Astronomy was primarily the province of Mayan priest-astronomers, who translated celestial movements for rulers and the inhabitants of local city-states. They used temple observatories, shadow-casting structures, and solar observations to trace the motion of the stars, sun, and planets. This information was then recorded in their chronicles, or “codices.” Calendars eventually emerged from these observations as a way to track and forecast the passage of time.
Astronomy was not, however, simply a divine comedy playing out in the heavens above—astronomical observations had a direct impact on the local people. They helped predict the seasons and agricultural cycles, telling people when to plant their crops and when to pull them. This ability to accurately align agricultural patterns with seasonal shifts surely helped advance the Mayan civilization.
The Signs In the Sky
The Mayans were keen predictors of solar phenomenon, including equinoxes and eclipses. That’s because the sun was considered the most powerful of all the Gods. Known as Kinich Ahau, he was considered to be a creator god who would shine all day and then transform himself into a jaguar at night to pass into the underworld, which was known as Xibalba. Certain Mayan dynasties even claimed to be descendants of the sun.
The moon also played an important role in Mayan astronomy. Mayan mythology typically aligned the moon with a woman or a rabbit. One example is the Maya Moon Goddess of Ix Chel, who battled with the Sun and forced him to descend into the underworld each night. Ix Chel was also the patroness of fertility and childbirth. Not to be outdone by city-states aligned with the sun, other Mayan dynasties claimed to be descendants of the moon.
The most important planet for the Maya was Venus. Venus was associated with war, and battles were arranged to align with the movements of this planet. Prisoners of war were even sacrificed according to the position of Venus. Due of its importance, Venus was carefully tracked—the Maya determined that its year was 584 days long, which is unbelievably close to the 583.92 days that has now been determined.
Stars were not as important as the sun, moon, or planets. They stayed in relative position to one another and do not move across the sky like the planets. The stars do, however, shift with the seasons and allowed the Mayans to predict annual agricultural changes. For example, the ascent of Pleiades occurs around the same time that rain falls in Guatemala. As such, the stars were one of the more practical features of Mayan astronomy.
Temples, Tables, and Ruins
In many Mayan cities, ceremonial buildings were aligned with the four cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west. The measurements of these structures were incredibly precise. During the fall and spring equinox, some buildings allowed sunrays to enter through a small opening and light up the interior walls. A good example of this is the underground observatory at Xochicalco—it has a hole in the ceiling, and on May 15 and July 29, the sun is directly overhead and illuminates an illustration of the sun on the observatory floor.
Another great example of this alignment is the temple of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It’s not in Guatemala, but this Mayan temple is famous for its astronomical alignment. On the fall and spring equinox, sunlight strikes the stairs of the pyramid and a serpent head at its base, which makes it look like a giant snake is coming down the temple. People from around the world gather here on equinoxes to watch this spectacular site.
The ruins of Uaxactún, which are set about 15 miles (23 km) north of Tikal, are aligned with the summer and winter solstices. The ruins known as Group E are believed to have held serious astronomical significance. These include a series of small temples that are arranged from north-to-south and side-by-side. They are set up to align with the sunrise on certain days of the year. When observed from the top of a nearby temple, the sun rises over one of the temples on the summer solstice and over another temple on the winter solstice. Incredibly, the foundation of the first temple dates back to 2,000 B.C.
Not far from here is the archaeological site of Xultun. While excavating a building here in 2012, archaeologists found astronomical tables inscribed on the walls. The records date to the 9th century A.D. and are the oldest-known astronomical observations by the Mayans. The tables seem to chart the motion of the moon, Venus, and Mars.
The Maya grouped lunar months into periods lasting 177 or 178 days. It’s suggested that the tables at Xultun mark a series of lunar periods that stretch over some 13 years. The tables also seem to hint at the motion of planets. There is a table with four larger numbers, all of which are multiples of 780—this is the number of days that it takes Mars to return to the same spot in the sky, an occurrence in astronomy that is known as the synodic period. The numerical tallies here also seem to align with the position of Venus’ synodic period, and possibly even Jupiter’s synodic period.
Incredibly, the tables at Xultun were able to escape destruction by weather and looters. They originated during Classic period of Maya history, which lasted from around A.D. 200 to 900. Other astronomical tables have been found on bark-paper, but all were from several centuries later. The Xultun tables also seem to predict future events, some of which are about 7,000 years later.
The find at Xultun predates the famed Dresden Codex by several hundred years. The Dresden Codex was written in the 11th or 12th century and is the oldest known American book. It consists of 39 double-sided sheets and is on exhibit in Dresden, Germany (hence the name). It’s been very important in helping decipher other Mayan hieroglyphics.
The Dresden Codex contains accurate astronomical tables, particularly those relating to the moon and Venus. The movement of Venus is tracked, and there are intervals that align with lunar eclipses. Also included are almanacs, ceremonial instructions, and astronomical tables.
Mayan Calendars and the 2012 Apocalypse
The Maya had three calendars. The first was the Tzolk’in, a sacred calendar that lasted 260 days. This calendar was used primarily to schedule religious events. The second was the Haab’, which lasted 365 days and was a mostly secular calendar. The third calendar was the Long Count.
The Long Count, which dates back to the 5th century B.C., was grounded in astronomy and was sectioned into various units of time that used the solar year (365 days), called a tun, as a base. The Maya grouped their years into 400-year cycles, called b’ak’tunes. Thirteen b’ak’tunes represented a full cycle, which lasted 5,200 years. This period of time was known as a Great Cycle. The winter solstice of 2012 marked the end of the last b’ak’tun cycle.
Popular opinion held that an apocalyptic event would befall the Earth on the day the Mayan calendar ended. The problem with the doomsday theories was that the calendar didn’t end on this day; it just began a new cycle. It’s comparable to the way our calendar year ends on December 31 and starts a new calendar cycle on January 1.
Archaeologists and Mayan scholars scoffed at the doomsday rumors. This date, they said, would have been comparable to our New Years, a time for celebration and festivities. People should have been partying, not hunkering down for the end of the world.
Where To Go
There are several ways to experience Mayan astronomy while traveling in Guatemala. They include visiting ruins, participating in Mayan ceremonies, and attending an annual solstice festival.
In terms of what places to visit, Uaxactún is one of the best. It’s remote and less visited than other Mayan sites, but its temples are some of the best examples of the precision of Mayan astronomy and building techniques.
Uaxactún also has two solstice festivals a year—one in the winter and one in the summer. These festivals are exciting affairs and are important to the local people. If you happen to be traveling through Guatemala during this time of year, try to make it to one of these festivals. They are colorful, musical affairs filled with traditional ceremonies and celebration. They offer good insight into the way that solstices may have been celebrated during the time of the Mayans.
Another good site to visit is Takalik Abaj on the Pacific Slope of Guatemala. Takalik Abaj, whose name means “standing stones,” spreads out over 2.5 square miles (6.5 sq. km). Structure 7 is believed to have been an astronomical observatory. It consists of three rows of stone stelae that are aligned from north-to-south. The structures align with the cup of the Big Dipper, the constellation Draco, and the constellation Ursa Major.
Guatemalan archaeologist Dr. Marion Popenoe Hatch has suggested that Takalik Abaj might have had a role in the creation of the Mayan calendar. “It is evident,” she says, “that Takalik Abaj was in close contact with other Maya sites in order to compare lunar, stellar and solar movements for weather prediction and other calendrical purposes.” If so, this would make Takalik Abaj one of the most important astronomical centers for the Maya.