Mountain theology of Mesoamerica

Mountains have a unique ability to put the human race in a state of awe. Throughout the world, and across time, civilizations have exalted mountains far beyond simple geological structures. Mountains are physical boundaries and therefore protectors. More abstractly, mountains symbolize stability, determination, and a place where one can find solace. Mountains are also contradictory, for example, while dangerous, one can find peace and tranquility. Mountains are sometimes the home of demons, while others see mountains as a place close to heaven. Mountains can awaken man’s natural urge to explore and conquer. A mountain can also inspire men and women to push past their natural limits with the goal of spending mere moments on their summits. Mountains present ideal conditions for an individual wanting to leave their temporal mind behind in order to obtain enlightenment. In order to ascend to the top of the mountain, one must sacrifice his or her own body and sanity, leaving them emotionally naked before Mother Nature and open to sacred wisdom. It is an obvious trend in the various pantheons of the world, that deities demand the body to be worn down and humbled before the veil between the temporal and spirit worlds can be parted. The Bible, Book of Mormon (which are set in the New World), and other religious texts contain many stories in which man is required to ascend a mountain in order to receive instruction from God.

 Various Mesoamerican cultures have used mountains as the foundation for their religions. It is upon these religions that these civilizations were built. Some cultures, such as the inhabitants of Teotihuacán view their specific mountain as their deities’ literal presence on earth; similar to the inhabitants of Tibet and their mother goddess Chomolungma (TIME, 1952). Other cultures, like the Kogi people, use mountains and the caves and plants thereon, as a means to gain status and enlightenment. To them the mountains are a refuge, or a protector, teacher, or perhaps a provider. The Mayan people have documented that they need mountains in order to pass between worlds. This paper is not meant to compare or contrast these civilizations, it is meant to give a variety of religious and cultural perspectives, showing that mountains are central to Mesoamerican theology.

Thirty miles northeast of modern day Mexico City, lies the legendary city of Teotihuacán. The inhabitants of the city remain a mystery, but the murals within the city, particularly the mural known as Tepantitla and the Paradise of Tlaloc, claim that the city was a haven for all racial and cultural factions. The Mayans referred to it as the “Place of Reeds”, while the Aztecs later dubbed it “The Place of the Gods” (Miller, 78). This was no minor civilization. The city is thought to have housed a population of 200,000, making it the sixth largest city in the world during its golden age, which was approximately 550 AD. (Miller, 81). The architectural layout of the city shows a deliberate relationship between the mountain Cerro Gordo and the city itself. The city was established with the goal of benefiting from the spiritual properties of Cerro Gordo (Miller, 82).

To understand the importance of the mountain, it is vital to understand basic Mesoamerican divinity. Cerro Gordo was thought to be more than a mere mountain because it reflects characteristics that all gods of the Mesoamerican pantheon possessed. Clefts, in many Mesoamerican cultures, were a sign of supreme spiritual beings. The easiest way to identify a Mesoamerican deity is to look for an obvious cleft down the middle of the forehead.

Carson Murdy, one of the leading Mesoamerican researchers theorized as to why the cleft was a sign of divinity; this speaks to the cultural views of both animals and mountains. For centuries, royal Mesoamerican families made a habit of intermarrying each other. Because of this, many children were born with genetic disorders. The most common disorder to have cursed these people was Spina bifida. Having no knowledge of the dangers of inbreeding, Mesoamericans believed that the children bearing these diseases were descendants of their gods, because the physical malformation was likened to that of a jaguar. The jaguar itself was seen as a divine spirit because of its mastery over land and water. The artwork depicting nobility and deities had the addition of the cleft. This was how royal families could declare that their blood was elite, and show that their families were ordained by the gods, thus establishing dominance over others (Murdy, 866).

The mountain, Cerro Gordo has a similar prominent cleft near the apex. As the mountain itself is a dormant volcano, the cleft is a sunken cone formed by volcanism. It is this cleft that set this mountain apart from others. The cleft exalts the mountain into supernatural being and is the foundation on which Teotihuacán built its empire. Cerro Gordo is referred to as the Great Goddess (Miller, 81). Cerro Gordo is embodied in several ways throughout the city, further revealing the importance of the mountain. First, the mural mentioned above, Tepantitla and the Paradise of Tlaloc illustrates a diverse spectrum of people and cultures dancing and celebrating, with Cerro Gordo in the backdrop. The personages dancing seem to be praising the mountain and thanking it for the city’s diversity and prosperity, dubbing it paradise on earth (Gee, 2013).

The second representation of the mountain is the Temple of the Moon, which was built to mimic the physical features of the nearby mountain. The prominent cleft is clearly visible, as well as the angle of the slopes. According to radiocarbon dating, the Temple of the Moon was erected in 100 A.D., the oldest structure in the city, perhaps the first, meaning that the city started as a shrine then later turned into a city (Miller, 81). The city is built using bilateral symmetry, and is oriented northeast. The axis of the city, known as the Avenue of the Dead, is also orientated northeast, with all roads pointing to the Temple of the Moon itself. The temple was built as a portal, channeling the power and energy of the mountain and bringing it into the city (Miller, 84).

The third way in which Cerro Gordo is proven to have influenced the city of Teotihuacán is found in the statue of a woman, showing the same cleft in the forehead as the mountain. The cleft immediately indicates that the woman is super natural. This statue, like the mountain, is also referred to as the Great Goddess. The Great Goddess was thought to be The Provider, giving blood, water, and seeds; her gestures always appear to be giving gifts to the people. The Great Goddess’ gifts include rain for agriculture and fertility (Miller, 99). The statue was painted and dressed up depending on the season, indicating that this one deity provides a wide variety of annual blessings. Cerro Gordo, in the role of the Great Goddess, was the apex of all cultural activities in Teotihuacán.

Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Mayan people, believed that when on a mountain, to enter a cave or a pond was to literally enter a portal to the spirit world. These portals are the basis of their creation stories. Very few books still exist today that cover such topics. The Popol Vuh is one of the few books that has survived. It contains the origin story of the Mayan civilization. Similar to the Bible, the Popol Vuh, teaches by the use of stories. The main story is that of the hero twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. The two brothers were summoned to the underworld to compete against the gods in a ball game. To get to the underworld the two brothers have to climb a mountain, and enter through the portal which is a cave (Tedlock, 1985). It is this legend that inspired the infamous ball game that straddles the lines between religion, war, and culture.

Mesoamerica is littered with arenas for the purpose of the game, for which there is no known name. The architectural structure of these arenas were built to recreate the mountain cave that the two brothers entered (Gee, 2015). The game was used as a substitute, for war by solving conflicts between regions. The game also gave elites the opportunity to prove their worth to their subjects. Elite families were expected to be some of the better players (Gee, 2015). The game was very much a part of Mesoamerican daily life, and it all sprung from two men ascending into a mountain.

Mountain caves continue to play a role in modern Mesoamerican theology. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s to wage war on the New World, The Tairona people were pushed from their homeland near the Caribbean Sea and sought refuge in mountains (Crystalinks). Some of the oldest Tairona artifacts have been dated around 300 AD. (Crystalinks). The Tairona people have the safety of the mountains to thank for surviving four centuries of war, assimilation, and disease brought on by an immigrating European society. Today, the Tairona have diverged into several groups, the most famous and most learned tribe is the Kogi. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in present day Columbia has been their home ever since (Crystalinks).

Just like the Maya’s before them, the Tairona people seek mountain caves for enlightenment. Kogi shamans, or Mamas, are chosen at birth. The first nine years of their lives are spent in mountain caves, in total darkness. Trees, animals, sunlight, and the entire world outside of the cave is never seen until it is time for the Mamas to leave. It is here that these future Mamas learn the mysteries of the cosmos, which they call Aluna (Aluna The Movie). These chosen few grow up to become the leaders, priests, and judges of their people (Crystalinks). Clearly the Tairona people increase their spiritual connection through the utilization of mountain terrain.

In 1990 a group of Kogi Mamas came out of isolation and reached out to the western world in order to organize a video documentary (Crystalinks). The Kogi have made multiple documentaries; the latest one filmed in 2012 is entitled Aluna: The Movie. The documentary is meant to warn the rest of the world to stop destroying Mother Earth. The Mamas live a life in close proximity to the mountains, they can tell that the Earth is out of Balance. The documentary shows that this underdeveloped primordial society has a deep understanding of string theory, biology and astronomy. This is a culture that does not use instruments like the telescope, but still can recognize up close pictures of faraway galaxies. The theology that Mamas are learning in these mountain caves is on par with advanced science of modern western society (Aluna The Movie, 0:14:19). What this group of Mamas are trying to accomplish is next to impossible as the rest of the world’s societies ignore the effects of the human expansion. To them, the human population is not just destroying wildlife and terrain; it is also destroying cultural and spiritual rituals, connections, and understandings of the universe.

The Kogi, like many cultures in the area, use the coca leaf on a daily basis. The coca leaf helps with altitude sickness, hunger, and fatigue. The coca plant allows the people to travel freely among the mountains with efficiency (Crystalinks). Over time the leaf has become more than a remedy, it is how the Kogi people connect with one another. All day the men chew on toasted coca leaves to turn it into a paste. Upon meeting a person, the men exchange paste with each other (Crystalinks). The paste is then rubbed onto a gourd that one keeps on his person. This custom is never-ceasing as the hands of the male Kogi are constantly adding to their gourd (Aluna The Movie, 2012). Over time the paste accumulates. Status is made clear by the amount of paste that one has on his gourd. It is a sign of wisdom, and social prosperity (Crystalinks). What started out as a mountain climbing supplement has turned into a daily ritual in which their entire day revolves.

Spiritual enlightenment via mountains is not a thing of the past nor far from home; Native Americans, who share close ancestry with Mesoamerican, still consider mountains some of their most sacred sites. The native tribes of North America still claim to procure visions from ancestors and spirits on top of these sacred mountaintops. For instance, in the case of the Cheyenne Nation of the American Northwest, vision seekers must climb the mountain Bear Butte, near Sturgis, South Dakota.  They do it as quickly as possible and after days of constant self-sacrifice, the individual hopes to be sufficiently broken down physically and mentally, so that the spirits will take pity on him or her and grant a vision (Deloria, 154). Cases of such experiences are still seen today in Native American ceremonies; these practices concerning mountains go back thousands of years.

Although western cultures typically are not aware that mountains are an integral part of theology, it is not uncommon to hear a mountaineer exclaim that as they climb they feel disconnected from the corporate world that has taken over western society.  Robert Macfarlane claims that mountains break mankind of social amnesia (Macfarlane, 275). Macfarlane also wisely states that mountains help climbers feel as if they are detached from the monotony of the world (Macfarlane, 275). It is undeniable that mountains have a supernatural effect on the human psyche. While Mesoamerican cultures are nearly extinct, there are still remnants of the spiritual connections in what little culture there is left. Mountains have been a part of the spiritual journey in most cultures throughout the world and while the western world has become commercialized and detached from the theology of mountains there still remains a deep spiritual link that refuses to digress.

Work Cited

Aluna the Movie. Dir. Alan Ereira. 2012. Amazon Prime. (Primary Source)

Deloria, Vine. The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub., 2006. Print. (Primary source)

Gee, Regina. “Art History of Mesoamerica.” Montana State University. Bozeman, Montana, July 2015. Lecture.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012. Print.

Macfarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print. (Primary Source)

Murdy, Carson N. “Congenital Deformities and the Olmec Were-Jaguar Motif.” American Antiquity 46.4 (1981): 861. Print.

“Tairona – Kogi – Crystalinks.” Tairona – Kogi – Crystalinks. Web. 05 May 2016. <>.

Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Print.

“TIBET: Call It Chomolungma.” Time. Time Inc., 16 June 1952. Web. 05 May 2016.

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