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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

The Three-Tiered Cosmos: Eliade Resurrected

Response 5: Week 5: Oct 6. Çatalhöyük: social memory and everyday performance

Other responses of the week

Jennifer Singletary Posted: October 20, 2006. Friday.

In his article, “Constructing a Cosmos: Architecture, Power and Domestication at Catalhoyuk,” D. Lewis-Williams argues that the “structures of Catalhoyuk were constructed exemplars of a tiered cosmology comprising three interacting levels” (28). According to his analysis of the architectural features at the site, he claims that notions of a three-tired cosmos were “both expressed and constructed” by vertical and horizontal features (34). For example, he claims that vertical elements, such as columns and platforms of various levels within the structures, represent movement along the “vertical axis of the cosmos” (35), or the “axis mundi” (46). In other words, though he does allow for the architectural features, the material objects, to have some agency in helping to construct and reinforce the inhabitants’ conception of the cosmological order, he simultaneously sweeps a key, and highly questionable, assumption under the rug: what he refers to obliquely as “some a priori reason for suggesting that the people of Catalhoyuk may have had a tiered cosmology” (31).

Similarly, in his article on Tairona figural images, M. Looper attempts to prove that Site 31 at Pueblito, a Tairona site located on the north of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is an architectural replication of a tiered cosmos. He describes the structure in terms of its superimposed levels and a connecting vertical axis, claiming that “the performances reflected in the design and use of Site 31 clearly resonate with Kogi cosmology and ritual” (36). In the case of Kogi temples, the axis mundi is replicated by a cord hanging from the ceiling of the structure. The upper level, personified by Mulkuexe, is situated above the “temple-body” of the Mother Goddess in this egg-shaped cosmos. Thus, despite Looper’s attempt to hide behind a mask of theoretical discussions of performativity, in reality this argument, like Lewis-Williams, is heavily dependent on outdated theorizations of the relationship between architecture and the cosmos. Neither scholar acknowledges that he is in debt to the now highly contested views of M. Eliade.

In his classic work, The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade lays the groundwork for interpretations like Lewis-Williams’s and Looper’s. His basic argument may be encapsulated in the following statement: “religious conceptions and cosmological images are inseparably connected and form a system that may be called the ‘system of the world’ prevalent in traditional societies: (a) a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; (b) this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible… (c) communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi” (37). In short, architectural features from churches to, perhaps, structures built with an opening in the roof and lots of platforms, to, for example, Tairona temples, are all reflections of a cosmological vision, which provide a space for communication between the tiers of this, always vertically multi-layered, order. Unfortunately, the problem with using Eliade to inform these discussions is clearly similar to the problem of Foucaultian influence on archeologists as critiqued by L. Meskell. Any conception of architecture built of the Eliadean model shortchanges the agency of material objects and individuals’ creativity. The Eliadean model is a universalizing, totalizing narrative that has been heavily critiqued in the last decade by scholars in Religious Studies, such as J.Z. Smith and R. McCutcheon. Yet, he somehow remains the nameless foundation upon which analyses of architecture such as the two discussed above rely.