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Maya Astronomy

Sky Glyph


 The  Maya are well known for their precise calendar and astronomy. The four surviving written documents (which are called the Dresden, Madrid, Paris, and Grolier Codices) that they have left behind include an ephemeris that charts the heliacal risings and settings in the synodic cycle of the planet Venus and an eclipse warning table based on observable lunar and solar cycles. The astronomic complexes in important Maya cities, are called "E Groups", after the E group in Uaxactú Structure E-VII, "Temple of the Masks", north viewUaxactún, in Petén, Guatemala. One of the most notable series of buildings at the site is that E Group in Uaxactún, the 3 small temples, E1, E2, E3,  mark the solstices and equinoxes and the stela is the observation marke, from the Masks templeformed by Structures E-1, E-2, and E-3, which are aligned north-south and form an astronomical observatory, the first found in the Maya world. From a observation point on a nearby pyramid, named Temple of the Masks or structure E-sub VII, the early Maya could watch the sun rise behind these buildings and mark the summer and winter solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year) as well as the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (when day and night are of equal length).

Though the Maya  were deeply concerned with astrology, it is well established that they also incorporated their astronomical and calendrical data into an intricate, mathematical discipline. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the ingenious constructions of the Venus and eclipse tables contained in the Dresden Codex. A more purely mathematical objective, expressed throughout the Maya calendrical, was the determination of the least common multiples of various astronomical and calendrical cycles.

 Venus Page Dresden Codex

 The Maya also incorporated mathematically contrived Long Count dates and 'Distance' numbers into their codices and inscriptions, using these and other techniques, the Maya developed mathematical frameworks through which  astronomical and calendrical cycles could be viewed as interconnected parts of a grand astronomical order. Over a century of formal scholarly investigations has enabled a fairly broad understanding of the nature of ancient Maya thought processes behind this 'grand astronomical order'.

Architectural alignments of specialized assemblages of buildings provide further documentation for a number of Maya astronomical skills.  Quite uncharacteristic of Western astronomy, the paramount aim of the Maya astronomers’ endeavors seems to have been to discover commensurate relationships both among celestial cycles and between astronomically derived periodicities and non astronomical cycles. One of the several problems that must have been a proverbial thorn in the sides of Maya astronomers for hundreds of years, is that of the five visible planets (to the naked eye) only the mean synodic periods of Jupiter (of 399 days) and Saturn (of 378 days) did not factor evenly into any of their recognized calendrica, it is now possible to demonstrate that the formerly enigmatic 819-day cycle, developed and used by the Maya rather late in the Classic period, is the end product of a methodological construct specifically designed to rectify this situation, the Maya, by necessity, incorporated the mean synodic periods of Jupiter and Saturn into a distinctly parallel methodological construct that in turn couples with those previously existent. As learn from the inscriptions in Quiriguá's (Stela K) in A.D. 815, and one from Tikal. 819-day counts are also expressed in the Dresden codex. The 819-day cycle, relative to Jupiter and Saturn, is directly parallel to the relationship of the 949-day cycle, relative to the Haab and Venus.

Venus: (Lamat Glyph, Venus), Chak Ek' was the astronomical object of greatest interest, the Maya knew it better than any civilization outside Mesoamerica. In Maya myth, Venus is the companion of the sun. This no doubt reflects the fact that Venus is always close to the sun in the sky, rising not long before sunrise as morning star (Ah-Chicum-Ek') or after sunset as evening star (Lamat). They thought it was more important than the Sun. They watched it carefully as it moved through its stations, it takes 584 days for Venus and the Earth to line up in their previous position as compared to the Sun. It takes about 2922 days for the Earth, Venus, the Sun, and the stars to agree. The Maya made daytime observations of Venus. Venus had a psychological effect upon the Maya, it has been shown in the Dos Pilas staircase, that the Maya were timing some of their wars based on the stationary points of Venus and Jupiter, (The famous Star War between Tikal and Dos Pilas Naranjo and allies). Humans were sacrificed on first appearance after Superior Conjunction when Venus was at its dimmest magnitude but they most feared the first Heliacal Rising after Inferior Conjunction. In the Dresden Codex, the Maya had an almanac that displayed the full cycle of Venus. Venus cycles were the mean synodic Venus year of 584 days and a "great cycle" of 37960 days (the lowest common multiple of the Tzolkin,  and the Venus year, equal to 104 calendar years or 2 calendar rounds). In Rio Azul's tomb 19  the Lamat or Venus Glyph is beautifully painted.  A "star war" is a full-scale war planned in accordance with specific astronomical events, usually the first appearance in the morning sky of the planet Venus. The heliacal rising of the brilliant "star" in the pre-dawn sky was considered by the Maya as a highly evil portent. As such it was an appropriate herald of warfare, at least on the part of the attacker. (Schelle)

  Cival, Stucco Mask, Kinich Ahaw, sun godThe Sun: (K'inich) The Maya evidently thought quite a bit about the Sun and they watched it trace out a path along the ecliptic. They followed it year round, presumably following its path along the horizon as well. At Uaxactún, the "Group E", shows precisely the  Spring and Autumn Equinox, as well as the Summer and Winter solstice. It tells us that the Maya noted, not only the extremes of the Sun at the Solstices, but also the Equinoxes when the Sun appeared to rise due East or due West. In addition to the Zenial Passages mentioned earlier, ecliptic observations must have been a major portion of Maya solar observing.  (Cival Stucco Mask with the Sun God shown)

  Uaxactún, Group "E"

The Maya portrayed the Ecliptic in their artwork as a Double-Headed Serpent. (Wooden Lintel in Temple IV, Tikal, left) The ecliptic is the path of the sun in the sky which is marked by the constellations of fixed stars. Here the moon and the planets can be found because they are bound, like the Earth, to the sun. The constellations on the ecliptic are also called the zodiac. We don't know exactly how fixed constellations on the ecliptic were seen by the Maya, but we have some idea of the order in some parts of the sky. We know there is a scorpion, which we equate with our own constellation of Scorpius,  they used the claws of Libra. It has also been found that Gemini appeared to the Maya as a  peccary, Some other constellations on the ecliptic are identified as a jaguar, at least one serpent, a bat, a turtle, a xoc monster--that is, shark, or a sea monster. The Pleiades were seen as the tail of the rattlesnake and are called, "Tz'ab ek."  (See Constellations Below)

The Moon: (Glyph in Piedras Negras St 10). The Maya had a lunar component in their calendric inscriptions. The Tun’Uc is the moon calendar. After giving the pertinent information on the date according to the Maya calendar the typical Maya inscriptions contain a lunar reckoning. The lunar count was counted as 29 or 30 days, alternating. The lunar synodic period is close to 29.5 days, so by alternating their count between these two numbers the moon was carefully meshed into the calendric sequence as well. Their lunar knowledge was impressive, they also made eclipse predictions. An almanac for predicting them is contained in the Dresden Codex.

 EclipseThe principal lunar cycle, for the warning of solar eclipse possibilities, was 405 lunations (11960 days = 46 tzolkin), in three divisions of 135 lunations each, with further subdivisions into nine series of 6 month and 5 month eclipse half years.  The periods of 177 or 148 days alliterated in a sequence that corresponds to the exact interval between the eclipses (Glyph shown at left). The accuracy in the observations and in the calculations of the phases of the Moon, also in very old epochs, is an interesting evidence of the fundamental importance of the Moon in the Maya civilization.

IxChel, Moon Goddess,Graffiti from Nakun, Represented during the Classic as a Young woman with a rabbit, sited in the Crescent Moon


Mars:  Two kinds of empiric sidereal intervals of Mars were used, a long one (702 days) that included a retrograde loop and a short one that did not. The use of these intervals, which is indicated by the documents in the Dresden Codex, permitted the tracking of Mars across the zodiac and the relating of its movements to the terrestrial seasons and to the 260-day sacred calendar. While Kepler solved the sidereal problem of Mars by proposing an elliptical heliocentric orbit, anonymous but equally ingenious Maya astronomers discovered a pair of time cycles that not only accurately described the planet's motion, but also related it to other cosmic and terrestrial concerns. Pages 43b-45b of the Codex are concerned with the synodic cycle of Mars, and a complex table on pages 69-74 describe the sidereal cycle. The cultural implication of the commensuration of one kind of Martian sidereal cycle and the tropical year is that it made it very easy for the ancient Maya to make a certain kind of prediction about the apparently erratic behavior of Mars. The Maya interest in the planet Mars, which, although already established via the Codices, has recently led to revelations of a number of cycles unknown to Western astronomy. The examination of these cycles leads to a clearer picture of the practical art of naked eye sky watching as well as to the role of such activity in Maya culture.

The Milky Way:   Was much venerated by the Maya. They called it the World Tree, which was represented by a tall and majestic flowering tree, the Ceiba. The Milky Way was called the Wakah Chan (Left Glyph). Wak means "Six" or "Erect". Chan or K'an means "Four", "Serpent" or "Sky". The World Tree was erect when Sagittarius was well over the horizon. At this time the Milky Way rose up from the horizon and climbed overhead into the North. The star clouds that form the Milky Way were seen as the tree of life where all life came from. Near Sagittarius, the center of our galaxy, where the World Tree meets the Ecliptic was given special attention by the Maya. A major element of the World Tree include the K'awak Monster, a giant head with a kin in its forehead. This monster was also a mountain or Witz monster. A sacrificial bowl on its head contains a flint blade representing sacrifice, and the Kimi glyph that represents death. The Ecliptic is sometimes represented as a bar crossing the major axis of the world tree, making a form that is similar to the Christian Cross. On top of the World Tree we find a bird that has been called, the Principal Bird deity, or Itzam Ye or Vucub Caquix. There is also evidence that shows the Sun on the World Tree as it appeared to the Maya at Winter Solstice.

During the months of winter, when the so-called "Winter" Milky Way dominates the sky, it was called the "White Boned Serpent." This part of the Milky Way passed overhead at night during the dry season. It is not brilliant like the star clouds that dominate the sky North of the equator during the months of Summer, but observers at dark locations will easily see the glow. Here the Ecliptic crosses the Milky Way again, near the constellation of Gemini which was the approximate location of the Sun during Summer Solstice. It is possible that the jaws of the White-Boned Serpent were represented by the K'awak monster head. The Great Cycle in the
Maya Cosmology, is a fifth and final cycle in the 26,000-year Precession of the Equinoxes, except that the Mayans measured it from the Winter Solstice instead of the Spring Equinox.
"On, the December solstice sun will be found in the band of the Milky Way. We can call this an alignment between the galactic plane and the solstice meridian. This is an event that has slowly converged over a period of thousands of years, and is caused by the precession of the equinoxes. The place where the December solstice sun crosses the Milky Way is precisely the location of the "dark-rift in the Milky Way...'Xibalbá be' - the road to the underworld." , which the Maya called the Mouth of the Crocodile, (or jaguar-toad); the Crocodile Tree being the Milky Way itself. In The Popol Vuh,  the ancient Maya called it the "Black Road". The Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué must journey down this road to battle the Lords of Xibalbá. (Tedlock 334, 358). Furthermore, what Schele has identified as the Sacred Tree was known to the ancient K'iché simply as "Crossroads." It seems that when a planet, the sun, or the moon entered the dark cleft of the Milky Way in Sagittarius (which happens to be the exact center of the Milky Way, the Galactic Equator), entrance to the underworld road was possible, which could then take the journeyer up to the Heart of Sky. (Above right) Maya Goddess Scorpion (Mother Scorpion who dwells at the end of the Milky Way


Pleiades: The Tzolk'in is the sacred calendar of the Maya and is based on the cycles of the Pleiades. The cycle of the Pleiades uses 26,000 years, that the Sun orbiting Alcyone, the central star of the Pleiades, but is reflected in the calendar we are using by encompassing 260 days. Their calendar year began when the Maya priests first remarked the asterism rising heliacally in the east, immediately before the sun's dawn light obliterated the view of the stars. In the beginning, the Maya understood that they came from the Pleiades, or “Tzab-ek", (Rattlesnake's tail), as they are known by the Maya. The relationship with the Pleiades and the Mayan world is written in the sacred books of the Maya. It is in the consciousness of the grandmothers and grandfathers who had it passed on to them. It is an important record. The elders say the universe comes from the Pleiades. With the Hubble Telescope, it was discovered about ten years ago, that there is a place where stars are born in a great spiral that originates at the site of the Pleiades, outside of the spiral is complete empty space. In coordination with the galactic precession, the Mayas also look at the precession of time through the Pleiades. Alcyone, the central star of the Pleiades, is located at 30 degrees from Taurus, near the constellation Orion. Alcyone, in Taurus, represents the Earth Goddess. The lessons from Alcyone are those dealing with compassion, higher wisdom and vision, and Earth consciousness. Much has been channeled from the Pleiades. Alcyone figures prominently in Mayan astronomy. The Mayas believe it is the home of their ancestors. The Pleiades star system is referred to as the seven sisters and our sun aligns with Alcyone every 52 years. In Mayan cosmology the precession of the Pleiades is tracked using the Calendar Round (52 years) and the New Fire ceremony. In the Early Preclassic Site of Ujuxte, in the Pacific Lowlands, the central plaza appears to have a celestial alignment that coincides with the rise and fall of the Pleiades, This is also right for the Stelas and Altars from Monte Alto. The present-day Maya in Guatemala, make use of the Pleiades to begin their planting for the year.

However, a number of researchers believe that the length of the 260 day component of the Calendar Round cycle is defined by a 260 day period from one zenith transit of the sun until the next. In the zone between the Tropics of  Cancer and Capricorn there are days on which the sun passes directly overhead at local noon. Vertical objects at that time cast no shadow. On the Tropic of Cancer there is a single such day, June 22, the summer solstice. On the Tropic of Capricorn the day is December 22, the winter solstice. On the equator the zenith transits of the sun divide the year into two equal halves. Between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, the zenith transits of the sun divide the year into a longer portion with the sun transiting to the south of the zenith, and a shorter portion with the sun transiting to the north of the zenith. The zenith transit days are always equidistant from the summer solstice. .A 260-day zenith transit interval occurs at a latitude of 14°47’21”. The transit dates are April 30 and August 13. That August 13 is one of the classic Maya creation days lends credibility to this interpretation.

Orion: The Maya called Orion Ak' Ek' or "Turtle Star",  Orion is  depicted in the Madrid Codex as a turtle with three tun ("stone") glyphs on its back.  Because the sky has not yet been raised, before the creation, the hearth is a location in both earth and sky. The turtle shell is an earth symbol, like the back of the crocodile at the foot of the World Tree. Here is the place of Creation, where the sky will rise and saw the nearby ecliptic constellation of Gemini as the motherMadrid Codice p 71, Turtle of creation peccary and the belt stars are her children.  In addition, the Maya used three stars in the constellation Orion: The great blue giant, Rigel, Kappa Orionis, the star Saiph and the belt star, Alnitak. These three stars form an equilateral triangle called, Oxib X'kub'  or “The Three Stones of the Hearth”. They represent the Maya hearth, made of three stones placed in a triangular pattern. The hearth was and is the very foundation of the Maya home. Directly in the center of the Three Stones of the Hearth, you will find the Orion nebula, M42. It acts as the flame called, “K’ak”. Toward dawn on the Creation night of Aug 13,  the constellation OrionClassic Jade plate showing the Maize god, reborn from the Turtle of Creation, Petén. moves toward the zenith. The K'iche' people still refer to a triad of three bright stars in Orion as "the hearth stones", and the hazy nebula below Orion's belt is called "the smoke from the hearth".

Popol Vuh, proven to be the true Maya creation myth, since the Preclassic, (San Bartolo Murals), and Classic, (Quiriguá's Stela C), that was preserved by the Postclassic K'iche' Maya, in the Guatemala Highlands. In this book, Orion was  seen as the First Father, who was known as Hun Hunahpú, The Maize god, the father of the Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, that were fundamental in their Mythology


Constellations or Maya zodiac: Pages 23 and 24 of the Paris Codex, illustrate fantastic beasts suspended from a "sky band", which represents the ecliptic (the path of he sun and planets against the background of fixed stars). Most scholars believe these pages are a Maya zodiac.

The "dot and bar" numbers below each beast is a count of 168 days between each constellation. The Codex thus appears to record the constellations in which the sun stands at 168 day intervals. Linda Schele, says that it began with Sinan-Ek', or Scorpion Star, identified with the Western zodiacal Scorpius both in ancient Maya iconography and in ethno-historic and anthropological accounts (Schele 1992a, 1992b). Assuming that Paris 23 and 24 depicted constellations on the ecliptic, Schele added the given 168 day distance number to the morning in A.D. 690 when the sun rose in Scorpio. Twelve repetitions yielded a rough zodiac confirming the identifications advanced by Creation Cosmology. The Paris Codex Turtle did actually correspond to the Western Gemini. She also found evidence, that, she believed supports this interpretation on the Hauberg Stela and  Tikal Stela 1 that also represented literal maps of the sky on the evenings of their dedications, March 18, A.D. 197, and April 30, A.D. 451, respectively., which seems to illustrate several of the constellation beasts in the order they appear in the sky where the ecliptic crosses the Milky Way. She  suggests that the Paris Codex "records the laying out of the constellations" along the ecliptic at intervals of 168 days immediately after Creation. Johnson and Quenon also demonstrated that animals and supernaturals held by rulers on the monuments of Xultún, Guatemala, almost certainly reflected the constellations flanking the Milky Way in the night sky on their dedication dates.
The name for Orion and Virgo was Chitam or peccary.


Tikal Stela 1

However, some other students of the Codex doubt Schele's interpretation. Victoria Bricker believes the Codex illustrates a zodiac, but argues that the constellations represent those opposite the sun at 168 day intervals. When opposite to the sun, a constellation will be high in the sky at midnight.

According to Linda Schele the names are: Aries (Kuc= Quetzal), Libra (Xoc = shark) Taurus (Kuh = owl), Scorpius (Sinan-Ek'=scorpion) Gemini (Ak-Ek'=turtle), Sagitarrius (Chan= rattlesnake), Capricorn (Balam= jaguar), Cancer (Ok= dog?), Pisces (Zotz= bat), Virgo (Chitam= peccary)

Johnson and Quenon's reconstruction of Xultún's Stela 10 and Schele's Tikal's, Stela 1



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