Star Knowledge

Written in the Stars: Celestial Origin of Maya Creation Myth (PDF)

Written in the Stars

Celestial Origin of Maya Creation Myth

by Richard A. Wertime and Angela M.H. Schuster

The three hearthstones of the Maya creation story are found in the constellation Orion, according to the Quiche Maya of highland Guatemala. They are Alnitak (the southernmost star in Orion’s belt), Saiph, and Rigel. At the center of the triangle formed by these celdestial bodies is the Orion nebula, the mythical hearthfire. According to the myth, First Father, the maize god, was born from the cracked shell of a tortoise, perhaps a Maya constellation within Orion. Teh two piglike peccaries in the eastern part of Leo are a Maya constellation and figure prominently in the creation story. The glyph for star, shown three times, often accompanies depictions of the peccaries in Maya artwork.

Just after sunset on August 12, creation eve, the Milky Way stretches from east to west across the night sky. To the Maya this position of the galaxy represented a great  canoe paddled by gods who take First Father, the maize god, to the place of creation where he is reborn from the cracked shell of a tortoise. The piglike peccaries located in the eastern part of Leo are an important Maya constellation. A late seventh-century vase from the Peten region of Guatemala, below, depicts the paddler gods and First Father after their arrival at the place of creation. Two attendants prepare First Father for his rebirth.

Over the course of countless nights ancient Maya astronomers considered long and hard the movement of the stars and planets. Living in a world without light pollution, these gifted observers beheld a sky that was as limpid as a mountain stream. The nearness and the brightness of the celestial bodies led them to read in their movements significant elements of human history, including the miracle of creation itself.

Scholars have had only a fragmentary understanding of these matters in the past. Now, for the first time, they are beginning to comprehend the intricate connection between Maya creation myth and the movements of the stars. It is a remarkable story being pieced together by a cluster of scholars who have patiently decoded a complex legacy of Maya writings and artworks.

The interconnections between the observable sky and Maya creation myth find expression in surviving Maya codices, in important sacred texts such as the Popol Vuh, in hieroglyphic inscriptions, and in a vast range of artworks—carved bone, ceramics, murals, and sculpture. Says epigrapher Linda Schele, “We used to view Maya iconography as a collection of discrete units. Now there’s a whole pattern to it; all of the parts are related to phenomena that can be observed in the sky by anybody who lives away from the light of the modern world.”

What makes these interconnections particularly exciting is that they are supported by ritual practices and religious beliefs of the modern Maya. There is compelling evidence for strong cultural continuity between the Maya and their modern descendants. Mayan artisans, like their ancient counterparts, express their cosmic vision through almost every conceivable medium: in the patterns of fabrics, in the hearthstones of the traditional household, in the temporary shrines built to invoke the rain gods—shrines whose form mimics the cosmos.

Some of the early pioneers in Maya studies had intimations of what is now being forcefully argued. Herbert Spinden and Sylvanus G. Morley—early students of Maya art, writing, and calendrics—suggested that the Maya creation myth was linked in deep ways to Maya astronomy. In time, however, there was a reaction against such cosmological interpretations. “Astronomy was banned,” recalls Dennis Tedlock, an ethnologist and translator of the Popol Vuh. By the 1950s and 1960s ethnology was also discounted as a reliable source of data. But all this began to change in the 1980s when archaeoastronomy emerged as a new subfield in archaeological studies. “In the New World,” says Anthony Aveni, an archaeoastronomer at Colgate University, “we seem to be developing an anthropology of astronomy rather than a history of astronomy. It deals with the complex relationship between astronomy and politics, economics, and cultural history.”

By Dawn on August 13 the western portion of the Milky Way drops below the southern horizon. The three hearthstones and the tortoise shell from which First Father is reborn appear just east of zenith. According to Maya myth, the canoe bearing the paddler gods (the Milky Way) sinks after delivering First Father to the place of creation. The constellation of the two peccaries appears just west of the Milky Way. First Father’s rebirth from the cracked shell of a tortoise is depicted below on a Classic-period ceramic plate from the northern Peten.

At dawn on February 5 the Milky Way—the Maya World Tree—arches from north to south across the sky. The ecliptic, or path of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations of the zodiac, lies perpendicular to it. According to the Maya creation story, First Father raised the heavens on February 5, 542 days after his rebirth. With this act, he linked Earth to both heaven and the underworld (Xibalba) by erecting a World Tree, whose roots lay deep in the southern sky. A representation of the World Tree appears on the sarcophagus lid of the Emperor Pacal of Palenque, below. In this rendering, the roots of the World Tree are shown as the jaws of a crocodile while the ecliptic is depicted as a double-headed serpent bar crossing the World Tree at right angles.

This past year has seen major breakthroughs in the drawing together of Maya creation myth and astronomy, and in the linking of the work done by epigraphers, art historians, ethnologists, archaeologists, and archaeoastronomers. At the annual Maya Meetings at the University of Texas, Schele proposed a major new synthesis, one that links critical passages from the creation myth of the Popol Vuh to artistic, hieroglyphic, and ethnographic information contributed by a host of colleagues in the field. She argues that the story of Maya creation was mapped in the night sky, that acts critical to the world’s creation in Maya mythology were all elaborately played out in the movements of the Milky Way and a host of constellations including the Big Dipper, Scorpius, Orion, and Gemini.

The Maya story of creation, as written on a stela at the site of Quirigua in highland Guatemala, begins, “On the night of 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u [August 13] …they, the paddler gods, made the image of the three [hearth]stones appear…” According to this account, as interpreted by Schele, with the lighting of the hearth First Father comes into the world, reborn from the shell of a tortoise. Exactly 542 days later [February 5] he raises the sky and creates the World Tree, which takes the form of a vast crocodile at the center of the cosmos. With this act First Father divides earth and sky into eight partitions, sets time in motion by turning the heavens about a central poin, and links the earth to both the heavens and the underworld (Xibalba) with the World Tree, whose roots lay deep in the southern sky. The World Tree, according to Schele and others, takes its form as the Milky Way. As a canoe bearing the paddler gods, it transports First Father to his birthplace. As the road to Xibalba, it conveys the dead to the underworld.

The night of creation begins with the Milky Way/canoe stretching from east to west across the night sky. By dawn on this night, explains Schele, the three hearthstones are at zenith whithin the constellation Orion and are represented by the stars Alnitak (the southernmost in Orion’s belt), Rigel, and Saiph. At the center of the triangle formed by these three celestial bodies is the Orion nebula, alight with the glow of newborn stars—the hearth fire. The hearthstones are once again at zenith at dusk on February 5. During this night, the hearthstones sink toward the west, preceded by the Pleiades, a star cluster in the constellation Taurus that represented to the Maya a handful of maize seeds to be planted in the earth. Around midnight, the seeds bear fruit and the World Tree—the Milky Way—rises in the night sky.

themes in Maya art no doubt originated from celestial observations of this sort. Scholars like Schele note that the ecliptic—the path of the sun, moon, planets, and the constellations of the zodiac—is represented in Maya vase paintings by a double-headed serpent that crosses the World Tree at right angles on the night of creation. When the Milky Way lies in a north-south orientation on creation night, the ecliptic intersects it at similarly precise right angles. The double-headed serpent probably reflects the Maya observation that certain constellations like the zodiac undulate throughout the year, imitating the movement of a serpent.

“It’s like being able to read Genesis in the heavens,” says Schele, “Astronomers use mathematical formulas to describe the movement of the cosmos…the Maya used mythology. The texts carved on Maya vases are not just quaint stories told by an ancient people but rather precise descriptions of how the heavens changed throughout the year.” Some advocates of the new thinking like Barbara and Dennis Tedlock caution against excessive enthusiasm. Says Dennis Tedlock, “When the smoke clears, we’re going to find that some of the astronomy got pushed a bit too far.” He thinks Schele’s interpretation of the Milky Way as the World Tree is very much on target, as is her suggestion that the double-headed serpent depicted in Maya art represents the celestial path of the sun, moon, Venus, and the constellations of the zodiac. But Tedlock remains unconvinced that the Milky Way so clearly doubles as a celestial crocodile (a configuration for which, according to Schele, there are ample Aztec sources) and the canoe that carries the Maize God to the place of creation. Schele’s arguments do confirm what Barbara Tedlock has been suggesting for some time: that the Maya weren’t limited to “horizon-based astronomy”—calculations of celestial motions dependent on the horizon—but had fully mastered star-to-star astronomy, or “relational astronomy” as it is technically known.

Schele and others are also beginning to pay more attention to ethnography. “I think there is a tremendous amount of this ancient heritage that still survive,” she says. “The way in which the modern Maya organize their world is not some hybrid overview inherited from the Spanish; it comes from a very ancient stratum of indigenous thought. The Maya understanding of how the world works has millennia behind it. That may not seem a miracle to us, but for people who have had their history appropriated by others, who have been told that they exist only as a by-product of what the Spanish made them after the Conquest, that’s a bloody miracle!”

One thing is certain. Maya calculations were extremely accurate. In their fables they plotted t he stations of Venus over periods of 104 years or longer. Their almanacs indicated planetary cycles, lunar phases and eclipses, solstices and equinoxes, and a host of celestial motions by which they regulated their lives. Unfortunately, the burning of quantities of Maya literature in 1562 by the Spanish missionary Fray Diego de Landa leaves many questions about the  nature and practice of Maya astronomy unanswered—like how many and which gods were associated with the stars and constellations and how the various planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars were tracked.

Perhaps even more important than the recent discoveries is the larger frame of reference that archaeoastronomy is beginning to unfold. Says Schele, “It seems that the interaction of astronomy and mythology was common in other cultures as well. Scholars working in South America have found similar kinds of systems in the Amazon. There may be something like it in Pawnee lore, and perhaps the Hopi have something resembling it. The Maya may have been using a way of thinking about the sky and using it in their mythology that was very ancient indeed. I’m even prepared to accept that much of the cosmology/mythology came straight across the Bering Strait, and that it may be 10,000 or 15,000 years old; it may be 20,000 years old. I think it may be possible that we have tapped into a very ancient stratum of human thought. If it did come across with the first Americans, then we may be in touch with one of the two or three great human intellectual traditions that we as a species have ever evolved, part of the fundamental ‘software’ that all the peoples of the Americas and Asia have utilized.” Schele cautions that proving such an hypothesis will be difficult, maybe impossible. Nonetheless, studies are under way.

The new thinking will no doubt spawn heated debate among archaeologists for years to come. For Mayanist Peter Mathews, the connections now being made between Maya myth and cosmology “open up a whole new world of discovery. We stand on the threshold of something truly new.”

Mediators in a Universal Discourse

by Anthony F. Aveni

Ancient Maya notions about the cosmos were quite different from those to which we subscribe today. They rested on a broader kind of faith; that the everyday human world was intimately related to the natural world and that these two worlds functioned in harmony. The universe was a distinct whole, with all parts intricately laced together, each aspect influencing the others. Nature and culture were one. Sky myths explained the unfolding of history, politics, social relations, and ideas about creation and life after death. The Maya forged links between the sky and just about every phase and component of human activity—what we call astrology. And they celebrated this knowledge not only in texts but also in art, architecture, and sculpture. Their universe was animate—breathing, teeming, vibrant, and interactive. The Maya talked to the stars, listened to the planets. They commended and evoked, restrained and constrained, made incantations, pressed their ears to the oracle. They saw themselves as mediators in a great universal discourse. At stake was the battle between fate and free will, between body and soul.

The Maya were motivated not by a desire to express the workings of nature in terms of inert mathematical equations, but rather by the need to know how to mediate an alliance between knowledge and human action. Today we might attribute a planet’s change of color to an atmospheric effect, a shift in position to a dynamic effect, an alteration in brightness to a distance effect. The Maya would carefully watch the color, brightness, position, and movement of the planets because they believed all of these properties considered together were indices of the power of the gods, whom they hoped to influence through dialogue. Maya cosmic myths like the Popol Vuh may strike us as amusing stories, but behind the planetary, solar, and lunar alliances lie real people asking the kinds of questions we no longer ask of the sky” What is the origin of gender and sex? Where does fertility—or for that matter any power—come from? Where do we go when we die? How can we know the future? Answers to many of their inquiries were framed in the metaphor of visible planetary characteristics and changes: descent and resurrection (particularly for Mercury and Venus), dyadic and triadic bonds (sun, moon, and Venus). No wonder all these concepts were so prevalent in the early sky mythologies that grew up in both Old and New World civilizations, for the planets look the same the world over.

Which came first, the myth or the sky observation? No one can really say, but I think watching the movement of lights in the sky surely must have served as a very early practical timekeeping device, at least for those cultures like the Maya who invested a great deal of effort in looking upward. Naming the phases of the moon for human activities that accompanied them, or associating the course of the sun across the zodiac or the orientation of the Milky Way with seasonal activities—these habits date back into history farther than any document can reach. Marrying the act of telling stories about everyday affairs to witnessing changes in the world of nature would be a logical way both to embellish life and to lend a meaningful structure to time. With the process of storytelling came the expansion into more fundamental and speculative questions: Where did we come from? What will happen to us in the future? Inn some instances, especially in highly structured societies like the Maya, the relationship between people and the sky became formalize through the ruling class. Cosmic myths expanded to extraordinary proportions and so did the temporal cycles that framed them. Scholars may debate where myth and history intersect in the writing they decipher on the Maya stelae, but we can be sure the rhyme and meter of these texts have their origin in the cosmos.

Kumu Kahi, First Beginnings: Astronomy and Ancient Architecture (PDF)

Kumu Kahi

First Beginnings:

Astronomy and Cosmic Architecture in Ancient Hawai’i


Francis X. Warther

Kilauea, Kaua’i, Hawai’i, U.S.A.

Karen J. Meech

Institute of Astronomy, University of Hawai’i

Honolulu, O’ahu, Hawai’i, U.S.A.

As presented August 1993 at  the

Fourth “Oxford” International Conference of Archaeoastronomy

August 23-25, 1993

Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

Copyright 7/23/93

Kumu Kahi, First Beginnings:

Astronomy and Cosmic Architecture in Ancient Hawai’i

In this paper we propose to show, evaluate and discuss two types of solar astronomical alignments derived from two separate ancient “chants” that have been preserved through the unwritten memory of the Hula. The hidden meaning (kaona) when resolved gives the instruction for the solar alignments and cosmological purposes in the Hawaiian islands.

These chants, because of their directness and simplicity, would appear to have come from a classic poetic beginning during the formation of a cosmic view adapted to island living. They were also selected for their enormous informational and cultural content which we believe gives an insight of the mind and creative capacity of the ancients.

Later in this paper we will briefly explore this early creative past and outline what we perceive as a master plan designed by the ancient sea chiefs.

The chants belong to a vast collection of oral literature composed for use by Polynesians for many cultural purposes. The Hula, or Dance as reported by Adrienne Kaeppler (1983:8-14), and we paraphrase: has unique, distinguishing characteristics that separate the Hula in Polynesia from the dance in Melanesia and Micronesia. The Hula text or chant was basic, delivered with melody and rhythm, accompanied by a musical instrument and most of the time, with an interpretive “dance” — more a ritual of expressive movement—with strict, formal and stylized movements. The chants incorporated hidden meanings through metaphor and allusion and could be interpreted on more than one level.

Thus Polynesians began with a unique cultural chant-dance form which was developed by Hawaiians to a high art. We believe the word Hula presently meaning “dance,” originally meant “chant,” or “Word.” Old Hulas refer to “The Voice only the Voice” as the necessary action to gain entrance to the Hula School (Halau Hula). The Halau is the long house that enclosed the school of students, so its other meaning was hidden; so you could say, “The place of the hidden word.”

Since the chants we are concerned with here were the sacred, unchanging ones, we will stay within this frame.

The chanted poetry, called mele, had two types: mele oli, poetry not intended for dancing, and mele Hula, poetry meant to be accompanied by stylized dance movement. Teh two chants are mele oli, the sacred ones used for prayers and spiritual meaning: voiced without dance, music by percussion. We want to stress this distinction by quoting Mary Kawena Pukui (P.H.L. 1972:201), the principal Hawaiian authority.

“The hula dancer in training was dedicated to Laka, the hula Goddess. Hula training was a religious matter. Total dedication was needed. The student, man or woman, was kapu, or set apart.”

That is, ritual virginity was mandatory while in the Halau Hula until after graduation. It was, however, not a permanent kapu.

So the chants were conceived within institutional framework, a cultural form unique to Hawai’i and Polynesia, which are further united by one language and culture.

The familiarity of the “Tropics” in astronomy was covered very well in Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropic, edited by Anthony Aveni and Gary Urton who, with others, were contributors. We only wish to mention what certain aspects of the investigation have shown to be unusual and specifically Hawaiian.

It was David Lewis who pointed out the significance of “place” in the possible cohesion and originality of the art of thought patterns of these renowned navigators. He said Polynesians are the only people who travel and experience living equally on both sides of the equator with named tropic boundary lines. (The Maori of New Zealand behave as if they were still inside the tropics.)

Another art we discussed was the Polynesian ability to visualize island groups of unknown extent as if from above at a great distance, like the Rapa Nui “dream voyage flight.” Lewis contributes this art to the navigators’ facility during a voyage to instantly point to the direction of his home island. Tavake, the last Polynesian navigator, who died in 1970, used this ability.

The balance of two territories about the equator, which is a sewn seam or piko (navel), is like place with two north stars, a mirror image of events in wind current and time; of uphill and downhill; of left and right. We find this an extraordinary place to study; particularly the time reversal, where your calendar of six months summer, six months winter has to be turned 180 degrees when you cross the seam.

In Hawai’i, Kane, June 21 summer solstice, rises in the northeast, and Lono, December 21 winter solstice, rises to the southeast. In the Marquesas below the equator, Lono, winter solstice, stays at its geophysical location and rises in the northeast, and Kane, summer solstice, rises in the southeast. You see, in forming a concept of time, Polynesians had to reverse the months to give meaning to realities they experienced.

From these thoughts and descriptions of the Hawaiians, the Tropic bounded world of the Polynesians was not conceive of as a triangle, but a square approximately fifty (50) degrees on a side. Astronomically, it is a mana (life) space: the only space where the zenith and anti-zenith celestial events peculiar to the Tropic world can occur, and beyond whose boundaries shadow (death) is cast. To say it makes a difference if you believe the zenith event is the primal life force would be an understatement.

With this background we go directly to Chant One.

N. B. Emerson (1909:114) and M. Manu (1899 & Ms.).

Emerson gives no title other than Mele (Song), and says it is a “fragment of folklore.”

Mele: Song:

1 Hiki mai, hiki mai ka La, e. 1 It has come, it has come; lo, the Sun!

2 Aloha wale ka La e kau nei, 2 How I love the Sun that’s on high;

3 Aia malalo o Ka-wai-hoa, 3 Below it swims Ka-wai-hoa,

4 A ka lalo o Kauai, o Lehua. 4 On the slope inclined from Kaua’i to Lehua.

5 A Kauai au, ike i ka pali; 5 On Kauaui met I a pali,

6 A Milo-lii pale ka pali loloa. 6 A beetling cliff that bounds Milo-lii,

7 E kolo ana ka pali o Makua-iki; 7 And climbing up Makua-iki,

8 Kolo o Pu-a, he keiki, 8 Crawling up was Pua, the child,

9 He keiki makua-ole ke uwe nei. 9 An orphan that weeps out its tale.

A brief explanation per line:

[See illustrations, Figures 1 and 2.]

Line 1The sun is rising, east.

2 The sun rises to its zenith.

3 Ka-wai-hoa, a small peak; zenith on a four-year cycle (plus or minus four from July 13,1989).

4 We stand on Ni’ihau island, sun reflected down from Kaua’i island.

5 Look toward Kaua’i; see the cliff.

6 A big cliff that bounds Milo-li’i valley.

7 The sun climbing up the cliff named Makua-iki.

8 Pua is Kane-a-Pua, the “Baby Sun.”

9 Alone, it takes five days to return, or eventually climb the cliff and return on its six- month trip to the south.

This chant and the tradition of when first used comes from Moses Manu (1899 & Ms.) and is given in “Hula,” B. P. Bishop Museum (1980:8,9). It tells the story of the visit to Ni’ihau isaland and Chief Halali’i by the Hula Goddess Kapo’ula-kina’u, or Kapo for short, in which she takes possession of the chief, causing him to chant. Then, turning to her younger sister, Kewelani, Kapo takes possession of her, also. Kewelani proceeds to chant and dance the mele above. This occurs, of course, on a June 21 solstice rise and return date of Kane, principal god of procreation, or the return of Lohiau, the symbolic Kane of the Pele-Hi’iaka Hula cycle.

The cliff Makua-iki, which lies approximately 29 kilometers (18 miles) away, besides being the mountain peak around which the Tropicbirds of Kane circle is also the peak from which Pele’s flaming fire sticks are sailed out over the ocean. This ritual was possibly performed to encourage the return of the summer sun, the source of fire.

There is, we believe, another hidden meaning embedded in this chant: a parallel alignment. If we move one mile north from Kiha-Wahine on Ni’ihau island to another platform called Ka-Uno-ka-Ha, we obtain the June solstice rise against Makana cliff, which is 45 k. (38 m.) away and over Ka-Ulu-a-Paoa heiau with the platform Ke-Ahu-a-Laka. This altar of Laka, Goddess of Hula, the most famous and oldest Halau Hula on Kaua’i island, has been the place for graduation ceremonies in accord with tradition.

We quickly have several interesting things happening: Makana (The Gift) peak towering above Ahu-a-Laka is the other peak from which the fire stick ceremony is performed. This alignment would ritually link the two first Hula platforms on two separate islands in a simultaneous ritual in vast spatial time related to the rising June sun. It is a counter alignment, also, since Ka-Ulu-a-Paoa Heiau on Kaua’i isalnd receives the June solstice sunrise, and from this place you could also clearly observe the December solstice set. This alignment then gives Ni’ihau island a futue, and Kaua’i island, a past. It is an interesting conjecture, and somewhere in the chants we should hear the echo of this alignment.

Before the theory of refraction comes up, note that in Hawai’i on some days before the sun rises or after its setting, the laws of earth curvature seem to be suspended. To illustrate, we have stood at Ka-Ulu-a-Paoa Heiau on Kaua’i and have seen Lehua crater; which “should be” below the horizon, loom up as if it were only 8 k. (5 m.) away instead of the barely visible 45-k. (38-m.) distance it is actually.

This heiau-to-heiau alignment at the time of the June solstice is particularly interesting in that from this selected location the horizon sunrise may be observed only for the five-day standstill, whereas sunrise will not have been seen for at least four months prior to this time. This is because the greater mass of Kaua’i island effectively blocks the sunrise from a Ni’ihau island perspective for 35 degrees out of the 50 degrees total. This design feature makes the standstill of the summer solstice rise a very selective window, indeed.

It is an interesting conjecture that the June 21 solstice rise is a Hula festival of importance, and also a clear example that one of the purposes of the sacred Hula was to record and reveal the ritual cosmic alignments, and including the full cycle of festivals.

Note that the Hula was controlled by goddesses. Starting with Pele, whose red lava line creates the islands, Hi’iaka, younger sister, a seer, prophet and spirit catcher; Haumea, the Mother Goddess of the sea with her world sea tree of life; Laka, principal Goddess of the Hula, whose altar in the halau faces to rising sun and the elder patroness mentioned above, Kapo, “The rich darkness of all possibilities with the red stain.”

Laka and Kapo are a duality: La here is sun and life; Po is eternity and underworld. Both, together, are symbolic of the Ku Kuahu, the upright principal that joins heaven to earth.

When we recognized this chant as astronomical on it kaona (hidden) level, similar references were then recognized in other chants which had lacked the hidden level of translation.

To illustrate this relation, one twenty-seven line chant called Mele Ho’ala (no ka Hula Pele), Emerson (1909:196), ends with the lines:

“Awake, ’tis day, ’tis light;

The sun stands over Wai-hoa,

Afloat on the breast of ocean;

the iwa (Tropicbird) of Leinoai is preening

On the cliff Maka-iki-olea,

On the breast of naked Lehua.

Awake thee! Awake!”

The poetic reference on its kaona level may be read as zenith and rising sun against the cliff.

One of Pele’s brothers, a navigator named Ka-Moho-Ali’i, has a kino lau (body) form of a dark cliff, and Kaua’i island, which has many of these cliffs that plunge into the sea, has Ka-Moho-Ali’i as its first chief and patron. A younger brother named Kane-a-Pua (“Baby Sun”) climbs the cliffs of his older brother; thus “Pua the child” finds a place in chants from the ancient oral tradition such as the first chance cited, line 8. Pua always visits Kaua’i island and his brother where rank on rank of cliffs abound.

The place on Ni’ihau island where Kapo and Kewelani performed this first Hula with its implication of sun alignment looking toward Kaua’i island would appear to be a walled heiau (sacred space) called Kiha-Wahine on a point of land called Pali-Koa’e. This is situated on the western edge of a vast, sun-baked, flat plain of 2,024 hectares (5,000 acres). Pali-Koa’e means “Cliff of the (white) Tropicbird” of Kane (The Sun).

The opening from lines of another chant (Emerson 1909:67) begin,

“Haunt of white tropic-bird and big ruffled owl,

[the cliff on Kaua’i].

Up rises the first-born child of the pali. [cliff]

He climbs, he climbs, he climbs up aloft,

Kaholo-ku-‘iwa, the pali of Ha’i.”

This is interesting for it gives a new name for the cliff and area on Kaua’i island. A facet of the Hawaiian way of naming is that the person or object named may carry many different names, all correct, carefully chosen for inherent meaning, and used at different times or for different purposes because of inherent subtleties. This fits with the oral poetic tradition—the true bardic tradition in Hawai’i—complete with metaphysical level.

Another chant in its last eight lines expresses the rising sun as:

“Love returns to Ni’ihau

To the secret waters of the pa’o’o fish.

The breadfruit fruiting at ground level

And the black stalked sugar cane at Halali’i.

There is Nihoa further back,

A tiny islet in the sea.

The hot sun beats upon the plains.

Turn and face Kaua’i.”

Again, metaphor and allusion mixed with physical alignments. To truly “read” this chant, you must either know the place or be able to project yourself into it by way of the map. You must know the culture, the references, the sun-roundness of a breadfruit and the out-of-place character of it fruiting at ground level; you must know this black-stalked sugar cane, and its properties and uses; relatedly, you must know the nature, also, of the lake of Halali’i, and in which months it disappears, and how this relates to the mentioned cane; you must know the inherent meanings of the lake name, which is the same as the chief possessed by Kapo in Chant One of the Hula.

We give all of these related chants to show the importance given to this specific time and place alignment by the Hawaiian composers of the Hula, the realities and significance of the rising solstice sun and its zenith.

Chant Two describes six setting suns, five from one point.

This comes from Roberts (1926:265 No. 122) Hula ka-la ‘au; oli oli; by Akoni Mika, 1865.

1 “He moku Ka-ula, Nihoa ame Ni’ihau 1 An island is Ka’ula, Nihoa adjoining Ni’ihau

2 I ka ulu la ‘i a ka Waihoa a Kane 2 In the calm rests the water produced by Kane

3 O Kaulana a ka la i Halali’i 3 The sun rests over Halali’i

4 Hala ka la kau ma kua o Lehua 4 And in passing rests over the back of Lehua

5 Kau ka LehuLehu o ke ahiahi 5 Then the dusk of evening begins

6 Moe e no, Kaua’i i luna ka la e 6 Kaua’i goes to sleep while the sun is yet up

7 E o ana no o Lehua i ke kai.” 7 While Lehua is still visible in the sea.


1 Ka’ula island is southwast, Nihoa is northeast.

2 The clam is a west sun space.

3 Halali’i is a wet season lake, and an anciet chief of Ni’ihau island.

4 Lehua’s “back” is to the west.

5 Dusk = sun is setting/has set.

6 Kaua’i is dark while the sun travels on westward.

7 Lehua is not only visible, but measured as by a (sun) path implied in the word, ana, to measure; so it can be understood that you as viewer are standing on Kaua’i observing the four named islands.

Question where you are standing, exactly, in this chanter’s scene, and what solar events you are seeing in the cycle. You are, of course, observing setting suns which are associated with the departing spirits of deceased Hawaiians; so the place to stand will be a leina, a jumping-off place from which to take the leap into the mystic sea of Po into eternity.

[See Figures 3 & 4.]

The procedure is to determine the back-sight from the islands called off, so, starting with Ka’ula island, which is 32 k. (20 m.) southwest of Ni’ihau and about 80.5 k. (50 m.) from west Kaua’i island, we try to measure the December solstice sunset line back to Kaua’i. We put aside Nihoa island as it is not in order. Moving north, Halali’i lake is next, but we suspect it is an anti-zenith, or nadir alignment. Since we do not have yet any observation point for this on Kaua’i, we select Lehua island and center a due west 270 degree equinox set back-sight on Lehua and bring it back to Kaua’i, which intersects with our December solstice line on a 270 degree equinox sunset back-sight on Lehua and bring it back to Kaua’i, which intersects with our December solstice line on a ridge called Kauna-lewa; now we have a “point.”

From these two intersected lines we project out towards Halali’i lake on Ni’ihau island at an estimated 2º02’ to 3º00’ north of 245 degrees. What we discover is that the south mountain range on Ni’ihau prevents moving the nadir line any more north than 248 degrees, and the line does cross Halali’i lake. It is a boxed-in alignment not capable of being moved off Halali’i lake if we were to observe a horizon set of the anti-zenith (nadir) suns.

This quite remarkable fact suggested an ancient astronomer had enjoyed himself with this one. Obviously what was being manipulated was the location of observation point on Kaua’i, and this helped to confirm what we are finding about the structures called heiau, commonly translated as “temples,” but actually denoting sacred space(s), and therefore “points” to stand.

We let this alignment rest for a bit because Nihoa island from the intersection was not on the 295 degree summer solstice set and was not known as a jumping-off place for spirits, so why was it included? Later we ran the anti-zenith lines on the chart for December 2 (90) at 21º52.9’ and the January 11 (90) at 21º52.6’. Amazingly, these two anti-zenith lines intersected the alignment projected over Halali’i lake and to sunset and the face of the cliff as in the chants. We are not quite sure how this had been achieved.

The Nihoa island included in the chant resolved itself by three pieces of information. The first came from Emerson (1917:XXVII) “Pele’s Account to Kamoho-ali’i of the Departure from Kahiki.” Briefly, Pele sails toward the islands with passengers including two brothers. When they stop at Nihoa island, Kane-a-Pua, the “baby sun” we met in Chant One, is landed, then the rest sail away to Lehua islet of Ni’ihau island. Unexplained, the navigator Kamoho-ali’i returns and picks up young Kane-a-Pua, and they return to Ni’ihau to the south.

The next two items are that when Hi’iaka, the prophet Goddess, is on Kaua’i island’s west coast, she chants.

Emerson (1909:258-259, lines 9-13):

“Out there with the floating Sun,

Where cloud forms rest on Ocean’s breast,

Uplifting their forms at Nihoa,

This side the base of Lehua;

There is the water of Kane.”

And the third is Pukui, Elbert, Mo’okini, Place Names of Hawai’i, 1974:165 and 148.

“Nihoa, See Mauloku,” the ancient name.

“Mau-Loku. Leaping place for souls, Nihoa Lit. continuous falling.”

Note that the falling of the soul into havai’i, the opening of the underworld, is a continuous-cyclical-circular motion of returning. So, of course, Kane-a-Pua was let off at Nihoa for five days for the June solstice set period and was picked up later when he could move south; and Nihoa is a leina, leaping place for souls; and the place to stand has to be between Pu’u ka Pele Heiau and Makua-iki alignment on Kaua’i island.

We propose that Nihoa just had to be included to complete all the solar set events: December solstice set; two anti-zenith sets; two equinox sets; and one June solstice set. The six setting suns, then, are referenced in a seven-line chant. Beyond being quite amazing, you wonder how long it took to gain the viewpoint and understanding to set this solar knowledge in language symbols. This is observed from Kauna-lewa ridge, the name of which means “The Square (or Four) Floating” and suggests that the six suns set into four pits in the floating western sea horizon, which is what they actually do.

Halali’i lake gains support as a place for departing souls to pass over or into from the chant referenced previously that mentions “the black-stalked sugar cane of Halali’i.” Checking Pukui & Elbert dictionary (1986:51), we are enlightened by “Halali’i, Ni’ihau, where a famous sugar cane once grew on the sand dunes. This cane was used in ceremonies for remission of sins.”

Kauna-lewa ridge, a high plateau now in sugar cane, started off an investigation into an unknown area. There is not a heiau there, or a recorded one, but the chant highlights a meaning besides “sacred,” i.e. the root word “hei” is “snare,” and “au,” a segment of time; so a good translation that fits is “a structure to mark a place that snares sacred time.” A consultant Kumu Hula (Source Teacher of Hula) said there had to be a chant about Kaunalewa, and one was found. So we will know more about this area in the future.

The accuracy of the alignments was first plotted on charts, then by visual and compass check in the field. On Ni’ihau island, privately owned, this was not possible. By checks at Makua-iki, the cliff splitting the sun was verified, and back checks from Ahu-a-Laka were made for the December solstice sunset. However, this was not considered satisfactory, therefore two Garmin G.P.S. units have been acquired and associate Karen Meech will be conducting surveys that will be possible for even out of line-of-sight alignments, of which there are quite a number overthe 1167-k. (725-m.) length of the twelve islands.

This will remain an ongoing investigation; the prospects opened up are endless and exciting.

As shown, the two main chant examples together—rising sun, settings suns; both oli oli sacred Hula without dance—reveal some astounding information. Both had to be composed by astronomer-navigators who had a thorough knowledge of their islands’ positions even out of sight, but not impossible to locate. We are not dealing with traditional poetic understanding of chants as prayers, name chants, love poems of people and places; instead, we have direct reference to the celestial events that are ritually incorporated and part of the Hawaiian belief systems.

In one nine-line and one seven-line verse we are made aware of past knowledge of all the solstice, equinox and zenith-nadir events of the Tropic world.

What is unique for the history of alignments, generally, is that the astronomer-site planners linked separate islands into a cosmic web, a simultaneous ritual alignment through space in the same time. This suggests a design strategy to create a master plan that would eventually link perhaps all of the islands in a ritual whole. This grouping was first done for the three-island group of Ni’ihau, Kaua’i and O’ahu, according to Kamakau (1964, Vol. 2, 14) and Hawaiian historian of the 1840s. He informs us that the three-island group had one astronomy with the center of learning being located on Kaua’i island at Waimea. Here astronomers called Po’e Kilo Hoku went to make their observations, kilo meaning stargazer or seer, and hoku, star.

Our researches suggest that through chants and tradition a concept of a oneness, a completeness called lokahi keeps recurring, and insistance that the family, the chiefs and the islands are “one” and the search is for a unifying system.

We find evidence of this in the composition of a Pele-Hi’iaka cycle, a chant journey through the islands requiring six months up and six months down. From zenith to nadir is also six months and binds the half year of growth to the half year of harvest.

What also needs thought is the vastness of the sea in which the navigators repeatedly sailed. The island are points, areas of rest, repair, recreation, until it is time to sail again. Haumea’s sea is the navigator’s homeland; the points of land are where family and relation are visited: blood relations are all over Polynesia.

The islands, themselves, are round like women’s breasts with a high mountain pyramid as a point of direction expressed in two ways: makai, seaward, and mauka, mountainward (away from the sea). The navigator is either going or coming. The other direction is around, direction defined by either the right or left shoulder being toward the mountain. The islands are clocks and the rising/setting sun changes position as you move circularly around the island in a constant changing juxtaposition of geological forms. They are unlike any other land form to live in—very different from places on continents.

We promised to discuss two chants of the Hula, but we can say that they endlessly multiply to include the twelve tropic islands of the entire Hawaiian chain: from Necker island or Moku Mana Mana, the “toe of Pele” on the tropic, to the island of Hawai’i with its active volcano of Kilauea, the “head” of the Pele figure. This we will have to leave for other papers to follow.

Finally, there is no question that we must follow the creative mind of the ancient astronomer-navigator. In these investigation, success, if any, is due to this newly-defined Hawaiian multidisciplinary system which all of you have done so much to create and which we call in Hawai’i “Astronomical Architecture,” a planning system founded on the navigators spiderweb of stars.

“Astronomical Architecture” is truly a search for archaic Hawaiian history embedded in the realities of ancient myth. This field of Archaeo-Ethno-Astronomy has opened up and expanded our understanding of the Hawaiian mind by finding reasons for this vast amount of public architecture and what it was used for, and what could have been seen and transacted inside these large ceremonial landscape complexes. We recognized the format as we began investigating from the island pie segments out from the mountaintop to the sea, circling to include the entire island, and as it revolves it includes in its sweep other islands that cross the spokes of the eight pillars of the solar cycle.

The ancients created an all-island ecological whole that was composed in a vast architectural plan. This plan selectively used land forms and structures that captured and dramatized the great cosmic events that they wished to “stop,” to “snare” in time. Thus, through this twelve-island ritual space they expressed their valued and molded tradition and beliefs.

For Hawai’i—all twelve of the islands of Pele—it is a Kumu Kahi, a first beginning into an ancient past, a knowledge still to be uncovered from the layers of literal meaning.

Francis X. Warther

Karen J. Meech

Copyright 7/23/93

Rise and Fall of the City of the Gods (PDF)

Rise and Fall of the City of the Gods
by John B. Carlson

Teotihuacan (Tay-oh-tee-Wah-kahn)… To millions of visitors each year, it is known simply as “The Pyramids,” a vast ruined city whose brooding grandeur fills most of a tributary valley 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. I first visited the site in the summer of 1973, when I was a young graduate student in astronomy. Stepping out of an air-conditioned bus into the dry heat and bright blue sky, I was quite unprepared for the magnitude of the ruins. Its Street of the Dead, broad and straight, sloped northward across the valley for almost three miles, flanked by scores of temples and temple complexes including the Pyramid of the Sun, whose base is comparable to that of the Great Pyramid at Giza. At the northern end of the street stood the Pyramid of the Moon, whose architecture mimics the sacred mountain of Cerro Gordo in the distance. Exploring its southern end, I discovered the monumental Ciudadela Complex, which surrounds a great rectangular courtyard large enough to have held 100,000 people. On the east side of the complex were the remains of palace and administrative buildings flanking the city’s third largest monument, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Dozens of stone fanged monster heads, arranged in pairs, gazed out from its layered tableros and balustrades. One with protruding jaw and plumed collar was surely the legendary Feathered Serpent so often depicted in Mesoamerican art. The other, sporting goggle-like rings on its mosaic-beaded forehead above inlaid obsidian eyes, was far more enigmatic.
As I searched for the best camera angles, my head spinning from the heat, altitude, and excitement, I was approached by one of the ubiquitous local guides. Teotihaucan was an ancient city of the Aztecs who, he proudly explained, were his ancestors. It was named Teotihuacan (Place of the Gods) because their gods, whom they worshiped with human and animal sacrifices, had been born here. The Aztecs, he told me, called the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, a powerful creator god of the winds, legendary warrior, and hero of the Aztec’s spiritual ancestors, the Toltecs. The goggle-eyed monster was Tlaloc, a god of rain and fertility. Children were sometimes sacrificed to Tlaloc, their tears invoking the spirits of the rains.
Local guides at archaeological sites worldwide are notorious for supplying a creative mixture of fact and fiction, and this fellow was no exception. Tetihuacan was neither Aztec nor Toltec. In fact, it lay in ruins for nearly six centuries before the nomadic Mexica tribes, whom we now call the Aztecs, wandered into the Basin of Mexico and were awestruck, according to their own accounts, by its splendor. For them, Teotihuacan was the birthplace of the gods. In truth, they probably knew little more of the site’s history than my guide.
Leaving Teotihuacan that day with more questions than answers, I vowed to learn as much as I could about this ancient city and its relationship to the other cultures of Mesoamerica. This decision led to a change in my career from extragalactic astronomy to archeology. I began to focus on the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, and world-views of the ancient peoples of the Americas.
Who were the Teotihuacanos? What language or languages did they speak? Why did the Valley of Teotihuacan become so important in the Classic period rather than the much larger and ecologically richer Valley of Mexico just to the south? What was the nature of their political, religious, and social systems? The tombs of the rulers have never been found and, unlike the Lowland Maya to the east, they left no obvious portraits of their leaders. Did they have a system of writing similar to the Maya? We know that the two cultures were in contact from Early Classic times. But, most important, what led to the rise of this extraordinary people around the beginning of the first millennium A.D., what was the key to their long-term success, and what precipitated the violent destruction of their city in the early eighth century?
We do know that Teotihuacan rose rapidly to become the largest urban center in the Americas. Its power and influence extended across Mesoamerica, east into the Maya and Gulf Coast areas, and southeast into Zapotec Oaxaca. The concurrent florescence of these cultures created what we call the Mesoamerican Classic period. Teotihuacan was a key player, and its fall precipitated a profound collapse of all the Classic civilizations.
Our current understanding of Teotihuacan stems largely from the last 30 years of scientific excavation of the site. In 1960, Eric Wolf initiated the comprehensive Valley of Mexico Project, which addressed the natural history of this unique environmental zone as well as its complex cultural heritage. This work led to the remarkable Teotihuacan Mapping Project, headed by the University of Rochester’s Rene Millon, which focused on the city itself, and the Teotihuacan Valley Project, directed by William T. Sanders of Pennsylvania State University, which examined the rural environs of the valley. These efforts provided the scientific bedrock for a series of further archaeological excavations beginning in 1980 under the auspices of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and headed by Ruben Cabrera Castro. During 1988-89, Cabrera and George Cowgill of Arizona State University directed further excavations in which Saburo Sugiyama, also of Arizona State, penetrated the heart of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, which yielded explicit evidence for both militarism and abundant human sacrifice. My own research has focused on the Panmesoamerican practice of sacred warfare and ritual sacrifice regulated by the motions of Venus in the heavens. These efforts have yielded insights into Teotihuacan’s spectacular rise to power, what sustained it and, moreover, what led to its violent demise.
Ancient Mesoamerican astronomers were well aware of Venus’s 584-day celestial journey. Of the 16 or so surviving Precolumbian codices, five contain almanacs documenting Venus’s position relative to Earth’s 365-day solar year. According to two volumes, the Dresden and Grolier codices, Venus first appears just before sunrise in the east as Morning Star, where it can be seen for 236 days. Venus then disappears, reappearing after 90 days later at dusk in the west as the Evening Star. Then, 250 days later, Venus disappears a second time only to appear once again as Morning Star eight days later, thus completing its cycle. New World astronomers noted that five 584-day Venus cycles equal eight 365-day years and they used this astronomical resonance as the basis of their almanacs, which span 2,920 days. The Dresden and Grolier codices contain 104-year almanacs, which tie the cycles of the Sun and Venus into the 260-day Mesoamerican sacred calendar.
Why did the Mesoamericans create such elaborate Venus almanacs? The reason became clearer in the early 1980s when Floyd Lounsbury of Yale University discovered that certain war events or battles in Classic Maya texts, whose glyphs contained the Maya symbol for Venus, were timed to coincide with certain positions of the planet in the heavens. Dubbed “Star Wars” after the popular movie’s title, these astrologically timed battles were soon recognized as practices that extended well beyond the Maya realm. We have identified glyphs associated with at least three Venus-cult traditions practiced in Mesoamerica. One tradition was shared by the Maya and Gulf Coast peoples, one by the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, and another by the Teotihaucanos and cultures of the Mexican Highlands. In addition to military conquest, the Venus cult was concerned with the symbolic transformation of blood into water and fertility through the ritual execution of captives. The goggle-eyed Storm God has also been linked with both warfare and water. The key to our understanding of this cult has come only recently with the discovery of spectacular murals at Cacaxtla, a seventh-century site 80 miles east of Teotihuacan.
But let’s start at the beginning. Sometime early in the second century B.C., a remarkable transformation began to take place within the small farming communities along the Rio San Juan and the spring-fed marshes of the Teotihaucan Valley. At an elevation of more than 7,000 feet and with an annual rainfall of no more than 20 inches, the Teotihuacan Valley would appear to have been a marginal agricultural zone. However, numerous springs watered the valley’s rich volcanic soil, making it a particularly fertile region. In addition, its proximity to valuable deposits of obsidian and its location on a major trade route to the Gulf Coast and Maya Lowlands gave the site strategic importance. At the beginning of the first century B.C., the region was dominated by Cuicuilco, a town of about 10,000 inhabitants in the southern Valley of Mexico. Fortunately for Teotihuacan, natural disaster soon shifted the balance of power in its favor when the volcano Xitle erupted around 100 B.C., destroying Cuicuilco and its surrounding agricultural land. Following the eruption 90 percent of the valley’s population moved northward to Teotihuacan.
The eruption of the volcano, however, seems not to have been the sole cause for the migration. Millon and a number of other scholars, including myself, believe that religion played a major role in attracting people to the site. In the 1960s Mexican archaeologists discovered that the Pyramid of the Sun, the last phase of which was completed sometime before A.D. 200, had been built atop an important shrine–a dry four-chambered lava-tube cave. Archaeologist Doris Heyden of Mexico’s INAH has argued convincingly that this cave had long been an important sacred site, a place from which the Teotihuacan ancestors had emerged–its four chambers were likely interpreted as representations of the four parts of the Mesoamerican cosmos. In time, it became a Mesoamerican mecca attracting an increasing number of pilgrims as Teotihuacan prospered.
A second critical ideological factor in the city’s development involved the rise of a primary deity who, in all of her forms, is known to us as the “Great Goddess.” First recognized as a female entity in the 1970s by Peter Furst, then at the State University of New York at Albany, and Esther Pasztory of Columbia University, the goddess is apparent throughout the site, in monumental stone sculptures and murals and highly abstracted iconography. Exhibiting both creative and destructive aspects, the goddess would seem to have been the physical embodiment of Cerro Gordo, the sacred mountain from which the springs that nourish the valley flow. She is often depicted with a bird of prey in her headdress, a well-known Teotihuacan warrior emblem. Streams of liquid flow from her mouth and cave-like womb. With a characteristic open-hand gesture, she scatters precious liquids, seeds, and flowers. Her priests bear bags of incense and likewise participate in the scattering rites–their chanting illustrated by flower-decorated scrolls emanating from their mouths.
By the middle of the second century A.D., the ground plan of the city had been worked out, apparently taking into consideration the location and layout of the underground cave, the surrounding mountains, including Cerro Gordo, and important elements of the cosmos. Several structures, most notably the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, face the northwestern horizon where the star cluster Pleiades sets and approximately where the sun sets twice a year when it passes directly overhead.
During the second half of the second century A.D. a brilliant new phase of municipal architecture south of the Pyramid of the Sun, including the Great Compound and the Ciudadela Complex with its spacious plaza, Feathered Serpent Pyramid, and flanking residential-administrative compounds, was completed. The Great Compound is likely to have served as a central market area for the city while the Ciudadela became its new administrative center. Even the Rio San Juan, which cut through the site, was rerouted to conform to the city’s design. Throughout its early years Teotihuacan was probably ruled by a succession of charismatic leaders. Millon, Cowgill, and others have argued convincingly that the Great Compound and Ciudadela were the work of the last such ruler, and have suggested that the Feathered Serpent Pyramid may have served, in part, as his mortuary monument.
After this extraordinary period of construction, there were no further monumental building projects, and attention was paid almost exclusively to renovating the city’s residential areas. From A.D. 200 to 600, the city continued to flourish with long-distance trade becoming an important factor in its prosperity. Teotihuacanos extended their influence to the far reaches of Mesoamerica, with contacts and even enclaves or colonies, in such areas as Zapotec Oaxaca (Monte Alban), the Guatemalan Highlands (Kaminaljuyu), the Gulf Coast (Matacapan), and the Maya Lowlands (Becan and Tikal, for example). These incursions were unquestionably associate with Highland-Lowland trade in goods such as obsidian, jade, shells, salt, rubber, cacao, exotic bird feathers, animal skins, incense, medicines, and textiles. More than 2,000 walled apartment compounds were built during this time, of which only a few have been excavated. Nonetheless, the results of these excavations, combined with surveys and surface collections, indicate a diverse society engaged in numerous craft specializations and diverse foreign populations. A Oaxaca barrio and a so-called Merchants’ barrio, housing a Veracruz gulf coast group, have been identified by their material culture, architectural style, and mortuary practices.
We also now know that Teotihuacan’s prosperity during these years involved the practice of sacred warfare and human sacrifice timed by the position of Venus. Ample evidence for this practice has been found at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. The pyramid took its name from its remarkable facade of serpentine “Quetzalcoatl” and goggle-eyed “Tlaloc” masks revealed in the 1918-22 excavations of the Mexican archaeologists Manuel Gamio and Ignacio Marquina. In the intervening decades many speculative theories have been offered concerning the identity of these figures, the meaning of the building’s iconography, and the ultimate function of the temple and its surrounding Ciudadela Complex.
From the start, there has been essential agreement that the fanged figures with collars of blue-green feathers jutting out from the tableros and stairway balustrades are representations of the Feathered Serpent of Meosamerican mythology. Images of this rattle-tailed serpent undulate along the pyramid and swim within bands of marine shells, including white conch and various pink-painted bivalves–all symbols of water and fertility. Debate, however, has arisen over whether these serpentine creatures represent the same deity that the Aztecs knew as Quetzalcoatl more than six centuries after the fall of Teotihuacan. Quetzalcoatl was many things to the Aztecs, including a god of wind and legendary hero of the Toltecs. Quetzalcoatl could also manifest himself as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Lord of the House of Dawn), a death-dealing warrior aspect of Venus whose rays speared victims. I have shown that the Feathered Serpent of Teotihuacan was also a manifestation of Venus, a god of warfare and blood sacrifice.
The other fanged monster head, with inlaid obsidian eyes and goggles on its mosaic forehead, has proved far more difficult to identify. Although the goggles and the fanged upper jaw are indeed characteristic of the Teotihuacan Storm God as well as the Aztec Tlaloc, this figure appears to be a different creature, one scholars have termed a Storm God-related serpent. It is occasionally depicted in full form with a rattle tail, forked tongue, and often covered with scales. Sugiyama and Karl Taube of the University of California have demonstrated that in these representations the goggle-eyed creature, lacking a lower jaw, represents a war helmet worn by members of the militaristic Feathered Serpent cult.
Teotihuacan’s Great Goddess appears to have played a major role in this militaristic cult. In Teotihuacan art, her attendant priests are virtually indistinguishable from the goggle-eyed warriors responsible for providing captives for sacrifice. Cult priests are shown marching in processions with blood-dripping hearts impaled on great obsidian skewers. They also scatter the blood and related offerings as does their patroness, the Great Goddess, as she presides over a religion that justified war and conquest as a source of water and fertility.
The sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler, Bernardino de Sahagun, vividly described such Venus-related sacrificial practices among the Aztecs of his day: “Of the morning star, the great star, it was said that when…it newly emerged much fear came over them; all were frightened. Everywhere the outlets and openings [of houses] were closed up. It was said that perchance [the light] might bring a cause of sickness, something evil, when it came to emerge. But sometimes it was regarded as benevolent. And also [captives] were slain when it emerged, [that] it might be nourished. They sprinkled blood toward it. With the blood of captives they spattered toward it, flipping the middle finger from the thumb; they cast [the blood] as an offering; they raised it in dedication.” [Sahagun (1953: Book 7, Ch.3, 11-12), The Florentine Codex].
The Feathered Serpent Pyramid was painted almost entirely in hematite red, a dark blood-red color, with decorative bands of the blue-green circles representing the goggles worn by the Storm God. The structure represented nothing less than the Great Goddess herself, the Mother of Waters, made manifest in an architectural mountain. The Aztec word for city, actually the concept of city and community inextricably bound, was Altepetl, meaning “water-mountain.” The Feathered Serpent Pyramid was the ultimate statement of Teotihuacan as the Altepetl. The gruesome physical evidence of the Venus-regulated warfare cult, however, lay beneath the pyramids’s structure.
In 1925, the Mexican archaeologist Pedro Dosal found burials of single individuals, evidently sacrifices, placed in pits just outside each of the pyramids’s four corners. Then, during INAH-sponsored excavations conducted in 1983-84, Sugiyama and Cabrera uncovered three symmetrically places burial pits along the southern side of the pyramid while excavating exploratory trenches. The largest, Burial 190, was a 25-foot trench placed midway along the side. It was flanked by two smaller interments (Burials 153 and 203). Burial 190 contained 18 young males, 169 obsidian projectile points, and more than 4, 000 pieces of worked shell. Many of the skeletons wore collars made of imitation human maxillae (upper jaws) with artificial teeth carved from shell, as well as several real maxillae and mandibles. Behind the pelvic regions of several were small slate disks resembling tezcacuitlapilli, pyrite-inlaid mirrors often worn by Aztec warriors and regularly depicted as part of Toltec and other Highland Mexican military costumes. Most of these 18 individuals were found with their hands crossed at the wrists behind their backs, implying that they had been bound when placed in the tomb. The conclusion of the investigators was that these were sacrificed military personnel who, judging from the positions where they fell when buried, had been placed seated, facing away from the center of the pyramid as if to guard it and whatever it contained. The two interments flanking Burial 190 each contained one individual–a female in Burial 153 and a male in Burial 203. These interments have been likewise interpreted as sacrificial. Stratigraphic evidence has verified that all of these burials were associated with the construction of the pyramid.
The symmetry of the graves strongly suggested that similar multiple burials might exist along the north side and perhaps even on the east and west sides of the structure. This hypothesis was verified when another linear trench (Burial 204) with 18 sacrificed people with similar costume elements and offerings was found in 1986 on the north side. This trench was also flanked by two single intrments completing the dedicatory pattern. Further excavations conducted by Cabrera, Sugiyama, and Cowgill in 1988-89 revealed still more burials along the east side of the pyramid. Again, multiple and single burials included large numbers of obsidian projectile points, numerous worked shell ornaments, and cut shell imitation maxillae that formed elaborate collars. Slate disks were again found beneath most pelvic bones. In Burial 5 , one person with pronounced cranial deformation was found interred with a massive collar composed of nine real human maxillae. Interestingly, in Burial 6, opposite Burial 5, another individual was found with a collar of shell teeth made to resemble those of wolves, coyotes, or dogs.
During the 1988-89 field season, Sugiyama began tunneling directly into the south face of the pyramid in part to search for a central tomb. About a third of the way to the center, he found two additional mass burials. The first was a simple one containing eight young individuals ranging in age from ten to 25 years. They were found in the flexed position; some clearly had had their hands tied behind their backs and had been buried facing the center of the pyramid. Thees people may have represented the number of solar years in the Venus almanac. The second interment held 18 men with substantially richer offerings, 18 slate disks, numerous projectile points and additional necklaces of either artificial or real human and canine jawbones.
Near the heart of the pyramid, excavators broke into an ancient looters’ tunnel. The looters had entered in the southeastern corner, moving diagonally. Modern measurements show that they missed the center by six feet, but that they had located and looted two mass burials to the west side of the center. Both of these (Burials 12 and 13) were badly disturbed, but the quantities of remaining grave goods suggest that these tombs contained the remains of some of the highest status individuals yet found. Burial 13 still had one partially undisturbed and one complete skeleton found with a fine pair of earspools, 21 large beads, and rectangular nose ornament, all of greenstone, as well as a large unusually shaped obsidian projectile point. The discovery of a carved wooden baton in the forma of a stylized serpent head suggested that at least some of the high-status individuals interred there may have held priestly office.
Working east, from the old looters’ tunnel, Sugiyama finally reached the center of the pyramid where he found a mass grave with 20 undisturbed skeletons. These remains, known collectively as Burial 14, were placed directly on the ground in and elliptical pattern along with the richest offerings found to date. All appear to have been adult males laid out in a complex scheme indicating some attention to orientation. Six skeletons were aligned along the pyramid’s east-west axis, while the others tended to face the easternmost individual in the burial. However, this skeleton was indistinguishable from the others, and the rich collection of offerings was seemingly distributed randomly over the whole interment. The offerings, not yet analyzed in detail, included more than 400 greenstone items–among them 18 unique conical objects, figurines, earspools, nose ornaments, beads, and headdress-shaped plaques known as resplandores. More than 800 fine obsidian objects, 3,400 shell pieces, slate disks, animal and plant remains, and items of wood and fiber were found. In addition, archaeologists recovered nine groups of artifacts surrounded by vegetable material–possibly textile fragments. These were most likely specially prepared bundle offerings. There were only a few ceramic finds, including the remains of two vessels modeled in the shape of the Storm God.These offerings appear to have been deposited as part of the sacrificial rite rather than as the personal property of those buried under the pyramid.
It is clear that both the number of individuals within each burial as well as their placement are directly related to the pyramid’s function within the religious life at Teotihuacan. Numbers such as eight, 18, and 20 immediately suggest calendrical significance. The months of the Mesoamerican calendar are 20 days in length. There are 18 full 20-day months in the traditional Mesoamerican 365-day year. Most significant, there are eight years in the Venus almanac. Although the four-directional pattern of the burials is not yet fully understood, it may, like the shape of the underground cave, reflect fundamental concepts of space and time.
Although the remains of more than 100 individuals have been found, the symmetrical placement of the burials suggests that as many as 200 people may have been sacrificed prior to the building’s construction. But who were they? Cowgill favors the idea that they were loyal Teotihuacanos, sacrificed to serve as eternal guardians of a great charismatic leader buried in the structure. There is ample precedent for this practice in Mesoamerica and elesewhere in the world. However, I believe that the remains may be those of enemy warriors and other prisoners captured in battle for sacrifice as part of the Venus warfare cult. The presence of the Storm God vessels in the central burial, a well-known ceramic form associated with water and fertility rites, fits my hypothesis.
Cowgill’s theory and my own, however, are not mutually exclusive. The pyramid, believed to have derived sustenance from sacred sacrifices, may also have been the tomb of a powerful ruler. Those sacrificed there may include palace guards or royal retainers as well as prisoners of war. Certainly the discovery of an undisturbed royal burial would have helped to support the pyramid-tomb hypothesis. Because of the ancient grave-robbers, we may never know if such an individual was ever interred in the structure. Future archaeometric analysis including DNA scanning may provide a key to the identities of the sacrificial victims. Excavations into the core of the Pyramid of the Moon, thought to be undisturbed, may answer the question of whether any of Teotihuacan’s great pyramids was constructed as a ruler’s tomb.
For half a millennium, Teotihuacan prospered. By the mid-seventh century, however, the city appears to have fallen into decline. Although no one dominant cause stands out, factors deriving from its long-term success seem to have spawned the seeds of its dissolution. The general health of the Teotihuacan people was poor and infant mortality high. There are also indications that environmental degradation was taking its toll. Centuries of harvesting wood had drastically depleted the forests, permanent springs were less bountiful, clean drinking water was difficult to obtain, and disease was endemic.But what caused the city’s violent end?
It is an ironic turn of fate that Teotihuacan, which was baptized in a rain of volcanic fire, was consumed in a great man-made conflagration. The archaeological evidence shows unequivocally that sometime before A.D. 750 the ceremonial and administrative heart of the city, all along the Street of the Dead, was systematically and selectively sacked and destroyed by fire. Outlying temple structures were likewise put to the torch,thought the majority of residential complexes were left untouched. But who did it and why?
Clues to Teotihuacan’s demise may lie on a hilltop, about 80 miles to the east at the ruins of Cacaxtla, a fortified acropolis in the state of Tlaxcala, apparently established around A.D. 650-700 by elite Gulf Coast warrior-merchants known as the Olmeca-Xicalanca. The site had received little attention until the mid-1970s when some of the most spectacular murals ever seen in Mesoamerica were unearthed there. These included life-sized jaguar and bird-costumed warriors standing posed on the backs of jaguar serpents and plumed serpents, respectively framed in water bands with numerous aquatic creatures. Further excavations revealed a great tableau of what appeared to be a fearsome battle between dark-painted jaguar-skin costumed Cacaxtla warriors and soldiers in elaborate bird costumes. The murals, which are marvelously preserved, were painted in a Lowland Maya style yet with eclectic mix of iconography for Oaxaca, the Gulf Coast, the Maya region, and Teotihuacan.
Although the scene has been interpreted as a battle, the losers–the bird-costumed soldiers–have no weapons. Furthermore, some of them are dressed as sacrificial victims, painted blue with their hands bound with characteristic sacrificial white paper or cloth ties, a Panmesoamerican symbol of sacrifice. I believe that this is not a battle scene but a mass public sacrifice directly linked to the Venus cult practices at Teotihuacan. On the west wall, the vanquished Bird Warrior Captain stands, hands folded in submission, guarded by a victorious Cacaxtla warlord named Three Deer. The Bird Captain stands in front of a strange white backdrop framed in red Teotihuacan Venus glyphs.
The meaning of this backdrop became clearer after the recent discovery of two new and equally spectacular groups of murals at Cacaxtla. The first was painted on two rectangular columns of a cloistered chamber on the west side of the site. They depict a blue-painted scorpion man and woman. The couple, members of the militaristic Venus cult, stand with upraised arms in a dancing posture above blue water bands on a red background, framed in Teotihuacan Venus glyphs. Each figure wears a jaguar-skin kilt with a massive Oaxaca-style Venus glyph buckle. The upper torso and head of the female did not survive the centuries; the scorpion-tailed man clearly wears a goggle-eyed mask of the Teotihuacan Venus war cult.
When I saw this painted chamber, I realized in one of those moments that all archaeologists live for, that this was the very sacrificial chamber where the humiliated Bird Warrior Captain had been prepared for sacrifice. The Venus glyph backdrop behind the defeated Bird Captain in the “battle” scene was a representation of this very room. Moreover, a representation of this same chamber is included in a previously undeciphered glyph at Cacaxtla–the glyph shows a rectangular box decorated with Teotihuacan Venus glyphs terminating in the well-known scattering hands of the Great Goddess and her attendants. The Bird Warrior’s blood must have been offered in rites evoking the forces of fertility under the auspices of Venus. Nowhere is this concept more graphically represented than in a portrait of one of the Cacaxtla jaguar warriors. He holds a great bundle of darts bound up in blue cloth tied with the same strips of fabric worn by sacrificial victims. From the darts’ obsidian tips, large droplets of blood fall down, filling the water bands that frame the scene. These blood drops are bright blue, having been transformed into the nourishing waters of life.
The last group of murals was found in a sunken chamber called the Temple Rojo. Amid myriad symbols of natural bounty such a s mature maize plants and cacao trees, a Cacaxtla merchant warrior named Four Dogs is dressedin the costume of a well-known Maya trader deity. His merchant pack, laden with Lowland products such as quetzal feathers, rubber for the ball game, jaguar skins, and possibly cacao, is propped up on his lance. Below hi, laid out on the floor for all to walk on, is a remarkable tableau of emaciated captives with sacrificial ties bound around their heads. Between the legs of one of these victims is a burning five-stepped temple-pyramid consumed by flames, a ubiquitous symbol for conquest in the Aztec world. The Templo Rojo murals show us for the first time that this symbol was in use at least 600 years earliear when Teotihuacan was destroyed by fire. Furthermore, on the step riser directly below these captives are the name glyphs of at least seven places Cacaxtla conquered. Two of these places are illustrated with Teotihuacan-style temples. I propose that these place names may be temples or enclaves in or around Teotihuacan. The warrior merchants of Cacaxtla had migrated up along one of their well-traveled routes and established themselves in Tlaxcala as the power or the old city waned. Some of them may have also been part of the foreign population represented in enclaves such as the Merchants’ barrio at Teotihuacan. In time, they, aided by other like communities, simply overran and destroyed the city.
These are immensely exciting times in Teotihuacan research. Current excavations by Cabrera and others are producing wonderful surprises. Just this past August, I visited Cabrera’s new dig in the La Ventilla area, just southwest of the Ciudadela. Surrounded by an army of archaeologists, conservators, and field workers, we walked from one ancient building to the next, passing by city streets that had not been trodden in 1,500 years. I was startled by what I saw in one small room where young workers were carefully removing the dry fill from the face of a red-painted band of murals along the lower walls. To my astonishment, I realized it was a sacrificial chamber just like the one at Cacaxtla. I had been scouring the literature for images of just such a room at Teotihuacan. Here, the red basal band was decorated with Teotihuacan Venus glyphs and with red droplets falling in between, and at the corners were goggles of the Storm God Venus warriors. Other rooms in the compound bore murals of plumed jaguars or pumas of the elite Teotihuacan military orders. Was this the kind of place in which those buried beneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid had been prepared for sacrifice? I will always remember that special day as the twentieth anniversary of my first visit to the mysterious City of the Gods. I could never have imagined that, in 20 years time, stars on walls would be as fascinating as those in the heavens.