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

Ritual behavior in a sacred land
Humans all over the globe have wanted height in their symbolic religious places, and the Cahokians solved the problem of their flat topography by creating enormous earth mounds. Where there were no natural heights, they created architectural heights to fill their spiritual needs.

Height is also a metaphor for power, and the Cahokian elite were powerful people. Conveniently, and not coincidentally, height served the personal-communal need for a sacred place and also the social-political need for a statement of civil order and a method of civil control. Tall structures are imposing. They demand to be noticed, respected, sometimes feared. If they are taller than the structures of a rival tribe, city, culture, or nation, they are also emblems of victory, trophies symbolizing the possession of the best engineering, architecture, social, and military organization and the greatest wealth. Tall structures demonstrate vigor and success. They show the surrounding world that the inhabitants are big, bold, and in command.

A microcosm on earth
The Midwest not only lacked natural heights, it was also devoid of limits, borders, or boundaries. Most often compared to an ocean of grass, the prairies too could be terrifyingly vast. Within the wild forests that bordered them the confusion could be equally disorienting. The microcosm on earth, the mound city, calmed by mirroring the cosmos as it clarified and ordered human experience, giving it a meaning it would otherwise not have.

No set place for humans was provided by Mother Nature. The work of the human hand in marking a portion of the terrifying vastness with an ordered place gave material form to the workings of the human mind, orienting the self and the community within the scheme of things. The mounds create a sense of here, as opposed to infinite thereness. Mounds, terraced pyramids, cones and ridge-tops, and plazas--all these geometric shapes are clearly hand-made. Nature is altered, assisted, made neat and orderly as well as fructified by the efforts of human architecture and husbandry.

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Figure #3: Erecting a Woodhenge (Lloyd K. Townsend)  »

Learn more about Cahokia in Bringing the Heavens to Earth.

For more information, visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

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