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The Art of the Living Sky: The Mesoamerican Other-Worldview
Edmond H. Wollmann
San Diego State University
Spring Semester, May 13, 2001
The Maya and Aztec cultures have been dramatized in many ways, some unrealistically. But their astrological and numeric systems have been difficult to decipher, and still are not clearly understood. What is coming to light, is the fact that their astrological world was profound and their culture revolved around divination and prediction. Not unlike other near and far east cultures, the development of this astrological and numerical system of divination was meant to allow messages from the divine to speak to the people and guide them in their lives. Explored is the latest evidence of the workings not only of the numeric and astrological systems, but the profound metaphysical orientation of these cultures that were isolated from the influence of either Greek or Roman cosmology.
The Maya believed that stars and constellations, the planets and the moon, were living beings who interacted with the cycles, natural and social, of the Middleworld or physical world (Sacred Space, Holy Time and The Maya World, page 76). (1) In the west, the Babylonians are responsible for pagan astrology as the result of the same skywatching and beliefs. How is it that cultures separated by vast oceans evolved similar astrological foundations for civilized societies? To most of the Mesoamerican ancient cultures the world of the stars and heavens were as alive as the world of humankind who inhabited the Middleworld. For these ancient cultures, the act of observing the sky and stars was not for data collecting as a science, but a source of insight and understanding about Xibalba (2) and its workings and powers. As research continues, the evidence for astrological significance only increases. The discovery of emphemerides for Mars and its retrograde periods (3) along with Venus, constellations such as the Pleiades and Orion, astronomical orientation of pyramidal structures and temples, are all in evidence archaeologically from northern Mexico to Guatemala. From the art of Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, the sky patterns reflected the actions and interactions of gods, spirits, and ancestors with the physical beings of the Middleworld. The other-world Gods were made manifest in the Kings and shaman, and reflected in the Middleworld of animals and man. These understandings and beliefs were not applied to only Kings or the elite, but the populace of Mesoamerica as well, who believed they must adjust their living to those patterns or suffer the consequences of being out of harmony with the heavens.
The sky is the most constant aspect of nature with regard to human periodicity. Because of the slow movement of the heavens and precessions, the Maya, like many other ancient skywatchers, (4) relied on it for predictability and cyclic prediction. All Mesoamerican peoples shared the calendric and astronomical information of the heavens as a critical part of their sculpture, art and architecture. But like the Babylonians, there were no "astronomers" there were only astrologers, and information about the sky was critical for astrological, not astronomical reasons.
It was this sacred time shown by the heavens that keeps the Mesoamerican world running and on course. In the Olmec pre-classic cultures, the foundations of the astrological premise were laid down. The Mesoamerican perspective of, and preoccupation with, the Cardinal points (6) is because, the equinoctial points of the sun's passage, mark the movement of the celestial world and therefore, the Middleworld. Man in the Middleworld then occupies the center from which divination occurs. The number 5 and symbolism drawn to depict this concept is found in the symbol called the quincunx at Teotihuacan along with abstracted star disks. Venus and the Sun and their relationship are seen at almost every site, and at Copan, the planets are conveyed to be the ancestors of the people themselves. Alignment of the cities and structures then becomes extremely important for the health (7) of each city. The Quetzal bird embodies this Sun/Venus archetype. At Monte Alban, the celestial bird symbolizes the embodiment of the sun. The world tree defines the Milky way and the ecliptic, and/or axis mundi that then defines the north-south axis of the Middleworld. These directions are the directions the gods guide the shamans through as they enter and exit the other worlds. This world was symbolized in the Olmec world by the Supernaturals; the Gods who guide the sun on its journey through the underworld and back.
Everything revolves around the axis mundi, where the world tree acts as the center where the sky can be interpreted. This orientation can be seen in the construction and orientation of the complexes at La Venta where the earliest pyramidal evidence is found. It is again reflected on the inscriptions on the body of the Las Limas figurine. (above) These Supernaturals or Gods are represented in the Were-Jaguar, the Dragon-snake, Fish-like Underworld Gods and Stripe-eyed God. Hence, time and space are not just places or events, but sacred points with archetypal references, that define where we are within the sacred cosmological picture, and allowed these cultures to divine where they must go in the future. The Shaman was the King and the King was the embodiment of these sacred unfolding times and places.
In the Mayan culture the Cardinal points are also assigned colors, basically the primary colors (see figure 2.1); east is lakin red is chac, the east, which is the primary direction because this is where the sun rises, white is zac in the tree of the north which is xaman, yellow is nohol kan in the tree of the south, and west is black as chilkin ek . Because the sky moves from east to west, sacred writings and delineations of astrological indices were called the "red and black." The Middleworld human in the center (the quincunx) then divines the world by his position in it as the Shaman reads the messages from the other-worlds (8) and ancestors. This is then developed in the Mayan world with a complex calendric system of divination.
The Mesoamerican contribution to the high civilization of the world was their creation of the calendrical systems and sophisticated writing as a direct result of this need to be in harmony with the celestial cycles.(9) There were two such methods of recording time: The 260-day calendar, and the 365-day calendar that evolved at the beginning of the late formative period when the Zapotecs flourished at Monte Alban, Oaxaca. Because the Mesoamericans counted toes and fingers, their numerical system is based on 20 instead of 10. But do these systems both numeric and astrological belong to the Mesoamerican cultures as a unique innovation in reality? The Babylonians were said to have ancestry in the Sumerians, who came from the east.
The Chinese astrologers of the Han Dynasty had a complex system of divination that uses the exact same basic parameters for not only calculation of eclipses but for descriptions of Gods and the organization of the heavens. (10):
The 260-day cycle calendar is the oldest and most important ritual calendar in Mesoamerica. Its use can be traced as far back as the 6th Century B.C. when the Zapotecs began to chart public achievements. But the origins are still not known for sure. Speculation about it being relatively close to the period of human gestation have been used to explain the period and number. This makes sense as that is the period of emergence from gestation into the Middleworld-- But to an astrologer, 260-270 is the degree range of a square between positions or the final quadrature of the Cardinal points by longitude of the Sun's movement from the East. In other words, it equates to the Winter Solstice in December that relates to (in tropical western astrology) the sun's entrance into Capricorn; the peak of immersion into, or manifestation of, the physical world in Pagan astrological terms--when the sun begins to return to its zenith in the sky that it will complete in June at the Summer Solstice. (12) Because of the Sun's importance in Mayan cosmology, this is no minor movement or measurement. At the late formative site at Cerros in Belize the blending of Venus and the solar cult are depicted with the Sun and Venus paired as both the morning and evening star, as a personification of the axis-mundi. Kin or sun symbols are found on the cheeks of the masks of supernatural faces at the site. The references are used in conjunction with the Jaguar--meaning the "sun at night" or in astrological terms, the sun in the underworld or before its rise in latitude that occurs on the winter Solstice, its rise from the Nadir or underworld. The parallels to Babylonian astrology in this sense are profound.
As in other skywatching cultures, the Sun's change is of paramount importance and is why the Cardinal points are revered as they are in the Mesoamerican cultures as the quincunx. At Palenque the sarcophagus of Pacal (which translates as "shield") and the Temple of Inscriptions is probably the most powerful astrological art of Mesoamerica. Not only does the temple have nine levels of the gods of the underworld (planets) but the celestial bird of the heavens sits above the world tree and the symbols for the planets surround the outer edges of the relief. As he descends into the jaws of the Underworld the Temple of Inscriptions becomes a funerary monument with the same function as the Egyptian pyramids, complete with astrological iconography and celestial references.
The Mesoamerican cultures' isolation from the Greek and Roman influence gives us a more distilled perspective of what the world would may have looked more like without them. The fact that these cultures did not use the wheel for working or practical purposes (16), nor used metal implements, instead shaping obsidian glass knives, may simply be an indication that the rituals remained focused on the other-world spirit and divining a more metaphysical intent to existence rather than any indication of intellectual achievements. The achievements not only in architecture at the palace at Palenque, but the calendric and astronomic accuracy is evidence enough of intellectual efficacy.
The world view of astrological perspectives in Mesoamerican development seem no less --and perhaps more so--advanced than any system on earth. More curious is the fact that it so closely resembles all of them. Perhaps the most profound knowledge that will come from these "untainted" cultures, will be of a psychological and philosophical nature rather than of either architectural or materialistic evolution--that we have seen with the influence of Greece. Perhaps the level of transformation achieved, is the true purpose for living. Leaving the physical world without remorse or regret is the real triumph, and clinging to it in materialistic fashion, giving power only to the "Middleworld" is true failure. Perhaps.
Nezahualcoyotl, the poet-king of Texcoco writes:
I, Nezahualcoyotl, ask this:
Is it true one really lives on the earth?
Not forever on earth, only a little while here.
Though it be jade it falls apart, though it be gold it wears away,
Not forever on earth, only a little while here.
To another poet, Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui, life itself is an illusion:
Thus spoke Tochihuitzin, thus spoke Coyolchiuhqui:
We only rise from sleep, we only come to dream,
it is not true, it is not true, that we come on earth to live.
As an herb in springtime, so is our nature.
Our hearts give birth, make sprout, the flowers of our flesh.
Some open their corollas, then they become dry.
Thus spoke Tochihuitzin, thus spoke Coyolchiuhqui.
Yet finally Nezahualcoyotl came to the realization that 'flowers, songs' never perish, and it is only through them that the truly wise man will approach the ultimate reality, the dual creator divinity in whom all things are contained, the Giver of Life. As an artist paints a book, so he has painted us with flowers and songs:
With flowers You paint, O Giver of life!
With songs You give color, with songs
You shade those who will live on the earth.
Later You will destroy eagles and jaguars:
we live only in Your painting
here, on the earth.
With black ink You will blot out
all that was friendship,
You give shading
to those who will live on the earth.
We live only in Your book of paintings,
here on the earth.(17)
1) To the Maya, there were three main worlds or realms, the upper world or sky gods, the Middleworld (the physical world) and the underworld (the nadir or dark depths of the spirit world).
2) Xibalba is the word for the realm of the dead.
3) Lecture on March 19, 2001, SDSU.
4) The similarity between the Astrology of the Skywatching Babylonians with their focus on the Venus cycle is amazingly similar to the Maya.
5) Aveni, The Sky in Mayan Literature, Introduction: Making Time.
6) Evidence that this was the case in Northern Native American tribes is accruing as well.
7) In the Mesoamerican worldview spiritual health, or alignment with the other-world is the most important consideration of "health."
8) Through rituals such as bloodletting to evoke the vision serpent who would bring messages from the ancestors and those in the lineage.
9) Miller, Mary Ellen, The Art of Mesoamerica, chapter 3, The Late Formative, page 38.
10) Although there is little evidence at this point, there is a striking focus on the number 9 in Mayan construction of pyramids such as Palenque, that are supposed to represent levels. In modern astrology evolving from the Babylonians, there are 9 planets used to describe the levels of consciousness based on their orbital distance from the sun.
11) The Maya, Michael Coe, The Rise of The Maya Civilization, page 57.
12) Which is the pagan reason for celebration in European parts of the world, and eventually celebration of the "Christmas" season when the Christians usurped pagan rituals into their religion.
13) Aveni, The Sky in Mayan Literature, Celestial Lights, The Road of Light, page 27.
14) In western astrology, the Nadir is known as the innermost point or most spiritual aspect and connection the chart or horoscope has for connections to the underworld or unconscious.
15) Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, page 128.
16) The wheel has been found on toys at Veracruz during the classic period.
17) The Aztecs in 1519, Mexico, Michael Coe, page 194.
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Edmond H. Wollmann P.M.A.F.A.