To the Mayans, solar eclipses were a sign of celestial collisions – and their astronomers kept sophisticated records to predict them

By | April 3, 2024

We live in a light-polluted world, where street lamps, electronic advertisements, and even backyard lights block out all but the brightest celestial objects in the night sky. But travel to an officially protected “Dark Sky” area, look up at the sky and be amazed.

This is the view of heaven that humans had for millennia. Premodern societies looked to the sky and created cosmography, maps of the sky that provided information for calendars and agricultural cycles. They also created cosmologies, which, in the original use of the word, were religious beliefs to explain the universe. The gods and heaven were inseparable.

The sky is orderly and cyclical in nature, so watch and record long enough and you will determine their rhythm. Many societies were able to accurately predict lunar eclipses, and some were also able to predict solar eclipses such as the one that will occur over North America on April 8, 2024.

The path of totality, where the moon will completely block the sun, will cross into Mexico on the Pacific coast before entering the United States in Texas, where I teach the history of technology and science, and will be seen as a partial solar eclipse all over the world. lands of the ancient Maya. This follows the annular solar eclipse of October 2023, when it was possible to observe the ‘ring of fire’ around the sun from many ancient Mayan ruins and parts of Texas.

A millennia ago, two such eclipses in the same area within six months would have sent Mayan astronomers, priests and rulers into a frenzy of activity. I have seen a similar madness – albeit for different reasons – here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where we will be on the path of totality. During this period between the two eclipses, I felt privileged to share my interest in the history of astronomy with students and the community.

Ancient astronomers

The ancient Maya were perhaps one of the greatest sky-gazing societies. As experienced mathematicians, they recorded systematic observations of the movement of the sun, planets and stars.

Based on these observations, they created a complex calendar system to regulate their world – one of the most accurate to pre-modern times.

Astronomers have carefully observed the sun and aligned monumental structures, such as pyramids, to track solstices and equinoxes. They also used these structures, as well as caves and wells, to mark the zenith days – the twice a year in the tropics where the sun is directly overhead and vertical objects cast no shadows.

Mayan scribes kept records of the astronomical observations in codices, hieroglyphic folding books made of fig bark paper. The Dresden Codex, one of four surviving ancient Mayan texts, dates to the 11th century. The pages contain a wealth of astronomical knowledge and religious interpretations and provide evidence that the Mayans could predict solar eclipses.

From the codex’s astronomical tables, researchers know that the Mayans followed the lunar nodes, the two points where the moon’s orbit intersects the ecliptic—the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, which from our vantage point is the path of the Moon. the sun through our sky. They also created tables divided into the 177-day eclipse seasons, marking the days when eclipses were possible.

Heavenly battle

But why invest so much in tracking the sky?

Knowledge is power. Keeping track of what happened at the time of certain celestial events can give you advance warning and take proper precautions if cycles repeat. Priests and rulers would know how to act, what rituals to perform, and what sacrifices to make to the gods to ensure that the cycles of destruction, rebirth, and renewal continued.

In the Mayan belief system, sunsets were associated with death and decay. Every evening the sun god Kinich Ahau made the perilous journey through Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, to be born again at dawn. Solar eclipses were seen as a ‘broken sun’ – a sign of possible cataclysmic destruction.

Kinich Ahau was associated with prosperity and good order. His brother Chak Ek – the morning star, which we now know as the planet Venus – was associated with war and discord. They had an adversarial relationship and fought for supremacy.

Their battle was visible in heaven. During solar eclipses, planets, stars and sometimes comets can be seen during totality. If positioned correctly, Venus will shine brightly near the eclipsed Sun, which the Mayans interpreted as Chak Ek during the attack. This is alluded to in the Dresden Codex, where a diving Venus god appears in the solar eclipse tables, and in the coordination of solar eclipses with the Venus cycles in the Madrid Codex, another Mayan folding book from the late 15th century.

Because Kinich Ahau – the sun – was hidden behind the moon, the Mayans thought he was dying. Renewal rituals were necessary to restore balance and get him back on track.

The nobility, especially the king, performed blood sacrifices, piercing their bodies and collecting the drops of blood to burn as an offering to the sun god. This ‘blood of kings’ was the highest form of sacrifice, intended to strengthen Kinich Ahau. Maya believed that the creator gods gave their blood and mixed it with corn dough to create the first humans. In turn, the nobility gave a small portion of their own life force to feed the gods.

Time stands still

Leading up to the solar eclipse in April, I feel like I’m completing a personal cycle of my own, which takes me back to previous career paths: first as an aerospace engineer who loved her orbital mechanics classes and enjoyed astronomy in the backyard; and then as a doctoral student in history, studying how Mayan culture survived after the Spanish conquest.

Een afbeelding van de Maya-zonnegod Kinich Ahau, gemaakt tussen de zesde en negende eeuw, nu gehuisvest in het Mexicaanse Nationale Museum voor Antropologie.  <a href=DeAgostini/Getty Images” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/6fbyqoHa.WpJEFAAByUMHA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY1MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_conversation_us_articles_815/d2529963e5685eab5 346d8fdd945eb5c” />

For me, as with the ancient Mayans, the total solar eclipse will be an opportunity not only to look upward, but also to consider both the past and the future. Viewing the solar eclipse is something our ancestors have done since time immemorial and will do long into the future. It is awe-inspiring in the original sense of the word: it seems as if time stops for a moment, as all eyes turn to the sky and converge, as we participate in the same spectacle as our ancestors and descendants.

And whether you believe in divine messages, battles between Venus and the sun, or in the beauty of science and the natural world, this event brings people together. It’s humbling, and it’s also really cool.

I only hope that Kinich Ahau will grace us with his presence in a cloudless sky and once again defeat Venus, which is a morning star on April 8.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It was written by: Kimberly H. Breuer, University of Texas at Arlington.

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Kimberly H. Breuer does not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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