A MAYAN EQUINOX AND OTHER HEAVENLY EXPERIENCES
In the past month this writer was privileged to spend two weeks visiting several major Mayan sites in four different countries of Central America. Among the important sites, including some with on-going excavations, that were visited were Joye de Ceran in El Salvador; Copan in Honduras; Tikal, Uaxactun, and Yaxha in Guatemala; and Lamanai in Belize. Additionally, several smaller sites were visited as well, Equally important, a great deal of time was spent in local villages where small, modern Mayan homes were visited and where I was able to observe traditional pottery making, weaving and carving techniques, food preparation, house construction, etc. All this, as well as detailed landscape observations, was done in preparation for beginning a new book series in the coming months on the rise and decline of the high Mayan civilizations. With the help of excellent local expert guides I was able to begin to grasp much of the continuity of past and present Mayan cultural context and connections, which I believe to be essential to undertaking such an ambitious project.
A central focus of the planning of this trip from the very beginning was timing it to be at the great site of Tikal on the day of the vernal equinox. However, as luck would have it (and it often does in such instances it seems) I was fortunate to discover far enough in advance upon arrival that the "real action" on March 21 was to be at the site of Uaxactun twelve miles north of Tikal. There a sunrise ceremony was to be conducted at the only excavated site in the Mayan world with a perfect temple sunrise alignment of both solstices and equinoxes from an east facing platform mound. This very important but little visited site, despite its nearness to Tikal in both space and historical context, lies at the end of a difficult dirt road journey one hour north where the road runs out for passage beyond to the border of Mexico by anything but jeeps and mules. From here it continues on to the great site of Mirador about forty more miles to the north. To get there, as my local guide Willi Atili said, one must "have lots of energy or lots of cash". That important visit had to be postponed for now, but this early site will ultimately force us to re-evaluate much of what we thought we knew about the rise of Mayan civilization. Of that much I remain convinced.
Anyway, after leaving at 2:30 am for the journey north, first to Tikal then on to Uaxactun, I arrived in the pre-dawn darkness with my two adventurous traveling companions, (Rich Castagna and Dave Daneker both of Maryland and members of the larger group of thirteen of which my wife Diane and I were a part), to join upwards of about 150 other hearty souls to climb an unrestored pyramid of dew-slick, moss covered limestone to grab an observation spot for the coming sunrise. We had encountered no one else on our roadtrip in in the dark, so most of these people were either locals of direct Mayan descent or a few others who had arrived for the ceremony and spent the night in the small modern village adjacent to the ruins. Below the platform mound in the space between the pyramid and the three distinct small temples upon the long mound due east, where the rising sun would be visible on the two extreme solstice dates as well as the two equinoxes, was a large fire already going in the stone pit, which had existed there for at least fifteen hundred years. There a local Mayan shaman was conducting traditional ceremonies and chants with offerings to the fire and other shall we say "mixed custom" rituals of various intent apparently (These included the "smoking" of several small boys he passed through the smoke towards the end of his rituals).
Unfortunately, the haze that is present at all times of day during the end of the dry season there, due to the burning off of fields in the old custom shrouded the actual sunrise and was a limiting factor. It was nearly 7:00 am before we saw the full sun ball--right where it was supposed to be at least. Interestingly, at one point just before full light a local elder had stepped forward on the top pyramid platform, where I had earlier gained a precarious seat at the top of some slippery steps, and asked several people to move to the other side of the pyramid. My Spanish was good enough to understand quickly that these folks were blocking the view of the badly eroded "masks" which were carved into the pyramid facing due east--masks which we were unaware of until the full light and a view from below revealed their presence. It seems that their observation of the rising sun was far more critical to the success of the sun rising ceremony than was that of us mere mortal "guests". After an hour or so of wandering around the ruins (which were completely surrounded by heavily armed army regulars we discovered in the new light, for this site is still considered to be on the edges of bandit controlled territory apparently) the three of us gathered in our sleeping guide and headed back to Tikal to arrive not long before the rest of our group, who still complained about their trip over a much better road, with a sober driver, and in the daylight.
THE 90 DEGREE WEST MAYAN MERIDIAN AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS OF A HEAVENLY NATURE
Tikal, it seems, had had its own small ceremony in a traditional ritual pit as I had anticipated, but nowhere on the scale of the more secluded one we had been fortunate to observe. Had it not been for the knowledge and perseverance in arranging a local guide on short notice of our exceptional tour director, Ms. Ivania Sibrian of Overseas Adventure Travel (an excellent small group tour company Diane and I have also traveled to Peru and Turkey with) I would have missed both this unique opportunity for a traditional Mayan experience as well as the important and under-appreciated site of Uaxactun itself. This site I now feel, along with Tikal to its south and Calakmul to the north are key to the understanding of much of Mayan cosmological knowledge and measurement during the early and later Classic period. Later in the day I was also fortunate to be sitting atop Temple Mound 4 at Tikal at the high noon equinox, overlooking the not far distant main plaza and the early North Acropolis, the axis point from which the entire site was subsequently laid out, I believe.
Readers of this blog are no doubt aware of this writer's keen interest in the understanding of the level of complexity of early civilizations' understanding of celestial events and their ability then to transform that awareness into myths that can serve as important historical records, once we learn to "read" and interpret them. In an important earlier article in this blog series entitled: STONE MARKERS ON THE HORIZON: ANCIENT ASTRONOMERS IN THE AMERICAS AND WHAT WE ARE MISSING I referred to the existence of what I believe to be the MAYAN MERIDIAN--that is the line of ninety degrees west longitude upon which several important Mayan sites, beginning with El Mirador, fall within considerably less than one degree of longitude. All of these important sites, but especially Tikal, Uaxactun, and Calakmul of the Classic Period (200-950 AD) are virtually directly astride this invisible line, as is the Late Classic and celestially important site of Uxmal to the North. Furthermore, and most intriguingly I believe, if we extend this invisible line due north it will intersect the equally massive and important site of Monk's Mound at Cahokia in Illinois over two thousand miles away, as well as many of the last pre-historic temple mound constructions along the mid-Mississippi Valley between the two locations. Answers for this enigma are not yet forthcoming; however, I do believe that my recent trip has put me onto some intriguing possibilities.
Each time that I was fortunate to encounter a local site guide with extensive knowledge of the site being visited along with a good general Mayan understanding as well, I soon broached the subject of the ninety degree west enigma for site locations. As expected, none of them were aware of this phenomenon, at least in the way I was presenting it as part of a larger picture. One thing, however, became quickly clear to me and that was the proclivity for the Mayans, at least when constructing a new site with an initial temple grouping of observational importance from which subsequent structures would be oriented, was to locate that first "sacred space" based on a northerly fixed axis from which other east/west solar observational constructions might be oriented. Now then, basic mapping and orienteering is primarily based upon the only fixed celestial point of which most peoples are aware at the most basic level and that is the North Star, or what often doubles for a north star when Polaris itself is not used. If we understand in the reckoning of fixed points based upon longitude and latitude that the primary function of longitude is to designate location at a point relative to another unseen point on a north/south axis based upon knowledge of SUN TIME on a given day at a precise point on its east/west journey, then the necessity for establishing a true north to south running line from that desired point is essential. (Latitude is used more for reckoning location based upon north to south positioning relative to the equator regardless of a particular day.) Therefore, it might be logical to assume that for a people desiring to fix their location based primarily on the location of an important sacred site somewhere beyond their sight line, the key requirement in doing so would be to establish a corresponding point based on hourly time on a specifically predictable day (such as an equinox or solstice). There the sun could be measured east to west at its high point in the day precisely and matched to another such measurement somewhere else and not caring how far north or south one was from the unseen site the new location was being tied to, but only being at the exact same east to west point relative to the sun's exact position on any given day. Subsequent structure construction could then be insured to produce the same solar, lunar, or planetary point recordings as the other site or sites on this same direct north/south line. This would seem to make sense for many of these contemporary Early Classic sites where there appears to be more than just ceremonial ties between them.
MAYAN HISTORY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF HOW SITES WERE LOCATED
If, as many Mayan scholars are now proposing, the important site of MIRADOR was mysteriously abandoned at virtually the height of its power due to the conflict of several co-equal lineage groups that could not share power peacefully, groups who simply abandoned the site to begin their own new polities close by and fairly contemporaneously at Calakmul, Uaxactun, and Tikal primarily, then perhaps we can begin to see the importance of site location based upon this important invisible line of Ninety Degrees West Longitude. Supposing that each of these lineages took their origins from an important Mirador ancestor line, each would have had a vested interest in aligning their new site along the same fixed observational points as their master plan laid out at Mirador. Establishing an exact location would have required the only true fixed point at their disposal (North) and a day upon which the sun's location could be accurately predicted to the nearest second even based upon that fixed point.(probably an equinox). Since Mayan day/date calendars are the most accurate ever used, then such a combination would not have been a great challenge for them. However, to get the observational point they wanted to continue uninterrupted time with they would certainly have had to establish longitude as perhaps the most critical factor in locating temple sites from whatever and wherever their most critical origin point might have been, regardless of lineal distance--in this case their initial "portal" site of sacred space or "sacred mountain" at MIRADOR probably.
All of this continues to be speculation at this point in time, of course. However, it is hoped that new research will add more to the solving of this obvious mystery of time and place existing over two continents. As such the possibilities which this writer explored in the fifth book of The People of the Stone saga, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT in which the young protagonist travels from the site of Cahokia to the shores of the Mayan Yucatan in pursuit of a new interpretation of his own belief system is not as far-fetched as one might think. After all, it was during the post writing review of this book that the author stumbled upon the entire concept of the Ninety Degree West Longitude alignment enigma in the first place.
Finally, it must be said that the author discovered many other mysterious and intriguing celestial observational possibilities during his recent travels in the Mayan world--a world that still exists in many ways much as it has for the last two thousand plus years. There were unexplained sunlight or starlight observational holes in pyramid top rooms at Yaxha and Uaxactun; observational pyramids with precisely forty steps to a side at Tikal; volcano peaks forming triangles similar to the classic Mayan hearth at Lake Atitlan (the site of Mayan origins in many local myths), and other things to mention only a few that this author hopes to investigate in some way in the future. A trip back to Guatemala is already in the planning. Certainly, some of these mysteries, as well as many of the personal observations made not just at big sites but in the courtyards and kitchens of present day Mayan family home complexes and other minutia will no doubt find their way into the telling of the Mayan Story from a new perspective--something which I hope to devote the next several years to beginning in the near future. In the meantime, the reader is encouraged to continue to monitor this space for more information which, I am no doubt certain, will reveal itself as this wonderful journey of discovery and sharing continues to unfold. Look for a short photo album on the sites and ceremonies described above on the Facebook page which can be linked through this website.
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