Cosmology is literally the “science of nature,” from the physics of Aristotle and Newton to the mythical cosmograms of Tibet. A cosmology is any composition or cultural construct relating to the structure and process of systems of creation. Included are the origins of physical elements of earthly or astronomical spheres, the genesis of the material world, and the order and function of the observable universe, including the planets, the solar system, and celestial bodies. Quite simply, a cosmology is any cultural belief related to the creative forces responsible for the composition of the universe.
Landscapes are integral to any cosmology, though not all cosmologies emphasize that landscapes are sacred. Landscape is a powerful term, with considerable utility for describing and giving context to cultural beliefs and worldview regarding the natural world in which people live. Hence, it is important in the context of cosmology. People live in landscapes, but landscapes are more than social space. Long the domain of geographers who fashioned “landscapes” from “spatial-scientific” or “structural” geographical theory, broader understandings of non-Western cosmologies have brought deeper comprehension of landscape and its relationship to cultures.
For the anthropologist, landscape has two primary meanings: It is a “framing convention” that provides the backdrop for how a study is presented, and it is a means to attribute the ways that local people view their cultural and physical surroundings. As a spatial element, landscape is intertwined with time, in that it is not a static or abstract entity, but a part of social practices. The term landscape dates to the renaissance. In art history, it is based on a geometric perspective in media renderings meant to be viewed in a way that projects a picture involving some aspect of geographic features that can be perceived in a realistic fashion.
Anthropologists have long recognized that many indigenous people view and map landscapes differently than is done in the West and that often conceptions of land and landscape are permeated with notions of the sacred. Among the Andonque of the Columbian Amazon, the land is conceptualized as specific features identified as being both within and outside of their territory. These features include mountains, hills, flat savannahs, and rocks. Each feature has been purposely named by a religious specialist, is “owned” by a specific supernatural force, and is identified socially by specific mythic events that occurred there. This landscape extends well beyond the actual territory of the community. This conception of the world is not fixed or permanent. Shamanic intervention in the form of specialist communication with specific landscape features results in symbolic remodeling of both the landscape and the ceremonial ways people interact with and are influenced by it.
Specifics about the sacred landscapes are learned: As people grow, they become aware of the relationships between land and ancestors, as well as their social responsibilities, by physically moving through the land. There are dramatic indications of links between memory, ancestral power, and the land. Recently, residents of northern Australia visiting southeastern parts of the continent identified features in the natural environment as being part of their ancestral landscape. This is particularly relevant in that the individuals in question had never been to southeastern Australia before, and little was known about the mythology of the area or the original inhabitants, who had been forcibly removed in the 19th century. This knowledge is part of an ancestral grid, learned through interaction with and observation of highly ritualized activities, and then experienced by traveling to different places. Each place is connected in this chainlike grid, which reflects an individual’s current kinship group as well as ancestral validation of links to the land. The landscape is seen as composed of segments that reveal ancestral ties to specific areas of the land. “Because ancestral beings not only created the landscape, but also placed people in a particular relationship to it as perpetuators of the ancestral inheritance, the landscape is viewed simultaneously as a set of spaces for people to occupy” (Morphy, 1995, p. 192). Even in land disputes, such as when a group moves into a new land and takes over, they view this as the land taking over the people, thus preserving the continuity. When previously unoccupied land (or that for which direct links are no longer articulated) is settled, there exist “mechanisms for creating or recreating the linkages” (Morphy, 1995, p. 186).
Temporality has been an important concept in anthropological studies of sacred landscapes. Landscapes are perpetuated through and imbedded in memory, which makes them more processes than objects. Landscape is a crucial element in enculturation, defining the limits of social space in ways that are both transmitted between people and fluid though time. Because concepts of sacred and secular landscapes are culturally constructed, they clearly have different meanings to different people at different times. The temporality of landscape is not the analytical category devised by anthropologists to set distance between them and that which they study through the use of terms like archaic, Stone Age, and primitive, which are employed as distancing devices. This is not to say that there is not a duality to time. Like space, which can be experienced differently from emic or etic perspectives, the temporality of landscape also has elements of objective process and subjective representation. It is impossible to deal with the multiple ways humans interact with the social and natural world using only one particular concept of time.
Time can be a dynamic historical marker of place. In Fijian notions of landscape, place is both a location and a temporal identifier. Historical time is marked by the succession of locations for villages occupied in the past, each named for an apical ancestor. Social forms have ways of extending into time and space, which creates forms of time and space that are socially conditioned. For the Wakuenai and other indigenous people of the Upper Rio Negro of Venezuela and Columbia, space and time can be transcended in powerful ways. The playing of sacred musical instruments in different places can resituate centers of social power present in indigenous mythohistorical accounts. The relationship between landscape and temporality has been the subject of numerous specific studies, most of which utilize phenomenological interpretations. These studies focus on the way landscape has a synergy among its parts that make up the whole.
Sacred landscapes are often associated with political interests, especially in cases where ritual space becomes a location where human agency is integrated with divine activity. Ritual mapping of territory through naming is done in Northwestern Amazonia, where political Wakuenai mythic narratives and ritual performances continue to emphasize the ethnopolitical centrality of this headwater area as sacred and political space for Arawak-speaking peoples who live north of the Amazon River. This is a complex issue that articulates itself differently in different places. In India, sacred space is often separate from political centers. In historical context, natural sacred spaces are often the focus of political interests, not the locus: Political capitals may change location, even within a territory, while sacred locations maintain stability over time.
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