Course description

Cosmology of Mesoamerican Societies


Comparative Studies of Ideas and Cultures (3rd level)

Anthropology: Understanding Worldmaking Practices

Course code: 11

Year of study: Not specified

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


Workload: lectures 60 hours, seminar 30 hours

Course type: general elective

Languages: Slovene, English

Learning and teaching methods: lectures, seminar

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.



None required.


Content (Syllabus outline)

  • 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.).
  • 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.
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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”).
  • 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. In: M. Eliade (ed.). Encyclopedia of Religions, vol. 4, pp. 100-107.
  • Jaki, S. L., Science and Religion. In: M. Eliade (ed.). Encyclopedia of Religions, vol.4, pp. 121-133.
  • Brady, J. E. and W. Ashmore. 1999. Mountains, Caves, Water: Ideational Landscapes of the Ancient Maya. In: Wendy Ashmore – A. Bernard Knapp (eds.). Archaeologies of Landscape, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 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 (translate: 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. In: E. P. Benson (ed.). Mesoamerican Sites and World-views. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, pp. 143-215.
  • Sosa, J. R. 1989. Cosmological, Symbolic and Cultural Complexity Among the Contemporary Maya of Yucatan. In: A. F. Aveni (ed.). World Archaeoastronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 130-142.
  • Villa Rojas, A. 1986. Apéndice I: Los conceptos de espacio y tiempo entre los grupos mayances contemporáneos. In: M. León-Portilla, Tiempo y realidad en el pensamiento maya. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, pp. 119-167.
  • M. P. Weaver. 1993. The Aztecs, Maya and their Predecessors. San Diego: Academic Press.
  • Šprajc, I. 2005, More on Mesoamerican Cosmology and City Plans. Latin American Antiquity 16 (2): 209-216.



Active participation in discussion classes and a short written paper (8–12 pages) in which the student analyses a particular problem supported by relevant literature. The student must pass a written exam covering the entire course.


Anthropology of Consciousness and Practices of Awareness ǀ

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


Anthropology of Fertility ǀ

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


Cosmology of Mesoamerican Societies ǀ

Prof. Ivan Šprajc, Ph.D.,


Epistemological pluralism and “decolonizing” methods in ethnographic research ǀ

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


Laughing Politically: Toward the Anthropology of Humor ǀ

Prof. Tanja Petrović, Ph.D.,


Public anthropology, social engagement and activism ǀ

Assist. Prof. Ana Hofman, Ph.D.,


Research Methodology in Anthropological Linguistics ǀ

Assist. Prof. Karmen Kenda-Jež, Ph.D.,


Space and Movement: Towards Anthropology of Locations and Migrations ǀ

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