenochtitlán was in part a recreation of the original temple at Snake Mountain near Tollan. Mexica urbanistic ideals, especially as they concerned the sacred center of the city, were viewed as copies of this original Tollan and Snake Mountain complex. Huge roads that radiated from this sacred precinct went in the four world directions. This plan demonstrates the incorporation or overlap of urban symbolism involving Tollan with the directional symbolism used in building construction and found in stories about the creation of the cosmos. This combination of basic spatial symbolism and the more elaborate symbolism based on sacred stories like that of Tollan reflected a dynamic process that already had a 3,000-year history by the time of the Mexica kings and their fateful meeting with the Spanish in 1519.