editor’s note: The following article is the work of a new People’s Guide contributor, Jeanine Kitchel, who writes about Mexico, the Maya, and the Yucatan.
In this year of the Maya, the obsession has been all about the Maya calendar and the media frenzy over the end date of their Long Count on December 21, 2012.
But obscured beneath this much-hyped date is the core of Maya brilliance: their unfailing ability to accurately chronicle, assimilate, and compute the calculations of eclipses, lunation, and rotation cycles.
The Maya were all about the sun, moon and the stars. Each major site had an observatory, and through the three remaining pre-Columbian codices (paperbark books) that survived the conquest, it’s known that astronomical calculations were their strong suit. But why was the sky so all-important to the ancient Maya?
The three codices, known for the cities in which they surfaced–Paris, Dresden and Madrid—may shed some light here. The Dresden Codex –-a 78-page, three-and-a-half meter long accordion fold book made of fig bark—is comprised of astronomical tables of astounding accuracy. It’s most famous for its lunar series and Venus table. The lunar series has intervals correlating to eclipses, and the Venus table correlates with apparent movements of the planet. The codex also contains astronomical and astrological data and ritual schedules.
But why were these cycles important to the Maya astronomers? Let’s begin with ritual. The Madrid Codex details what the Spanish priests called debt payment. This book shows the divine procedure connected with the appropriate timing of rituals during which offerings were paid as debts to gods and ancestors to keep the world in harmony. Through successful payments, much would be given: rain and success in battle.
Venus was important to the Maya, who associated the planet with war. The Maya used Venus to determine favorable times for coronations and wars. Venus was depicted as ‘defeating’ the sun and moon because of its visibility both day and night. Due to this it became known as both morning and evening star.
Archeologist David Stuart, author of The Order of Days, states that information presented in the Dresden Codex’s Venus tables is not just observed data, but approximations of astronomical data that’s been tweaked to conform to other ritual cycles. Many of the numbers were not accurate depictions but contrived numbers meant to show ways the movement of the planet could conform to other cycles and important numbers.
These cycles were then modified by Maya astronomers to merge with other cycles that would accommodate different types of heavenly phenomena, using Venus as a “frame of reference to represent a certain elegant, even if somewhat forced, symmetry in the skies.”
In other words, the ancient Maya cooked the books to craft a majestic purpose to the night sky. Even in this grand display of Maya astronomical ability, we see how the movement of the planets was meaningful only when contextualized in a larger cosmos of gods and numbers.
Stuart’s research shows that not only were the Maya obsessed with time, the planets and the stars, but they used time as a tool to control their destiny, as required by their lords and rulers. And through their ability to seemingly control astral movements, they created a civilization that reigned over Mesoamerica for nearly 1500 years.
Although their reign was not as peaceful as originally thought, it was a civilization that excelled in one of the highest forms of culture, not just in North America, but throughout the world.
And maybe, just maybe, it all came down to their ability to depict—and manipulate—the night sky.
editor’s note: If you want to know more about how the Maya elite used astrology to manipulate the masses, visit the archive at KUNM and enter “July 14” and “8:30 PM” for a great interview with the author, Jeanine Kitchel. Or you can check out her new nonfiction book “Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy”. (I am in the process of reading it, so more on that later.)
“Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy” investigates both sides of the 2012 end date debate and is available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.com, iTunes and Nook. Kitchel’s first book, a travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is also available at Amazon.com, iTunes and Nook or can be accessed through her website: www.jeaninekitchel.com
Note: all images in this post are courtesy of the Library of Congress