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


Course Syllabus

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.



None required.



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


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

Assoc. 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

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


Research Methodology in Anthropological Linguistics ǀ

Karmen Kenda-Jež, Ph.D.,

Prof. Borut Telban, Ph.D.,


Space and Movement: Towards Anthropology of Locations and Migrations ǀ

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