Astronomy of the ancient Maya

(ORDO NEWS) — Among the planets, Venus was of particular importance. The ancient Maya were avid astronomers, recording and interpreting every aspect of the sky.

They believed that the will and actions of the gods could be read from the stars, moon, and planets, so they devoted time to this, and many of their most important buildings were built with astronomy in mind. The Maya studied the sun, moon, and planets, particularly Venus.

Maya astronomy flourished in the 8th century CE, and early in the 9th century, Maya day watchers published astronomical tables tracking the movements of celestial bodies on the walls of a special structure in Xultuna, Guatemala.

The tables are also contained in the Dresden Codex, a book on bark paper written around the 15th century CE. Although the Mayan calendar was largely based on the ancient Mesoamerican calendar, created at least as early as 1500 BC, the Mayan calendars were corrected and maintained by specialist astronomical observers. Archaeologist Prudence Rice claims that the Maya even structured their governments based in part on the demands of astronomy.

Maya and sky

The Maya believed that the Earth is the center of all things, motionless and unchanging. The stars, moons, sun and planets were gods; their movement was interpreted as the movement of the gods between the Earth, the underworld and other celestial objects.

These gods took a great part in the affairs of man, so their movements were closely followed. Many events in the life of the Maya were planned to coincide with certain celestial moments. For example, a war could be delayed until the gods were in place, or a ruler could only take the throne of a Mayan city-state when a particular planet was visible in the night sky.

Sun God Kinich Ahau

The sun was of great importance to the ancient Maya. The Mayan god of the sun was Kinich Ahau. He was one of the most powerful gods in the Maya pantheon and was considered an aspect of Itzamna, one of the Mayan creator gods.

Kinich Ahau shone in the sky all day, and at night he turned into a jaguar to pass through Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. In one of the stories in the Quiche Mayan advice book called Popol Vuh, the twin heroes Hunaphu and Hbalanke are transformed into the sun and moon.

Some Mayan dynasties claimed that they were descended from the sun. The Maya were experts in predicting solar events such as eclipses, solstices, and equinoxes, as well as timing when the sun reached its apogee.

Moon in Mayan mythology

The moon was almost as important to the ancient Maya as the sun. Maya astronomers analyzed and predicted the motion of the moon with great accuracy. As with the sun and planets, the Mayan dynasties often claimed to be descended from the moon. In Mayan mythology, the moon was usually associated with a maiden, an old woman, and/or a rabbit.

The Maya’s chief moon goddess was Ix Chel, a powerful goddess who fought the sun and forced it to descend into the underworld every night. Although she was a fearsome goddess, she was also the patroness of childbirth and fertility.

X Ch’ap was another moon goddess described in some codices; she was young and beautiful and may have been an X-Man in her youth or in some other form. The lunar observatory on the island of Cozumel, apparently, marks the onset of the lunar station – the variable movement of the moon across the sky.

Venus and planets

The Maya knew about the planets of the solar system – Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter – and tracked their movement. The most important planet for the Maya was Venus, which they associated with war.

Battles and wars were scheduled according to the movement of Venus, and captured warriors and leaders were sacrificed according to the position of Venus in the night sky. The Maya painstakingly recorded the movements of Venus and determined that its year, relative to the Earth and not the Sun, lasted 584 days, which roughly corresponds to the 583.92 days that modern science has determined.

Maya and stars

Like the planets, the stars move across the sky, but unlike the planets, they stay in their positions relative to each other. For the Maya, the stars were less important in their mythology than the sun, moon, Venus, and other planets.

However, the stars change with the seasons, and Mayan astronomers used them to predict the onset and change of the seasons, which was essential for agricultural planning. For example, the rising of the Pleiades in the night sky occurs around the same time that it rains in the regions of Central America and southern Mexico where the Mayans lived. Therefore, the stars were of more practical importance than many other aspects of Maya astronomy.

Architecture and astronomy

Many important Maya buildings such as temples, pyramids, palaces, observatories and ball courts were built according to astronomy. Temples and pyramids in particular were designed so that the sun, moon, stars and planets were visible from above or through certain windows at important times of the year.

One example is the observatory at Xochicalco, which, although not considered an exclusively Mayan city, was undoubtedly influenced by the Maya. The observatory is an underground chamber with a hole in the ceiling. The sun shines through this hole for most of the summer, but on May 15 and July 29 it is directly overhead.

During these days, the sun directly illuminated the illustration of the sun on the floor, and these days were of great importance for the Mayan priests. Other possible observatories have been found at the archaeological sites of Edzna and Chichen Itza.

Astronomy and the Mayan calendar

The Mayan calendar was associated with astronomy. The Maya mainly used two calendars: the round calendar and the long count calendar. The long Mayan calendar was divided into various units of time, based on the haab, or solar year (365 days). The round calendar consisted of two separate calendars: the first is a 365-day solar year, the second is a 260-day Tzolkin cycle. These cycles converged every 52 years.


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