Friday, April 10, 2015

The Meaning of the Heavens to the Mayans

The Mayan civilization of pre-Columbian Central America was obsessed with the cosmos. Astronomy was part of the daily lives of the Mayan people, influencing everything from their religion to their mathematics. Their knowledge of astronomy was very advanced for their time: they had extremely accurate calendars and were able to predict eclipses hundreds of years in advance. They tracked the movements of the Sun, the Moon, Venus, and groups of stars because they believed that such tracking had meaning in their lives. For example, when Venus rose in the mornings it was believed to be bad luck, so everyone would stay inside and seal their chimneys so that the evil light from Venus would not enter.

The Mayan religion revolved around the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. The Sun was believed to be one of their most powerful gods, Kinich Ahau, the father of all Mayans. The Moon was Ix Chel, a goddess that was as powerful as the Kinich Ahau. She represented fertility; the Mayans believed that nights that had a crescent Moon were the best for procreation and that after nine full moons one gave birth. Venus was Kukulkan, the god of strength and war. Warfare would be arranged to coincide with the movements of Venus and captured warriors and leaders would likewise be sacrificed at times dictated by the position of Venus in the night sky. Other gods were represented by star groups like the Pleiades star cluster, which portrayed the god of planting because when it rose during the morning in mid May the Mayans knew it was time to plant corn.

The Mayan's fascination with astronomy motivated them to revolutionize mathematics, including the creation of the zero. Mayan mathematics was created to be able to keep track of the movement of the heavens; with it they could record and predict the movements of stellar objects hundreds of years in advance. To help their astronomical calculations, the Mayans came up with the concept of zero before its invention in India. Instead of using a decimal system they used a vigesimal system, meaning it base 20 rather than base 10. Just as in the decimal system we have 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc., in the vigesimal system goes 1, 20, 400, 8000, etc.; the Mayans, however, did modify the system slightly, replacing the 400 with 360 to ease astronomical calculations involving the Sun. They also used astronomy to design their buildings. They aligned their temples to help observers monitor the position of celestial objects, like the Sun or Venus.

The heavens ruled the Mayan world, dictating a range of decisions from when to procreate to when to plant crops. Each object in the sky was meticulously tracked and recorded, and those records were used to predict important future events such as eclipses or when the Pleiades would rise. To the Mayans, astronomy was more than a hobby: it dictated their lives.

- José Uribe