[NB] Mesoamerica and Multiplicity

So far, the new year shift seems to be toward less frequent posting. Partly, that is because I am thinking about some different sorts of things and thinking a little differently all around. That shift hasn’t quite congealed into a pattern that I can sit down and just write about. But I write to think, too, so I want to keep up the habit of posting.

This weekend I’ve been reading Alfredo López Austin’s Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist in a way that I haven’t read anything in a while. He’s an exceptionally good comparative thinker, triangulating from several contemporary Mesoamerican religious practices to better pin down a model of pre-Columbian Nahua thought. It’s funny, every time I find myself working through an account of Mesoamerican or Caribbean or Amazonian philosophy, I can just feel all the little gray cells standing up in recognition of their insight.

It’s probably a combination of things. Partly, many of the people (like López Austin) writing about these things have a broadly structuralist and dialogical approach to the material. But, at the same time, that structuralist approach has some of its roots in the Americas, in Claude Levi-Strauss’s field work in South America and the centrality of South American myths to the articulation of his theories.

It’s not that it says something radically different about the spiritual world than other accounts, at least those accounts that stick pretty close to the ground. I can see, plain as day, the similarities between some of the Mesoamerican accounts of the other worlds and European accounts of the faerie worlds, for example (as I effused recently on Runesoup; it’s hard to bottle up enthusiasm sometimes). But the way in which they describe it, the manner they make connections articulates it for me in a way nothing else has.

It is that “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” quality that gives much of the material its force. I will probably return to that in future posting.

Right now, I want to focus on the “oft was thought” parts, though, here is something from the book regarding contemporary (and exemplary) Tzotzil cosmology:

“The subdivisions of the creator Manojel-Tojel as fathers-mothers created the human groups, leading them out of the primogenital caves and creating lineages. They are the ones who, as saints, established themselves on the mountains in order to protect the different human groups, and, as chiefs of the animal companions of the replicated town-mountain, regulate social relationships. They are pictured as elders who, from inside their hills, watch over morality….They give ch’ulel [vital soul] to human babies and to their seed maize. In exchange for prayers, they allow strangers to visit the town.” (149; emphasis mine)

This reads so neatly up against the ancient Sumerian ideas of the netherworld in the mountain, of the ancestors who come and go from it, who are cared for, and of the ties between that cycle and the agricultural cycle, all developed independently.
In an inversion of the wailing for Dumuzi, there are stories in Mesoamerica about the Mother whose tears prevent the immortality of the Father to which the Son has given new life. It is easy to think of these as one of the many stories around Inanna and Ereshkigal, one more play in the field of variations that illuminate the otherwise subtle spiritual experience.
From a Mesoamerican perspective, that is exactly what they are:
“Essence is divine material. Divine essence is divisible, capable of uniting with other essences and of separating. The gods can both divide and combine themselves; they can be in more than one place at the same time; there is a coessence that exists between them and other beings; and the coessence includes intercommunication….as a result of this division produce replications. The replications imply a reproduction in the elements produced by the division of the characteristics of the source, and often source and its projections are confused.” (Ibid., 189–90)
 The logic of their connection also guarantees their independence, too, such that it becomes impossible to conflate two replications, even though they share a common root in the eternal.
“The replications of the god who created humans are the creator gods of particular human groups. Each human group can have its own particular creator and protector, who, in his turn, is divisible….These patron gods live in hills near the people they protect. At the same time, the protected people share the essence of the god who created them. Those gods are called the father-mothers, ancestors, ancients, etc.” (Ibid., 190)
While these sorts of attitudes can be used to justify insularity, they can also provide the basis for new spiritual communities being formed. The ties that unite a people can be broken or reforged as replications return to the source (‘dieing’) or are joined (‘marrying’) other forces.
The emphasis on the individuality of the replications seems key and is what prevents this sort of account from collapsing into mix-as-thou-wilt comparative spirit work. The individuals may share an essence and not necessarily be capable of joining in that individuality. While they will inevitably return to the same place, in this world they may be necessarily and irrecuperably separate. Even that which can be joined can only be joined by the temporal and ritual effort to realize that potential.
In a similar fashion, acknowledging the insight of the Mesoamerican account doesn’t entail taking up a ‘Mesoamerican’ ritual practice because of the importance placed on the account of locating yourself in relationship to specific replications, in specific places, with specific peoples.

7 thoughts on “[NB] Mesoamerica and Multiplicity

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