Daniel Salazar Lama

Archéologie des Amériques (UMR 8096), CNRS-université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Flower Worlds is a collective volume that brings together a complete session at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archeology (SAA) in Albuquerque in 2019. The introduction traces seminal investigations of the flower world by Jane H. Hill, Kelley Hays-Gilpin, and Karl Taube. According to these scholars, the flower world is a spiritual and paradisiacal land inhabited by gods and ancestors, a world without time parallel to ours. The term “flower world” was used by Hill in 1992 to describe the sacred and idyllic landscapes of the Uto-Aztecan in the southwestern United States, but is now used to designate a broader phenomenon in pre-Hispanic and contemporary cultures. The introduction summarizes the book’s different chapters. Turner and Mathiowetz reveal a series of peculiarities of each flower world, suggesting diversity rather than a homogeneous concept. As the reader follows the text, the diversity becomes increasingly apparent. Although this plurality may present some aspects in common, it remains as diverse ways of conceiving and representing idyllic worlds. Several years after the initial definition and seminal studies on flower worlds, the book aims to discuss the diversity of idyllic worlds in Mesoamerica, northern Mexico, and the southwestern United States from multidisciplinary approaches. Part 1, “Contemporary flower worlds,” includes four chapters focused on rituality and different material manifestations of idyllic worlds in contemporary cultures. Alan R. Sandstrom, in the first chapter, finds that the Nahua of southern Huasteca see flowers and colorful objects not as symbols of the flower world but as a tangible manifestation of it, an embodiment of a sacred substance or energy omnipresent in all-natural things. Maybe the author goes too far when he asseverates that this same condition of chromatic and resplendent objects is also present in Olmec and Aztec material culture. This assumption is problematic because it implicitly draws an unchanging tradition over several millennia, no matter the specificity of cultural contexts. Nevertheless, as he cautiously asserts, this reasoning is an alternative explanation that requires further analysis. In a more middle-ground look that suggests an enriched vision, with an analytical stance that takes diversity and specificity into account, Johannes Neurath offers in the second chapter a proper discussion around the unity and plurality of the flower world in northern México and Mesoamerica. After carefully studying the peyote rituals, he concludes that Wirikuta—a Huichol flower world—is a space-time that can only exist because of the peyoteros visionary experience. Peyoteros make a pilgrimage to Wirikuta, not to visit the gods or adore peyote, but to become peyote and become the gods that bring gifts and natural resources when they return to the community. In the third chapter, Felipe Molina and David Delgado analyze the Yoeme (also known as Yaquis) experience of aniam: overlapping realms (places or worlds) that are both physical and immaterial, but spatially accessible through ceremonies and ritualized space. The study focuses on three of them: yo ania (enchanted world), sea ania (world of flowers), and huya ania (wilderness world), with particular emphasis on sea ania. As one of their main contributions, the authors urge us not to apply categories such as mythical or fantastic places to these aniam since they are real or, in Yoeme’s own poetic words, a “living beautiful part of our present world.” The last text of Part 1 focuses on how the flower world concepts manifest in Hopi ritual songs. Here, Dorothy Washburn observes that the songs, full of flower, butterfly, and bird references, announced a perfect world that the Hopi could only reach through constant work, family obligations, and ritual reciprocity. In this regard, Washburn finds that the Hopi songs differ from paradisiacal Mesoamerican concepts of the flower world and contemporary cultures. In the conclusions, she formulates a critical observation: although references to flowers have been in Mesoamerican imagery since preclassic times, there is no evidence that flowers were the expression of a cosmological entity called flower world. Hopis never use the term in the songs about idyllic worlds, neither do the other contemporary cultures (Yoeme, Huicholes, and Nahuas of southern Huasteca). Thus, the next question arises: is it pertinent to talk about flower worlds, an etic term attempting to unify heterogeneity under one vision? This observation at the end of Part 1 is remarkably strategic because the following section is Part 2: “Historial flower worlds,” with several analyses of pre-Hispanic and Early Colonial flower worlds, their specific contexts, and material evidence. Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos opens this section with a meaningful discussion on the relevance of talking about flower worlds, in the plural, as various multifaceted manifestations of this phenomenon. With the analysis of ceramic censers from the Guatemala Pacific slope, he demonstrates shifting concepts from the Late Preclassic to the Early Classic. Even in the same geographical region, particular connotations from one period to another can be recognized in the artistic language adopted from central Mexico and in the partial disuse of the preceding iconographic codes. The author suggests that local artists “reinterpreted flower world beliefs from Preclassic times and adapted them to express the religious beliefs of the Teotihuacanos.” For example, the presence of goddesses related to fertility, sexuality, and beauty contrasts with the predominance of solar and ancestral connotations of the Preclassic stone monuments. In this regard, Chinchilla Mazariegos is making a remarkable contribution to the topic, demonstrating that flower worlds can vary according to specific cultural circumstances instead of being a unique concept petrified in time. The next chapter, by Cameron McNeil, studies the archaeological pollen remains from the Classic period floors of the Copan Acropolis. She detects four flowering plants: maize, cattails, Coyol, and Esquisúchil. The study conveniently explores the inherent significance of each flower in the Maya and Mesoamerica worldview. In line with other chapters in the book’s first part, the author suggests that flowers carry a diversity of meanings and are capable of transforming the different spaces into idyllic places related to the flower world. In other words, flowers are not only metaphors but embodiments of the sacred. Furthermore, the author argues that the aromatic atmosphere of flowers was complemented with visual information from the buildings to create a multisensory and meaningful locus. Concerning both interpretations, one of the author’s most significant contributions is to propose that flowers as signifiers provide different meanings to the context. These specificities are often overlooked when analyzing the floral connotations looking solely at iconographic or epigraphic evidence. In the following chapter, Andrew Turner explores the uses and meanings of flower worlds in Epiclassic Central Mexico, around AD 600-900. As a starting point, the author draws a contrast between the Mayan flower worlds—generally associated with ancestors, specific celestial deities, and natural forces of fertility and abundance—and those from the Teotihuacan and Mexica traditions, which are dominated by a military ideology and the cult of deceased warriors and rulers, who take the form of butterflies and birds in a paradisiacal environment. The artworks from Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, and Teotenango analyzed by Turner mostly lack floral imagery. Nevertheless, the author argues that all the creatures detected embody the deceased warriors’ souls. Therefore, their representation in the visual arts would evoke the floral world, despite not being explicitly represented. This military-ideologically charged flower world reminds Tamoanchan from the Postclassic Nahua for the knowledgeable reader (López Austin 1994). The question remains whether these Epiclassic highlands’ flower worlds detected by Turner are the possible antecedents of later Mexica tradition. In the same line as the other chapters, the most significant contribution of this chapter is to trace the shifting meanings and contexts for flower worlds’ visual expressions, from private spaces and smaller-scale objects in Teotihuacan to monumental sculptural programs inserted in more public and accessible areas. As the author suggests, these changes aim to transform the built-up spaces into a tangible manifestation of idealized worlds in the human environment, as the materialization or concrete forms of local ideologies that were strengthened after the collapse of Teotihuacan. Michael Mathiowetz is the author of the following chapter, which focuses on Casas Grandes flower world material expressions. Tracing back to the Aztatlán culture and the ritual commodities from Mesoamerica found in the American Southwest and Northern México, Mathiowetz outlines the Casas Grandes’ flower world belief system. Unfortunately, despite the abundance of materials analyzed, there is a lack of well-supported interpretations and correct arguments to strengthen them. For example, the author statement that cacao “use by Aztatlán elites was linked to feasting and flower world,” has not entirely been developed. The bases for such a specific interpretation are not clarified. The problem increases when Mathiowetz asserts that one person, a woman from western México, is the indisputable evidence of Aztatlán flower world ideologies brought by immigrants to the American Southwest and the whole region. But how? On such shreds of evidence and other assumptions that lack strong support, Mathiowetz draws a Casas Grandes flower world ritualist panorama. In this framework, a small and unique copper bell with the Tlaloc circular eyes is taken as proof of the rain ceremonial complexity associated with this deity. Still, the basis for such an interpretation cannot be found. Casas Grandes undoubtedly participated in broad trade networks, as can be confirmed by the archaeological remains of scarlet macaws from southern Mesoamerica and other imported artifacts. However, Mathiowetz does not give us sufficient and convincing arguments that they were more than trade goods and held a complex flower world symbolism. Karl Taube, the author of the following chapter, focuses his attention on the cicada and the emergence mythology of the American Southwest narratives. From the start, Taube traces a homogeneous concept of the flower world from Preclassic Mesoamerica to the present day in the traditional communities of the American Southwest. One of the main differences, he assures us, is the participation of insects, for example, the cicada in flower pollination—an insect not connected with the Mayan and other Mesoamerican flower worlds. This tendency of homogenization is also present in Taube’s iconographic analysis, making it intensely doubtful. Almost every iconic representation of the cicada that the author presents is different, to such a degree that nearly any one of them could be another type of insect, like butterflies, scarabs, or wingless insects with a body covered in spikes. In the Mathiowetz chapter, to take just one example, some insects Taube interprets as cicadas in the Mimbres imagery are taken as grasshoppers flanking a maize plant, which is closer to the truth. In short, there is a severe iconographic identification problem at the beginning of the study. Subsequently, Taube connects these scenes to the Hopi and Navajo sustenance and emergence narratives in which the cicada is the central figure. Nevertheless, on the previous iconographic basis, the whole interpretation becomes debatable. Moreover, Taube further seeks to parallel the Hopi Flower Mound to the Mayan Flower Mountain in the North mural at San Bartolo, Guatemala, painted circa BC 150-100. This Mayan mountain, by the way, has many iconic flowers. Still, the emic term and concept used to designate it was “precious mountain,” as is attested by the k’an, “yellow, ripe, precious,” sign inserted in the eye (Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005). Again, this specific detail leads us back to Dorothy Washburn’s mention (Chap. IV) of the terms we use to approach idyllic worlds, trying to impose indisputable equivalences where there are very few. John M. D. Pohl presents a study of the flower world of Cholula in the Mexican Highlands. The first part of the analysis is based on the comparison of images that, according to Pohl, trace the cult’s origins to Xochipilli, the Nahua deity of flowers, who is also connected to the Mayan Maize God, and Akan, the Mayan deity of intoxication and disease. The analysis is complex and full of references. Nevertheless, the gods’ association does not seem so clear, much less their relationship to the Central Mexico flower worlds. After the first part, the author engages in a prolific discussion about the Cholula pyramid, which he interprets as a mountain of vegetative abundance and life regeneration. The interpretation is seductive, mainly because the pyramid was covered with vegetation at a certain point, and fruit trees and flowers were allowed to grow on it, whilst at the base the tule plants were abundant. As an interpretive possibility, Pohl tells us that this mountain in the center of the pre-Hispanic settlement can be compared with the royal pleasure gardens of Texcotzinco and Chapultepec in the Late Postclassic. This interpretation is undoubtedly much better supported and with more concrete foundations. Angel González López and Lorena Vázquez Vallín are the authors of the next chapter, which focuses on the official and imperialist Mexica discourses from the material manifestations of an idyllic world in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan. They analyze various types of material evidence and present them in an orderly and systematic way: offerings deposited inside the Templo Mayor that replicate the narrative of the birth of the Fifth Sun, stone reliefs in the interior of rooms that show scenes of glorified warriors and processions in the Tlalocan linked to the rain, and stone reliefs integrated into the Main Plaza, on the south side of the temple, evoking the particular vision of an idyllic place loaded with military connotations. The multidisciplinary approach of this study and how it is presented are commendable. Furthermore, the results offer a new layer of meaning to understanding the Templo Mayor integrally; that is to say, not opposing, but adding these meanings to the symbolisms accumulated throughout the various constructive phases. Based on several contributions to this volume, Davide Domenici, the author of the penultimate chapter, observes that flower worlds reveal themselves to humans during ritual activities. Focusing on this argument, his chapter explores the “flowery matter of chant,” taking the connoted materiality of organic colors in the Mesoamerican codex painting as a study case. The chapter is fascinating and well-constructed around the idea that every flower world has an aesthetical dimension: a set of cultural meanings invested in sensory experiences. Domenici found the basis of a close relationship between flowers and elegant, beautiful speech in the floral quality of the materials used, as is expressed in Nahuatl difrasismo in xochitl, in cuicatl, “the flower, the chant.” According to the author, the bright colors of the flower-painted codex would give power and regenerative energy to ritual speech and songs, triggering an aesthetic perception of the flower world based on cultural synesthesia. In the same vein as McNeil, Turner, Pohl, and most of the first part chapters, Domenici’s shows that idyllic flower worlds are beyond being products of the imagination or symbolic and metaphorical entities. Instead, idealized realms have tangible and sensory dimensions in the Indigenous worldview. The last chapter, written by James M. Cordova, investigates the Early Colonial Mexican production of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The analysis, the study of sources, and the specialist literature are presented in an orderly and easy to follow way. The reader may appreciate it, due to the author’s large amount of information. The conclusions are forceful and clear: there is an intricate and well-achieved blending of elements of the Indigenous cosmology and Christian notions about the sacred. Perhaps an elaborate and effective way of reconciling two belief systems and their conceptions of the paradisiacal worlds. Throughout this volume, it has become clear that flowers, bright and colorful objects, birds, and butterflies play an essential role in some idyllic and paradisiacal Indigenous worlds. Nevertheless, not all the study cases have those same elements. Sometimes, they are present as signifiers carrying a different significance or integrated into a broader web of meanings. Butterflies, for example, can be related to fertility, sexuality, and beauty, or embody the warriors’ soul in a whole different context. Meanwhile, flowers appear as a diagnostic element of an idealized landscape, a pleasant and aromatic atmosphere, or even the embodiment of the sacred in a reality that has been experienced. Still, flowers can also be completely absent, replaced by military and warfare imagery. Given the diversity of Prehispanic and traditional visions in which the flowery-group elements are not always essential or change their meaning, is it pertinent to talk about flower worlds or flowery realms, despite the enormous contextual variations? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial not to frame a priori what we will analyze? Some contributions in this volume provoke a fruitful discussion of these idealized worlds as adaptable and resilient entities that maintain relevance in local and contextualized ideologies. Others, instead, tend to petrify and homogenize the idyllic realms. In those cases, the flower world has been taken as a label or a unilateral category that looks to standardize heterogeneity or even a preconceived reality that the analysis must prove. Therefore, it is worth asking ourselves if the concept of flower world is not a rigid etic designation that overshadows our understanding of the vast idyllic worlds and ideological realms through many centuries and changing circumstances. According to Kelley Hays-Gilpin, the epilogue’s author, Jane H. Hill’s comparative study in 1992 defined the Uto-Aztecan flower world, considered as a pattern of ritual activities, behavior, and representation. However, what the contributions in this book reveal is not a pattern replicated in several cultures or an undifferentiated and flat baseline, despite the efforts of some authors to frame their analysis results to this model. Instead, diversity and contextualization have been revealed here with one common feature present in almost every study: the idyllic worlds’ physical and experiential dimensions, considered tangible manifestations instead of allegorical and symbolic representations. This understanding of idealized realms is crucial, and guides toward new possibilities for studying the aesthetic and multisensorial dimensions of ritual and placemaking. Undoubtedly, idyllic realms exist and are a reality in the Indigenous worldview. Almost thirty years after Hill’s first definition of the flower world, this book is an excellent starting point for academic discussion and evaluation of the topic. However, this is not a conclusion on the subject; instead, it is one step in an exploration process that requires continuity.


HILL Jane H.
1992    “The flower world of old Uto-Aztecan,” Journal of Anthropological Research, 48: 117-144.

1994    Tamoanchan y Tlalocan, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Ciudad de México.

SATURNO William, Karl TAUBE, and David STUART
2005    “Los murales de San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala, Parte 1. El mural del norte,” Ancient America, 7: 1-56.

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