Posted by: Johan Normark | July 1, 2009

Dante and the multilayered model of the Mesoamerican cosmos

Readers of this blog may by now know that I am skeptical to the Mayanist, often uncritical, use of ethnographic analogies. This is the use of contemporary ethnographic studies in order to explain patterns in archaeological data. There are many flaws that you may encounter with this methodology. I have discussed them several times before, on this blog and in my article in Cambridge Archaeological Journal (2008). Recently I have read an interesting article in Antiquity (2009:399-413) that elaborates upon this problem. It is called “Dante’s heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe”. It is written by the Danish Mesoamericanists Jesper Nielsen and Toke Sellner Reunert (Jesper was my opponent when I defended my Licentiate thesis five years ago). The article shows the importance of investigating and tracing social and religious changes in time and space.


They argue that the common assumption that people in Mesoamerica believed in a cosmos with several vertical layers (that is, several layers in the heavens and in the Underworld). This is a model very similar to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it is therefore based on Christian beliefs, a post-conquest European-Aztec hybrid. They find no evidence of this model of 13 layers in the heaven and 9 layers of the Underworld in Prehispanic hieroglyphic or iconographic records. There they do find only three levels (Underworld, Earth and Heaven/Sky) but each level was horizontal rather than consisting of stacked layers.

In fact, the K’iche’ creation myth Popol Wuj (Popol Vuh), written down in the mid 16th century, describes the underworld (Xib’alb’a) as consisting of caverns/houses on the same level.  The contemporaneous Aztec Codex Vaticanus A places the underworld regions on top of each others, but this is apparently a postconquest creation. Nielsen and Reunert argue that it was the Mayanist Eric Thompson who proposed the multilayered view where horizontal directional gods were transformed into vertical layers. In 1970 Thompson wrote that “there are thirteen layers of the skies […] just as there are nine layers of the underworld.” (p. 401). This model has been used to interpret Mesoamerican architecture, landscapes, etc. Even though supernatural beings and places sometimes are associated with numerals like 9 and 13, they are mainly associated with these numbers and not horizontal layers of the cosmos.

Dante’s model of the heaven ultimately goes back to Aristotle’s nine heavenly spheres. However, he had seven or nine levels on earth and nine in the heavens (not thirteen). The Franciscan friars in Mexico were well acquainted with Dante’s multi-layered cosmology and this world view became the basis for their description of local accounts. Nielsen and Reunert suggest that “such images are a result of the appropriation of Euro-Christian ideas by well-educated Nahuas [Aztecs]” (p. 407). The creation couple was also placed in the heavens according to Christian beliefs, whereas this couple actually resided in a cave in Prehispanic thought. The authors conclude that “a basic three-tiered model combined with a strong emphasis on the horizontal divisions of each layer is more likely to have been the dominant scheme before the Spanish invasion and the introduction of Euro-Christian ideas relating to the cosmos” (p. 411).

Let this article be a lesson to both researchers and New Age prophets. I cannot but imagine what prophets like Carl Johan Calleman have to say when not even the basics of his made up nonsense is based on preconquest ideas. However, the prophets of nonsense are the least of our problems, more problematic is the continued use of ethnographic analogies in Maya studies. This is not just a problem for those who tries to understand what ancient people believed but also for those who use ethnographic and/or ethnohistoric data to explain climate changes, like Richardson Gill has done. The mixture of “European” and “Maya” created something new in religious views, social organization, political organization, economy, etc. If we do not get this right we will have flawed models, ranging from cosmology to climate.



  1. Another excellent example of how vital source criticism is, and the need to revisit and examine many of the older works of history, religion, anthropology and archaeology. People did clever research in the past that we can all learn from, but they also made complete blunders and leaps of faith that we now tend to take as dogma.

    Making students take history of research seriously is a good way to ensure we don’t continue down dead end roads.

  2. I agree, but many archaeologists tend to follow what they learned at university (or even before this). It is my experience that people who have built their careers on, for example, this kind of cosmological modelling will not change their minds too easily. The process is slow, and I guess it will take a generation before this model disappear completely from research.

  3. I Also Like The 3Layers Cosmology.Calleman Is The Seven Macaw That Resides In His Personal World Tree (His Runs Through Coppenhaven).He Has His Own Amen Chior ,His Maya Forum Is A Bust.John Major Jenkins Was Removed From His Forum For Not Kowtowing To CJC’s Time Waves.

    Some Forums Are Fertile Ground For Ego’s,Becuse You May Know Something Doesn’t Mean You Know Everthing.

    Searching For Info On The Pictun,Led Me Here Via The Bile Producing 2012 Form,I Would Like To Find-out More On The Monte Alto Culture,Went To La Democracia ,The Gorditos Line The El Centro,Small Meusem With Stone Yokes For Human Sacrafice?One Large Basalt Sculpture (30ton)Reminiesent Of Those On Easter Island Was Destroyed In The Attempted Move.

  4. Sopme Info On Monte Alto Culture

    • After visiting Monte Alto I also came to the conclusion that there was some affinity between the statues on Easter Island and the European-looking one at Monte Alto. Why hasn’t anyone else recognized the semblance?

      • They do not appear to be similar at all in my view.

  5. I have not had the chance to see it yet. The closest site I have been to is the Postclassic site of Utatlan.

  6. Johan, The sculpture I refer to is called the Padilla Head. See the following: For information about the Monte Alto culture see Regards, Gera Rosy


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