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Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos
Introduction > Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos

We do not know exactly what the religious beliefs of the Cahokians were, but when authorities with background knowledge allow themselves to speculate, the results are illuminating, especially about what might have happened during religious celebrations or on the other special occasions for which this elaborate sacred landscape was designed and built. At the center of John Pfeiffer's imaginative account in Indian City on the Mississippi lay four logs pointing to the cardinal directions. Experts have recently provided some convincing arguments that the story is largely accurate. The evidence indicates that many Amerindian societies deliberately planned their communities after a cosmic model. Henri-Fridiric Amiel said in his nineteenth-century journal, "A landscape is a condition of the spirit." Scholar Paul Wheatley put it another way:

Sacrality (which is synonymous with reality) is achieved through the imitation of a celestial archetype....Although the whole world was the handiwork of the Gods its maximum potential sacredness was realizable only at a few points. Before territory could be inhabited, it had to be sacralized--that is cosmicized. Its consecration signified its reality and therefore sanctioned its habitation; but its establishment as an imitation of a celestial archetype required its delimitation and orientation as a sacred territory within a profane space.

With its plazas aligned on the cardinal directions and the mound of greatest height at the crossing of the plazas, it is clear that Cahokia is a landscape cosmogram. John E. Kelly advocates looking for an explanation by approaching the question from both ends of a chronological continuum. Did other Native American communities create any analogous sacred landscape before the Cahokians? After the Cahokians? The answer is yes to both questions. We know the Hopewell circle-and-octagon mounds were used for sacred ceremonies and for astronomical observations. We have seen the evidence of a solar calendar at Poverty Point about 1500 B.C. Another pre-Cahokia example is the McKeithen site at Weeden Island in northern Florida, occupied between A.D. 200 and 700. Here three mounds form the corners of an isosceles triangle, and a perpendicular from the center of the baseline to the apex points toward the rising sun at the summer solstice.

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Figure #1: A setting for mythic rituals (William R. Iseminger) »

Learn more about Cahokia in Bringing the Heavens to Earth.

For more information, visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

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