The Maya pyramids not only hold the deepest essence of their culture but are proof of sophisticated astronomy and knowledge of the Universe.
The great astronomical knowledge of ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and the perfect alignment of the Egyptian pyramids with the stars is often talked about, but little is said about the sophisticated Maya astronomy. In fact, it has taken Western societies more than five centuries to understand that Maya knowledge is more than just meaningless codices, but has a deep connection to the cosmos and that the ancient peoples already possessed information that modern man has only recently discovered thanks to his technology.
A vast corpus of written indigenous science, which the Spaniards fought so hard to eradicate, has been rediscovered and thanks to this, little by little, the great Maya wisdom about the cosmos and how this knowledge formed the basis of their culture is better understood.
In the 16th century, with the arrival of the Spanish conquest in Mesoamerica, the men coming from the Old World collided with pre-Hispanic life. Their worldviews, traditions, and wisdom shocked the Spaniards, who tried to abruptly reform the Mesoamerican cultures. In the process, dozens of codices were destroyed, and with this, the explanation of why their impressive pyramids are carefully aligned with the sky, the stars, and astronomical phenomena. Unfortunately (or fortunately), many of the codices escaped the flames through the hands of looters. Thus, the sacred writings of the Maya ended up appearing in foreign libraries many years later.
The Resurgence of Ancestral Astronomical Knowledge
When astronomical knowledge began to emerge from the few codices that are still preserved, archaeologists and researchers set their eyes on the Maya territories that extend through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. There, vast ceremonial complexes have been found that served as astronomers’ workshops and give clues as to how they may have developed their great wisdom of the cosmos.
The codices have also played a crucial role in learning more about it. One of the codices that were saved from the flames and destruction is the one kept in the Dresden library, which fell into the hands of a German librarian and amateur mathematician named Ernst Förstemann. Although the librarian was unable to decipher the glyphs written by the Maya, he did manage to decipher the numbers inscribed on one of the tablets. According to Förstemann, these correspond to exact dates within the 260-day Maya calendar.
As far as we know, the Maya were governed by a sophisticated and precise calendar called Tzolk’in. The Tzolk’in represented a sacred cycle of 260 days, which was constituted by twenty trecenas (20 days counted 13 times). Within this calendar, all the traditions of Maya ritual life and cycles of days that intertwine like gears of perfect knowledge make sense. And although little by little, part of the ancestral wisdom has been lost, today, the traditional Maya peoples continue to use it in their daily lives.
Förstemann was able to understand that the exact dates inscribed in the codex follow the sacred cycle of the Tzolk’in and mark within it the movements of the planet Venus in the celestial vault. The table shows how the planet oscillates across the sky positioning itself as the morning star, then disappearing and appearing as the evening star, almost exactly five times in eight years.
In addition to this, the Maya also calendarized the movements of other stars with high precision, perhaps the most accurate of all ancient cultures, as they knew the movements of the Sun, the stars, and some planets and even understood the lunar phases with great accuracy. Tables have also been deciphered in rescued codices that speak of a calendar of solar eclipses.
The Connection between the Cosmos and Ceremonial Centers
Even for modern human beings, with all the scientific and technological advances, it has been an enormous challenge to understand how Maya buildings are completely connected to the cosmos and its movements. Perhaps the greatest example of this great connection is the great Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, through which the feathered serpent descends during the equinoxes and which speaks of the deep astronomical knowledge they possessed. But it is not the only example of alignment between a ceremonial building and astronomical phenomena.
Uxmal is another great example. In the Governor’s Palace, which was ordered to be built by Lord Chac in 950 of the common era, the Venusian procession can be admired in the sky as a morning and evening star. The connection with Venus is so evident that the more than 350 glyphs inscribed on the temple mean ‘Venus’ or ‘star.’ Even the numerous sculptures of Chac are engraved with the number 8 (remember that Venus goes through its five cycles every 8 years).
But even though this Maya city has been a major tourist attraction and visited by millions of people, archaeoastronomers are still trying to decipher its deep connection to the knowledge of the cosmos. One theory is that when Venus reaches its southernmost point in the sky, anyone standing at the main gate of the Governor’s Palace will be able to admire to the east a pyramid completely aligned with the planet. In fact, it is believed that the buildings at Uxmal were placed in such an arrangement to create a perfect line of sight that is concordant with the cycles of Venus.
More evidence has been found about the great Maya astronomical wisdom; however, astronomers and archaeologists work hand in hand with the Maya people, who still keep in their traditions much of the knowledge. But it seems that it will be a long way to understanding how the Maya managed to make accurate translations of the celestial vault and incorporated them into their great culture.
Story originally published in Spanish in EcoosferaPodría interesarte