The Pleiades in Maya Archaeoastronomy

All developing civilizations exhibit a reverence for the sky and its contents.

Today we no longer have a need for practical astronomy in our daily lives.

Though we may try, we cannot really appreciate the degree to which the minds of the ancients were preoccupied with astronomical pursuits.

The heavens touched nearly every aspect of their culture: myths, religions, astrological predictions, weather predictions, agriculture, harvesting and hunting, celebrations and festivities, astronomical predictions, design and construction of pyramids, temples, cities and ceremonial centers. In many cases we found strong relationships between the above activities.

In the case of old mayan people, we can constrain its influence in the ancient mesoamerica, and more precisely in the zone of Gulf Coast, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the actual territory of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.

However, it is interesting that much of mathematical knowledge, interest around heavens, architectonic knowledge and ways to measure time in cycles, come from Olmec civilization around 1000 years B.C.

The period of greatest sophistication in the civilization of Mesoamerica occurred during A.D. 300-900, the called Classic Period, and characterized principally by the appearance of highly organized settlements, an advanced calendar, a complex religious pantheon, and the rise of social elites.

In this period we found cities such as Tikal, Copan and Palenque.

Much of knowledge about Mesoamerica civilizations comes from fragments of original manuscripts or “codices”. In the case of Maya, we have only four: Dresden, Paris, Madrid and Grolier. This contains, among other things, information pertaining to the heavens: lunar and solar almanacs, eclipses, even a Venus ephemeris usable for more than 100 years.

A few more codices survive from Central Mexico, or Mexica-Aztec people.

From the Madrid Codex, a Maya document written shortly before the conquest, reflects the central role of astronomy among the civilizations of Mesoamerica. It shows an astronomer observing the stars.

Seated at his station or place of observation, he seems to be plunking them out of the sky with his extended eyes. The skywatcher is surrounded by hieroglyphs and Maya numbers which presumably relate to his astronomical events.

Stargazing may have been a common occupation among the nobility.

One of the most important pieces of information from heaven, among ancient civilizations, was the strong relationships between to survive, erect buildings and measure astronomical positions.

In this sense, it is well known that both natural and artificial constructions were used as astronomical marks, in order to constrain dates, calendars, oversee weather and obtain food from harvesting or hunting.

A natural construction is, for example, a hill, a volcano, or a far panorama with enough irregularities.

However, in the plain Yucatan Peninsula we do not have such natural things. So, probably this is one of the main reasons for constructing estelas, monoliths, or pyramids to be used as artificial astronomical marks.

The best example is Chichen itza, with the well-known light and shadow spectacle in the north stairs: every equinox a dragon or snail is drawed, and it is associated with Kukulcan, the feathered serpent.

Of course, there are many other markers that probably are much more important but less known. For example, columns and wells that show with real precision the passage of the Sun exactly over our head, the zenithal pass of the Sun.

In this hotel we have an astronomical mark.

Exactly over your head you can observe, in different moments of the year, the group of stars that we call Pleiades. The period of time to observe the Pleiades is between September and January, But if you come to this position in the last days of October and the first days of November, exactly at midnight, you can observe this star cluster through this artificial window.

In the same way that Ancient Maya constructed buildings to mark astronomical positions, the group of architects in this hotel left us that window in the sky to appreciate and put into value the Mayan knowledge about heaven.

But, why Pleiades? Was this star cluster really important for Ancient maya civilization? Well, we have strong evidence that Pleiades was important for Mexicas or Aztecs, and other civilizations around the world.

But, we will reserve this talk for another day. Or if you prefer, for the beach club, where we have telescopes and binocular to observe, not the Pleiades, because their are really near to the Sun, or they appear early in the dawn or midnight, but another star cluster that it is visible right now and is similar to Pleiades.

Let me show you a final thing, not only about Maya archaeoastronomy, but used by other ancient civilizations. This is: Orientation.

Orientation, as the root word suggests, originally meant the angular deviation in direction from the true east or Orient, a place chosen perhaps because it represented the median position of sunrises over the course of the year—the region one faced to pray to the sun god.

So, the question is, In which direction is the Orient? Early in the morning we know that without problems, but right now?

We can use stars in order to find, in an approximate way, the cardinal points: north, south, east and west.

In the night, around the year, we can use two groups of stars to find the north. One of these is the Big Dipper, which is part of the body of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The other is the peculiar 3 or M, in the Cassioepia constellation.

Then, with these two asterisms we can find the north.

In ancient Maya, cardinal points were part of its cosmovision. The whole mayan cosmogony was divided in thirteen floors or levels, with the Ceiba tree just in the level on earth.

The sacred tree was considered as a link between the underworld and the superior levels in which we found the stars.

So, on the terrestrial level, orientation was an important issue that was resolved with the visibility and position of stars at night and the Sun during the day.

For the Maya a single word, kin, signified time, day and sun. The directions of the petals of the floral design on some kin glyphs probably correspond to the extreme positions of the sun along the horizon.

It is common that time and space is divided in four parts on the terrestrial level.

The division of each of these cosmograms into four parts with the world at the center emphasizes the importance of the four world quarters. Each world direction had ist associated god, or bacab or sky bearer and color, a concept which was widespread through Mesoamerica.

The Maya called the east likin or li’kin, the direction “where the Sun rises”, it was represented by the red color on the sunrise. The west or “black for sunset” was chikin or chi’kin, meaning “where the sun sets”. They use of kin as the second syllable signifies the paramount nature of the sunrise-sunset axes. North, or xaman, means “on the right hand of the Sun” and was symbolized by white; and south, nohol or no’hol, means “on the left hand of the Sun”, and was yellow.

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