A Model of the Cosmos


From the Heart of the World, BBC, 1990

by Jerry D. Moore

Living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, the Kogi believe that the cosmos is shaped like an egg, and they build temples that replicate this egg-shaped multi-leveled cosmos. Kogi temples are circular buildings with walls of upright posts and capped by a thatched conical roof. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote “The first temple was created in the depths of the primeval sea, and was a model of the cosmos…and it is believed that downward and upward a sequence of invisible, inverted and upright temples” and each Kogi temple is an axis mundi. In these temples, by the flickering lights of hearths or torches, Kogi boys are trained to be priests.

Initiates into the Kogi priesthood undergo an extensive apprenticeship; chosen when they are only two or three years old, their apprenticeship lasts some eighteen years. During this time, the initiates are kept indoors, hidden from the Sun, and only allowed to eat foods that are white: manioc, white beans, potatoes, land snails, freshwater shrimp and mushrooms. Their food is boiled in a breast-shaped clay pot. The initiates are forbidden to eat salt, chilies or the meat of game. They are deprived of food, sleep, sunlight and sex.

Over the years of apprenticeship, the initiates are taught the Law of the Mother. It is a complex body of esoteric knowledge ranging over the fields of geography and astronomy, botany and cosmology, zoology and myth. This canon of ritual knowledge involves learning special ceremonial languages, distinct vocabularies and modes of rhetoric. The Law of the Mother provides instruction in ethical teachings, ritual dances and the skill of divination. Kogi mámas-in-training learn curing spells, the mythical origins of social groups, and the art of interpreting symbols, portents and dreams.

“The manifest intention of the priestly teachers,” Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote, “is to deflect the child-novices from their accustomed circadian activity rhythms, and to ungear or ‘declutch’ their time perception.” Reichel-Dolmatoff discerned that stepping out of time was central to the mámas’ ritual practice.

All other Kogi were deeply enmeshed in time, vast and nested cycles of time encircling all levels of the cosmic egg, from the cycles of planting maize to the movements of the stars. The average Kogi was expected to live quietly and contentedly within these cycles and to seek equilibrium in all his [AC3] actions. Prizing cooperation and avoiding ostentation, the average Kogi man and woman knew their respective places in the cycles of time and “the life of man, as an individual and social being, must be completely geared to the cosmic clockwork of orbits and cycles.”

This was not true of the mámas.

Reichel-Dolmatoff tells a Kogi legend about a máma who predicted the moment of his own death and invited his fellow priests to be present to witness it. Although the máma accurately predicted his own death to the minute, the priestly invitees failed to attend: some of the priests arrived before the death, some priests arrived afterwards, and others simply forgot about it. Rather than reflecting a group of absent-minded invitees, the Kogi told this legend, according to Reichel-Dolmatoff, “This tale makes an important point in Kogi teachings: one must be able to forget time.”

The ability “to step outside of time” meant that Kogi priests could escape “the cogwheels of biology and environment,” and in this atemporal space the mámas sought transformation.

This transformation was achieved through various means and motivated by divergent reasons. Mámas achieved this metamorphosis either through hallucinogens or sensory deprivation, but it was predicated on intense preparation. Enlightenment did not come to the untrained mind.

The search for transformation was motivated by a range of reasons, a continuum between two moral poles. At one extreme, a máma sought to escape time because he had achieved “spiritual enlightenment and moral perfection,” his decades of learning and contemplation leading him to a rarefied state whose next step was a benign transformation. In contrast, transformation could be sought in pursuit of horrific acts, as being out of time rendered normal moral codes of behavior irrelevant.

“A person might want to step outside of time,” Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote, “because of his manifest evil intentions.” When shamans were transformed into jaguars, this reflected their “determination to act against all cultural norms” or to conduct “certain rituals that contradict all established rules.”

In his ethnographic work among the Kogi mámas and with shamans elsewhere in Colombia, Reichel-Dolmatoff returns repeatedly to the issue of transformation. From one perspective, it is unremarkable that Reichel-Dolmatoff would give “transformation” such prominence in his writings on indigenous religion; after all, variations on this theme are not only part of shamanic practice around the world, but occur in a broad array of religious practice from vodun to Pentecostalism.

And yet, one cannot help but wonder if “transformation” and its associated state of “stepping out of time” did not have a particular relevance for Reichel-Dolmatoff, as he himself had been transformed.

Before he became the father of Colombian anthropology and founded the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Andes; before he received honorary memberships in international scientific organizations and visiting professorships at universities around the globe from UCLA to Cambridge; before his work with the Free French in Colombia, for which he received the French Order de Merit from Charles de Gaulle.; before leaving Europe in 1939 when WWII was declared; before leaving Munich in 1937, as one obituary noted, “in order to quit its Nazi ambience which he abhorred”; and before the cogwheels of time had clicked into unity.

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff had been an S S assassin.


I left the next morning on a mule led by Cristobal, one of Don Ricardo’s sons, who also rode a mule. I travelled without illusions. I knew that no Kogi priest would usher me into a beehive temple and instruct me by torchlight in the Laws of the Mother. I simply wanted to know this part of the world with my own eyes, to visit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and to see the plazas and staircases of Ciudad Perdida.

The trail led up steep slopes and down long grades, as the trail climbed ridges and slid into river valleys. The route was very difficult, and it took us five hours to cover two miles.

We forded the Rio Buritaca, the iron shoes of the mules clattering across cobbles as we rode through fast, clear water.

Cristobal was young but a competent arriero who knew the route. I was anything but competent. My left stirrup was too small and my boot slipped out hundreds of times that day. This would usually happen as we descended a steep part of the trail or splashed across boulder-strewn river crossings or just as my mule had edged to the brink of a switch back. I lurched and grabbed and swore.

The trail passed through thick forest, the trees crowned with bromeliads. Sunlight shafted the trail. Butterflies flickered in the light, their wings electric blue and suede. The butterflies clustered on piles of mule shit, their wings pulsing as they probed the dung.

We rode past a Kogi village. There were about twenty houses, round single-room buildings, 5 – 7 meters in diameter, each capped with domes of thatching. Smaller buildings were store rooms, and a much larger structure sat on the edge of the village, although I couldn’t tell if it was a temple. I heard a few voices, but the village seemed largely empty… or we were being avoided. The Kogi sustain indifference to the outside world, partly as a strategy for cultural survival but essentially as their sense of superiority.

Further along the trail, we met a Kogi family. The father and eldest sons had shoulder-length hair and wore immaculate, knee-long white cotton tunics cinched with at the waist, loose cotton pants and black rubber boots purchased in Machete Pelado (literally “Skinned” or “Naked” Machete). The father carried a single-shot, percussion-cap shotgun. The mother and younger children followed, the woman with a tumpline load of pineapples and a nursing infant at her breast. One of the younger children followed with a piglet on a leash.

Like all Kogi men, the father had two woven bags, crossed strapped from his shoulders like a bandolier. The bags are pendulous sacks like the hanging nests woven by tropical orioles. One bag was from agave fiber, a loose weave of coarse twine. The other bag was from cotton, a well-woven bag of tight thread. Reichel-Dolmatoff had recorded that the coarse agave bag held everyday items — matches, a pocket knife, shotgun shells — while the fine cotton bag contained more sacred items, including a packet of coca leaves and a pear-shaped gourd of powdered lime.

Coca leaves are chewed throughout South America, and the alkaloids in the leaves are broken down by adding calcium carbonate or another alkaline to the wad of leaves. The lime frees the organic acids in the coca leaves. The Kogi make their lime by burning carefully chosen sea shells, grinding them into a powder. The white powder is carried in a small gourd bottle. A slender spindle, about the size of a drumstick, is inserted into the gourd, swiveled about in the lime powder and then added to the coca leaves before the mass is chewed.

We turned our pack animals off the trail so the Kogi could pass and they did in silence.

More than twenty-five years ago, the Kogi spoke. In the late 1980s a BBC documentary film-maker, Alan Ereira, climbed into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, finally winning permission from the Kogi to pass into their homelands. As Ereira documented in his 1990 film, The Heart of the World: the Elder Brother’s Warning, the Kogi mámas issued a warning to the outside world who they called “the younger brothers.”

It is a remarkable scene. The mámas and other Kogi men sit on the floor of a large and darkened temple, constantly rubbing their lime sticks on the coca gourds. An elder máma sits on a swinging hammock and looks into the camera: “I am here, we all are here, to give a warning. I am speaking on behalf of us all, to send out a message to all the younger brothers, and I am going to have to say it in a way they can understand.” He turns to the camera and with a flourish of his right hand casts his words to us: “I want the whole world to listen to the warning that we speak to you.”

We, the Younger Brothers, have so violated the Great Mother, the máma continues, “you are bringing the world to an end.” As we, the Younger Brothers, have dug into the Earth, we have taken out her heart, cut into her liver, and blinded her. “The Mother is being cut to pieces and stripped of everything.” “The Mother too is sad and she will end and the world will end if they do not stop digging and digging.”

From off camera, another irate máma shouts “Stop digging into the Earth and stealing the gold. If you go on, the world will end! You are bringing the world to an end!”

The Kogi mámas have been working to maintain the world, to keep the cosmos in order by following the Law of the Mother. Yet, their efforts enacted over centuries were imperiled by the thoughtless defilements of the Younger Brother. And in the late 1980s, when few people in the outside world had heard the phrase “global warming,” the Kogi máma warned of the melting glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the desiccation of the paramo, and the end of the world.

More than twenty-five years ago, the Kogi spoke to the Younger Brothers. Few have listened.


Cristobal and I rode into Campo Tezhumake at mid-afternoon. The camp was a cluster of long roofed sheds with bunkbeds draped in mosquito netting, an open kitchen and bath house on the south bank of the Rio Buritaca. On the riverbank there were stands of angel’s trumpet, the white flowers drifting a sweet narcotic smell. I was glad to get off the mule.

That night, Juan Carlos called a meeting, and we sat around a rough plank table by candlelight. Juan Carlos laid out the next days’ plan. Our small party would divide. The younger and faster trekkers would have an easy day, waking up late and walking a few miles to Campo Romulo where they would rest that afternoon and spend the next night. The following morning they would get up early and climb to Ciuidad Perdida, see the ruins and then descend and hike back to Campo Tezhumake, where we were at the moment.

As for me, I would leave the next morning at dawn with Yorman, hike to Campo Romulo for lunch, and then climb to Ciudad Perdida where I would be allowed to sleep at the park headquarters. Usually people were not allowed to sleep there, but I was privileged because I was “a famous gringo archaeologist” as Juan Carlos said with obvious exaggeration. (Months later I learned that people were not allowed to sleep at the ruins because guerillas had kidnapped tourists sleeping there in 2003.) Yorman and I would explore the site in the morning, and then descend and return to Campo Romulo rendezvousing with the other people in my group.

There were only two problems.

First, it was essential that we wade through the last ford on the Rio Buritaca before it rained in the afternoon and the river rose. And second, Juan Carlos said, the trail was too difficult for the mules. I would be on foot.

Later on that evening, Juan Carlos talked about the bad old days in the sierra, when two different leftist guerilla groups battled against paramilitaries across the mountains. To the mámas, it must have seemed like the world had, in fact, ended. But as Juan Carlos talked, I barely heard his words. All I could think of was his statement “…the trail was too difficult for the mules.” I went to bed wondering if after all this I would actually see the Lost City.

The final part of this essay will be published on Monday, 3rd March. Read part one here.

About the Author:

Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist, writer and professor of anthropology at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. He has conducted archaeological research in Peru, Baja California, the western United States, and southern Mexico where his investigations explored the cultural landscapes and constructed environments of ancient peoples.