Why isn’t there more Native American Mythology in Video Games?

Before I begin, I would like to preface this by making it clear that I personally view the majority of religious stories to be mythology and most religious concepts – with exceptions of those that may have utility in human health and the scant few that may have similar ideas to verifiable scientific evidence – to be mythology and I make no exceptions whatsoever for my own religious belief in Hinduism or for the Abrahamic faiths. The vast majority of religion is merely mythology whether people want to believe based on archaeological and scientific evidence or not. Arguing in favor of depicting and sharing Native American theology / mythology in video games is in no way an attempt to ridicule, demean, discriminate, or patronize Native American religious beliefs as somehow “inferior” to other religious traditions that have already been depicted in video games and other media. In contrast, I would argue that it gives a wider audience for a deeper understanding, exploration, and appreciation for Native American culture. Far too often I feel that the US public has unfortunately re-contextualized Native Americans into some vague subculture of tragedy porn that often creates an unintended barrier of actually learning what their beliefs and traditions are. I fear that I fell into that trap too, because I couldn’t make time to work on the reviews of the many books that I cite below. I believe that disseminating their culture, myths, and traditional worldviews into the wider public similar to what has already happened with both Abrahamic and Dharmic cultures and myths will create a better appreciation and understanding of their value systems and – to some extent – a better recognition of their humanity.

Upon reading and learning more about Native American cultural concepts and mythological stories, it sometimes baffles me that there hasn’t already been more of a push to incorporate Indigenous myths and cultural themes into video games. Books accounting the myths and philosophical beliefs of Native Americans ranging from the 1970s to 2015 languishing as untapped potential. Ordinarily, fear of offense often comes to mind as a reason, yet we live in a world in which US video game companies make billions of dollars in revenue and can afford to hire cultural experts to assist with making the themes and architecture within a video game. If anything, sensitivity groups within companies have increasingly been encouraged to maintain a respectful depiction and theoretically should avoid a depiction appearing discriminatory. This should quell any issues of walking on proverbial eggshells. Yet, there remains this lack of willingness that may have more to do with ignorance than anything else. Video game industries within the West have been criticized for focusing too heavily on realism and trying to imitate Hollywood. As an industry, Hollywood has become thoroughly criticized for becoming too formulaic and lacking in ideas. In more recent years, billion-dollar Western video game companies have largely been criticized for having the same issues. Crucially, there is another issue that seems to have gone unrecognized in all of this: US video game companies and game developers haven’t played to the strengths of US society. The fact is that when designing European settings and portraying European cultural themes; US game developers and companies will always be playing second fiddle to European game developers and companies. Whereas US game developers may need to check artistic drawings or pictures of European locales to familiarize themselves with a specific period or architecture such as castles; European developers can physically go and visit such locales and experience them firsthand such as the many castles that inhabit Great Britain. Even under the argument that US game developers could buy a plane ticket and visit, such actions are more costly to a US game developer and game company than a European one. And let’s face it, video games are nearly always under a set budget. Therefore, the US game studios will always be at a disadvantage.

There is a significant oversaturation of European myths and fairy tales within video game stories. Even if you disagree with that statement, I would argue that US game studios will probably never be able to outdo Europeans at expressing authentic European perspectives and cultural themes in video games. The US public’s understanding of European culture is shallow compared to the understanding that Europeans have of themselves. Western religious myths have also been overused to the extent that Hollywood itself constantly displays Jesus Christ analogies that often have no relevance towards Christian value systems. The Chosen One trope which is a derivative of Abrahamic cultural themes of prophethood and messianism are often confused as the full scope of human creativity by writers, video game audiences and book readers, and likely by game developers too. Astonishingly, video game studios and artists from outside of the United States have historically done more to incorporate Native American mythology than US game developers and game studios. For example, indie Mexican game studios have shown more interest than indie US game studios in exploring Native American myths; the Mexican game studio Lienzo, with their noteworthy example of the sci-fi game called “Aztech: Forgotten Gods” published in March 2022, shows that indie Mexican game studios are willing to explore their own and their fellow citizens’ Indigenous cultural roots and traditions. However, a prime example is Atlus Japan’s second Devil Summoner game, Soul Hackers, which was originally published in 1997 for the Sega Saturn and ported for Western release in 2013 for the Nintendo 3DS. While I didn’t like the game overall, I absolutely loved the exploration of vision quests by reversing the themes of journeying to find one’s purpose to represent people who failed at finding their purpose, the representation of Kinap (referred to as Redman in the Japanese version) as a shapeshifting spirit of nature, the inclusion of Algonquian mythology’s Nemissa and Manitou, and the ending of the game possibly symbolizing the vision quest journey more accurately for the main protagonists. The different attitudes that respective game developers have in curiosity, wonder, and genuine interest in exploring cultural themes outside of one’s background and expertise speaks for itself. In comparison to US game developers, Japanese game developers have traditionally been more willing to take risks and have historically shown a genuine interest in Native American mythological themes. What does it really say about the supposed “melting pot” of US culture, when not only does a foreign video game studio develop a game involving Native American mythology, but do a decent enough depiction of it based on resources available back prior to 1997? Even after Soul Hackers was officially published in the US in 2013, it has been an entire decade and US game developers continue to make Medieval fantasy knock-offs with no curiosity or awareness of the cultural themes and myths of the very land they live in and call their home.

In an effort to generate more interest and share examples of common concepts, government structures, and tropes within multivarious Native American mythologies; I’ll share what I’ve learned from reading a few books I’ve purchased and the freely available portable document format scans that people can legally download online. The following will primarily focus on Indigenous mythological concepts that can be used as fantasy and sci-fi story ideas, but I also wanted to highlight possible governing structures and cultural attitudes that presented a culture shock to US colonists in the 1700s and 1800s. For some, I’ll be sharing direct quotes from the various sources as I find paraphrasing may unintentionally omit some of the nuances.

First the mythological concepts:

Twoness / Hero Twins

From what I’ve read, throughout multiple Native American mythologies; from the Mayan myths originating from what is now modern-day Guatemala to stories about the Navajo Creation myths originating from what is now the US, Hero Twins usually take prominent focus for a significant part of the story as an explanation for achievements against insurmountable odds that make it possible for disparate clans to form the modern communities that are known in modern times like the Navajo. The Hero Twins generally face-off against monstrous spirits or Monster Gods of disorder and defeating them represents putting Monster Gods / Monster Spirits into orderly states that benefit the Indigenous community. In some cases, like in later portion of the Navajo Creation story, the lesson becomes that certain forms of disorder are necessary to maintain society. Notably, the mothers’ of Hero Twin figures either have their own journeys and prove either their craftiness or power by accomplishing an amazing feat. In the Mayan creation myth of the Popol Vuh, the mother of the Mayan Hero Twins tricks her pursuers sent to assassinate her by her father who is one of the rulers of the underground world and makes deals with some of her other pursuers to reach the surface of the world to meet her spouse’s family and raise her children. In the Navajo Creation myth, the Dine Bahane’, Changing Woman (representing the color turquoise and perhaps change itself and isn’t related to sexuality unlike two beings from earlier parts of the story who are different characters from her) is revealed to be the most powerful being in the creation story as she slaughters more Monster Gods using a hoolah hoop dance ritual that summons a multi-world shattering hurricane or multi-world wind blast. She kills more Monster Gods / Monster Spirits than either the powerful sun deity who is the father of her children, her son Naaye Neizghoni (translated literally as Slayer of Alien Gods and – for some odd reason – translated by modern Westerners as Monster Slayer) or her other son, Born from Water (who only fights a few times before deferring to Naaye Neizghoni).

To my understanding, various Native American myths often exemplify trickery and cunning for the sake of a positive outcome among one or both Hero Twins. I found this to be more evident in the Mayan Hero Twin story than the Navajo one. The Navajo story had their pair of Hero Twins defeat Monster Gods with their overwhelming power after gaining magical weapons, talismans, and armor from their grandmother Spider-woman and later their father, the Sun God. However, the story did consist of a notorious trickster of disorder, the Coyote, who deceived and killed a giant Monster God to win the hand in marriage of She-Bear, a woman who could shapeshift into a bear. The narratives are broad enough that video game developers could make a story of twins initially being complementary before eventually becoming each other’s deadliest foes in a more interesting way than previous stories since Native American mythologies often have it far more fleshed out than other myths. The most intriguing aspect that I couldn’t help but note from Navajo Creation mythology was that many of the disorderly Monster deities were virgin-born and represented some form of extremism which I found to be quite a surprising contrast to what is generally found among Western and even some Dharmic cultural myths. It was a direct contrast that seems to have been falsely reinterpreted as criticism of lesbianism, when it is made clear the disorder comes from not being born from a father. The Monster deities who are virgin-born are often represent an extreme, unpleasant form of the species that they represent such as the snake and lion monster Gods’ respectively.


Pantheistic Monism as a Pervading Sacred Energy

If I tried to explain this in my own words, I fear that I would dilute the nuance and simplify it too much. I believe sharing the specific ten-page passage from James Maffie’s explanation of Teotl within Aztec / Mexica Philosophy and then sharing his research on its similarities to North American Indigenous beliefs in the sacred would serve as the best way to explain this sacred religious concept among the multitude of Native American faith traditions:

  • Teotl

At the heart of Aztec metaphysics stands the ontological thesis that there exists just one thing: continually dynamic, vivifying, self-generating and self-regenerating sacred power, force, or energy. The Aztecs referred to this energy as teotl. Teotl is identical with reality per se and hence identical with everything that exists. What’s more, teotl is the basic stuff of reality. That which is real, in other words, is both identical with teotl and consists of teotl. Aztec metaphysics thus holds that there exists numerically only one thing – energy – as well as only one kind of thing – energy. Reality consists of just one thing, teotl, and this one thing is metaphysically homogeneous. Reality consists of just one kind of stuff: power or force. Taking a page from the metaphysical views of contemporary Mixtec-speaking Nuyootecos of the Mixteca Alta, we might think of teotl as something akin to electricity. Nuyootecos speak of a single, all-encompassing energy, yii, which they liken to electricity.2 What’s more, the Aztecs regarded teotl as sacred. Although everywhere and in everything, teotl presents itself most dramatically – and is accordingly sensed most vibrantly by humans – in the vivifying potency of water, sexual activity, blood, heat, sunlight, jade, the singing of birds, and the iridescent blue-green plumage of the quetzal bird. As the single, all-encompassing life force of the cosmos, teotl vivifies the cosmos and all its contents. Everything that happens does so through teotl’s perpetual energy-in-motion. Teotl is the continuing “life-flow of creation”:3 “a vast ocean of impersonal creative energy.”4

Aztec metaphysics is therefore monistic in two distinct senses. First, it claims that there exists only one numerically countable thing: teotl. I call this claim ontological monism. Aztec metaphysics thus rejects ontological pluralism or the view that there exists more than one numerically countable thing. Second, it claims that this single existing thing – teotl – consists of just one kind of stuff, to wit, force, energy or power. Teotl is metaphysically uniform and homogenous. I call this view constitutional monism. Since the cosmos and all its contents are identical with teotl as well as constituted by teotl, it follows that the cosmos and all its contents consist uniformly of energy, power, or force. Everything consists of electricity-like energy-in-motion. Aztec metaphysics thus denies constitutional pluralism or the thesis that reality consists of more than one kind of stuff (e.g., spiritual stuff and physical stuff). Together, ontological and constitutional monism entail that the apparent plurality of existing things (e.g., sun, mountains, trees, stones, and humans) as well as plurality of different kinds of stuff (e.g., spiritual vs. material) are both derivable from and hence explainable in terms of one existent and one kind of stuff: teotl. In the final analysis, the nature of things is to be understood in terms of teotl.

Teotl is nonpersonal, nonminded, nonagentive, and nonintentional. It is not a deity, person, or subject possessing emotions, cognitions, grand intentions, or goals. It is not an all-powerful benevolent or malevolent god.5 It is neither a legislative agent characterized by free will nor an omniscient intellect. Teotl is thoroughly amoral, that is, it is wholly lacking in moral qualities such as good and evil. Like the changing of the seasons, teotl’s constant changing lacks moral properties.6 Teotl is essentially power: continually active, actualized, and actualizing energy-in-motion. It is essentially dynamic: ever-moving, ever-circulating, and ever-becoming. As ever-actualizing power, teotl consists of creating, doing, making, changing, effecting, and destroying. Generating, degenerating, and regenerating are what teotl does and therefore what teotl is. Yet teotl no more chooses to do this than electricity chooses to flow or the seasons choose to change. This is simply teotl’s nature. The power by which teotl generates and regenerates itself and the cosmos is teotl’s essence. Similarly, the power by which teotl and all things exist is also its essence.7 In the final analysis, then, the existence and nature of all things are functions of and ultimately explainable in terms of the generative and regenerative power of teotl.

Teotl is a process like a thunderstorm or flowing river rather a static, perduring substantive entity like a table or pebble. Moreover, it is continuous and ever-continuing process. Since there exists only one thing – namely, teotl – it follows that teotl is self-generating. After all, there is nothing outside of teotl that could act upon teotl. Teotl’s tireless process of flowing, changing, and becoming is ultimately a process of self-unfolding and self-transforming. This self-becoming does not move toward a predetermined goal or ineluctable end (telos) at which point teotl realizes itself (like Hegel’s absolute spirit) or at which point history or time comes to an end. Teotl’s tireless becoming is not linear in this sense. Like the changing of the seasons, teotl’s becoming is neither teleological nor eschatological. Teotl simply becomes, just as the seasons simply change. Teotl’s becoming has both positive and negative consequences for human beings and is therefore ambiguous in this sense. Creative energy and destructive energy are not two different kinds of energy but two aspects of one and the same teotlizing energy.

Teotl continually and continuously generates and regenerates as well as permeates, encompasses, and shapes reality as part of its endless process of self-generation-and-regeneration. It creates the cosmos and all its contents from within itself as well as out of itself. It engenders the cosmos without being a “creator” or “maker” in the sense of an intentional agent with a plan. Teotl does not stand apart from or exist outside of its creation in the manner of the Judeo-Christian god. It is completely coextensive with created reality and cosmos. Teotl is wholly concrete, omnipresent, and immediate. Everything that humans touch, taste, smell, hear, and see consists of and is identical with teotl’s electricity-like energy. Indeed, even humans are composed of and ultimately one with teotl and, as such, exist as aspects or facets of teotl. Teotl’s ceaseless changing and becoming, its ceaseless generating and regenerating of the cosmos, is a process of ceaseless self-metamorphosis or self-transformation-and-retransformation. In short, teotl’s becoming consists of a particular kind of becoming, namely transformative becoming; its power, a particular kind of power, namely transformative power.

Since teotl generates and regenerates the cosmos out of itself, it would be incorrect to think that it creates the cosmos ex nihilo. Contrasting the Quiché Maya concept of creation in the Popol Vuh with the Judeo-Christian concept creation in the Bible, Dennis Tedlock notes that for the Maya the cosmos does not begin with a “maelstrom” of “confusion and chaos.”8 The same holds for Aztec metaphysics. The cosmos does not begin from chaos or nothingness; it burgeons forth from an always already existing teotl. Consequently Aztec metaphysics may aptly be described as lacking a cosmogony, if by cosmogony one means the creation of an ordered cosmos from nothingness or primordial chaos. There are no absolute beginnings – or absolute endings, for that matter – in Aztec metaphysics. There are only continuings. Death, for example, is not an ending but a change of status, as that which dies flows into and feeds that which lives. All things are involved in a single, never-ending process of recycling and transformation. There is furthermore no time prior to or after teotl since time is defined wholly in terms of teotl’s becoming. Nor is there space outside of teotl since space, too, is defined wholly in terms of teotl’s becoming.

Teotl continually generates and regenerates as well as permeates, encompasses, and shapes the cosmos as part of its endless process of self-generation-and-regeneration. It penetrates deeply into every detail of the cosmos and exists within the myriad of existing things. All existing things are merely momentary arrangements of this sacred energy. Reality and hence the cosmos and all its inhabitants are not only wholly exhausted by teotl, they are at bottom identical with teotl. That which we customarily think of as the cosmos – sun, earth, rain, humans, trees, sand, and so on – is generated by teotl, from teotl as one aspect, facet, or moment of teotl’s endless process of self-generation-and-regeneration. The power of teotl is thus multifaceted, seeing as it presents itself in a multitude of different ways: for example, as heat, water, wind, fecundity, nourishment, humans, and tortillas. Yet teotl is more than the unified, kaleidoscopic totality of these aspects. It is identical with everything and everything is identical with it. Process and transformation thus define the essence of teotl. Teotl is becoming, and as becoming it is neither being nor nonbeing yet at the same time both being and nonbeing. As becoming, teotl neither is nor is not, and yet at the same time it both is and is not. Aztec metaphysics, in other words, embraces a metaphysics of becoming instead of a metaphysics of being. Teotl processes, where to process is understood as an intransitive verb such as “to become,” “to proceed,” or “to walk in a procession.” Teotl’s processing does not represent the activity or doing of an agent. Nor does it have a direct object. Teotl’s processing is a nonagentive process such as the changing of the seasons, the coming and going of the tides, and fluctuations in a magnetic field. Because identical with teotl, reality is essentially process, movement, becoming, change, and transformation. Because identical with teotl, the cosmos is processive and as a consequence lacks entities, structures, and states of affairs that are static, immutable, and permanent. Everything that teotl creates out of itself – from cosmos and sun to all earth’s inhabitants – is processive, unstable, evanescent, and doomed to degeneration and destruction.

David Cooper proposes that we understand the term, God, in the mystical teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah as a verb rather than as a noun. He suggests God be understood along the lines of “raining” and “digesting” rather than “table” or “planet.” Doing so better captures the dynamic, processive nature of the deity discussed in these teachings.9 Similarly, David Hall argues in his study of classical Daoism that we better understand the term dao as “primarily gerundive and processive” rather than as nominative and substantive. Dao signifies a “moving ahead in the world, forging a way forward, road building.”10 Since doing so better reflects the dynamic nature of teotl, I propose we think of the word teotl as primarily gerundive, processive, and denoting a process (rather than as nominative and denoting a static substantive entity). Teotl refers to the eternal, all-encompassing process of teotlizing. Since the cosmos and all its contents are merely moments in teotl’s teotlizing, they, too, are properly understood as processes.11

Aztec metaphysics’ understanding of teotl is shaped by several further fundamental guiding intuitions. First, it subscribes to the notion that that which is real is that which becomes, changes, and moves. Reality is defined by becoming – not by being or “is-ness.” To be real is to become, to move, and to change. In short, Aztec metaphysics embraces a metaphysics of Becoming. It embraces flux, evanescence, and change by making them defining characteristics of existence and reality – rather than marginalizing them by denying them existence and reality. It maintains the ontological priority of process and change over rest and permanence. It squarely identifies the real with the constant flux of things.12 Since teotl is sacred, it follows that the sacred is defined by becoming, change, and motion as well. The Aztecs’ metaphysics of Becoming stands in dramatic contrast with the metaphysics of Being that characterizes the lion’s share of Western metaphysics since Plato and Aristotle. The latter defines reality in terms of being or is-ness. On this view to be real is to be permanent, immutable, static, eternal, and at rest. (E.g., real love, as popular sentiment would have it, is eternal, immutable, and undying love.) That which becomes, changes, perishes, or moves is not real – or at least not wholly or fully so. Mutability, evanescence, and expiry are criteria of non- or partial reality, whereas immutability, permanence, and eternality are criteria of reality. Plato’s metaphysics serves as a paradigmatic expression of this intuition. It denies complete reality, is-ness, and being to all things that change and assigns them to an ontologically inferior realm of semireality. Perishable and mutable things occupy his famous Cave where they suffer from semireality and semiexistence. This is the realm of Appearances. Eternally unchanging things occupy his famous the realm of the Forms, where they enjoy complete reality and is-ness. This is the realm of the Real.13

One’s view on this issue has important implications for one’s understanding of the sacred. For example, if one upholds a metaphysics of Being and if one also defends the reality of the sacred (e.g., the gods), then one must a fortiori see the sacred as eternal, immutable, and defined by pure Being. The sacred cannot therefore be identified with that which becomes, changes, and perishes. The latter must be characterized as nonsacred or profane. Furthermore, if the world about us changes then the sacred must be metaphysically divorced from the world and instead identified with a transcendent, metaphysically distinct realm of Being. On the other hand, if one upholds a metaphysics of Becoming, then one may identify the sacred with the mutable, evanescent, and perishable, and hence with the changing world about us.

Second, Aztec metaphysics equates reality with the exercise of power, that is, being real with making things happen, influencing things, acting upon things, and effecting change in things. As always active, actualized, and actualizing power, teotl is continually doing, effecting, and making happen. Carl Jung articulates the intuition nicely: “Everything that exists acts, otherwise it would not be. It can be only by virtue of its inherent energy.”14

A third intuition claims essence follows from function. That is, what something is follows from what it does as well as how it does it. This intuition replaces the traditional Western metaphysical principle operari sequitar esse (“functioning follows being”) with its own principle esse sequitar operari (“being follows from operation”).15 Teotl therefore is what teotl does. And what does teotl do? Teotl makes everything happen as well as happen the way it does. Teotl is the happening of all things, the patterns in the happening of all things, and the co-relatedness between the happenings of all things. It vivifies all things and is essentially vivifying energy. It energizes the life cycles of plants, animals, and humans; the cycles of the seasons and time; and the creation and destruction of the five Suns and their respective Ages or what I call (for reasons that will become clear in chapter 4) “Sun-Earth Orderings.” Teotl is the power behind and the power of the becoming, changing, and transforming of all things above the earth, on the surface of the earth, and below the earth.16

The foregoing suggests Aztec philosophy embraces what Western philosophers call a process metaphysics.17 Process metaphysics views processes rather than perduring objects, things, or substances as ontologically basic. What seem to be perduring things are really nothing more than stability patterns in processes. As the products of processes, entities are derivative. Process metaphysics treats dynamic notions such as becoming, power, activity, change, flux, fluidity, unfolding, creation, destruction, transformation, novelty, interactive interrelatedness, evanescence, and emergence as central to understanding reality and how everything hangs together. What’s more, processes are what processes do. Essence follows function. This intuition, like others we’ve seen, contradicts the dominant view in the history of Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle, namely, substance metaphysics. Substance metaphysics views perduring things or substances as ontologically basic and processes as ontologically derivative.

Teotl, and hence reality, cosmos, and all existing things are processes. Teotl is not a perduring entity that underlies the various changes in the cosmos the way that say a table, according to Aristotelian metaphysics, underlies changes in its attributes (e.g., color). Nor is it a perduring substance that undergoes the various changes in the cosmos the way that say wood, according to Aristotelian metaphysics, undergoes changes from tree to lumber to table. We therefore need to resist the temptation to reify teotl. Sun, earth, humans, maize, insects, tortillas and stones are processes. What’s more, teotl is a transformational process that changes the form, shape or “face” (ixtli) of things.18 As such, it is simultaneously creative and destructive. Transformational processes involve the destruction of something prior in the course of creating something posterior.

Fourth, Aztec metaphysics sees reality as ex hypothesi ineliminably and irreducibly ambiguous. The ambiguity of things cannot be explained away as a product of human misunderstanding, ignorance, or illusion. Teotl, reality, cosmos, and all existing things are characterized simultaneously by inamic pairs such as being and nonbeing, life and death, male and female, and wet and dry. This contradicts the reigning intuition in Western metaphysics since Plato that holds that that which is real is ex hypothesi unambiguous, pure, and unmixed. It is only appearances and illusions that are contradictory, ambiguous, impure, and mixed.

Fifth, Aztec metaphysics views reality in holistic terms. Holism claims reality consists of a special kind of unity or whole: namely, one in which all individual components are essentially interrelated, interdependent, correlational, interactive, and thus defined in terms of one another.19 Holists commonly cite biological organisms and ecological systems as examples of the kind of unity they have in mind, and accordingly liken reality to a grand biological organism or ecosystem. They claim wholes are ontologically primary and individuals are ontologically secondary, and that individuals are defined in terms of the wholes in which they participate. Houses, trees, and humans, for example, do not enjoy independent existence apart from the wholes of which they are essentially parts and in which they essentially participate. By contrast, atomism views reality as the summative product of its individual parts. Individuals, not wholes, are basic. Atomists commonly cite sets or collections of things such as the coins in one’s pocket as paradigmatic examples of atomistic unities.

For holists, individuals cannot be properly understood apart from how they function in the constellation of interrelated and intercorrelated processes that define the whole and in which they essentially participate. Individuals’ relationships with one another are intrinsic to them and exhaustively define them. What’s more, an individual’s relations extend throughout the entire cosmos. In the preceding I claimed the fundamental concepts for understanding reality are dynamic ones such as becoming, power, transformation, and emergence. I want now to add to this list holistic concepts such as interdependence, mutual arising, covariance, interconnectedness, interdependence, complementarity, and correlationalism.

How does this bear upon Aztec metaphysics? For starters, since reality is processive, it follows that Aztec metaphysics’ holism is a processive holism. And since teotl is nonteleological and identical with reality per se, it follows that reality is a nonteleological processive whole: a “unified macroprocess consisting of a myriad of duly coordinated subordinate microprocesses.”20 The same also holds for the cosmos. These microprocesses are mutually arising, interconnected, interdependent, interpenetrating, and mutually correlated. They are interwoven one with one another like threads in a total fabric, where teotl is not only the total woven fabric but also the weaver of the fabric and the weaving of the fabric. Weaving is especially apropos since (as I argue in chapters 3 and 8) weaving functions as a root organizing metaphor of Aztec metaphysics. Alternatively, seeing as biological organisms function as another organizing metaphor in Aztec metaphysics, we may view these processes as mutually interdependent and interpenetrating like the processes composing an individual biological organism. It is in this vein that Kay Read claims Aztec metaphysics conceives the cosmos as a “biologically historical” process.21 In sum, Aztec metaphysics advances a nonteleological ecological holism.

If the foregoing is correct, it follows that teotl is metaphysically immanent in several significant senses.22 First, teotl does not exist apart from or independently of the cosmos. Teotl is fully copresent and coextensional with the cosmos. Second, teotl is not correctly understood as supernatural or otherworldly. Teotl is identical with and hence fully coextensional with creation: hence no part of teotl exists apart from creation. Teotl does not exist outside of space and time. It is as concrete and immediate as the water we drink, air we breathe, and food we eat. Teotl is neither abstract nor transcendent.

Third, teotl is metaphysically homogeneous, consisting of just one kind of stuff: always actual, actualized, and actualizing energy-in-motion. The fact that teotl has various aspects does not gainsay its homogeneity. Teotl does not bifurcate into two essentially different kinds of stuff – “natural” and “supernatural” – and thus neither do reality and cosmos. Indeed, the very nature of teotl precludes the drawing of any qualitative metaphysical distinction between “natural” and “supernatural.”23 The natural versus supernatural dichotomy, so cherished by Western metaphysics and theology, simply does not apply. While Aztec tlamatinime did claim that certain aspects of teotl are imperceptible to and so hidden from humans under ordinary perceptual conditions, and accordingly made an epistemological distinction between different aspects of teotl, this does not mean that Aztec tlamatinime drew a principled metaphysical distinction between perceptible and imperceptible aspects of teotl or that they believed that the imperceptible aspects were “supernatural” because they consisted of a different kind of stuff.

Fourth, teotl is immanent in the sense that it generates and regenerates the cosmos out of itself. The history of the cosmos consists of the self-unfolding and self-becoming of teotl; of the continual unfolding and burgeoning of teotl out of teotl. Teotl is identical with creation since teotl is identical with itself. There do not therefore exist two metaphysically distinct things: teotl and its creation. There is only one thing: teotl.

Fifth, although teotl is sacred, it is not transcendent in the sense of being metaphysically divorced from a profane, immanent world. Aztec metaphysics does not embrace a dichotomy of sacred versus profane. Given that teotl is sacred, that everything is identical with teotl, and that teotl is homogeneous, it follows that everything is sacred. The Aztecs saw sacredness everywhere and in everything. Whereas Christianity’s dualistic (and as we will see hierarchical) metaphysics effectively removes the sacred from the earthly and characterizes the earthly in terms of the absence of the sacred, the Aztecs’ monistic (and as we will see nonhierarchical) metaphysics makes the sacred present everywhere.24 Aztec metaphysics lacks the conceptual resources for constructing a grand, metaphysical distinction between two essentially different kinds of stuff: sacred and profane. The sacred versus profane dichotomy, venerated by the metaphysical systems underlying many religions, simply does not obtain. This dichotomy is commonly underwritten by a Platonic-style, metaphysical dualism between two ontologically different kinds of stuff, one sacred, the other profane. But Aztec metaphysics rejects all manner of ontological dualisms. There is, however, one quite limited and insignificant sense in which teotl may be said to be transcendent. Teotl is neither exhausted by nor limited to any one existing thing at any given time or place: for example, any one given tree, human, or even cosmic era.

Consonant with the foregoing, Aztec philosophy embraces a nonhierarchical metaphysics.25 That is, it denies the existence of a principled, ontological distinction between “higher” and “lower” realms, realities, degrees of being, or kinds of stuff. A hierarchical metaphysics, by contrast, upholds the existence of a principled hierarchy of “higher” and “lower” realities, degrees of being, and so on. Plato’s Middle Period metaphysics serves as a paradigmatic instance of a hierarchical metaphysics, one that has exerted tremendous influence upon the metaphysics of Christianity and Western philosophy.26 Hierarchical metaphysics are characterized by what Arthur Lovejoy calls a “great chain of being” and “great scale of being.”27 They standardly defend metaphysical dualism and the transcendence of the real and the sacred. Teotl’s ontological monism and homogeneity, as well as its radical immanence preclude any such hierarchicalness. This helps us understand why, for example, “Christian transcendentalism was meaningless to the Nahuas,” as Louise Burkhart claims.28

The assertion that Aztec metaphysics is nonhierarchical appears inconsistent with sources such as the Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas and Histoyre du Mechique that speak of the cosmos as being divided vertically into distinct layers: thirteen above and nine below the earthly layer (tlalticpac).29 These layers are alternatively characterized as nine upper skies, four lower skies and the surface of the earth, and nine lower layers of the underworld. Claims regarding the hierarchical layering of the Aztec cosmos are also routinely based upon the depiction of cosmos with vertical layers (and accompanying commentary) on pages 1 and 2 of the Codex Vaticanus 3738 A.30

How do I respond to this? Chapter 8 argues the vertical layers of the cosmos are merely folds in the single, metaphysically homogeneous energy of teotl. This folding is analogous to the folding of a blanket or skirt that consists of one and the same kind of material (e.g., cotton). The fact that the Aztecs cosmologists assigned different names to the folds does not mean they defended the metaphysical heterogeneity of the folds.

Maffie, James. Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (pp. 21-31). University Press of Colorado. Kindle Edition.


And further on, where he explains its similarities to North American Indigenous faith traditions:

Scholarship on Indigenous North American and East Asian Metaphysics

Native North American scholars attribute similar views regarding the singularity, uniformity, immanence, and vivifying potency of reality to indigenous North American philosophies. The late Standing Rock Sioux philosopher, Vine Deloria Jr., for example, argues that for indigenous peoples “the presence of energy and power is the starting point [and cornerstone] of their analyses and understanding of the world.”70 The “feeling or belief that the universe is energized by a pervading power” is basic and pervasive. It is not the abstract, theoretical conclusion of a process of scientific reasoning. Awareness of power is immediate and concrete.71 The indigenous peoples of North America called this power wakan orenda or manitou. Deloria likens this power to “a force field” that permeates as well as constitutes everything (without distinction between so-called matter and spirit). The cosmos is the operating of this vital power, and all existing things are products of its operating. Since this power is sacred, so is the entire cosmos. This power is neither “spiritual” nor “material” as these terms are customarily understood by Western secular and religious metaphysical thought. Indeed, indigenous metaphysics considers this a false distinction. Nature, too, then, is neither “material” nor “spiritual.” Keith Basso writes, “The distinction made by Westerners between things ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ has no exact equivalent in the culture of the Western Apache.” Powers, mythological figures, and ghosts exist on a par metaphysically with rain, sun, and wind. “The former are not conceptualized as belonging to an order of phenomena radically opposed to that which makes up the natural world.”72 In short, Western-style distinctions of sacred versus profane, spiritual versus material, and natural versus supernatural simply do not apply to indigenous North American metaphysics.73 They are false distinctions.

Jicarilla Apache philosopher Viola Cordova argues indigenous North American metaphysics conceives the cosmos as a seamless dynamic field of energy or power that is called usen in Jicarilla Apache. Although standardly glossed as “great spirit” by anthropologists, she contends usen refers to something nonanthropomorphic and nonpersonal.74 Usen has a tendency to “pool” and concentrate in varying degrees, creating “things” such as rocks and trees.75 Cordova, Jace Weaver, Gregory Cajete, George Tinker, Willie Ermine, Deloria, and other Native scholars liken usen to other indigenous North American conceptions of a single, primordial, processive all-encompassing and ever-flowing creative life force including natoji (Blackfoot), wakan tanka (Sioux), yowa (Cherokee), orenda (Iroquois), and nil’ch’i (Navajo).76 According to Leroy Meyer and Tony Ramírez, Sioux metaphysics conceives all objects as “distinct manifestations” of wakan tanka.77 Once again, we see that native North American philosophies reject as false the distinctions between sacred and profane, spirit and matter, mind and body, and natural and supernatural. My purpose in introducing these views is to suggest that the Aztec notion of teotl is well within the realm of indigenous North American metaphysical thinking about the ultimate nature of reality. I do not claim exact correspondence, cross-cultural influence, or the existence of a shared pan-Indian way of thinking. I am not arguing that my interpretation of Aztec metaphysics is correct on the grounds that North American philosophies believed something similar. Rather, showing resonance between indigenous Mesoamerican (Aztec and others) and indigenous North American metaphysics enables us to see that this kind of metaphysical picture is not inconceivable or even uncommon, and that it is not a priori out of the question to attribute such a view to the Aztecs.

My purpose is also negative in the sense of clearing the ground. I believe such comparisons help gainsay scholars such as Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Henri and H. A. Frankfort, and Benjamin Keen, who would argue that such a view exceeds the undeveloped cognitive abilities of “prephilosophical” and “mythopoeic” peoples who are too emotionally, practically, simple-, or concrete-minded to devise a metaphysical theory about something as “abstract” as teotl.78 The Aztecs did not regarded teotl as a bloodless, theoretical abstraction intellectually removed from the concrete, perceptible, and immediate. Rather, following Deloria Jr., I believe they sensed the immediate and concrete presence of power and life force both within and without. The idea of teotl as an “abstraction” is ours.


Maffie, James. Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (pp. 35-37). University Press of Colorado. Kindle Edition.


Power Clusters as “Gods” or “Spirits” and Process-Metaphysics

This particular concept helped explain the contents of other Native American mythological stories from the Popol Vuh and the Dine Bahane’ so much that I consider both pantheistic monism and the following to be necessary to understand the bedrock of Native American philosophy and mythology as an outsider looking in. In many ways, I think these concepts could rival Kabbalah mythology’s concept of demon and angel summoning that Atlus Japan largely borrows from and arguably even Digimon and Pokemon with enough interest and effort:


 The Aztecs singled out and emphasized certain facets, aspects, or qualities of teotl for ritual, practical, pedagogical, and artistic purposes (these being often indistinct). The different deities of the Aztec “pantheon” represent different clusters of these aspects or qualities and hence different clusters of specific forces or energies. The Tlaloc cluster differs from the Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl cluster and the Xiuhtecuhtli cluster, for example. Tlaloc, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, and Xiuhtecuhtli are not distinct, independently existing substantive deities, personages, or beings in their own right. The word Tlaloc simply names a specific cluster of energies. Although each deity cluster possesses its own distinct “personality,” this personality is a function of the powers clustered together by human artifice, and not a function of a distinct metaphysical essence. In keeping with the metaphysical principle esse sequitar operari (“being follows from operation”), the personality of each deity cluster is thus defined by what it does. The partitioning of teotl into these various clusters is a matter of human contrivance and not a matter of trying to cut reality at the seams (to borrow Plato’s famous phrase).36 After all, teotl has no seams! These clusters overlap with one another, interact with one another, merge with one another, and flow in and out of one another.37 This makes sense since sacred reality is dynamic, multiple, ever-changing, and fluid. The merging and overlapping of these constellations does not, as Hunt remarks, “reflect an ‘impoverished’ or ‘unfinished’ religious pantheon. It was in fact the pantheon’s very nature.”38 The Aztecs referred to these energy-clusters using metaphoric names or kennings, and depicted them artistically by means of semantically charged colors, vestments, insignia, paraphernalia, body postures, and human shapes.39 Specific activities are commonly associated with specific deities or patrons-patronesses. For example, spinning and weaving are associated with Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina. What does the relationship amount to? I suggest the activity in question is materially constituted by the powers and forces associated with the relevant deity-cluster. Weaving involves the kind of powers and energies identified with Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina. And what about so-called divine possession? I suggest “divine possession” actually consists of the relevant “god’s” powers or energies saturating the affected person. For example, a person’s becoming intoxicated from drinking excessive octli (pulque or fermented maguey sap) does not consist of his being possessed by the Tzenton Totochtin (“Four Hundred Rabbits”) agricultural fertility “gods” and members of the Ometochtli (“God Two Rabbit”) complex.40 Rather, it consists of the person’s being infused by the kind of energies named by the four hundred rabbits, Ometochtli, and so on. To become intoxicated was to “rabbit yourself.”41 Texts on drunkenness use phrases such as itech quinehua (“it takes possession of him”) and itech quiza (“it comes out in him”). This indicates the Aztecs believed that the forces present in fermented maguey sap entered the individual and caused the effects of drunkenness. Aztec philosophy, as we saw in chapter 1, embraces a process metaphysics. Processes, rather than perduring entities or substances, are ontologically fundamental. According to this view, teotl is a complex, allencompassing unified macroprocess that consists of a myriad of coordinated microprocesses. These processes are systematically interrelated, interconnected, interdependent, interpenetrating, overlapping, and covariant. They are mutually affecting and mutually arising. They are interwoven with one another like threads in a cloth, where the total woven cloth is teotl. Switching metaphors, the processes are interrelated like the various processes in a biological organism or ecosystem. What light does this shed on the question of Aztec polytheism? I believe the Aztecs singled out and emphasized specific processes and constellations of processes for ritual, practical, pedagogical, and artistic purposes. The various gods and goddesses of the Aztec pantheon are nothing more than these specific constellations of processes. Gods’ and goddesses’ names – Tlazolteotl and Xiuhtecuhtli, for example – serve as conventional, shorthand handles or tags for specific constellations of processes. The use of these names no more entails that the Aztecs considered their referents to be perduring substantive entities than our calling a hurricane “Sandy” commits us to the view that hurricanes are substantive entities rather than processes. Names, after all, may refer to entities or to processes. Contemporary speakers of English, for example, commonly assign names to processes: for example, “the Bradley effect” and “the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” Aztecs did so as well. Let’s briefly flesh out this view borrowing from H. B. Nicholson’s excellent analysis of pre-Hispanic religion in central Mexico. Nicholson proposes that the deities of the Mesoamerican pantheon be organized around several fundamental “cult themes,” each of which, in turn, may be analyzed into smaller subthemes that are expressed by what Nicholson calls “deity complexes.”42 Three cult themes stand out according to Nicholson: “Celestial Creativity-Divine Paternalism,” “Rain, Moisture, and Agricultural Fertility,” and “War-Sacrifice-Sanguinary Nourishment of the Sun and the Earth.”43 I suggest each of these three major themes (along with its respective subthemes) refers to a complex constellation of macroprocesses along with its respective, organically nested microprocesses. Each constellation is essentially interrelated and interwoven with the other two. None is completely autonomous or discrete. Each constellation possesses the power to bring about changes in things outside itself through external mechanical-style causation as well as the power to bring about changes within itself through organic-style, immanent causation. Many of the changes occurring within one constellation are covariant or co-related with changes occurring in another constellation in the same way that we consider the myriad changes constituting a change in the seasons to be covariant or co-related with one another.


“Celestial Creativity-Divine Paternalism” refers to the vast constellation of processes involved in “primordial creative origins” including creativity, generation and regeneration, renewal, sustenance, and transformation. It includes three deity complexes: Ometeotl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xiuhtecuhtli. The Ometeotl complex, for example,includes a cluster of deities that Nicholson writes “were in effect only aspects of a single, fundamental creative, celestial, paternal deity.” Ometeotl stands out among the deities of this theme as “a sexually dualistic, primordial generative power.”44 I suggest Ometeotl and the other deities that constitute this cluster – Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl – are nothing more than specific constellations of processes concerned with never-ending generation, renewal, and sustenance. And likewise for Tezcatlipoca and Xiuhtecuhtli: the name Xiuhtecuhtli, for example, refers not to a substantive entity but to a specific manifold of powerful processes including fire, solar heat, and life-giving warmth.45 The same holds true for the “Rain, Moisture, and Agricultural Fertility” and “War-Sacrifice-Sanguinary Nourishment of the Sun and the Earth” themes and their respective deities complexes. “Rain, Moisture, and Agricultural Fertility” refers to a complex constellation of water- and fertility-related processes: for example, rain, clouds, wind, thunder, lightning, streams, rivers, flooding, food cultivation, crop irrigation, decomposition, sexuality, and birth. This theme, as Nicholson sees it, includes the Tlaloc, Centeotl-Xochipilli, Teteoinnan, Ometochtli, and Xipe Totec deity complexes. These deities are specific subsets of the above-mentioned processes.46 “War-Sacrifice-Sanguinary Nourishment of the Sun and the Earth” picks out a complex constellation of processes united by the Aztecs’ belief that the fertility, well-being, and continued existence of the Fifth Age (or Sun-Earth Ordering) depends on the gods’ being nourished “by their preferred sustenance, human hearts and blood, sustenance which was made available to them primarily by constant war.”47 This theme includes the Tonatiuh, Huitzilopochtli, Mixcoatl Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, and Mictlantecuhtli deity complexes. These deities represent specific subsets of the above processes.


Let’s take a closer look, for instance, at the word Tonatiuh, which names the Sun. J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig translate Tonatiuh as a present-agentive noun meaning, “he-goes-becoming-warm.”48 Tonatiuh is defined by what he customarily does. His nature is dictated by his operation. Tonatiuh is “he who goesbecoming-warm.” This accords with the processive interpretation of the gods defended here. As a constellation of processes, the deities of the Aztec pantheon consist of what they do, that is, their powers and capacities. These three broad constellations of processes not only causally interact with one another but also interpenetrate, crosscut, and overlap with one another. Scholars commonly point out that at some point the various Aztec deities eventually blur one into the other due to their extensive interrelationships. Andrews and Hassig remark, for example, that “Although heuristically useful, [Nicholson’s categories] do not separate the gods into discrete, nonoverlapping categories. Rather, the gods may share in all of them to varying degrees.”49 And this, I believe, is as it should be, since it helps explain the irreducible ambiguity of all things (which is one of key intuitions of Aztec metaphysics discussed in chapter 1). For example, the constellation of water processes includes lightning, drowning, and flooding, thereby connecting the constellation of water-related forces to the constellations of fire and death. Hence artistic depictions of Tlaloc often have him carrying a lightning bolt, a symbol of fire. Certain activities are typically associated with a specific deity or patron/patroness: for example, spinning and weaving with Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina. What does the relationship amount to? I suggest the relevant activity is constituted by the same forces and processes as are denoted by the deity’s name. For example, Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina denotes the forces and processes involved in spinning and weaving. Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina and spinning and weaving consist of one and the same forces and processes. Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina is not the goddess of spinning and weaving. Chalchiuhtlicue (“she of the jade skirt”) similarly denotes the forces and processes comprising springs, rivers, lakes, and sea. Chalchiuhtlicue is not the goddess of springs, rivers, lakes, and sea. The foregoing pantheistic interpretation of Aztec deities as clusters of powers and constellations of processes (rather as individual substantive gods) has several additional theoretical virtues. First, it enables us to capture López Austin’s insight that the gods of the Aztec pantheon undergo “fusion,” “fission,” and “remixing.”50 Fusion occurs when two or more gods combine with one another to form a new god; fission, when a single god divides into two or more distinct gods sharing some of the original god’s attributes. Tlalchitonatiuh (“the setting sun”) for example, represents a fusion of Tonatiuh and Tlaloc.51 If we imagine Aztec deities as clusters of powers, then we can also easily imagine these clusters of powers fusing, fissioning, and remixing in various ways. If we imagine the gods as constellations of processes, we can easily imagine the same. The various powers and processes of the gods combine and divide in various ways. In so doing they embody and constitute the changes in the cosmos and therefore help explain the various processes of and changes in the cosmos. The various manifold processes and forces of the cosmos fluidly combine and divide like so many kaleidoscopic colored threads in a woven fabric. Second, the foregoing interpretation supports the claim that the Aztecs’ tendency to anthropomorphize the various aspects of teotl by depicting them as human-like figures does not entail polytheism. Third, the forgoing helps us understand that the alleged deities are in fact identical with the forces they name; they are not the gods of those forces and processes. Tonatiuh (“He who goes-becoming-warm”) names the forces and processes comprising the sun. Tonatiuh is identical with these forces and processes, and is not the god of the sun. Lastly, as Hunt and Sandstrom point out, pantheism helps explain the quick incorporation of Christianity into indigenous religions after the conquest.


Maffie, James. Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion. University Press of Colorado. Kindle Edition.




The Aztecs’ nonhierarchical metaphysics requires that it conceptualize purity and impurity nonhierarchically. The distinction between purity and impurity accordingly consists of how things are arranged, not what things consist of. Things become more pure by becoming better arranged or ordered – not by becoming closer to a higher, transcendent sacred realm. And things become more impure by becoming more deranged or disordered – not by becoming closer to a lower, profane realm. That which is pure is that which is well-ordered, wellarranged, and well-integrated, whereas that which is impure is that which disordered, disarrayed, and displaced. Pure and impure exist at opposite ends of a single nonhierarchical continuum. Contemporary Huichol, for example, similarly deny any principled, hierarchical distinction between sacred and profane. Rather, they distinguish things nonhierarchically in terms of their “degrees of religious intensity.”


Aztec philosophy recognizes a second distinction that appears incompatible with its nonhierarchicalism and constitutional monism. It distinguishes between power that is cosmically balancing, ordering, stabilizing, and immediately beneficial to human beings, on the one hand, and power that is cosmically imbalancing, disordering, deranging, unstabilizing, and immediately detrimental to human beings, on the other. One common way of understanding this distinction by scholars introduces a hierarchical metaphysics and a constitutional dualism. It holds there are two constitutionally and hence essentially different kinds of power: sacred (which is higher and transcendent) and profane (which is lower and mundane). The profane may become beneficially powerful only by acquiring beneficial, transcendent sacred power through sacred or special presence.120 However, this way of thinking about things is not available to Aztec philosophy since it is logically incompatible with its nonhierarchicalism, constitutional monism, and claim that the entire cosmos is sacred. Is it possible to preserve a distinction between ordering power and disordering power without invoking a hierarchical metaphysics and constitutional dualism of sacred versus profane? Aztec metaphysics underwrites the distinction as follows. Since all things are equally constituted by and ultimately identical with the single, uniform, and sacred power of teotl, it follows that all things are equally constituted by sacred power. This notwithstanding, some things are characterized by power that is balancing, ordering, stabilizing, and beneficial to human beings, while other things are characterized by power that is imbalancing, disordering, unstabilizing, and detrimental to human beings. But what explains this difference if not the existence of two essentially distinct, hierarchally graded kinds of power? For philosophies embracing constitutional monism and nonhierarchical metaphysics, the explanation proceeds in terms of how stuff is nonhierarchically arranged – rather than in terms of what kind of hierarchically graded stuff they consist of. Those things that possess power that is balancing, ordering, stabilizing, and beneficial to humans do so by virtue of being well-ordered, well-composed, well-centered, and well-balanced – both internally (in terms of the interrelationships between their constituent elements) as well as externally (in terms of their interrelationships with the things in their environment). (Indeed, each is a necessary condition of the other. After all, the boundaries between individual things and their surroundings are porous if not ultimately nonexistent since individual things are merely momentary condensations of teotl’s energy-inmotion.) In short, they constitute stuff-in-place. By this way of thinking, to create is to order, compose, integrate, and arrange that which already exists.121 As though attuned to the law of the conservation of energy, Aztec metaphysics denies creation from nothing. By contrast, those things that possess power that is imbalancing, disordering, destabilizing, and harmful to humans do so by virtue of being disordered, deranged, decentered, andunbalanced – both internally in terms of the interrelationships between their constituent elements as well as externally in terms of their interrelationships with their surroundings. They represent stuff-out-of-place. The Nahuatl word aompayotl nicely conveys this. Although commonly translated as “misfortune,” it means literally “condition of something out of its place.”122 Only when occupying their proper place can humans, for example, find well-being. By this way of thinking, to destroy is to disintegrate, disorder, decompose, and derange things. As though attuned to the law of the conservation of energy, Aztec metaphysics denies destruction into nothing. The Templo Mayor, for example, possesses power that is balancing, ordering, stabilizing, and beneficial to humans by virtue of its internal formal and material ordering as well as its external ordering vis-à-vis the cosmos, that is, its location at the earth’s navel and the cosmos’ axis mundi.123 And so likewise with the properly constructed Aztec altepetl. James Lockhart argues that the Aztecs structured the altepetl (a social, political, and economic unit or “city-state” plus adjoining agricultural land) in a “cellular or modular as opposed to hierarchical” manner.124 He writes, “The Nahua manner of creating larger constructs, whether in politics, society, economy or art, tended to place emphasis on a series of relatively equal, relatively separate and self contained constituent parts of the whole, the unity of which consisted in the symmetrical numerical arrangement of the parts, their identical relationships to a common reference point, and their orderly, cyclical rotation.”125 Indeed, Lockhart asserts the cellular-modular arrangement functioned as “the most general Nahua model for constructing anything whatever.”126 The altepetl consisted of four smaller neighborhoods or calpultin (pl., calpulli sing.), arranged in this manner. Its four-part arrangement mirrored the four-petaled flower arrangement of the cosmos and aligned with the four cardinal directions (see Figure 4.6).127 At a smaller level, Aztecs arranged their houses, areas of cultivation, and individual milpas both internally and externally so as to enhance their beneficial powers.128 Altepetl, calpolli, milpa, and household are ordered by “elaborate schemes of numerical symmetry and strict rotational order.”129 Lastly, I submit Aztecs also sought to order their lives – psychologically, socially, politically, economically, and cosmologically – in a nonhierarchical fashion so as to balance themselves and enhance their beneficial powers.130 In sum, nonhierarchical ordering is key. Aztec emphasis upon nonhierarchical ordering is further illustrated by a speech delivered by the indigenous rulers and priests of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco recorded in the Colloquios. Of their high priests and sages, the tlatolmatinime (“they who are wise in words”), they say, “they are the ones who put in order (quitecpana) how a year falls, how the day count (tonalpohualli) follows its path (otlatoca), and the complete twenty day periods.”131 The key verb here is tecpana, meaning “to arrange or put in order, to line up, to arrange in a sequence.”132 Molina lists several related words that shed further light on the activity of tecpana: nauatiltecpana (“to establish laws”), nemiliztecpanilia (“to lay down a line of conduct for someone”), netecpantlaliliztli (“order or arrangement of those who are seated in their places”), tecpancapoa (“to count something in order”), and quauhtecpantli (“wooden lattice or grating”).133 Ordering the tonalpohualli’s sequence of days involves arranging or laying them out on a flat surface: the flat surface of the tonalamatl, the book of days. Ordering a way of life for human beings involves arranging them on a nonhierarchical surface, tlalticpac (the surface of the earth). A wooden lattice or grating is likewise a nonhierarchical ordering of motifs – one, moreover, that nicely illustrates Lockhart’s notion of cellular-modular organization as consisting of self-contained motifs that repeat in a symmetrical sequence.134 Lockhart adds that tecpana is also used to refer to the composing of poetry and sometimes to a testator’s ordering his will.135 The foregoing claim in the Colloquios about ordering the days of the tonalpohualli is made in the context of listing a plethora of services the tlatolmatinime perform: they “guide,” “carry,” “govern,” “make offerings,” “offer incense,” “let blood,” “read the books of red and black ink,” and “cause the path to speak.”136 The tlatolmatinime, in short, organize a complete way of life. And they do so with the aim of enabling humans to live in balance, to live truly, authentically, and well-rootedly in teotl. What’s more, given the Aztecs’ beliefs that human actions affect the cosmos and that the cosmos is open to human participation, Aztec tlatolmatinime do so with the aim of actively participating in and contributing to the balance of the cosmos of the Fifth Sun. Aztec ritual does not seek simply to mirror the ordering of the cosmos but rather seeks to participate, contribute to, and thereby sustain, enhance, and regenerate the well-orderedness of the cosmos.137

Maffie, James. Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion. University Press of Colorado. Kindle Edition.



Teotl’s process of continual and continuous self-transformation is defined by what I call agonistic inamic unity, that is, the continual and continuous cyclical struggle (agon) of paired opposites, polarities, or dualities. Agonistic inamic unity refers to a brute fact about the nature of teotl and hence brute fact about the nature of reality per se. It accordingly serves as a fundamental premise of Aztec metaphysics. Teotl’s ceaseless selfbecoming, self-presenting, and self-unfolding, and therefore its ceaseless generating and regenerating of the cosmos, are defined by agonistic inamic unity. The cosmos and all its inhabitants are accordingly defined by it. Aztec metaphysics sees these paired opposites as interdependent, interrelated, mutually engendering, and mutually complementary while at the same time mutually competitive and antagonistic. Neither opposite is conceptually or temporally prior to the other. Neither is morally or metaphysically superior to the other. Consistent with ontological and constitutional monism, these paired opposites are dual aspects or facets of teotl. They are not two metaphysically distinct essences or kinds of stuff (as this would entail constitutional dualism). Teotl’s dual aspects include life and death, day and night, fire and water, and male and female. Day and night, for example, are simultaneously mutually competitive as well as mutually arising, mutually dependent, and mutually complementary. Day is always becoming night, and night is always becoming day. Day temporarily vanquishes night yet emerges from night. Night temporarily vanquishes day yet emerges from day. Each contains within itself the seed of its opposite. Neither excludes nor can exist without the other. The Nahuatl term for this relationship is inamic. Day and night, for example, are each other’s inamic. Day and night constitute an inamic pair, or set of paired inamichuan (plural). Day and night may also be characterized as inamic partners. Day is the inamic of night, night the inamic of day. Generally speaking, an inamic is a power, force, or influence that is necessarily matched, partnered, or paired with a second power, force, or influence. Each is conceived as the complementary polar opposite of the other. In what follows I mark this relationship using the tilde (“~”), for example, day~night, life~death, and male~female.1 The cyclical, back-and-forth tug-of-war between inamic partners combined with the alternating, temporary dominance of one inamic over its partner constitutes and hence explains the genesis, diversity, movement, and momentary ordering of the cosmos. Each moment in this back-and-forth, cosmic tug-of-war consists of the temporary dominance of one or the other inamic within a pair, and therefore represents a temporary imbalance between the two. As López Austin points out, the continuing agonistic interaction between paired inamichuan produces a continuo desajuste (“continuous imbalance or maladjustment”) in the cosmos.2 This notwithstanding, teotl’s long-term cosmic self-unfolding exhibits an overarching diachronic balance and equilibrium. Although each moment in the cosmic tug-of-war consists of the temporary dominance of one or the other of paired inamichuan, and therefore a moment of imbalance, over the long run their alternating yields a diachronic and dynamic balance. Short-term imbalances are woven together into long-term balance.


Inamic partners share the following additional characteristics. First, they are symmetrically related to one another (like spouses or twins). Second, they are correlated with one another in the sense that they are mutually dependent, mutually conditioning, and mutually engendering. Life emerges from death, and death from life. Life depends upon death, and death upon life. What’s more, life can exist neither apart from death nor apart from the life~death unity of which life forms an essential component. Analogously, the sun’s daytime light alternates with its nighttime darkness on pain of earthly things’ burning up. Rain alternates with drought on pain of catastrophic flooding. Third, inamic partners are inversely correlated with one another in the sense that one’s triumph and strength is the other’s defeat and weakness. Although this does not logically preclude them from reaching moments of equilibrium, such moments are evanescent. Fourth, inamic partners are mutually defining. Life is defined by death; death, by life. Each can only be understood in terms of its match. The idea of an isolated inamic, like that of an unmarried husband, is logically incomplete and conceptually ill-defined. One cannot be a husband without being matched with a wife (and conversely). Fifth, being an inamic is a relational property. An inamic has no independent status apart from its inamic partner, just as a husband has no status qua husband apart from his wife. Inamic partners thus require one another as necessary conditions of being what they are (e.g., as day requires night, male requires female, and up requires down). Sixth, inamic partners are mutually nurturing. Life feeds death, for example, and death feeds life. Eighth, inamic pairs are complementary; that is, they complete and fulfill one another and in so doing form a single unit or whole.

Maffie, James. Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion. University Press of Colorado. Kindle Edition.


Embedded Identity and Nahuallism


As a shaman possesses the power to transform him/herself into his nahual (say, a jaguar), so teotl possesses the power to transform itself into its nahual: the cosmos. The continual becoming of the cosmos along with its myriad characteristics and inhabitants are products of teotl’s continuing shamanic self-shape-shifting and selftransforming. Teotl is essentially transformative power and hence the quintessential transformer. As the ultimate shape shifter, Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” exemplified this shamanic power.92 Are teotl’s transformations therefore deceptive? J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig reject Angel María Garibay K.’s proposal that nahual is rooted in an archaic verb meaning “to dissemble, to deceive” along with the idea that a nahual is by definition deceptive. Nahualli is a patientive noun that derives from tla-nāhua, meaning “to interpose something between self and public, skin and outer clothing, man and gods, the natural and supernatural, and so forth.” A nahualli is simply “an entity that can be interposed.”93 Andrews and Hassig’s discussion suggests the need to be careful when thinking about masks and disguises. Raymond Fogelson writes about the traditions of Cherokee Booger masks and Iroquois (Seneca) False Faces as follows: “We do not understand the meaning of masks in these cultures if we treat their usage as analogous to our sense of masks as disguises, as distortions or caricatures that cover up a true reality hidden behind the mask.” In these traditions masks represent “temporary incarnation[s] of cosmic reality.”94 The Seneca, argues Sam Gill, refer to their masks as gagosa which simply means “face.”95 “False Faces,” the common name given to Seneca masks by outsiders, is therefore inaccurate and misleading. Seneca masks are living objects that “present and animate the real presence of the spirit.”96 They disclose and present a spirit, and are better thought of as guises than as disguises. The Seneca do not regard masks as coverings that are worn in order to hide, conceal, or deceive. The concept of being false or untrue plays no role. Similarly, in Hopi masking tradition the person who dons a mask is not regarded as someone impersonating a deity but as someone who loses his own personal identity in the process of becoming that deity.97 In sum, we cannot simply assume that Aztec philosophy understands masks as necessarily deceptive or as ontologically distinct from the person donning the mask.

Maffie, James. Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion. University Press of Colorado. Kindle Edition.



Embedded Identity

Janaab Pakal, at his tomb at Palenque, is depicted in the Temple of the Inscriptions at the side as the maize god, signifying rebirth, and is adorned with the Chac Xib Chaak ornament, linking him to the other members of the lineage who wear the same ornament in their depictions.37 This sign of the god Chac Xib Chaak identified Janaab Pakal with the other members of his lineage through a representation of his essence as the god itself. Pectoral adornment in Maya imagery generally represented the essence of the person depicted. We see the sign for death (kimi) worn on the chest of the god Chaak as executioner, numerous way, and other figures associated with Xibalba (the realm of the dead).38 Friedel, Schele, and Parker argue that the pectoral adornment represented spiritual transformation into the being represented in the ornament, through the act of dressing and performing the role of that particular entity.39 This act is often called substitution (k’ex)—a term that also refers to ritual sacrifice in its various forms.40 Sacrificed humans in ancient Maya society were “substitutions” in this sense, in being sacrificed they represented or took on the essence of the original sacrifice of the Hero Twins. Substitution was thought of as a method of one entity’s taking on the essence of another, and in this becoming the being represented. One did not, however, lose one’s individual essence in taking on or becoming part of the substituted entity. This is the sense in which we might call the identity of one being with a substitute an embedded identity. A ruler, such as Janaab Pakal of Palenque, can become or represent Chac Xib Chaak through substitution, while still remaining Janaab Pakal. At the time of substitution, Janaab Pakal is Janaab Pakal and Chac Xib Chaak. The question then becomes how do we think of entities/persons such as Chac Xib Chaak. One way of thinking of them is as collective persons—a single person made up of a collectivity of essences, perhaps related to the Palenque rulership lineage (or some other group). Further features of k’ex (substitution) can help us here, to understand how the individual and collective essences are related. Numerous scholars have discussed the features of the concept of k’ex that link individuals with collective identity. James Mondloch noted that in contemporary k’iche’ communities, k’ex involves naming, in the practice of naming children after their grandparents. He sees this as representing a mechanism for replacement of ancestors, and a way to attain immortality.

McLeod, Alexus. Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time (Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion). Lexington Books. Kindle Edition.



Flat Planes or Flat Worlds Slamming atop Each Other and the Slaughter of Pre-Humans

Native American mythology can also be quite zany and provide bizarre hilariousness with some of the described events; no different from Greek mythology’s depictions of how Greek Hero deities overcome certain trials or the Biblical description of lower-class angels, or the Manusmriti’s odd explanation of how Manu cloned himself into multiple copies.

From O’Odham Indigenous mythology:


The Story of the Creation

In the beginning there was no earth, no water— nothing. There was only a Person, uh-wert-a-Mah-kai (The Doctor of the Earth). He just floated, for there was no place for him to stand upon. There was no sun, no light, and he just floated about in the darkness, which was Darkness itself. He wandered around in the nowhere till he thought he had wandered enough. Then he rubbed on his breast and rubbed out moah-haht-tack, that is perspiration, or greasy earth. This he rubbed out on the palm of his hand and held out. It tipped over three times, but the fourth time it staid straight in the middle of the air and there it remains now as the world. The first bush he created was the greasewood bush. And he made ants, little tiny ants, to live on that bush, on its gum which comes out of its stem.

But these little ants did not do any good, so he created white ants, and these worked and enlarged the earth; and they kept on increasing it, larger and larger, until at last it was big enough for himself to rest on. Then he created a Person. He made him out of his eye, out of the shadow of his eyes, to assist him, to be like him, and to help him in creating trees and human beings and everything that was to be on the earth. The name of this being was Noo-ee (the Buzzard). Nooee was given all power, but he did not do the work he was created for. He did not care to help Juhwertamahkai, but let him go by himself. And so the Doctor of the Earth himself created the mountains and everything that has seed and is good to eat. For if he had created human beings first they would have had nothing to live on. But after making Nooee and before making the mountains and seed for food, Juhwertamahkai made the sun.

In order to make the sun he first made water, and this he placed in a hollow vessel, like an earthen dish (hwas-hah-ah) to harden into something like ice. And this hardened ball he placed in the sky. First he placed it in the North, but it did not work; then he placed it in the West, but it did not work; then he placed it in the South, but it did not work; then he placed it in the East and there it worked as he wanted it to. And the moon he made in the same way and tried in the same places, with the same results. But when he made the stars he took the water in his mouth and spurted it up into the sky. But the first night his stars did not give light enough. So he took the Doctor-stone (diamond), the tone-dum-haw-teh, and smashed it up, and took the pieces and threw them into the sky to mix with the water in the stars, and then there was light enough. 1

And now Juhwertamahkai, rubbed again on his breast, and from the substance he obtained there made two little dolls, and these he laid on the earth. And they were human beings, man and woman. And now for a time the people increased till they filled the earth. For the first parents were perfect, and there was no sickness and no death. But when the earth was full, then there was nothing to eat, so they killed and ate each other. But Juhwertamahkai did not like the way his people acted, to kill and eat each other, and so he let the sky fall to kill them. But when the sky dropped he, himself, took a staff and broke a hole thru, thru which he and Nooee emerged and escaped, leaving behind them all the people dead.

And Juhwertamahkai, being now on the top of this fallen sky, again made a man and a woman, in the same way as before. But this man and woman became grey when old, and their children became grey still younger, and their children became grey younger still, and so on till the babies were gray in their cradles.

And Juhwertamahkai, who had made a new earth and sky, just as there had been before, did not like his people becoming grey in their cradles, so he let the sky fall on them again, and again made a hole and escaped, with Nooee, as before. And Juhwertamahkai, on top of this second sky, again made a new heaven and a new earth, just as he had done before, and new people. But these new people made a vice of smoking. Before human beings had never smoked till they were old, but now they smoked younger, and each generation still younger, till the infants wanted to smoke in their cradles.

And Juhwertamahkai did not like this, and let the sky fall again, and created everything new again in the same way, and this time he created the earth as it is now.


Comalk-Hawk-Kih; J. Wm. Lloyd. Aw-Aw-Tam Indian Nights: Being the Myths and Legends of the Pimas of Arizona. PDF Edition.


Likewise, they can provide a bizarre sense of disquiet or creepiness.  From the Christenson translation of the Popol Vuh that I’ve shared elsewhere:

The body of man had been carved of tz’ite wood124 by the Framer and the Shaper. The body of woman consisted of reeds125 according to the desire of the Framer and the Shaper. But they were not capable of understanding and did not speak before their Framer and their Shaper, their makers and their creators. Thus they were killed in the flood. There came a great resin down from the sky.126 There came the ones called Chiselers of Faces, who gouged out their eyes.127 There came Death Knives,128 which cut off their heads. There came Crouching129 Jaguar, who ate their flesh. There came Striking130 Jaguar, who struck them. They smashed their bones and their tendons.131 Their bones were ground up. They were broken into pieces. Their faces were ground up132 because they proved to be incapable of understanding before the face of their mother and the face of their father, Heart of Sky, Huracan by name.133 Thus they caused the face of the earth to be darkened, and there fell a black rain,134 a rain that fell both day and night. The small and the great animals came in upon them.135 Their faces were crushed by the trees and the stones. They were spoken to by all their maize grinders and their cooking griddles,136 their plates and their pots, their dogs137 and their grinding stones.138 However many things they had, all of them crushed their faces. Their dogs and their turkeys139 said to them: “Pain you have caused us. You ate us. Therefore it will be you that we will eat now.” Then the grinding stones said this to them: “We were ground upon by you. Every day, every day, in the evening and at dawn, always you did holi, holi, huki, huki140 on our faces. This was our service for you who were the first people. But this day you shall feel our strength. We shall grind you like maize. We shall grind up your flesh,”141 said their grinding stones to them.

Christenson, Allen J.. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press. Kindle Edition.


Mayan Concepts of the Underworld


While not pertaining to North American Indigenous cultures, per se. If anyone has any reservations about Native American myths fitting well into video games, please explain how this description of the Mayan underworld would not fit in a fantasy or sci-fi video game:

They went down steep steps until they came out again upon the banks of turbulent river canyons. Trembling Canyon and Murmuring Canyon were the names of the canyons that they passed through. They also passed through turbulent rivers. They passed through Scorpion River, where there were innumerable scorpions. But they were not stung. Then they arrived at Blood River. They were able to pass through it because they did not drink from it. Then they arrived at Pus River, which was nothing but a river of pus. Neither were they defeated here but simply passed through it as well. At length they arrived at a crossroads,257 and it was here at the four crossing roads that they were defeated. One was Red Road and another was Black Road; White Road was one while another was Yellow Road.258 Thus there were four roads. Now this, the black road said: “Me! Take me, for I am the lord’s road.” Thus spoke the road. But it was there that they were defeated. They started then on the road to Xibalba. At last they arrived at the council place of the lords of Xibalba, and there again they were defeated. They who were seated first in order were mere effigies of carved wood, adorned259 by the Xibalbans. It was these, then, that they greeted: “Morning,260 One Death,” they said to the first effigy. “Morning, Seven Death,” they said again to the carved wood. Thus they did not prevail. Instead, the lords of Xibalba roared261 with laughter. They merely roared with laughter, all the lords, because they had completely prevailed. In their hearts, they had defeated One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu. And after they had laughed, One Death and Seven Death spoke: “It is good that you have come. Tomorrow you shall put to use your yokes and your arm protectors,” they were told. “Sit down on our bench,”262 they were told. But the bench that they were offered was nothing but a very hot stone, and they were burned when they sat on it. Truly they spun around on top of it. Neither did they find relief. Truly they leaped up when their seats263 were burned. Thus the Xibalbans laughed again. They laughed until their insides hurt and their chests became cramped from their laughter.264 All the lords of Xibalba grabbed themselves and rolled around in their laughter. “Now just go to the house. Someone will come to deliver your torch265 and your cigars266 there at the sleeping place,” they were told. Thus they arrived in the House of Darkness. There was nothing but darkness inside that house. Then the Xibalbans gathered their thoughts: “Tomorrow we will merely sacrifice them. They only have to make a mistake and straightaway they will die by means of our gaming things that we use to play ball,” said the Xibalbans to each other. For their ball was merely a round blade. White Dagger267 was the name of the ball of Xibalba. Their ball was sharp, shattered bones pierced through the ball of Xibalba.

Christenson, Allen J.. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press. Kindle Edition.


And especially this portion. Someone please explain how this isn’t screaming video game dungeon ideas:

They were seated cross-legged there in the darkness when the courier arrived to give to them their torch and their cigars. The torch was brightly burning when it arrived, and with it were lit each one of the cigars: “These are to be returned at dawn. They are not to be used up. Instead, they are to be collected again intact. Thus say the lords to you,” they were told. Therefore they were defeated. For they used up the torch as well as the cigars that had been given to them. Xibalba is crowded with trials, for there are many kinds of trials there. The first of these is the House of Darkness, where nothing but darkness exists within. The second is named Shivering House, for its interior is thick with frost. A howling wind clatters268 there. An icy wind whistles through its interior. The third is named Jaguar House, where there are nothing but jaguars inside. They bare their teeth, crowding one another, gnashing and snapping their teeth together. They are captive jaguars within the house. The fourth trial is named Bat House, for there are none but bats inside. In this house they squeak. They shriek as they fly about in the house, for they are captive bats and cannot come out. The fifth, then, is named Blade House,269 for there are only blades inside—row upon row of alternating blades that would clash and clatter there in the house. Thus there are many trials in Xibalba. One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu did not enter into them. These are merely the names of each of the houses of trial. Thus One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu came out and appeared before One Death and Seven Death: “Where are my cigars and my torch that were given to you last night?” they were asked. “We finished them off, O lord.” “Very well then, now your day is at an end. You are to die.”


Christenson, Allen J.. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press. Kindle Edition.



Time as a Creative Force

This next part can be rather confusing and zany, but I would be interested to see if a video game developer would be willing and able to try to utilize this mythological concept of the Classical Mayan views of time in a video game and I do believe this is worth sharing for that purpose. How many US game developers would be willing to sink their teeth into this as a challenge to display as a metaphysical concept? Given that we already have games that explore philosophy like Bioshock and fantasy worlds based on ancient worlds but with magic, I don’t see any good reason why this shouldn’t be considered as an interesting opportunity for US game studios. I’d politely ask whomever is reading this to consider it:

Time is a fundamental feature of Maya metaphysics, but it makes more sense of the textual evidence to understand the Maya as offering a view in which time can become deities, persons, and other entities, rather than one in which these things reduce to time. There is a more fundamental ground of Maya metaphysical thought, akin to the view of dao (Way) we find in Han dynasty Chinese thought.


We see something similar in the ancient Maya world. Accessions, births, and deaths of rulers, along with important battles, conquests, and other central events are memorialized in stelae and other memorial constructions, and associated with Long Count, tzolk’in, and other calendric data. But one of the things this data does, distinctly from what we see in the Gregorian calendar, but very similar to the Akan date system, is to fix events with respect to other historical events. The Maya calendars are abstract constructions, but they also are used to create a numerical connection of events to one another. Both in the Maya and the Akan calendars, what we see is not cyclical time (in the sense described by earlier scholars), but rather correlative time (which I argue we also see in the ancient Chinese context). In the Akan context, day names are seen as containing aspects of elements of personhood, as well as characterizing people and events from other times associated with that name. Adjaye writes: Day names, praise names, appellations, and by-names must be seen as part of the cultural apparatus by which the Akan perceive and define personhood and personality. Further, aspects of Akan names, such as appellations, go beyond person definition to characterize perception of time, because in seeking to transfer attributes and historic accomplishments of someone who lived long ago to the current bearer of that name, those characteristics are transposed from the past to the present, and, in a sense, detemporized.87 This is largely the same in the Maya system of day names based on the tzolk’in calendar, as well as presumably the associations with Lords of the Night and other calendric elements in the Classic Period. Day names in the tzolk’in are accorded with certain characteristics that, while not completely determinative, suggest associations with past persons and events, and general characteristics of a day that one who is born on it will be associated with. These features are associated with calendar days through a complex history. It is not that there is a fully formed explanation of the characteristics associated with each period that rigidly determines what a person will be like. Rather, the actual lives of individuals associated with certain dates, as well as important events taking place on those dates, shape the way we understand the properties associated with the days. The element of renewal and transformation of characteristics associated with periods cannot be forgotten here. In a correlative system such as that of the Maya, time characterizes human beings and events, but human beings and events also characterize time. There is a mutual effect between them. This is one of the reasons I reject time as the fundamental metaphysical entity. If this were the case, time and its features would determine everything, and it could not itself be transformed by other elements of the world. One way to understand the correlativity involved here is through the case of association of important events in the individual and communal life to the objective or impersonal calendar. This is part of what the Classic Period ahauob attempted to do in their erection of stelae and memorials, which focused on events in their lives and rule in the context of the numerous Maya calendars. There were even careful changes often made from what must have been the correct dates of certain events to different ones in order to create the proper associations. This may not have been seen as simply disingenuous fiction making to support regimes. The ahau, as controller of time and ordering, was seen as responsible in important ways for the orderings and also necessarily having certain features of other rulers, ancestors, and important figures. Given this fact, time itself could respond to the properties of the ruler as much as the other way around. Just as discussed above, the relationship between the ruler and time was as much a reciprocal relationship, in which each held power (in some sense) relative to the other as time and events. This correlative system of time mirrors, I argue, a general correlative metaphysics very similar to what we see developed in the early Chinese tradition in the Han Dynasty.


The notion of rebirth in the Maya tradition is not of a single separable soul that reemerges in a new body or person, but rather the continual perishing and reemergence of the same entity or person in a new guise. In a sense, we see here the inverse of the Indian view mentioned above. What survives (or rather, is continually reborn) is the entity comprised of the individual. The ruler is continually reborn, the father, the scribe, the entity seemingly attached to a particular role—not the individual who at any given time constitutes this entity. We can understand this idea better perhaps through importing the idea of constitution from Western philosophical thought. Constitution, in the Maya view, is indeed identity, but the constitution of objects can change while retaining their identity. The Ship of Theseus64 is identical to the material constituting it at the beginning of its journey, but as pieces are replaced, it simply becomes identical to new material, such that the Ship at the end of its journey, with completely new parts, is still the Ship of Theseus. Allowing for transformation is what enables the Maya view to avoid this problem. And this transformational view can be understood in the context of embedded identity. The entity in question, in this case the Ship of Theseus, is neither identical with the material parts making it up nor the function and historical activity. Rather, the Ship of Theseus would be understood on the Maya view as an entity that is composed of transformable or substitutable parts that are each identical with the Ship of Theseus. Thus, at the beginning of the journey, the wood of the ship is identical with the Ship of Theseus, and later when the replaced parts comprise the ship, these are identical with the Ship of Theseus. This seems to privilege the “function/historical activity” conception of identity, but in the Maya case something different is going on. The Ship is identical to what comprises it in terms of material at any given time, but what comprises it as material is a matter of creative connection. The identity and endurance of things then must be understood in terms of the Maya conception of continual creation. The Ship of Theseus example is here not the best one to explain what is going on, because replacement parts of a ship can be understood only in a very vague way as creatively connected. The primary example we see throughout Maya texts is that of the ruler (ahau), and this example works very well to explain the features of substitution and embedded identity. A particular ahau is identical to the person who composes it—who through substitution inhabits the identity. According to the Maya view, substitution, often attained through enacting a role or engaging in a performance in which features of a particular entity are represented, makes an individual attain the essence of that identity, and the individual becomes the entity in question. Thus, an entity such as a ruler, scribe, or other things we might associate with roles, is largely an extra-human role.

McLeod, Alexus. Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time (Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion). Lexington Books. Kindle Edition.


The governing structures and culture shock is actually quite interesting, because most of the so-called “melting pot” of the US public remain unaware and ignorant of the fact that 18th and 19th century feminist movements were influenced and inspired by the equality within dynastic matrilineal confederacies of North American Indigenous cultures; primarily the Haudenosaunee (more popularly known by their French name, Iroquois Confederacy). It’s a bit sad that games like Greedfall and failed games like Forspoken have only surface-level elements of this and don’t try to incorporate from Indigenous cultures that actually had (or in some cases, still have) this system of governance. Below I share a few examples and how much of a culture shock it was for Western colonial women:


Social Differences in Treatment of Women

Stanton envied how Indian women “ruled the house” and how “descent of property and children were in the female line.” When called a “savage” for practicing natural childbirth, Stanton rebuked her critics by mocking their use of the word, pointing out that Indian women “do not suffer” giving birth. They “step aside the ranks, even on the march and return in a short time bearing with them the newborn child,” she wrote.19 Thus it was absurd to suppose “that only enlightened Christian women are cursed” by painful, difficult childbirth.20 In 1875, while serving as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Gage penned a series of admiring articles about the Haudenosaunee for the New York Evening Post in which she wrote that the “division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal,” while the Iroquois family structure “demonstrated woman’s superiority in power.”21 For white women living in a world where marital rape was commonplace and forbidden by neither church nor state (although the Comstock Law of the 1870s outlawed discussion of it), Native women’s violence-free and egalitarian home life could only have given suffragists sure knowledge that their goals could be reached. Still, they had a long way to go. Until woman’s rights advocates began to change divorce laws in the last half of the nineteenth century, women found themselves trapped in marriage, unable to leave. Women fleeing from a violent or abusive husband could be returned to him by the police, as runaway slaves were returned to their master. Husbands could will away an unborn child, and the baby would be taken from its mother and given to its “rightful owner” when the father/guardian died. And, until married women’s property acts were slowly enacted state by state throughout the nineteenth century, any money a wife earned or inherited belonged outright to her husband.


To contrast Indian-style divorce in an 1891 speech to the National Council of Women, Stanton called on the memoirs of Ashur Wright, long-time missionary (among the Seneca) whose wife, Laura, had published a dictionary of the Seneca language. Ashur Wright related: Usually the females ruled the house. The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such an order it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him; and unless saved by the intercession of some aunt or grandmother he must retreat to his own clan, or go and start a new matrimonial alliance in some other.4 Suffragist Alice Fletcher delicately explained that “offense and injuries which can befall a woman”—marital rape and battering—when they occurred, “would be avenged and punished by the relatives under tribal law, but which have no penalty or recognition under our [United States] laws. If the Indian brother should, as of old, defend his sister, he would himself become liable to the law and suffer for his championship.”5 … the wife never becomes entirely under the control of her husband. Her kindred have a prior right, and can use that right to separate her from him or to protect her from him, should he maltreat her. The brother who would not rally to the help of his sister would become a by-word among his clan. Not only will he protect her at the risk of his life from insult and injury, but he will seek help for her when she is sick and suffering …6 Carrie S. Burnham, the legal genius of the National Woman Suffrage Association, analyzed women’s position under common law. As the women had claimed in 1848, men had the right to beat their wives. The husband being bound to provide for his wife the necessaries of life, and being responsible for “her morals” and the good order of the household, may choose and govern the domicile, choose her associates, separate her from her relatives, restrain her religious and personal freedom, compel her to cohabit with him, correct her faults by mild means and if necessary chastise her with the same moderation as [if] she was his apprentice or child.7 Under common law, a husband had the right to beat his wife so long as the battering wasn’t too harsh. Blackstone explained that “the husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction; for, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, he ought to have the power to control her.”8 The courts generally concurred. In an 1864 case where a husband and wife had separated, he entered the home, “seized her by her hair, pulled her down upon the floor and held her there for some time,” injuring her head and throat, the pain continuing for several months after the attack. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed his right to do so in an 1864 ruling that “A husband is responsible for the acts of his wife, and he is required to govern his household, and for that purpose the law permits him to use towards his wife such a degree of force as is necessary to control an unruly temper and make her behave herself, and unless some permanent injury be inflicted, or there be an excess of violence, or such a degree of cruelty as show that it is inflicted to gratify his own bad passions, the law … prefers to leave the parties to themselves, as the best mode of inducing them to make the matter up and live together as man and wife should.”9 A far different fate awaited Native wife batterers, as writer Minnie Myrtle interpreted the teaching of Handsome Lake about the eternal punishment awaiting any wife batterer: “A man, who was in the habit of beating his wife, was led to the red-hot statue of a female, and requested to treat it as he had done his wife. He commenced beating it, and the sparks flew out and were continually burning him, but yet he would not consume. Thus would it be done to all who beat their wives.”10 In the Journal of American Folklore, Beauchamp related an Iroquois story in which “A man who had beaten his wife cruelly upon earth, struck a red hot statue of woman. The sparks flew with every blow and burned him.”11 Minnie Myrtle attributes this story to the Code of Handsome Lake, the Haudenosaunee spiritual guide. Fletcher was concerned about what would happen to Indian women when they became citizens, lost their rights and were treated with the same legal disrespect as white women, as she explained to the International Council of Women in 1888: Not only does the woman under our laws lose her independent hold on her property and herself, but there are offenses and injuries which can befall a woman which would be avenged and punished by the relatives under tribal law, but which have no penalty or recognition under our laws. If the Indian brother should, as of old, defend his sister, he would himself become liable to the law and suffer for his championship.12 She was referring, of course, to sexual and physical violence against women. Native men’s intolerance of rape was commented upon by many eighteenth and nineteenth century Indians and non-Indian reporters alike, many of whom contended that rape didn’t exist among Native nations prior to white contact. 13 “That the woman of every Christian land fears to meet a man in a secluded place by day or night, is of itself sufficient proof of the low state of Christian morality,”14 wrote Gage. Family friend Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp also described how, “It shows the remarkable security of living on an Indian Reservation, that a solitary woman can walk about for miles, at any hour of the day or night, in perfect safety.” She elaborated, saying that Miss Remington, for example, a teacher at Onondaga, “often starts off, between eight and nine in the evening, lantern in one hand and alpenstock in the other, and a parcel of supplies strung from her shoulder, to walk for a mile or more up the hill-sides.” Without fear.15 [Miss Remington, “had long been in charge of the mission house. She was adopted into the Snipe Clan of the Onondaga in 1886, and given the name “Ki-a-was-say,” A new word.] Gage is likely to have had this information. William Beauchamp’s daughter-in-law dedicated her “The Battle Hymn of the Suffragists,” to Matilda Joslyn Gage. Gage also wrote short stories for The Skaneateles Democrat—a paper edited by the father of Mary Elizabeth and William’s father—in the 1850s. Coming from a European tradition which legalized both marital rape and wife battering, it is difficult to comprehend a culture in which rape was not allowed. Living in a country where one out of three women are raped, according to current FBI statistics, it is tempting to believe—as some current scholarship would have us believe—that rape is biologically inherent. Our feminist foremothers knew better, since they knew women who lived in nations where men did not rape. A Tuscarora Chief, Elias Johnson, wrote about the absence of rape among Haudenosaunee men in his popular 1881 history. As far as he knew, among white men, it was only the Germans who held the same respect for woman, Johnson wryly added, “until they became civilized.” Maintaining that sexual violation of women was virtually unknown among all Indian men, Johnson celebrated the “marvelous” fact “that whole nations, consisting of millions, should have been so trained, religiously or domestically, that [nothing] should have tempted them from the strictest honor and the most delicate kindness.”16 Another Tuscarora, J. N. B. Hewitt (whose publications with the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution are widely read and cited by anthropologists), substantiated Johnson’s claim: This great regard for the person of woman was not limited to the persons of native Iroquois women, but women of alien blood and origin shared with them this respect. For example: In the face of circumstances adverse to the Iroquois, Gen. James Clinton, commanding the New York division of the Sullivan punitive expedition in 1779, with orders to disperse the hostile Iroquois and to destroy their homes, paid his enemies the high tribute of a brave soldier by writing in April, 1779, to his lieutenant, Colonel Van Schaick, then leading his troops against the Onondaga [one of the six Iroquois nations] and their villages, the following terse compliment: “Bad as these savages are, they never violate the chastity of any woman, their prisoner.” And he added this significant admonition to his colonel, “It would be well to take measures to prevent a stain upon our army. ”17


A Woman’s Right to Her Children This issue of lineage had great bearing on the status18 of women, early feminists believed. Gage wrote about the absence of a woman’s right to her children in the EuroAmerican tradition: The slave code has always been that children shall follow the condition of the mother; hence, as the present law of marriage makes the wife the irresponsible slave of the husband—robbing her of her name, her earnings, her accountability—it consistently follows that she shall be robbed of her children. Blackstone, the chief exponent of common law, says: “A mother has no legal right or authority over her children; she is only entitled to respect and honor.” The United States, governing itself by English law, inherited this with other oppressions, and it to this day holds force in most of the thirty-seven States of the Union. One or two States have by statute law placed the mother on equal basis of legal right with the father … men, calling themselves Christian men, have dared to defy God’s law, and to give to the father alone the sole right to the child; have dared make laws which permit the dying father of an unborn child to will it away, and to give any person he pleases to select the right to wait the advent of that child, and when the mother, at the hazard of her own life, has brought it forth, to rob her of it and to do by it as the dead father directed. What an anomaly on Justice is such a law! 19


Gage contrasted this with the primacy of the mother-child bond among the Haudenosaunee: If for any cause the Iroquois husband and wife separated, the wife took with her all the property she had brought into the wigwam; the children also accompanied the mother, whose right to them was recognized as supreme.20 Clark, (the regional historian cited by Gage), explained that Iroquois marriage and separation required “no special ceremony, no disgrace, and each keeps their property.”21 Amazed at the absolute authority of the mother, Gage marveled that, So fully to this day is descent reckoned through the mother, that blue-eyed, fair-haired children of white fathers are numbered in the tribe and receive both from state and nation their portion of the yearly dole paid to Indian tribes. The veriest pagan among the Iroquois, the renowned and important Keeper of the Wampum, and present sole interpreter of the Belts which give the most ancient and secret history of this confederation, is Ephraim Webster, descended from a white man, who, a hundred or more years since, became affiliated through marriage with an Indian woman, as a member of the principal nation of the Iroquois, the Onondagas.22 Ephraim Webster, who came as a trader in 1786, lived with the Onondaga and Oneida for a quarter of a century, and was adopted into the Onondaga nation. Webster said, The Indians have no altercations, and that in ten years I have not heard any angry expression nor seen any degree of passion. They treated their women with respect, even tenderness. They used no ardent spirits. They settled differences amicably, raised wheat and corn in considerable quantities, and also apples.23 “The children always followed the totemship of the mother,”Rose Yawger wrote in her 1893 Good Housekeeping-approved book, then explained:. If a Seneca brave married a Cayuga squaw [sic], the children were not Senecas, as might be supposed, but Cayugas, and even though they were born and brought up among the Senecas, they were aliens to the tribe and had to be adopted in the same ceremonious manner that strangers sometimes were. The Cayuga nation could even call on them to take arms in case of war.24 Minnie Myrtle, whose writing was published by the popular Appleton press in 1855, similarly wrote: The children are of the tribe of the mother, as are the children’s children to the latest generation, and they are also of the same nation. If the mother is a Cayuga, the children are Cayugas; and if a Mohawk, the children are Mohawks. If the marriage proves unhappy, the parties are allowed to separate, and each is at liberty to marry again. But the mother has the sole right to the disposal of the children. She keeps them all if she chooses, and to their father they are ever [mere] strangers.25 Men were mourned but, Hale wrote, “it is still harder when the woman shall die, because with her the line is lost.”26 The same sentiment prevailed among the Hurons, he explained, quoting Father Raguenea: For a Huron killed by a Huron, thirty gifts are commonly deemed a sufficient satisfaction. For a woman forty are required, because, as they say, the women are less able to defend themselves; and moreover, they being the source whence the land is peopled, their lives should be deemed of more value to the commonwealth, and their weakness should have a stronger support in public justice.27 “Such was the reasoning,” Hale marveled, “of these heathen barbarians. Enlightened Christendom has hardly yet advanced to the mark of these opinions.”28 Matilda Joslyn Gage first wrote in 1875 about the “division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic” which, she contended, “was nearly equal.”29 As President of the National Woman Suffrage Association she published a series of articles on the Iroquois which were featured prominently in the NewYork Evening Post and reprinted in several other papers in the state.30 The introduction to the series recognized the significance of this suffrage/Native American connection, stating: Mrs. Gage, with an exhibition of ardent devotion to the cause of woman’s rights which is very proper in the president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, gives prominence to the fact that in the old days when the glory of the famous confederation of savages was at its height, the power and importance of women were recognized by the allied tribes.31 Her writing on the superior rights of Haudenosaunee women continued, and twenty years later, Gage noted that: The family relation among the Iroquois demonstrated woman’s superiority in power. When an Indian husband brought the products of the chase to the wigwam, his control over it ceased. In the home, the wife was absolute; the sale of the skins was regulated by her, the price was paid to her.32

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Book Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.


The Culture Shock of the Difference in Property Rights

Please note, one of the following passages uses a slur word for Native American women. In the context of the 1800s, it simply referred to Native American women, but Western society slowly changed it into a racial slur by co-opting it. It’s the equivalent offense of the N-word towards Black Americans and should be recognized in that context within modern US society. Moving on:

Gage knew about Mary Jemison, the white captive adopted into the Seneca nation who, when given the option of returning to the white world, chose instead to live with her Native family. Jemison’s story was recorded by a Dr. Seaver and made into a popular book during Gage’s childhood. Although she was eighty at the time the book was issued, Jemison still planted, tended, and harvested her corn, gathered and chopped her own wood, and fed her cattle and poultry, wearing the traditional dress. Jemison offered a detailed description of Seneca women’s agricultural work: Our labor was not severe; and that of one year was exactly similar in almost every respect to that of the others…. Notwithstanding the Indian women have all the fuel and bread to procure, and the cooking to perform, their task is probably not harder than that of white women, who have those articles provided for them, and their cares certainly are not half as numerous, nor as great. In the summer season, we planted, tended, and harvested our corn, and generally had all of our children with us; but had not master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased…. We pursued our farming business according to the general custom of Indian women, which is as follows: In order to expedite their business, and at the same time enjoy each other’s company, they all work together in one field, or at whatever job they may have on hand. In the spring, they choose an old active squaw [sic] to be their driver and overseer, when at labor, for the ensuing year. She accepts the honor, and they consider themselves bound to obey her…. By this rule, they perform their labor of every kind, and every jealousy of one having done more or less than another is effectually avoided.4


Property Rights

EuroAmerican women lost all rights to their property when they married. Native women, men, and children all had control of their own personal property, an authority which was respected by all. Alice Fletcher talked about the property rights among the Indian women in the numerous tribes and nations she had observed, touching a sensitive nerve as she recounted this personal experience with the Omaha: At the present time all property is personal; the man owns his own ponies and other belongings which he has personally acquired; the woman owns her horses, dogs, and all the lodge equipments, children own their own articles, and parents do not control the possessions of their children. There is really no family property, as we use the term. A wife is as independent in the use of her possessions as is the most independent man in our midst. If she chooses to give away or sell all of her property, there is no one to gainsay her … 33 When I was living with the Indians, my hostess … one day gave away a very fine horse. I was surprised, for I knew there had been no family talk on the subject, so I asked: “Will your husband like to have you give the horse away?” Her eyes danced, and, breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the other women gathered in the tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. I tried to explain how a white woman would act, but laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man’s hold upon his wife’s property.34 A similar story came from the pen of a French woman, Emma Borglum, who spent her 1891 honeymoon with the Dakota on the Crow Creek reservation of South Dakota, where her husband, sculptor Solon Borglum, (brother of Gutzum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore) was working: One day I showed some astonishment at seeing a young Indian woman, in the absence of her husband, give two horses to a friend. She looked at me very coldly and said: “These horses are mine.” I excused myself saying that in my country a woman would consult her husband before giving such expensive presents. The woman answered proudly: “I would not be a white woman!”35 Minnie Myrtle wrote, “In regard to property, too, the wife retains whatever belonged to her before marriage distinct from her husband, and can dispose of it as she pleases without his consent, and if she separates from him, takes it with her, and at her death, either before or after separation, her children inherit all she possessed.36 It was far different for United States women under common law, which denied them property rights, as attorney Carrie S. Burnham explained: By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the legal existence of the woman is “merged in that of her husband.” He is her “baron,” or “lord,” bound to supply her with shelter, food, clothing and medicine and is entitled to her earnings—the use and custody of her person which he may seize wherever he may find it.37


years later, in her maiden speech at the third National Women’s Rights Convention, held in Syracuse during 1852, Matilda Joslyn Gage pointed out the connection between lack of employment, unequal pay, and marriage: Because all lucrative and honorable means of support have been seized by men, … women have been driven to marriage as a necessity … or driven to a life of pollution, by the insufficiency of wages in those departments of labor which she is legitimately permitted to enter … men’s wages are from one-half to two-thirds greater than woman’s.43 How far removed was this life from that of Haudenosaunee women doing respected, satisfying, enjoyable work which gave them economic autonomy? Alice Fletcher talked about her conversations with Native women who were well aware of their superior rights: As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.”44 Fletcher found a similar response among Indian men: Men have said: “Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself. She is worth little but to help a man to have one hundred and sixty acres.” One day, sitting in the tent of an old chief, famous in war [one source says this is the Lakota medicine man, Sitting Bull], he said to me: “My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of the women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.”45


To EuroAmerican men who came from a political /social heritage in which only sons could inherit, it must have been remarkable to discover “the perpetual disinheritance of the son” among the Iroquois. The Haudenosaunee principle that “the child must be the son of its mother, although not necessarily of its mother’s husband” sharply contrasted with the Euro-Christian system of descent traced through the male line with legitimacy exclusively conveyed by the ather.38 While feminists—with the support of their male allies—were waging an uphill struggle to gain married women the right to control their own property and wages, Morgan pointed out that among the Iroquois: The rights of property, of both husband and wife, were continued distinct during the existence of the marriage relation; the wife holding, and controlling her own, the same as her husband, and in case of separation, taking it with her.39 In 1846, two years before the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, the noted scholar Henry Schoolcraft—one of Gage’s sources—had similarly written: Marriage, among the Iroquois, appears to be a verbal contract between the parties, which does not affect the rights of property. Goods, personal effects, or valuables of any kind personal or real, which were the wife’s before, remain so after marriage. Should any of these be used by the husband, he is bound to restore the property or its worth in the event of separation…. Descent being counted by the female, may be either an original cause or effect of this unique law.40

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Book Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.


Matrilineal Clan Confederacy

Was the political subordination of women universal? If women had always been under the control of men, the suffragists would have to grudgingly admit that woman’s second-class status probably revealed a divinely inspired or natural order. An exception would throw into question the universal, natural argument. The evidence of even one culture where women stood equal to men in decision-making authority would reveal the EuroAmerican practice of denying women suffrage to be an arbitrary exercise of male power. Once again, the suffragists did not have far to look for the example they sought. Their closest cultural neighbors, Haudenosaunee women, possessed decision-making authority equally with men. Political rights were not new to these women. Their democratic government rested on decision-making by all men and women. United States women citizens had to break from their religious and political tradition in order to have a part in their government. On the other hand, woman’s political participation was traditional for the Haudenosaunee, who believed the mutual authority of women and men was divinely inspired and necessary to maintaining the natural balance of the universe.


Mother of Nations

Denied a political role in their own nation, the two major theorists in the woman’s rights movement, Stanton and Gage, knew and wrote about the decision-making responsibilities of women in the Six Nations. Stanton talked about how the clan mother held the authority for putting and keeping in place the chief that represented her clan: The women were the great power among the clan, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns,’ as it was technically called, from the head of a chief and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with the women.“8 Stanton read Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester lawyer known in some circles as “the father of American anthropology, who wrote League of the Iroquois in 1851. Morgan drew heavily on the knowledge of the Seneca, Ely S. Parker, along with the decades of personal knowledge gathered by Ashur Wright, missionary to the Seneca nation. Wright had explained women’s decision-making responsibilities to Morgan in this way: So also if the regular heir of office should be guilty of any disqualifying conduct or should prove wanting in any respect, the old people could interfere, throw him out of line and select another in his place: and in a like manner they could depose one already a full Chief, who had been guilty of three successive disqualifying acts, and raise the next in line into his place. In the case, however, of tribal and national chiefs, it was customary for the tribe or nation to ratify their action; which they very seldom if ever failed to do. In all these matters the old women of the clans took the lead, so that it used to be said they could put up or put down whomsoever they chose, and they could approve or veto all the acts not only of the councils of their own clan, but those of the tribal and national councils also (in the latter case, in connection with the women of the other clans). Gage described the purely democratic nature of Iroquois decision making: The common interests of the confederacy were arranged in councils, each sex holding one of its own, although the women took the initiative in suggestion, orators of their own sex presenting their views to the council of men.9 Voting is not a concept that makes an easy cross-cultural transfer. The United States government takes the form of a representative democracy, with each citizen having a vote (initially African American men and all women were not allowed to participate, of course), and the majority rules. Among the Haudenosaunee, decisions are made by consensus and everyone must agree. It has been that way since the founding of the Confederacy, long before Europeans arrived on this continent. Voting, per se, does not exist. Rather, people speak and listen to one another, carefully considering ideas, until they are all of one mind. There is a balance of responsibilities between men and women that allows consensus to work. This reality presented a startling contrast to the “liberty and justice for all” nation which denied women—despite their continuous protest—any part in their own government. Among the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, as Morgan explained, the intricate system of female lineage “lay at the foundation of their political as well as social organization.”10 Hewitt described what a family-based government looked like: The ohwachira [matrilineal family] which in their own right possessed official titles of hereditary chiefships, and lesser officials, filled these offices by nomination by the suffrages of the mothers and adult girls in them. The federal chief who represented the ohwachira in the tribal council and also in the federal council [the Iroquois League] and the chief warriors as well, were chosen in this manner, usually with the advice of the warriors of the ohwachira. The woman trustee chief, [clan mother] the highest official known to Iroquois polity, was also nominated and confirmed in this manner. She was the executive officer of the ohwachira and was chosen because of exceptional ability and purity of character; she had a seat in the federal council in addition to her position as a trustee of her ohwachira, and so had a somewhat higher standing and authority than had the male federal chief.11 The Haudenosaunee world view is based on keeping everything in balance. Women and men each have responsibilities they must carry out to maintain this balance. The clan mother heads the entire extended family that makes up a clan. Since the ancient founding of the League of the Haudenosaunee, which Barbara Mann and Jerry Fields have dated at 1142 C.E.,12 each clan mother has the responsibility for carrying out the process by which the women of her clan select a male chief. The clan mother also has the duty of deposing the chief if he fails to perform his official duties. The man cannot become a chief or remain a chief if he commits rape, which is considered one of the three major crimes—theft and murder are the other two.


Balance also requires that everyone in the nation have a voice, and decision-making is achieved by consensus in public councils. All questions, including the making of treaties and deciding on issues of war and peace, have always required the approval of both women and men. This ancient democratic government continues to this day, with clan mothers still choosing the chiefs. The women’s nominating wampum belt records this law of the Confederacy of the original Five Nations: We give and assign the sacred chieftainship titles and the soil of our land to all of our Mothers, the Women of the Five Nations, and they shall be the proprietors of the same.“13 Arthur C. Parker describes the critical female role in the formation of the confederacy which resulted in women having responsibility for holding the chieftainship titles: Likewise, in the wampum codes of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, we are told that both Hiawatha, the Onondaga and the Peacemaker, a Wyandot, made their journeys to the tribes with the ‘Great Mother,’ Ji-gon-sa-seh, the Kakwah, and consulted her in every important detail. Without the approval of their ‘Mother of Nations’ and her sanction of Hiawatha’s plans, the integrity of the principles of the confederacy of the Five Nations would have been assailed. But Ji-gon-sa-seh, who was regarded as a descendant of the first Ye-go-wa-neh, the woman who was the mother of all the first Ongwe was sacred to her people, for her word was law and her sanction was necessary in all political measures of inter-tribal importance.14 The decision to place women in the highest position of governmental, as well as social, authority, was thoughtfully made by the founding mothers and fathers of the Six Nations Confederacy. Hewitt explained: The astute founders of the league had made the experiment of entrusting their government to a representative body of men and women chosen by the mothers of the community; they did not entrust it to a hereditary body, nor to a purely democratic body, nor even to a body of religious leaders. The founders of the league adopted this principle and with wise adjustments made it the underlying principle of the league institutions.15 Even when the Seneca, in a desperate attempt to maintain their land abandoned their traditional system and emulated the United States constitutional form of government—as had the Cherokee—the women still maintained their traditional authority over the land, as Minnie Myrtle wrote in 1855: The legislative powers of the nation are vested in a Council of eighteen, chosen by the universal suffrages of the nation; but no treaty is to be binding, until it is ratified by three-fourths of all the voters, and three-fourths of all the mothers of the nation!16So there was peace instead of war, as there would often be if the voice of woman could be heard! And though the Senecas, in revising their laws and customs, have in a measure acceded to the civilized barbarism of treating the opinions of women with contempt, where their interest is equal, they still cannot sign a treaty without the consent of two hirds of the mothers!17

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Book Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.


In US society, our understanding of Native American cultures is steeped too deeply in morbid fascination where often fellow US citizens use anecdotes and then make snide, bigoted, and reactionary judgements based solely upon those limited anecdotes about Native Americans. While some of that has changed, much unfortunately has not. When skimming a book exploring recent English translations of salvaged works from Mexica survivors of the conquest on what Aztecs / Mexica themselves described of their society and their understanding of it, I was struck by how the author elaborated that human sacrifices were in the periphery and not the center stage of Aztec / Mexica society. Of course, Mexica people knew it happened, but it was reserved to the buildings run by the Aztec clergy and nobles within the clergy. The regular Mexica people ignored it while living out their daily lives and often never witnessing it themselves. For further clarity on how limited our views are and how these limitations prevent shared understanding, consider the hypothetical example of a future foreign civilization discussing US society the same way that most of us in the US and many people across the world think of and discuss Aztec / Mexica society. A future foreign society eager to find something that excites their minds with morbid fascination would pinpoint our “backwards” legal system that allows for capital punishment. We would then be stereotyped, due to the historic number of lynchings, firing squads, and lethal injections for the purpose of capital punishment as a society obsessed with death and violence. The beliefs about the wild west and the current social issues pertaining to mass shootings would be seen as paralleling a social history of violence and sadism within our culture. The legal systems that allow for capital punishment, current gun policies, and the statistics involving death tolls would be used as evidence of our “backwards” obsession with death and inflicting sadistic forms of violence on a mass-scale. Regardless of whatever your politics are on any of that, my point is that is how we discuss and understand the Aztecs / Mexica. That is essentially what we do to their history, culture, and civilization. Worse, we do this to the entirety of Indigenous civilizations throughout North and South America with only vague pabulums acknowledging they have diversity among them. Globally, we probably understand the differences between Britain, France, and Spain even among their ancient histories than we do the differences between the Mayans, Aztecs / Mexica, the Inca, the Mississippi civilizations like the Cahokia city, and the matriarchal confederacies of North-East Indigenous groups. Furthermore, depictions within fantasy stories of groups inspired by the Aztec / Mexica and Mayans without human sacrifices wouldn’t necessarily be considered censorship since people should be encouraged to build whatever worlds that they wish; it would be the equivalent of not depicting witch-burnings in Medieval European fantasy worlds or the brutalization and massacres of Jewish populations by Christian Europeans despite knowing that they happened.

The more that I’ve read of Indigenous cultures and philosophical ideas, the more I’ve been convinced that they would fit the best with making video game stories. In the same way books and video games about fighting vampires incorporate Christian myths of holy weapons, crosses as stakes, and holy magics as concepts; I don’t see why Teotl and other Indigenous equivalents cannot be used with shapeshifting, tug-of-war powers involving order and disorder as a balancing act that can collapse at any moment, or utilizing different forms of sacred energy from power clusters that have intricate rock-paper-scissors style limits depending on what “power cluster” the fictional characters train under. Atlus Japan has done stellar work depicting Dharmic faith traditions with both Digital Devil Sagas 1 and 2 by depicting the concept of the illusion of the physical world. If that could be accomplished by a PS2 game in the early 2000s, I don’t see why US game studios can’t incorporate Teotl and other Indigenous concepts. For those having trouble thinking of ways of using Teotl and its equivalents or other indigenous concepts, I would compare it to the Force from Star Wars. I would like for you to consider that the force is really just an oversimplified and weak concept of pantheism. Whereas Teotl has more intricacies and can create far more interesting magic systems both because of its limits and the concept of vivifying, continual energy in motion that never ceases. It potentially provides clearer gradations on how a fictional character can improve their magical / fantasy powers.

If there is one takeaway that you should take from all this, it is that everything I just presented is but one speck of information compared to the vast, untapped potential of exploring Native American mythology and culture in video games. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned the unique cultural aspect of Indigenous naming systems compared to the rest of the world nor the intriguing myths that might be lost historical events. The mythic (possibly historical) stories of the Priest-Prince of the Toltecs, named One-Reed Quetzalcoatl, being banished by the Toltec priests to shut down his social reforms that worked to reduce human sacrifices. This resulted in the Priest-Prince leaving with the entire country’s army to conquer the Mayans apparently around 900 AD and the priests who banished him watching the entire civilization fall into a civil war over failures to deal with an immigration crisis that was causing social unrest at the time. Essentially, the entire army was bound to the divine lineage of the Priest-Prince, so when the Toltec priests banished him to stop his reforms that were reducing human sacrifices, they had no line of defense left to stop the growing malcontent and subsequent civil war over an immigration crisis. Mayans during the classical Mayan period had their city-state leaders and dynastic leaders choose the greatest of their warriors marry the princess and the princesses were given more ceremonial honor by Mayan priests than their commoner husbands. The divine lineage was always looked upon as a higher status, but people could also move-up in the world and marry royalty based upon achievements in the Classical Mayan period. Social dynamics like this would be intriguing to explore in fantasy video game plots. Video game companies are financially secure enough and we as a global world are interconnected enough that cultural experts and if necessary, culturally sensitive organizations can be worked with to mitigate factors like fear of offense or inaccuracy. Unfortunately, there remains the chance that some ignorant US game developer will ignore, disrespect, or even damage some cultural tradition or locale due to the continued genocidal culture and laws in place in the US against Native Americans, but that’s why cultural experts and meeting with Indigenous organizations to maintain respect is important. There is no compelling reason not to try and no reason for US game studios to continue playing the role of counterfeit Europeans in these modern times. Instead of pathetically chasing after Hollywood trends and trying to be more like the failed model that is Hollywood (a model that failed so completely that its writers and actors have gone on a four-month strike), video game studios and game companies should have been paving their own way. It’s long past the time that US video game developers, studios, and companies play to the strengths of the melting pot of US society. To give a firmer grasp of conceptualizing North American Indigenous civilizations of the ancient world, the following are artistic illustrations by the Cahokia Mounds State Historic site by Lloyd K. Townsend and William R. Iseminger. Please keep in mind, these are artistic drawings based on archaeological surveys and only represents one major city of the ancient world of North America:

One thought on “Why isn’t there more Native American Mythology in Video Games?

  1. Pingback: Dine bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story paraphrased by Paul G. Zolbrod. | Jarin Jove's Blog

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