Parallel Worlds of Mexican Cosmology

Another Way of Exploring the Universe

by | May 16, 2009

Image: Cave, City, and eagle’s nest, Edited by David Carrasco and Scott Sessions


You could call it a treasure map, a time machine or a 16th century painted labyrinth.  For me it became a magical board game filled with pictures of characters whose personalities and adventures I could imagine and re-create.  Yet, for the indigenous people who created the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan 2, a Mexican map that records events from the 12th to the 15th centuries in a region near the present-day city of Puebla, it was a crucial artifact documenting how that community struggled to find a new life and maintain its sense of place within the universe.

The Mapa first caught my attention one afternoon when I was living in Mexico City studying Spanish and I attended a lecture by my father, Harvard Professor David Carrasco, who was completing a five-year study of the map.  He explained that the map is both a sacred history of a world that ended once the Spaniards conquered Mexico, and a “foundation and migration” story.  A migration story because it sums up the authors’ (the Chichimecas) various ordeals that included surviving storms and floods and shows them performing sacrificial rituals in their quest to discover their own sacred lands and found a new community. The map then depicts the eventual settlement and social transformation of the Chichimecas from hunters/gatherers to city folk as well as how their gods played a central role in their lives.

My father saved a little bit of magic for the end, when he described what digital photography and restoration of the map revealed in areas that had been damaged.  First, he showed a picture of the map before restoration. At the bottom left corner, along a pathway marked by footprints, there is an image of a man falling head first into a crack in the earth. This was significant because it was the only such crack shown on the map, and it was not clear whether it represented a rip in the earth or if it was indicating a rip in the map and a passageway to a world behind the surface.  The man’s bottom torso and legs are sticking out, but his head and upper body have already disappeared into what might be an alternative reality or underworld.  I was amazed when he showed a second picture of this part of the map digitally restored: right below the disappearing torso is the head of this or perhaps another man moving out of the crack and back into the map. 

Clearly, this key moment in the narrative of the map would have been lost if it weren’t for the photographic technology that revealed what time and the subsequent deterioration had hidden.  It showed that the Chichimecas had access to another world, whether an underworld, dream world or some other alternative form of reality that existed beyond a surface awareness.  Carrasco said that such access to parallel worlds is common in Mesoamerican cosmology: the Aztecs too had an underworld where humans and gods could play games, and the rip was most likely representative of the Chichimecas’ world view.  

A few months later, a treatment for a children’s book based on the pictorial narrative in the map fell into my hands.  The initial treatment had been written by Anthony Aveni, a Colgate University professor of astronomy, who had been involved in the original analysis of the map.  Because I had been trained as a journalist and was an avid reader of children’s literature, Aveni invited me to work on the project with him. 

The plot consisted of a contemporary young Mexican American boy describing the adventure of two of the map’s characters—Serpent Foot and Feather Lip, twins who ask the gods for advice on where to build a new town free of human conflict.  One of the gods, Coatzin, cryptically advises the brothers to follow the “Road of Teyolia,” a metaphorical path that will allow them to acquire intuition—known in Nahuatl as Teyolia—by sensing the soul-force in the plants, animals and other elements in nature. Coatzin suggests that the brothers pay attention to the messages that spontaneously come to them from the natural world and use them to guide their actions. By developing their skills of intuition and a respect for the earth, the brothers will acquire the skills they need to establish their new town.

The treatment, aimed at young readers and already loaded with science and adventure, would benefit from the addition of a twin sister for the protagonist. This would allow for the contemporary siblings to learn from the ordeals faced by the ancient twins in the map and acquire a bit of Teyolia themselves.  I saw the map as a board game: as our players follow the footsteps that lead through the landscape of Cuauhtinchan, we could create the rules using the dramatic episodes and satisfying outcomes that appear in the map’s marvelous painted pictures. Inspired by scenes of Harry Potter tumbling into Dumbledore’s pensieve and Alice falling through the Looking Glass, I suggested that we have the Mexican-American twins magically fall into the map and follow Serpent Foot and Feather Lip on their adventures.

Another writer, Robert Wilder, suggested that the story begin on Halloween, because it coincides with the beginning of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead—a day when Mexican and Mexican-American families typically make an altar in their homes to remember and honor their dead ancestors.  In fact, some people believe the dead travel through spiritual openings and return to earth for a brief visit with their families.

We decided to have the contemporary twins in the story, Marc and Maria, feel disgruntled with their “traditional” Mexican-American parents who bar them from going trick-or-treating because of the tradition of making the family’s altar.  I hoped the narrative would portray a learning experience in which the characters come to value the ritual of Day of the Dead and appreciate the memory of their ancestors.       

The essence of the narrative was developed when Aveni and his wife, Lorraine, invited me up to their tiny cabin in the Adirondacks last August. I arrived at the Aveni’s just as the rain began to diminish from the hammering that had followed me from Boston. Perhaps it was the strange glowing light of the sun through rain clouds that made me feel like I was nearing the edge of reality itself, just before it turns into a dream.  Indeed, I remember the creative dialogue that followed with Aveni as happening in a parallel universe—one that became a metaphor for the alternate world that the map represents. 

We started work with a replica of the map that was large enough to cover a regular-sized picnic table and our diverse approaches began to interact.  Aveni liked the idea of having Marc and Maria unexpectedly fall into the map on Halloween night to enter the world of their indigenous ancestors.  The plan was to have them be invisible in this other realm and follow behind Feather Lip and Serpent Foot on the “Road of Teyolia.”  The biggest challenge we faced was to write the pre-Hispanic practice of human sacrifice into a story for children today. Because human sacrifice is such a frightening and taboo issue for many people, I suggested we allow all four characters to observe a sacrificial episode and discover what it means to give up something highly valued for the greater good. Feather Lip and Serpent Foot dialogue about what would motivate them to make a sacrifice.  Serpent Foot admits that he doesn’t know if he can give up something very valuable, much less his own life even if it is for the benefit of his family.  Feather Lip agrees, suggesting wisely that “at some point in our lives Teyolia will help us realize that we need to give up something important and then because of our inner knowledge we will be able to do it.”  

The unfinished text ended abruptly with Serpent Foot and Feather Lip descending into Mictlan, the Land of the Dead.  How would our characters make it through the Land of the Dead alive, what would they learn, and how would we return Marc and Maria to the present day? 

I will always remember the dialogue between Aveni and I that followed. I felt a small shift in the atmosphere and for the few minutes that we discussed the end of our tale, it was as if the energy was particularly auspicious, allowing us to craft a resolution that answered all of our questions. 

The following is what resulted: Feather Lip and Serpent Foot encounter the Guardian of the Land of the Dead and are required to sacrifice something of ultimate value in order to pass through the ordeal of death and emerge onto the earth. At first, the brothers refuse to sacrifice anything, but their hope of returning to the living world of their families grows stronger and they discover a way through.  The Guardian of the underworld tells them that he collects memories, savoring the experiences, joys and difficulties of humans who have lived: one of the brothers must give up his memory of the adventure and all that he has learned.  Serpent Foot agrees to sacrifice his memory, meaning that Feather Lip has the responsibility of teaching his brother the knowledge they had acquired on their adventure—refilling his mind with the wisdom of Teyolia as well as their conclusions on the meaning of sacrifice.

This would allow for young readers to realize how much people value and cherish memories, using these recollections to sustain them during difficult times. The sweet part of this decision was that having Serpent Foot sacrifice his memory would allow Marc and Maria to begin to understand the importance of remembering their ancestors.

After Serpent Foot and Feather Lip make the memory sacrifice and pass through the Land of the Dead, they journey back to their village, Feather Lip retelling their adventure to his brother all the while.  The other twins, Marc and Maria, follow but can’t help embellishing the story and shouting out parts that Feather Lip misses.  Their outbursts somehow break the magic of the map and the twins fall out of it and back into their present day living room on Halloween night. At home, the pair animatedly recall their adventure and appreciation for the past: both people and actions that came before them.  They realize that this is what Day of the Dead is all about and enthusiastically shout: “Man, this sure beats trick-or-treating!”

Marc and Maria choose the magic map over candy and call up from the dead a world that did not want to disappear from earthly memory. In falling in and out of the map over the past year, I have helped create them and they have coaxed me into a world that is ordered by the mixture of painted images, indigenous cosmology and my own bubbling imagination. For me, the map conjured up a magical game and through a surprising series of moves, Anthony Aveni, the great scholar of the stars, and I followed the painted footprints and open up the rip in the map for you for you to enter too.  

Spring 2009Volume VIII, Number 3

Laanna Carrasco is a freelance writer and editor with an MA in Journalism from the University of Colorado. Her Master’s thesis explored how bilingual Latino music with hybrid musical styles has been used for political and social empowerment. She is an avid runner and has a passion for children’s literature.

Related Articles

Editor’s Letter: The Sky Above, The Earth Below

Editor’s Letter: The Sky Above, The Earth Below

When I first started working on this ReVista issue on Colombia, I thought of dedicating it to the memory of someone who had died. Murdered newspaper editor Guillermo Cano had been my entrée into Colombia when I won an Inter American Press Association fellowship in 1977. Others—journalist Penny Lernoux and photographer Richard Cross—had also committed much of their lives to Colombia, although their untimely deaths were …

Other Cities, Other Worlds

Other Cities, Other Worlds

Author of a marvelous book that excavates the palimpsests of memories encrypted in the image-filled voids of Berlin, Andreas Huyssen extends his investigation of the urban imaginary in…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email