Saturday, August 12, 2017


Courtesy Nasa/SDO.

Eclipses are exciting events where either the moon passes between the earth -- creating a solar eclipse -- and the sun or the earth passes between the sun and the moon -- creating a lunar eclipse.  Let's take some time to explore the ancient Maya perspective on it.

Eclipse Names
Solar eclipse glyph on the left,lunar 
eclipse glyph on the right. 
In the Dresden Codex, the lunar glyph 
is never without the solar one
Archaeologists think they've found various ways the Maya wrote "eclipse," at least for in the Postclassic Period. For the most popular of these, two "wings" (one mostly dark and one light) go on either side of a smaller sun glyph for "solar eclipse" or moon glyph for "lunar eclipse." The picture on the right shows two examples (from a drawing in Cyrus Thomas's Aids to the Study of the Maya Codices.)
"Pa' k'in" from the Dresden Codex's page 54.
(You may see people call it pa'al k'in.)

The ancient Maya of this period also had phrases they used sometimes to mean an eclipse. Though they could be used to mean real ones, these phrases were more popular when they wanted to say a certain era/length of time had ended. One of the known phrases was "pa' k'in" (thought to be a short form for "pa'al k'in"), which means "broken sun." 

What The Maya Knew About Eclipses
Copy of the Dresden
Codex's page 51. 
There are points in the earth's and moon's orbits where either the sun or the moon go through an eclipse -- these points are called nodes. Eclipses run in a cycle (called the saros cycle that begins again after about 18 years, 11 days, 8 hours. Did the ancient Maya know about these important parts of eclipse math? So far it looks like the answer is no. But they did know how to get close to predicting eclipses.
This glyph may describe
darkness during a solar eclipse.

They'd figured out that about 177/178 days (which makes 6 lunar months) or 148 days (5 lunar months) after an eclipse -- lunar or solar -- an eclipse of the same type as before might happen. You can find examples of these numbers various places. One is the site of Xultun, which has them written on the inside of a building. Another example is the Dresden Codex. 

The Dresden Codex has eight pages (pages 51 through 58) on eclipses. (Which kind of eclipse hasn't been decided for sure.) Archaeologists have found both number 177 and 148 in these pages. There are years' worth of eclipses written down there -- either ones people had seen or ones that had been predicted -- a length of time lasting 11,960 days. People still wonder if it was a chart that could only be used one time, or if the Maya were somehow able to use it again and again, adjusting it when they had to do so.
Depiction of a solar eclipse.
From the Dresden Codex's
eclipse pages.

So if the ancient Maya were able to sort of predict eclipses, did they realize that they were watching planets and their shadows? It seems they didn't. Instead, it looks like they thought solar eclipses (and maybe lunar ones too) happened because a creature was biting the sun. Various old accounts after contact with the Spanish say the Maya -- depending on the community -- thought the creature was an ant, some kind of cat, or Venus. In the codices, there are images of serpent figures that look like they're trying to eat the sun. These serpents may actually be Venus.

How They Observed Eclipses
The ancient Maya may have used a y-shaped stick to help them look at the sky's objects. They May have used mirrors (made from stone they'd polished) to watch eclipses. Bowls filled with water may have been another eclipse watching tool.

What They Meant
The ancient Maya, from what archaeologists can tell, may have thought that eclipses, lunar and solar, were dangerous. It's also possible that they thought a solar eclipse could be the start of the end of the current world. (The Maya believed there had been worlds before this one.) However, it looks like eclipses weren't always seen as dangerous -- it's possible that eclipses were dangerous during certain "dangerous" times. 

To keep the sun from being swallowed, the ancient Maya thought they could stop an eclipse if they made lots of noise -- doing things like making their dogs howl and by beating drums. The noise was supposed to scare off the creature causing the eclipse.

Terminal Classic Record of An Eclipse 

Unless calculations are mistaken, on July 16, 790, the ancient Maya recorded a solar eclipse. The evidence is Stela 3 from the site of Santa Elena Poco Uinic or just Poco Uinic, a site in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The eclipse would have happened not long after noon there.


"Totality: The Great American Eclipses of 2017 and 2024"; Mark Littmann & Fred Espenak; 2017

"Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica"; Anne S. Dowd, Susan Milbrath (editors); 2015

"Beyond the “Dresden Codex”: New Insights into the Evolution of Maya Eclipse Prediction"; Vincent H. Malmström

"Daily Life in Maya Civilization" 2nd Edition; Robert J. Sharer; 2009

ASTRONOMY 1210 (O'Connell): INTRODUCTION TO THE SKY AND THE SOLAR SYSTEMMaya Astr 341 Class: Notes on the Maya

Arqueología Mexicana: El símbolo maya para eclipse

NASA: Glossary of Solar Eclipse Terms

Mesoweb: The PARI Journal 13(2), 2012, pp. 3-16: "Exploring the 584286 Correlation between the Maya and European Calendars"; Simon Martin, Joel Skidmore

"Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars'"; Susan Milbrath; 1999

Project Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg's Aids to the Study of the Maya Codices, by Cyrus Thomas

University of Victoria Astronomy: Arif Babul: WELCOME TO MY ASTROCOURSE WEBPAGES: Physics 303: The Mayan Civilization

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ancient Maya Astronomy

Maya glyph thought to mean 'solar eclipse.'

Without any special tools to bring things into closer view, the ancient Maya watched the skies, studying the stars, various planets, the moon and the sun. They may have been trying to find ways that the cycles of the objects they observed were connected.

Evidence of these studies can be found in monument inscriptions, the Postclassic codices -- and even in their buildings, which they would orient towards various celestial objects. Let's learn more about what's currently understood about ancient Maya astronomy.

It looks like the ancient Maya had constellations (and a zodiac), though there's a lot of uncertainty about what they were. One constellation that the ancient Maya may have had was the Pleiades, whose shape may have been viewed as a rattlesnake's rattle. 

Another constellation they may have had was made up of part of Orion. This constellation of theirs was either made of Orion's belt or made of the left-hand star of the belt and Orion's "legs." The three stars may have been seen as three hearthstones connected to creation -- but there may have been another idea among them that the stars were seen as a turtle.

It doesn't look like the ancient Maya ever figured out that Earth is ball-shaped or that it orbits the sun. Instead, the ancient Maya thought that our planet was the middle of all layers of reality. They thought that it was a crocodile/crocodile-like creature or caiman or a turtle, and they thought that they lived on the back -- another theory says these were just metaphors. (There's also art that shows Earth as a creature with two heads called kawak.)

They thought that they lived above their underworld and below a place that we call the upperworld. (And it's possible they believed the underworld had 9 layers and the upper world had 13 layers.) The upperworld is where the ancient Maya thought the celestial objects that were gods lived.

They thought that the world was made of four parts or quarters. Each of the four had certain things connected to them -- one of these was colors: east was red, west was black, south was yellow and north was white. The center of their world had a color too, but which color depends on the source: examples from sources include blue, green or blue-green.

The ancient Maya knew about lunar and solar eclipses, and sort of knew how to predict them. They used two groups of moon-based months, 148 days (five months) and 177/178 days (six months) as a way of figuring out when eclipses would occur. One artifact that shows they studied eclipses is the Dresden Codex; pages 51 through 58 look like they were for eclipses. (Whether they were lunar or solar is debated). 

Solar eclipses seem to have been an event that the ancient Maya thought was dangerous. Though perhaps they were dangerous if they happened in certain "bad" astrological times. 

An 819-day count may have been used by the Maya in the Classic Period to track Jupiter. The tun (a period of 360 days) and the katun (20 tuns or 7,200 days) may have been connected to Jupiter. The ancient Maya tracked Jupiter in order to time their wars to happen in connection certain positions of that planet. (This count is thought to have been used with Saturn as well, perhaps along with other cycles.) 

A god that archaeologists call K'awiil or god K might be connected to Jupiter. This god is also connected to the sky, lightning, snakes, and storms as well as ancestors and rulers. 

The ancient Maya had a cycle of 780 days that tracked Mars. And it seems they thought there was a supernatural creature that was linked with the planet. Archaeologists call this creature the Mars Beast. (The creature might be linked with the rainy season too.)

The Maya tracked Mercury, using the number 117. (Mercury's orbit is more precisely 115.8 days). You can see evidence for this in the Dresden Codex. 

The Milky Way
The Milky Way may have been thought to be a path/road that the spirits of the dead traveled on. Another idea among them was that it was a river -- another idea it seems they had was that it was a river with a crocodile-like creature in it. The ancient Maya also associated the Milky Way with three things: rain, wind and lightning.

The ancient Maya followed the moon's path, but it doesn't so far seem that they had an official, separate moon calendar. What they did have was what we call today the "lunar series," which was part of inscriptions. The lunar series describes information about the moon on a particular date, including how far along in the month it was. Moon months to the Maya could be 29 days or 30 days, depending on the month.

The moon itself was connected with eclipses. There was an idea among the ancient Maya, among other ideas they had, that eclipses were fights between the sun and the moon. 

As for supernatural connections, the goddess Ix Chel may or may not have been a 'young' moon goddess (as well as a goddess of other things.) But there are those who don't think she was connected to the moon at all -- instead they think there's a different goddess, which can be seen in the Dresden Codex, on page 49a.


The ancient Maya followed Saturn's orbit with a cycle of 378 days. They also, as you probably read above, used an 819-day cycle for Saturn (as well as Jupiter), perhaps along with other cycles. It seems that, like Venus, the ancient Maya used certain positions of Saturn and Jupiter to time wars. 

An aspect of the god Pawaaj (or god N) named Pawaaj Sahb'iin could have been the god Saturn. Or he may have been Saturn's messenger. 

The ancient Maya tracked the sun's path across the sky (called the ecliptic), which in their art they showed as a double-headed snake. They would build their buildings according to the various points of the sun's path, such as the equinoxes. 

One example is this: in the Preclassic Period, it was popular to orient your structure to both the solstices' sunsets and the solstices' sunrises. There was even a type of building group they would construct as a kind of sundial -- these are called E groups by archaeologists.

To the ancient Maya, the sun was also a god. They thought he had different aspects -- one was the 'jaguar sun,' which he became at night and went through the underworld. This god was also connected to kings. Names archaeologists use for the Maya sun god is K'inich Ahaw and god G.

This brightest planet in the solar system was to the ancient Maya a very important "star." One name for Venus that the ancient Maya used for the planet was Chak Ek' or Great Star.  From what has been found, Venus was a celestial object that represented violence. How?

It seems rulers used parts of its orbit to figure out times for wars to get captives to kill as sacrifices. (However, nowadays, it looks like the ancient Maya more often used Jupiter and Saturn to time their wars more often than Venus.)

But there are also many theories about Venus's aspects and functions.  One theory says that there was a belief among the ancient Maya that it made eclipses happen.

Consideration: 63 Day Cycle
Unless further evidence shows otherwise, in the Classic Period at least, there was a 63-day cycle that was used to sync different celestial objects' cycles.  In the examples found, the 63-day cycle looks like it was for fire rituals for the god Pawaaj Sahb'iin. 


PubMed: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: "Ancient Maya documents concerning the movements of Mars"; Harvey M. Bricker, Anthony F. Aveni, and Victoria R. Bricker; 2001 Feb 13

"Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars"; Susan Milbrath; 1999

Exploration Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 2: "Mayan Meltdown UF Geologists' Analysis Of Ancient Lakebeds Leads To A Theory About The Decline Of Mayan Civilization"

"The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives"; Heather Irene McKillop; 2004

"Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities"; Karen Bassie-Sweet; 2008

"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia"; Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster (editors); 2001

The PARI Journal: 14(1), 2013, 6-12; "Patterns in the Dresden Codex"; Cara G. Tremain

"Archaeoastronomy and the Maya"; Gerardo Aldana y Villalobos, Edwin L. Barnhart (editors); 2014

"Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica"; Anne S. Dowd, Susan Milbrath (editors); 2015

The PARI Journal 15 (1), 11-24, 2014: "Alternative Functions of Distance Numbers in Maya Calendrical Texts: Codices vs. Monuments"; Victoria Bricker, Anthony Aveni