Posted by: Johan Normark | July 25, 2010

Choose your own cardinal direction for your own purpose

Something that keeps bugging me in several Mayanist studies is the association between cardinal directions and various phenomena in Maya cosmology. I will give a brief example to show the meaninglessness of attributing a detected phenomenon, artifact assemblage, human remains or architectural feature with the supposed cosmological meaning of a cardinal direction. Death is such a phenomenon. Is death only associated with one cardinal direction? Nope.

The west is most often associated with the Underworld (Xibalba), darkness and death because this is where the sun sets. However, on some occasions the south is associated with the Underworld and death as well because the south is likened to nadir, or the opposite of zenith, when the sun is directly below the Earth’s surface. Hence, the range structure with nine doorways in each Twin pyramid complex at Tikal is associated with the Underworld which is said to have nine regions (not levels). Still, at the same site we find the North Acropolis which is the location of the tomb of the dynasty’s founder. The north is associated with the heavens and royal ancestors, and hence a connection to death in one way or another. East is the direction where the sun rises but it is still often associated with tombs, such as “Eastern shrines” that are prevalent in households of the central lowlands. The center, then, from where all these cardinal directions emerge, surely it cannot be associated with death? Sure it can. Some propose that caves and other karstic features were located at the centre, at the bottom of the vertical axis/world tree, and these dark features are for sure associated with death, Underworld, ancestors, etc.

In short, within the quincunx pattern, all four directions and the center are associated with the same phenomenon. There are differences of course. These may have had to do with combinations of regional variations, temporal changes, differences related to social status such as age, gender, and class, the purposes of the entombment (sacrificial victim or venerated ancestor), etc. The problem is, however, that they are all part of the same idealized cosmology that appears to have had no beginning and have no end. It is just an eternal existing now. Basically, if you find a tomb in an “odd” place you can still fit it into the generalized cosmological pattern that basically means nada. Just find the appropriate analogy or a corresponding archaeological example and you are on the safe side. Whatever you do, do not try to interpret the tomb without associating it with any cardinal direction (or center). If you neglect this you will be criticized for not paying attention to the tomb’s deeper “cosmological meaning.”

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