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Star Gods of the Maya

Susan Milbrath
Copyright Date: 1999
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/752252
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  • Book Info
    Star Gods of the Maya
    Book Description:

    Observations of the sun, moon, planets, and stars played a central role in ancient Maya lifeways, as they do today among contemporary Maya who maintain the traditional ways. This pathfinding book reconstructs ancient Maya astronomy and cosmology through the astronomical information encoded in Precolumbian Maya art and confirmed by the current practices of living Maya peoples.

    Susan Milbrath opens the book with a discussion of modern Maya beliefs about astronomy, along with essential information on naked-eye observation. She devotes subsequent chapters to Precolumbian astronomical imagery, which she traces back through time, starting from the Colonial and Postclassic eras. She delves into many aspects of the Maya astronomical images, including the major astronomical gods and their associated glyphs, astronomical almanacs in the Maya codices [painted books], and changes in the imagery of the heavens over time. This investigation yields new data and a new synthesis of information about the specific astronomical events and cycles recorded in Maya art and architecture. Indeed, it constitutes the first major study of the relationship between art and astronomy in ancient Maya culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79793-2
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-x)
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-11)

    Astronomy in ancient Mesoamerica was not an abstract science; indeed, it was an integral part of daily life, and so it remains today in the more traditional Maya communities. In Precolumbian times, astronomy played a central role in calendars and religious imagery. Art images and companion texts provide keys to understanding the thought processes of the ancient Maya. Rather than focusing on scientific accuracy, many of the best documented astronomical images seem primarily concerned with divination. Maya astronomy is really astrology (Thompson 1972: 77), but not in the sense of personal horoscopes. The astrological texts in the codices often deal...

  4. 1 CONTEMPORARY MAYA IMAGES OF THE HEAVENS
    (pp. 12-43)

    Study of Precolumbian Maya astronomical imagery must begin with an understanding of the contemporary Maya worldview, because we cannot hope to penetrate the ancient beliefs without an understanding of what the Maya say about the heavens today. We are fortunate that many Maya groups remained isolated from the European colonists and still retain a measure of isolation today. They are able to pass down their knowledge to new generations and to scholars who find this information invaluable in the study of ancient traditions. Certainly there have been great changes in the religious system over the past five hundred years as...

  5. 2 NAKED-EYE ASTRONOMY
    (pp. 44-57)

    The motions of the heavens can be mystifying to those not trained in astronomy. To understand Precolumbian astronomical imagery, we have to see the heavens from the perspective of naked-eye astronomy, quite unlike the view through a telescope. Here I describe the events from a dual perspective, both what you see from Earth and what actually happens in the sky in a Sun-centered solar system. A glossary at the end of the book will be helpful to those unfamiliar with astronomical terms. Aveni’sSkywatchers of Ancient Mexicois an invaluable companion text to this chapter, as are H. A. Rey’s...

  6. 3 PRECOLUMBIAN AND COLONIAL PERIOD MAYA SOLAR IMAGES
    (pp. 58-104)

    The importance of the sun in contemporary Maya religion is a reflection of its prominent role in Precolumbian and Colonial times. Maya solar imagery features the sun as a ruler of time and space. Ancient cosmic diagrams and solar calendars evoke a direct connection with concepts that survive today. Solar orientations in Precolumbian architecture show how the Maya integrated time and space in their solar cult.

    Sun worship translated into political imagery during the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250–800), when the ruler or a ruling lineage became identified with the sun. By A.D. 1000, the end of the Terminal...

  7. 4 PRECOLUMBIAN AND COLONIAL PERIOD LUNAR IMAGES AND DEITIES
    (pp. 105-156)

    There are countless different images of the moon because the moon is constantly changing. Many of these images are expressed in a metaphorical context. The importance of metaphor in recording observations of natural history in Mesoamerica has been noted by a number of scholars. This chapter explores images of the moon that may be based on observations of the lunar season and the moon’s phases, position, and motion.

    Eric Thompson’s (1939) seminal study concluded that a number of beliefs about the Moon Goddess were shared by the Maya and the people of central Mexico: she was a wife of the...

  8. 5 VENUS AND MERCURY: THE BODY DOUBLES
    (pp. 157-217)

    Of all the planets, Venus is clearly the most important in Maya art, cosmology, and calendrics. Like the Moon, Venus has multiple personalities. Different Venus gods embody various phases and seasonal aspects. Some manifestations of Venus seem to be connected with the rainy season and agricultural fertility; others reflect warfare and the dry season. A Venus cult linked with central Mexico emphasizes the feathered serpent. Central Mexican influence also is evident in a Tlaloc cult connected with Venus warfare during the Classic period. Chac, a Yucatec Maya deity merged with Tlaloc in some contexts, is also associated with Venus. Sometimes...

  9. 6 THE CELESTIAL WANDERERS
    (pp. 218-248)

    To the Chortí, the planets are ‘‘stars that travel,’’ evoking a connection with the ‘‘wanderers,’’ a name that can be traced back to a Babylonian image of the planets as sheep who had escaped from the fold, which presumably refers to the rest of the stars (Aveni 1997: 37). Like players on a stage performing in front of different sets, the planets move through the changing background of stars in different sections of the sky. Given that they are such dynamic actors, we should not be surprised to find them as characters in folktales and visual imagery. Venus, the most...

  10. 7 STARS, THE MILKY WAY, COMETS, AND METEORS
    (pp. 249-294)

    This chapter explores Precolumbian Maya imagery of temporary celestial phenomena, stars, constellations, and the Milky Way. We have surprisingly little information on comets, meteors, and supernovas. Comets and meteors seem to be of secondary importance, appearing not as gods themselves, but as their cigars. Metaphorical images allude to the multitude of stars as jaguar spots, flowers, fireflies, and the ‘‘eyes of the night.’’ Topographical features such as sacred trees represent cross constellations that serve as signposts in the celestial landscape. More often the constellations are starry animals appearing as companions to the Sun, the Moon, and the planets. A Postclassic...

  11. APPENDIX 1. GUIDE TO ASTRONOMICAL IDENTITIES
    (pp. 295-295)
  12. APPENDIX 2. TABLE OF CLASSIC PERIOD DATES, MONUMENTS, AND ASSOCIATED ASTRONOMICAL EVENTS
    (pp. 296-305)
  13. APPENDIX 3. TABLE FOR CALCULATING THE TZOLKIN INTERVALS
    (pp. 306-308)
  14. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 309-312)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 313-338)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 339-348)
  17. PLATES
    (pp. None)