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The Cosmic Cross and the Artisans of Mexico

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 373-397 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0020

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In the beginning there was but one being in the lower world, Sûs-sistinnako, a spider. At that time there were no other animals, birds, reptiles, or any living creature but the spider. He drew a line of meal from north to south and crossed it midway from east to west; and he placed two little parcels north of the cross line, one on either side of the line running north and south. These parcels were very valuable and precious [they contained the seed of the twin mothers of humankind and all their creatures], but the people do not know to this day of what they consisted; no one ever knew but the creator, Sûs-sistinnako. After placing the parcels in position, Sûs-sistinnako sat down on the west side of the line running north and south of the cross line, and began to sing, and in a little while the two parcels accompanied him in the song by shaking like rattles. The music was low and sweet, and after a while two women appeared, one evolved from each parcel; and in a short time people began walking about; then animals and birds, and all other animate objects appeared, and Sûs-sistinnako continued to sing until his creation was complete.

—Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, 91-92

Earlier we found the concept of the Cosmic Cross incorporated into the small cruciform chamber at Chavín de Huántar known as the Lanzón. There it is associated with a colossal figure—part human, part jaguar, and part snake. Additionally the symbol appears on a small mortar carved as a jaguar (recall the association of felines with agriculture) and in the previous section we found the cross associated with the Moon Goddess in her avatar as Spider Grandmother (figure 24). Before examining sites in Mexico where the design principle of the Cosmic Cross was wedded to geometric perfection it is worth citing other examples of the symbol. Its earliest association with the female principle may be a small clay figure of the goddess with the symbol painted on her legs, which was uncovered at Çatal Hüyük, an Anatolian site dating to 5600-4600 BCE . A cross enclosed within a circle became the Egyptian hieroglyph for a town, and Neolithic cities from the Mediterranean to India were laid out according to this plan. The same symbol appears on a Chinese bronze mirror dating from the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE ). The Cross contains in its arms animals representing the cardinal directions: an entwined turtle and snake [north], phoenix [south], tiger [west, realm of the Moon Goddess], and dragon [east, realm of the Sun God].

In Olmec art the Cosmic Cross represents a deity and is often found in association with a feline. In Yucatecan it is known as the kan, and in Cholan as chan, both words meaning "sky," "snake," and "four." [Recall the celestial sea as snake and the directional snakes or dragons of Chinese mythology.] It is intriguing, therefore, to find that in Mandarin the cross is called kun and in Cantonese, kwun. The cross was a popular motif on painted effigy pots produced in the Recuay culture of Peru. It is still painted on contemporary pottery from lowland South America. A double-lined cross within a circle appears on a Monte Alban I (ca. 500 BCE ) vessel from Oaxaca. The arms of the cross seem to be equated with the "lesser lightning" (clouds, rain, hail, wind), represented as lizards, that were companions of Cocijo (Lightning), the most powerful force in Zapotec belief (compare the Pawnee equivalent in the previous section). During the Monte Alban I period (500-300 BCE ), Zapotecs began constructing what appear to have been sacrificial platforms, some in the form of the Cosmic Cross. In the ensuing period (Monte Alban II) some elites were being laid to rest in a cruciform tomb with a burial chamber accessed via a staircase leading to an antechamber and with niches to the sides and rear. On the outskirts of Monte Alban's main plaza, a residential house having four rooms surrounding a patio to form a cross was discovered. Beneath the floor of...



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