In preparation for the publication of my novel, The Jaguar’s House,this will be the first in a four part series that explores the beliefs and traditions of the Ancient Maya.
Astonishing travelers! What noble stories we read in your eyes as deep as the seas! Show us the coffers of your rich memories, those marvelous jewels made of stars and ether.
We want to travel without steam, without sail! To enliven the tedium of our prisons, set sailing over our minds, stretched out like canvas, your memories with the horizon for their frame.
Tell us, what have you seen?
Charles Baudelaire, “Le Voyage”Travel Stories
On the Trail of Mayan Secrets
The Classic Mayan period of history in Mexico and Central America is unique in all the world and, as such, has captivated our imagination since we first became aware of them. What we’ve learned is only a small part of their story but one from which a vague outline of their civilization can be drawn. My intention in this series of articles will be to explore a few of their central concepts in an attempt to better understand what these highly intelligent people with very complex ideas believed about themselves, life and the gods, and from that, how they lived.
The road from the Cancun airport to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza cuts so straight through the jungle that I imagined even the crows eye it with suspicion. I was in the interior of the Yucatan, land of the Maya. Their accomplishments were known to me from previous trips and 20 years of study. I’d just completed an historical novel about the Classic Maya and had returned to explore the astronomical beliefs associated with the observatory at the ruins of Chichen Itza.
Who were these people whose master mathematicians came up with the concept of zero, whose brilliant astronomers charted the heavens without the aid of modern technology, creating calendars as accurate as any in the Old World, who built architectural wonders in the Puuc region that Frank Lloyd Wright hailed as the best in the western hemisphere? I was determined to learn more about them and thought to spend time at each of the major archaeological sites on the peninsula delving into a different aspect of their cultural and spiritual beliefs at each place.
The drive passed through several small Mayan villages; traditional homes of wood and grass roofs, surrounded by gardens and low rock walls where the women wear hoichel — a white cotton dress with brightly colored embroidery around the neck and hem. Most people living in the villages of this area maintain the ancient way of life; they plant their corn with ceremony, conduct their families traditionally, and appoint a calendar-keeper, a daykeeper, to track the auspicious days and direct their lives.
By the time I reached the hotel at Chichen, the sun was just going down, and the night creatures were already singing in full voice. The songs of the night were far more elaborate than the day. Rather than the sporadic cheeps and rasps of insects with an occasional bird call, there was a seamless blend of voices. It seemed as if every unseen creature — of which there were millions — had a voice to contribute and didn’t hesitate to do so.
The Mayaland Hotel, built on the boundary of the ruins, has 100 acres of gardens that surround the main house and its outlying bungalows where the grounds are alive with birdsong and butterflies and exotic fruits and flowers of the tropics.
From the top of the steps of the hotel entrance I turned to look back, and my breath caught with delight. The ruins of the shell-shaped observatory named El Caracol by the Spaniards, rose in the golden glow of the setting sun like a beacon of mystery.
What must it have been like 1100 years ago when it was in its prime, a haven of scientific observation? Estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 people lived at the center at its peak around 900 AD. I could hardly wait to check in and go to the site. A private back-gate leads into the ruins where you’re free to walk in anytime between eight and five, and again for the light show at seven, fostering a sense that you too are one of the early explorers.
Fascinated with time and its relationship to events in their lives, the Maya became one of the first cultures to chart the passage of the stars in the heavens — with an accuracy that rivals modern technology. In fact, they were so intrigued with time that they built whole systems of thought around it. For hundreds of years they studied the sky and elaborated a complex system about the relationship between the gods and man. So practical are their beliefs that each day has a god. The qualities of that particular god inform the people how to relate to that day so that they may live with assurance that they’re in harmony with the will of the gods. They call it Hanab Ku.
Eight o’clock on the dot the next morning found me at the back-gate ready to explore the observatory before the tourist buses arrived. Today the road is lined with present day Maya selling their wares to the tourists. I approached the snail-shaped building, I imagined the area as it had once been; the temples brightly painted, the square paved and lined with trees where dozens of people went about their morning errands.
The circular superstructure consists of a lower story with radial shafts emerging from its center, and in the interior, a circular stairway rises to the top where more shafts located at precise compass points allowed the ancient astronomers to chart sunrises, sunsets, eclipses and planetary transits. From these observations they drew the heavens and from those charts they deciphered the passage of time.
Thus a complex system of calendars emerged; a system unique in human history for it deciphered millions of years into the past and thousands of years into the future, predicting a continual round of days with particular attributes. Armed with this information the priests could inform people both about their history and about what was to come. It was also used to make decisions about planting crops, about going to war, about times for rituals. In fact, the calendar was used for all decisions both cultural and individual. For example, on an inauspicious day, one might not travel to the market. When I say calendar, I’m over-simplifying because there are actually three calendars; each with a particular function that work together to create pin-point accuracy.
First there’s the solar calendar
of 365.24 days, which is straightforward to our way of thinking.
Then there’s the Ceremonial Calendar
which is entirely different but operates concurrently with the Solar; with a 20 day cycle, each day representing a different god with particular attributes. The attributes of the god make up the quality of the day. The days are also attached to 13 numbers. The 13 numbers are multiplied by the 20 day gods to make a 260 day cycle. This calendar was the more significant for the Classic Maya as they used it for divination and for decision making; both for matters of state and for personal choices. It was also called The Book of Good and Bad Days.
Then there is The Venus Calendar,
based on the transits of the planet Venus.
Time on earth was seen as cyclical
— with a beginning and an end –reflecting the spiritual belief that the world is continually created and destroyed. At the end of the long count of the calendar cycle the gods may decide that humans have fulfilled their vision for them and it will continue. However, if they have failed to please the gods, the creation will be destroyed. This concept also supported the ruler’s choice of action. For example, the best time to go to war would be at the end of a cycle.
When I wound back down the stairs to stand once again on the wide platform that supported El Caracol, I could just imagine an event when a priest stood at this very point after having predicted an eclipse, and the people bowed down in awe as it occurred on schedule. To be able to describe the secrets of the universe through their calculations must have been truly inspiring, and also reassuring.
Might this ability of the Mayan intellect be responsible in a fundamental way for the richness of the Classic Maya period for when people feel secure– and this knowledge would certainly have that effect– they’re more open, creative and productive.