The enigmatic Mesoamerican civilization
that amazed the world with their cosmovision
If the telescope was invented until the seventeenth century by Galileo Galilei, how is it possible that the Mayas could have studied the skies with such accuracy? One of the main characteristics of pre-Hispanic civilizations is their amazing knowledge about the celestial bodies visible from Earth. These influenced their daily life greatly, in addition to being closely linked to divine deities. Read on to learn more about Maya astronomy, established on the southern of Mexico.
How important was astronomy to the Mayas?
The observation of the stars was a very important practice not only for the Maya people, but also for the rest of the pre-Hispanic civilizations, and of course ancient civilizations throughout the world. Although it had a strong influence on their spiritual development and connection with divinity, it also had an impact on their everyday life.
The elite groups were in charge of the astronomical knowledge, but it remained a highly respected practice. They even conducted many aspects of their life based on such calculations and predictions.
Temporalities were widely affected by the movement of the stars, hence its use in the creation of its long count calendar. This allowed them to make long-term estimates through exact calculations that influenced the planning of their rituals, festivities, and times of cultivation.
They even had a notion of the immense Milky Way (that’s right, our galaxy). In fact, it was considered a central part of their cosmogony, being intimately related to the road to Xibalbá.
Did you know that they even had a zodiac? Based on the Ecliptic (the passage of the Sun through the fixed constellations), the Mayas could turn to their neighbor, the super-organized one and say, “That’s sooooo Virgo.” Well… not quite, but you get the point. Basically, their life was predestined by their date of birth in the Maya calendar.
How did they manage to visualize something so distant and unknown?
If you look at the night sky in a place away from light pollution, you will see a black canvas full of bright dots. Some of them are stars like our Sun, but many others are planets millions of light years away (that is… very, very far away). However, it’s likely that you know a couple of them, since their existence has been known since the time of the Mayas.
In more than one archaeological site in the Maya area, you will be able to see specialized constructions, nowadays known as observatories. A great example is “El Caracol” found in Chichén Itzá. It was in places like this where the Mayas paid special attention to the movement of planets such as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, of course with their respective Mayan names. In the same way, they observed the periods of the Moon and the Sun, and even more distant stars like Pleiades (Tzab-ek in Mayan, which means “rattlesnake”). Did you know that it is the only round construction that was built in the Maya territory?
It should be noted that, at the time, the Mayas didn’t have the cutting-edge technology that we have access to today. They based their knowledge on direct observation. That’s right, without the help of any kind of telescope like Galileo’s. Even so, what they had in hand was more than enough to gather important information with which they built their cities and they often predicted nearby events, all thanks to the astronomical routes they saw from Earth.
Today it’s known that they even used cenotes as observatories, taking advantage of the reflection of the water, in which the zenith passage of the Sun could be clearly seen.
These were measures of time that allowed them to record cycles. For the Mayas, a single calendar was not enough, since they mainly used three. All vigesimal and non-repetitive:
1. Haab ‘, 365 days
Formed by 18 uinals (months) of 20 kin (days) each. That gives a total of 360 days. The remaining 5 days were called uayeb or “the five unfortunate days”. To avoid misfortune, they didn’t leave their homes and performed religious rituals.
2. Tzolkin, 260 days
It measures a cycle of 260 kin or solar days. Formed by thirteen uinals of 20 kin each. As for its origin, it is considered one of the most enigmatic calendars. It’s believed to be based on the human gestation period. Although many others claim that it is related to the cycles of the stars.
3. Baktun, 144,000 days
This calendar combines the previous two and is related to the famous theory of the end of the world, back in 2012. What originated it? The long count of the baktun would end precisely in December 2012. This suggested that it was “the end of times.” Luckily, when one cycle ends, another begins. Now we only interpret it as a change in consciousness, as well as of an era.
Vestiges of Maya astronomy
The astronomical inscriptions of the Mayas were recorded for posterity in more than one place. We owe today’s vast knowledge of this culture to these. Thanks to vestiges and codices, we have a better understanding of the past and valuable research foundations.
Among the sources where we can find these vestiges of knowledge are the ancient Maya codices such as Madrid, Paris and Grolier. These were practically astronomical and zodiacal almanacs that influenced the rituals taught by the Maya priests.
There was also evidence literally etched in stone. Today we can see it in monuments such as the Maya stelae of Chichén Itzá or Cobá and even on the walls of ancient temples.
Descent of Kukulcán
Many pre-Hispanic rituals linked to astronomy continue to amaze the modern world. A great example of this is the Kukulcán descent, perfectly visible twice a year at Chichén Itzá. This phenomenon of light and shadow has received international attention for its accuracy and synchronicity with nature. Here are some important details if you are looking to see it first hand:
Where? In the main pyramid of the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá, known as “El Castillo”.
What will you be able to observe? The formation of seven isosceles triangles of light that are projected onto the north face of the pyramid. Approximately 3 hours before sunset, and for 10 minutes and as the sun sets over the horizon, the triangles of light move towards the base where there is a feathered serpent head carved out of rock.
That is why it is also known as the descent of the feathered serpent.
What makes this show possible? The pyramid has is designed with the same displacement that the planet has in its geographic north with respect to magnetic north. This deviation is 20°, 30 minutes and 30 seconds.
When? It occurs on the equinoxes (spring and autumn), being visible the six days closest to these dates.
What does this represent? The arrival of the feathered serpent meant good fortune for the crops and health of the Maya people.
Of course, Maya astronomy did not die with the fall of this great pre-Hispanic civilization (of course). Even after the conquest, their traditions remained hidden in plain sight. Their rituals started mixing with the contemporary Mexican culture. Its legacy seems kind of blurry and full of mysticism. But they are an historical example of the incredible human capacity and our need to generate knowledge.
Finally, wWhat other Maya legacy has changed the world?
Nacida en el paraíso. Apasionada por contar historias, el teatro, la danza y el arroz con leche de mi mamá.