Comparative arts and letters professor Allen Christenson discussed how Maya recorded, interpreted, and reacted to eclipse events.
PROVO, Utah (Nov. 10, 2017)—On July 12, 1562, Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa burned more than forty Maya books at a Catholic church in the Maya city of Maní, in what is now the Yucatán region of Mexico. He is quoted as saying, “We found a large number of books . . . and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which [the Maya] regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.” What Bishop de Landa did not know was that he was burning hundreds of pages filled with the records of a civilization written in the first and only fully phonetic language system in the Americas, as well as pages of meticulous, accurate records of astronomical events, including the movements of the planets and eclipse seasons—an integral part of their religious practice.
Only four Maya codices survive today, each named after the city where they are kept. The parts written after the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica are written on paper, but the earlier parts are written on deerskin covered with gesso, a plaster-like substance. Many of the pages were dedicated to astronomical records, with the symbol for an eclipse appearing over and over again in the tables. Allen Christenson, professor of comparative arts and letters and an expert on Mayan society, explained that although the Maya couldn’t predict the exact day of an eclipse, they could predict eclipse seasons by noting when Venus rose above the horizon just before sunrise. They believed the planets to be their gods, and consequently tracked their movements closely.
The Maya religion had a very cyclical view of the world, Christenson explained. “The last day of every year represents the death of the world, [as does] every sunset,” but they believed that each time the earth died, it would be reborn. Eclipses, more dramatic events, were signs of destruction. In the Dresden Codex, one of the four surviving codices, the sky band with two eclipses underneath is shown with water spilling out—floods were often associated with the end of the world.
The recording of these codices, as well as all other writing and drawing, was the exclusive right of the aristocracy, who were thought to carry the blood of gods. “[The Maya] consider any kind of creative act like that divine,” said Christenson. Thus, the documentation of the movement of the gods in the sky fell to the responsibility of the Maya nobility, who they believed were descended from the gods.
The Maya nobility were also heavily involved in religious rituals. During a solar eclipse, the dark moon covers more and more of the sun, creating the illusion that the sun is being eaten. Thus, the Maya depicted the cataclysmic destruction of an eclipse as a demon biting the sun. To prevent this catastrophe, the Maya would engage in religious ceremonies, sacrifice, and prayer to the gods. Because rebirth was the center of all Maya ceremonies, bloodletting was particularly common as it was thought to balance out death. Only the nobility, including the King, were allowed to perform sacrifices of bloodletting, for common blood could not appease the gods. Animals and trees were also sacred to the Maya, so their blood and sap were offered as well.
Although much of the Maya record was destroyed in the first decades after the Spanish conquest, such as in the fire at Maní, what we have tells of a highly developed society whose religion revolved around the heavenly bodies. The eclipse tables provide us valuable insight into historical record-keeping and the Maya interpretation of the end of the world—or for them, simply another destructive beginning.
—Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)
Olivia covers news for the Comparative Arts and Letters Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.