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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.