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.
|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
|"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."
|Copy of the Dresden |
Codex's page 51.
|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
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