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

It is clear that organizational control was a vital part of Cahokia society. Archaeologist Timothy R. Pauketat supports the view that the Cahokia public works were more than symbols of religious beliefs in the powers of the cosmos: "Cahokian monuments it seems, to be monuments, required the regular mobilization of community labor, no doubt a means of perpetuating both elite control of community labor and the common perception that elite caretakers were necessary for the very existence of the community."

Archaeologist Rinita Dalan continues the argument persuasively:

Delayed returns associated with agriculture necessitate the establishment of a stable and cooperative labor pool....The communal construction and use of mounds, plazas and other earthen features would have provided a means of creating and perpetuating social relations, and establishing and maintaining the labor force necessary for large-scale agricultural pursuits. The durability of this construction and its attendant message of group permanence would have assured a commitment to place and to the transformation, both social and ecological, of the landscape....

Monks Mound and the Grand Plaza were clearly critical in the definition and creation of a large integrated community...simultaneously emphasizing the importance of the ruling hierarchy and the masses. The large, accessible plaza, which appears to have been capable of accommodating the resident population and more, provided a centralized location for ritual activities and served as a collective representation of the group. In contrast, the mounds represented an intricate system in which the relationships of different community and polity groups were ordered. The power of the chief was manifested in a mound that stood above all others. The power of the center was expressed in the profusion of its mounds.

In this way powerful chiefs and their affiliated ruling class could perpetuate their control and position. By associating themselves with the power of the sky they provided celestial legitimacy for their status, and by erecting a monumental city around them they perpetuated the belief system and their own place at the top of the social, religious, and political hierarchy. In addition, the system ensured public safety.

In other words, the chief at Cahokia appropriated the celestial cosmology that ordered the religious beliefs of his people to strengthen the social hierarchy he headed. Melvin L. Fowler summed it up well:
The creation of a sacred landscape is accomplished through the building of monumental constructions within, or near, a specific community. These sacred landscapes serve as the focal point of ceremonies in the ritual calendar in which "chiefs acted as gods on earth connected to cosmic forces."

The astronomical connotations of woodhenges and other constructions at Cahokia belong to the vocabulary of consolidated political power during the decades preceding Cahokia's Emergent Mississippian era. Because authority in this community was always in contention, the community was stabilized through the use of symbols which legitimized the status of the elite. The construction of mounds, post circles, and plazas consumed labor on a massive scale. Through civic construction, Cahokia's elite created highly visible expressions of the power that mobilized that labor in the first place. These displayed the social structure of Cahokia with daily reminders that no one residing in the city, or visiting it, could ignore, for they defined the geographical, social and political landscape with architectural spectacle....

The greater Cahokia site...relates the hierarchy of the social structure to the architecture of the cosmos. Through mythical ancestors and celestial divinities, the elite allied themselves with the power of the sky. Plazas located at the cardinal directions link the architecture of Cahokia to the architecture of the heavens, providing celestial legitimacy for social stratification and elite ranking. The plan of Cahokia is a portrait of Cahokia society.

...A complex community like Cahokia establishes its territorial claims and prerogatives, then, by operating symbolically as a miniaturization of the cosmos, it conforms itself with the topographical features of the sacred landscape by making its layout a template of cosmic order. This usually means that celestial events, which reveal cosmic order, are in one way or another incorporated into the design. Cardinal orientation, seasonal solar alignment, and calendric ritual all may play a role.

We have seen the cosmological legacy the Mississippians inherited from their predecessors — for example, the solar calendar at Poverty Point — and we know there are historical analogues of their beliefs in the Amerindian tribes that came after them. The interpretation of Cahokia as a symbolic microcosm seems reasonable at this stage of our understanding.

Excerpted from pages 51-65 of Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos by Sally A. Kitt Chappell, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2002 The University of Chicago

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Figure #4: Cahokia Rendering (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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