Course description

Cosmology of Mesoamerican Societies


Comparative Study of Ideas and Cultures (3rd cycle)

Anthropology: Understanding Worldmaking Practices

Course principal:
Prof. Ivan Šprajc, Ph.D.


Course code: 11

Year of study: Not specified

Workload: lectures 60 hours, seminar 30 hours

Course type: general elective

Languages: Slovene, English

Learning and teaching methods: lectures, seminar


Course Syllabus


None required.


Content (Syllabus outline)

1. Mesoamerican cultures, introduction:

  • Mesoamerica: definition and common characteristics of the cultural area;
  • Mesoamerica: natural environment and cultural development;
  • Survey of basic characteristics of Mesoamerican cultures (economic basis, social structure, political organization, religion, exact knowledge, architecture, art, etc.).


2. Cosmology in a cultural context:

  • Definition of cosmology;
  • Cosmology and related terms (cosmogony, worldview);
  • The relationship between cosmology, science, and religion;
  • The dependence of cosmological concepts on a specific natural environment and cultural context.


3. Historical and mythical time in Mesoamerica:

  • Orientation in time; significance of observation of the sky;
  • Time measurement, the calendrical system;
  • Linear and cyclical time;
  • Astronomical knowledge, utilitarian aspects;
  • The relation between astronomy and astrology;
  • Cosmogony in myths and archaeological evidence;


4. The conceptual relationship of time and space:

  • Astronomically significant directions as spatial indicators of the course of time;
  • Structure of the world/cosmos, cosmograms;
  • Cosmology in religion and ritual;
  • Observational bases of beliefs, attributes of deities, and ritual acts;


5. Material correlates of cosmological concepts:

  • Cosmological symbolism in architecture, burials, and small artefacts;
  • Urban layouts as cosmograms;
  • Astronomical orientations in architecture: practical and symbolic significance;
  • Cosmological elements of cultural landscape (“sacred geography”).


6. The social role of cosmological concepts:

  • Ordering and interpretation of the world and humans’ place therein;
  • Practical significance of understanding regularities in nature (scheduling of activities in the yearly cycle, efficiency of subsistence strategies, etc.);
  • The role of cosmology in complex societies: knowledge as an instrument of domination and legitimation of power;
  • Transformation of beliefs into political ideology;
  • Comparative aspects and generalizations: comparison with other ancient civilizations.



  • Bolle, K. W., Cosmology. V: M. Eliade, ur., Encyclopedia of Religions, vol. 4: 100-107.
  • Jaki, S. L., Science and religion. V: M. Eliade, ur., Encyclopedia of Religions, vol.4 : 121-133.
  • Brady, J. E. – W. Ashmore, 1999, Mountains, caves, water: ideational landscapes of the ancient Maya, v: Wendy Ashmore – A. Bernard Knapp, ur., Archaeologies of landscape, Oxford: Blackwell, 124-145.
  • Aveni, Anthony F., 2001. Skywatchers: A revised and updated version of Skywatchers of ancient Mexico, Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Verdet, Jean-Pierre, 1996, Nebo: Red in nered, Ljubljana: DZS (prev.: M. Veselko; orig.: Le ciel: Ordre et désordre, Paris: Gallimard Jeunesse, 1987).
  • Carlson, J. B., 1981, A geomantic model for the interpretation of Mesoamerican sites: an essay in cross-cultural comparison. V: E. P. Benson, ur., Mesoamerican sites and world-views, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 143-215.
  • Sosa, J. R., 1989, Cosmological, symbolic and cultural complexity among the contemporary Maya of Yucatan. V: A. F. Aveni, ur., World archaeoastronomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 130-142.
  • Villa Rojas, A., 1986. Apéndice I: Los conceptos de espacio y tiempo entre los grupos mayances contemporáneos. V: M. León-Portilla, Tiempo y realidad en el pensamiento maya, México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 119-167.
  • Adams, R. E. W., M. J. MacLeod, eds. 2000. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol. II: Mesoamerica, Parts 1 & 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Šprajc, I., 2018, Astronomy, architecture, and landscape in prehispanic Mesoamerica. Journal of Archaeological Research 26 (2): 197-251.


Objectives and competences

This course familiarizes students with the cosmological concepts of pre-Hispanic peoples of Mesoamerica, as well as cultural manifestations or aspects of life in which these ideas are contained or reflected. A summary of what is currently known in this respect and a survey of studies that have led to specific results should also exemplify methodological approaches that have been applied, allow a proper assessment of their utility in this kind of research, and illustrate the relevance of what they have learned for a holistic understanding of the structure and functioning of past societies.


Intended learning outcomes:

Understanding of

  • development of Mesoamerican cultures;
  • cosmological concepts and their relationship with environmental peculiarities and cultural context;
  • relevant concepts of spherical astronomy;
  • methodology appropriate for studying cosmology and worldview


Learning and teaching methods:

Types of learning/teaching:

  • Frontal teaching
  • Independent students work
  • e-learning


Teaching methods:

  • Explanation
  • Conversation/discussion/debate
  • Case studies



Short written assignment (20 %), presentation (20 %), final examination (written/oral) (60 %).


Anthropology of consciousness and practices of awareness

Asst. Prof. Maja Petrović Šteger, Ph. D.,


Anthropology of Fertility

Assoc. Prof. Duška Kneževič Hočevar, Ph.D.,


Cosmology of Mesoamerican Societies

Prof. Ivan Šprajc, Ph.D.,


Epistemological pluralism and “decolonizing” methods in ethnographic research

Assoc. Prof. Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, Ph.D.,


Laughing politically: toward the anthropology of humor

Prof. Tanja Petrović, Ph.D.,


Public anthropology, social engagement and activism

Assoc. Prof. Ana Hofman, Ph.D.,


Research Methodology in Anthropological Linguistics

Prof. Borut Telban, Ph.D.,

Karmen Kenda-Jež, Ph.D.,


Space and movement: towards anthropology of locations and migrations

Asst. Prof. Nataša Gregorič Bon, Ph.D.,