The Theosophy of Ancient America

By Blair A. Moffett

There was an ancient American theosophy which taught conceptions of the universe and of man just as lofty, profound, and spiritual as any formulated by either Greeks or Hindus. And this god-wisdom was frequently expressed in terms and metaphors more graphic than are found in either of the latter. We are only at the beginning of a living understanding of the true esoteric perspective of the many Indian cultures that once overspread all of and still exist in parts of South, Central, and North America. The more we learn about them, the clearer it becomes that they all shared in a common religious tradition that was known and taught from one end of the New World to the other by the initiates of each center, in language and imagery adapted to local circumstances. (1) Then all of these local versions, stripp ed of their elements of superstition and formalism, are seen to reflect major portions of that primary secret doctrine or esoteric tradition which is global in extent, and which has formed the heart of the human spiritual drama in prehistoric as well as all historic eras. (2)

The ravages of time and the destructiveness of conquest have left us partial records only of this primeval New World theosophy. Because European conquerors came when many Indian tribes were in the slough of a degenerate, materialistic and bloody cycle and others had returned to a simple pastoral and farming life, they were all treated as of inferior breed, perhaps not fully human, and slaughtered or ignored accordingly. The white man's blindness coupled with the Indian's great religious reserve resulted in an almost complete obscuration of the latter's true inner scale of values. Only now, when the results of our wanton misuse of the human and natural resources of our lands have opened our eyes to the fact that the Indians are living, and have always lived, in close ecological harmony with their environment, have we become more aware that those values have considerable merit and should be carefully investigated.

For the best among aboriginal American peoples, every aspect of daily life was religious: they recognized that not only the physical but also the divine and spiritual forces of the solar universe played through man's life on earth at every moment, and had to be taken into account by him in his conduct and thought. The twenty-four hours of day and night reflected, to the smallest detail, the larger corresponding cycles of the universal solar system. The divine-spiritual heart of this solar universe in which they lived was clothed with the physical sun that we see: it was therefore the highest representative in our solar system of an even loftier cosmic divinity. They taught that this solar system or universe is a compound or hierarchy of spheres, planes or worlds ("heavens and hells") both superior and inferior to and including our earth-world; and that this hierarchical star-system emanated from a celestial source, very difficult to describe. That source was the place where the duality characterizing all manifestation h ad had its birth or beginning, and every manifested being was a spark or ray of it. The total human being has in him elements or phases corresponding to each and every sphere or world within the universal solar system.

The subject is vast, but it can be usefully illustrated by taking up one concept at a time from any one of the surviving lines of the aboriginal tradition and drawing some parallels. Let us look, for example, at some of these ideas from the ancient Mexican or Nahuatl perspective. Fortunately we have authentic and fairly good information from surviving codices, extensive rock sculptures on temple ruins, and narrative accounts of early Spanish chroniclers obtained from native Nahuatl wisemen or tlamatinime. Much the same philosophy is apparent in the records of the great Mayan peoples of prehistoric Yucatan and Central America, but it is harder to investigate because the narrative portions of Mayan codices and stone carvings cannot be read.

The Nahuatl wisemen taught of nine, eleven, twelve, or thirteen spheres or 'heavens' above our earth-sphere, and of eight or nine 'hells' or underworlds beneath the earth-plane, thirteen and nine being the most commonly found numbers. The highest divinity was named Ometeotl, 'the god of duality,' and it inhabited a place named Omeyocan, 'the place of duality.' Omeyocan was the place of cosmic origin of all manifested things, and it was variously shown as above the nine 'heavens' or, if more were given, as being the thirteenth or highest 'heaven' or sphere. Ometeotl embraced both halves of all the dualities which characterize manifestation, such as male-female, positive-negative, spirit-matter. It was beautifully described as both the feminine, "she of the starry skirt," and the masculine, "celestial body which illumines things." This concept is vividly portrayed in a frieze at Teotihuacan, the magnificent temple-center of the prehistoric Toltec culture located northeast of Mexico City, (3) that represents the divinity Ometeotl creating the worlds of form (the planes or spheres) which build our solar universe, out of itself.

The Nahuatl hierarchy of being composing the solar system was often pictured in drawings of the spheres placed one above the other, in staircase fashion, from the lowest to the highest. In such case, Ometeotl was depicted as manifesting on each of these levels or planes, in drawings of a clothed male and a female figure seated facing each other in conversation. The result was a wonderfully human way of showing the emanated permutations of the one force in dual manifestation through all the ethereal and material spheres of the solar system.

We find a corresponding expression of this conception in the hierarchies of lokas and talas, or bipolar spheres, of Hindu religious philosophy. The idea is also conveyed in representations of the various Hindu divinities -- each one an aspect of the one divine force -- as having their respective saktis or 'feminine' aspects or 'companions.' The aboriginal Nahuatl conception of Ometeotl itself corresponds rather obviously in one sense with the Hindu philosophical teaching of Parabrahman and Mulaprakriti, the primeval divine force and its vehicular aspect of root-matter as the origin of the duality of creation or manifestation. In fact, the portrayal of Ometeotl as 'creator' or source of the worlds of form is analogous to the well-known depiction of the Hindu god Krishna, who in the Bhagavad-Gita is made to say, "I establish this universe with a single portion of myself, and remain separate." In this delineation, Krishna clearly embraces both aspects of duality: male-female, light-darkness, spirit-matter; and from his hand, as from those of Ometeotl, are symbolically shown emerging all the creatures in the worlds of form. Krishna states moreover that although he remains separate, nevertheless a portion of himself is present in every part of the universe.

In future articles it is our hope to develop more details of the marvelous range of cosmic philosophy embodied in the theosophy of ancient America.

Part Two

Characteristic of aboriginal American theosophy was its multileveled cosmic vision. There was the outer, exoteric or popular religion which was polytheistic. There was also a more esoteric perspective, imparted to those accepted for training in the kivas, lodges, and temple-schools of traditional instruction and initiation. Here, the multiple 'gods' of the populace were revealed as so many aspects or transformations of a single divine emanation or force, as hierarchies of consciousness which compose the solar universe. The individual's understanding of these perceptions depended upon the degree of his initiation. Moreover, obligations of silence this imposed upon him restricted what be could relate publicly. This important fact explains the seeming variations reported in the chronicles of ancient Indian belief coming down to us, and why it is still difficult to comprehend portions of them. We do not have the complete story, and are ourselves limited by our degree of comprehension.

There is evidence of an even deeper level of esotericism imparted to some exceptional men, beyond the majority who were trained in the centers. For example, in the calmecac, the ancient Nahuatl school of initiation and teaching, those taught to read and interpret the sacred codices learned of Ometeotl as the highest divinity, the single dual principle from which all manifested worlds had been begotten. But certain ones who had passed through the calmecac, such as Nezahualcoyotl, the famous "poet-king" of Tezcoco, a city-state northeast of pre-Conquest Mexico City, went further and revered an "invisible god who could not be represented physically," known as Tloque Nahuaque or Ipalnemohuani, "the Lord of the Everywhere," "the Giver of Life." It is related that this poet-king erected a temple to the Unknown God -- "who was unknown, unseen, shapeless and formless." This lofty conception was no different from the Tat, or That, of ancient India, whose rishis were unwilling to give a more limited name to the unnameable Causeless Cause of all, than simply to call it That, in contrast to This, the manifested universe. The unusually dedicated temple of the early Mexican poet-king reminds one of the similarly inscribed altar seen by Paul on the Hill of Ares in Athens. (Cf. Acts 17:23.)

In the previous article we saw how the primeval Toltec initiates of Mexico taught that the solar universe was composed of a series of worlds, spheres, or planes above, below, and including the earth-plane. The usual number given was thirteen 'heavens' above and nine 'hells' beneath the earth; these were depicted as a series of vertical levels. But they also represented them in a manner strikingly similar to that employed in 1888 by H. P. Blavatsky and in 1932 by Dr. G. de Purucker who amplified the earlier information. The vertical-step presentation was the more exoteric; the second method, illustrated here, was the more esoteric, complex, and illuminating explanation.

In the 1890s Eduard Seler, the well-known German student of Nahuatl religious philosophy, published a diagram of the thirteen 'gods of the hours of day' and the nine 'gods of the hours of night.' We recall that for the aboriginal American peoples the passage of the hours of day and night reflected, to the smallest detail, the larger structure and operation of the solar cosmos (Figure 1).

Figure 1:

(7) Xochipilli-Cinteotl
(6) Teoyaomiqui [or preferably Mictlantecutli] ------------------ Tlaloc (8)
(5) Tiacolteutl --------------------------------------------------- Quetzalcoatl (9)
(4)Tonatiuh ---------------------------------------------------- Tezcatlipoca (10)
(3) Chalchihuitlicue ---------------------------------- Mictlantecutli [or Chalmecatecutli] (11)
(2) Tlaltecutli ---------------------------------------------------- Tlauizcalpantecutli (12)
(1) Xiuhtecutli -------------------Ilamatecutli [Citlalinicue according to Mexican investigators] (13)

(IX) Tlaloc ------------------------------- Xiuhtecutli (I)
(VIII) Tepeyollotl ----------------------------Itztli (II)
(VII) Tlacolteuti ----------------Piltzintecutli-Tonatiuh (III)
(VI) Chalchihuitlicue -------------- Cinteotl (IV)
(V) Mictlantecutli

In 1932 Dr. de Purucker published the following arrangement of the planes of the universal solar system (Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, p. 499; it must be made clear here that these diagrams are symbolic arrangements only, and not direct representations of the facts they are intended to stand for). In it, the triangle at the top stands for three highest spheres of this hierarchy or family of beings, de Purucker explaining that two additional planes or spheres, one each at the top and bottom, form connecting links with other hierarchies to complete a total twelve (Figure 2).

Now if we take the thirteen 'above-worlds' and the nine 'underworlds' of the Nahuatl wisemen and arrange them on twelve levels or planes, the resulting depiction looks like this (Figure 3).

The earth-plane is represented by the red line. For illustration of another way in which the solar universe was imaged, identical in principle with the foregoing, we have this twelvefold scheme as viewed by the North American Plains Indian teachers (Figure 4). [For more detailed treatment of this "Medicine Wheel," which for the Plains Indians symbolized the solar universe among other things, see The Sacred Pipe, Joseph Epes Brown (1953) and Seven Arrows, Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972).]

Comparison of these diagrams will immediately suggest much to students of the theosophical philosophy. First, we see that the same fundamentals of the ancient wisdom or esoteric philosophy, outlined by Blavatsky and de Purucker and illustrated by them largely from the spiritual thought of the classical Oriental and Western world, were known to and imparted by the initiates of the ancient New World as well. The Toltecs, like other aboriginal initiate castes to the north and south of them, had knowledge of the twelvefold universal solar system and of the place of the earth-sphere within it. Of course, they taught of this in a manner and after a fashion to meet the needs of the particular peoples for whom they had responsibility. As the tide of spiritual instruction flowing around the globe brought the various great cultural eras each to individual fruition in time and space, the primordial American civilizations also received their due. The American hemisphere is only a New World in the sense that it was rediscovered by Europeans.

The great Mayan civilization of prehistoric Central America had the same esoteric philosophy. The eminent contemporary authority on the Mayans, J. Eric S. Thompson, writes:

The Maya . . . believed that the sky was divided into 13 compartments, in each of which certain gods resided. These may have been arranged as 13 horizontal layers or as six steps ascending on the east to the seventh and then six more descending on the west, so that compartments I and 13, 2 and 12, etc., were on the same level. In the latter case there were 13 heavens but seven layers. . . .
There seems no reason to doubt that the Maya, like the Aztec, believed that there were nine underworlds, one below the other or again stepped with the fifth the bottom-most. . . . the nine lords of the nights, who have an evil aspect, are as prominent in the Maya calendar as in the Aztec. In Aztec belief these ruled the nine underworlds . . Maya Hieroglyphic Writings, p. 10

All aboriginal American spiritual teachings assign to Man, the total human being, a divine and an earthly origin. For the Nahuatls, Man's original divine progenitor was Ometeotl, the "mother of the gods, the father of the gods," who was the ultimate omnipresent force sustaining the cosmos. Each human being was a 'spark' of Ometeotl in essence. But man as a composite manifested entity owes his being more immediately to a hierarchy of four 'gods' who were the sons of Ometeotl. These gods formed the four primary forces whose activities and permutations brought about the four 'manifested' worlds or planes of the solar universe . (These can be identified with the four lower planes, labeled with letters A through G, in the diagram published by Dr. G. de Purucker.) Each of these creative divinities is identified with a color, a cardinal direction, certain cycles of time, and one of the phenomena we know as fire, air, water, and earth. Each is dual in its nature, having its 'feminine' or polar counterpart. What we call time and space are also characteristics of these creative entities: with their advent, space and time were manifested as factors that combine to regulate the occurrence of cosmic events.

The appearance of the earth was also due to the action of these divinities. The Mexican concept of the earth was, as can be seen, not static in any sense; in fact it was the reverse. The earth, as the rest of the manifested creation, is ever in motion and flux in time and space, subject to the influences of all the dualities and their field of action. The earthly vehicles or bodies of Man, which house the divine spark, were all made from the materials of this globe, and human beings as entities manifesting on earth were frequently likened to plants. The Mayan word for "one generation of men," uinay, for example, literally meant "one growth." In fact, for both the Mexican Nahuatl and the Central American Mayan peoples the twelvefold emanation of the solar universe was often depicted as a cosmic tree whose roots dwelt in the highest place of origin, and whose trunk and branches extended 'downward,' composing the intermediate worlds and spheres of being. (Cf. The Bhagavad-Gita, chapter xv, which describes the Aswattha, "the eternal sacred tree," growing with its "roots above and its branches below." The figure of the celestial tree is a prominent symbol in many ancient spiritual traditions.) Life itself and human generations descend to the world through the branches of this celestial tree. In the Maya-Quiche' language, the verbs to descend and to be born are synonyms. Thus, the serial birth or emanation of lower worlds from higher or primeval worlds was wonderfully portrayed in this figure. Likewise, the origin of the highest spark in Man, its peregrination 'downwards' into the manifested planes, and its ultimate birth in a body here on earth, was fully indicated.

The central religious importance given to the New World corn -- maize -- has its explanation here. Maize was for aboriginal Americans at once a divinity, life itself, and the support of human life -- that is, of the physical vehicle on earth of Man's divine spark. Because it meant life, maize was closely associated with fertility and generation, and doubtless represented for the Indian the necessary carrier of the human spark from inner spheres to a successful birth on this globe. (An amusing insight into early European incomprehension of maize's importance is gained from this comment of a seventeenth century Franciscan observer: "If one looks closely at these Indians he will find that everything they do and say has something to do with maize. A little more, and they would make a god of it. There is so much conjuring and fussing about their corn fields, that for them they will forget wives and children and any other pleasure, as if the only end and aim of life was to secure a crop of corn.") It has been estimated that, next to rice, maize feeds more millions throughout the world than any other grain. Maize does not reproduce itself; it must be sown by human hands. The origin of maize as a food grain is still enveloped in mystery, so much so that one author has stated that maize seemed to have sprung as "a cultivated grain directly from the hand of God." (See p. 186, The First American, C. W. Ceram,1971.) This contemporary estimate echoes the exceedingly ancient belief of America's aboriginal peoples that maize was indeed a gift of the gods who, when at first they taught the early humans the arts and sciences, included that of agriculture or food cultivation as a primary religious instruction. Because maize can be successfully grown only if it receives rain, rain itself shared in the divine character of the maize and thus in the esoteric as well as exoteric religion of aboriginal American cultures. These supports of human life on earth were always associated with the idea of sacrifice, another convergence with the highest expressions of classical Hindu spiritual philosophy as stated in the Bhagavad-Gita. There, the divinity Krishna, as divine instructor, enjoins Arjuna, who represents Man, to "nourish the Gods, that the Gods may nourish you; thus mutually nourishing ye shall obtain the highest felicity. . . . Beings are nourished by food, food is produced by rain, rain comes from sacrifice, and sacrifice is performed by action. Know that action comes from the Supreme Spirit."

The other half of the idea of a descent of human consciousness from higher spheres into earth-life is that of its ascent after bodily death to those higher planes once more and -- after a time -- its rebirth or reincarnation again onto the earth. This belief in the cyclic peregrination of the human monad through all the worlds or spheres of the solar universe formed an important part of ancient American theosophy, more particularly of the esotericism which was imparted to qualified individuals in the lodges and inner schools of initiation among the aborigines.

When, several years ago, a reliable Indian spokesman of the sacred Hopi tradition was asked by a white friend why reincarnation as a specific tenet was not set out with other Hopi teachings, he replied that the cyclic rebirth of human beings is taken for granted, and the Hopi saw no need to emphasize that they believed specifically in such a process. The Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin, in their most sacred ritual, "The Road of Life and Death," interpreted life as a mystical road from earth to heaven and back again ad infinitum, as the white investigator, Paul Radin, learned when this secret medicine-lodge ritual was revealed to him by Indian spokesmen in 1908-09.

Reincarnation as a specific teaching does not stand out in Nahuatl esotericism either, although there are some allusions in the early Spanish chronicles of Mexican beliefs to a rebirth on earth of those who have gone after death to Tlalocan, the "earthly paradise," one of the 'heavens' or higher worlds within the Nahuatl twelvefold cosmogony. Close study of the various expressions of ancient American esoteric philosophy leads to the conclusion that their concern was not so much with the fact of human rebirth itself, which is implicit throughout that spiritual philosophy, as it was with how human beings can so live as to achieve a successful peregrination to the higher worlds before returning to earth-life. For, in their view, apparently many, many individuals were unable to do this because they did not live correctly, nor in the right spirit of sacrifice, and so had to spend a sojourn in one or more of the various 'hells' before rebirth.

For those born and trained in the Christian tradition, where the idea of human rebirth was deliberately excised from Church teaching almost fifteen hundred years ago, the concept does assume the aspect of a distinct if not novel belief. One, moreover, that somehow we expect will be expounded with much fanfare in other spiritual traditions. This preconception is, however, peculiar to ourselves and will disappear when we begin to understand reincarnation as forming simply part of the background of aboriginal American religious thought, for example, as it does in the traditions of many peoples of the ancient world. Suffice it to say that while this idea was given full and clear expression only within the sacred precincts of Indian kivas and secret schools of instruction about life and death, the fact of reincarnation was known implicitly among even non-initiated Indians. We need only mention the well-known practice among some Southwest Indians of saving the clothes when a young child died, because of their conviction that the next child born to them would be the same soul trying again for a successful rebirth into the world.

(From Sunrise magazine, October, November 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu


1. This is seen more effectively when we study and compare the secret teachings of the north-central Winnebago tribes in The Road of Life and Death, Paul Radin (1945); of the Plains Indians -- Sioux, Comanche and Cheyenne -- in Seven Arrows, Hyemeyohsts Storm (1973); in the Nahuatl cultures of Mexico in Burning Water, Laurette Sejourne (1956), and Aztec Thought and Culture, Miguel Leon-Portilla (1963); and of the southwest Pueblo Indians in Book of the Hopi, Frank Waters (1963), to enumerate some recent studies of the aboriginal American tradition. (return to text)

2. For treatment of this timeless and global tradition, see The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky (1888), and The Esoteric Tradition, G. de Purucker (1935). (return to text)

3. The word Teotihuacan, in Nalmatl, means 'the place where men become gods.' It was apparently a great initiatory center. The word Toltec, also Nahuatl, means 'master-builder' or 'master craftsman.' Most authorities think the Toltecs were a distinct racial people among prehistoric Nahuatl tribes, but some dispute this theory. The writer believes them to have been an initiate caste, very likely a primary one among a number of such teaching at schools and centers which flourished in various places in the prehistoric Americas. (return to text)