The Mayan Calendar - some thoughts

Apr 7

Written by:
4/7/2012 8:15 AM  RssIcon

Back in late January of this year, I took a two-day class about the Mayan calendar system, but more importantly, about the Maya people.  Yes, they're still alive, living in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries right around that area.  Anyway, it was a truly fascinating look at another culture and what a significant role astronomy played not only for the Maya but for other cultures as well.

Though most of us don't realize it today, it still does for us as well.  In the United States, the U.S. Naval Observatory is the entity tasked with tracking the Earth's motion so that we all know exactly when it really is the spring equinox, summer solistice, etc.  We tend to take it for granted, because that information magically shows up on our calendars, smartphones or on our favorite news website.  But think about it: Someone has to determine exactly when those things happen, right?  Otherwise, how would we know when they happen?  

So it was with the Maya.  And the Egyptians. And whoever built Stonehenge.  In fact, accurate timekeeping was essential to keeping an empire intact (the British had quite accurate information about celestial motions so as to keep accurate time - that's important if everyone is going to start their invasion of another country at the same moment without GPS to help).  But what is fascinating about the Maya is that they were doing this long before the Europeans - and more accurately too.  

Kukulkan at Chichen ItzaCheck out this picture of the shadow of the spring equinox Sun falling on the Castle of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza.  Note how the stepped nature of the pyramid casts a serpentine shadow along the staircase.  It may be difficult to see in the photo, but at the bottom of the staircase is the head of a serpent - look in the lower left. That kind of event doesn't happen every day.  It only happens on the equinox, as the Sun is going down and setting.  To create such an event, one has to plan carefully.  You don't just move a building like that because the engineer said, "OOPS!  No, turn it 3 degrees that way."  

That's why the Maya had a long count calendar (in addition to about 20 other types of calendars).  They could track these celestial motions over the long-term.  It allowed them to predict when eclipses would occur, when equinoxes where happening - but importantly, when to plant food.  That part of the world is warm all the time, being in tropical latitudes.  So how is one to know when the rainy season will occur?  By keeping accurate calendars of when the Sun reaches certain places in the sky, so you know when the rainy season starts - or ends.  Not only that, if you are a dynastic ruler (as the Classic Period Maya had between 200 and 900 AD), it helps you keep power if your astronomers can predict with spot-on accuracy when the stand in the temple and have the Sunlight beam on your face as you sacrifice a small amount of your blood on bark paper to the gods.

Yes, astronomy mattered then, just as it matters now.  It's just that many of us nowadays take it for granted.  I hope I do a little bit to change that with my "Eyes on the Sky" videos each week, getting a few more people to look up at the night sky, and note the changes occurring over our heads that captivated the imagination of earlier people and cultures.  And this year - 2012 - is one of a bit more interest in the Maya, as their "Long Count" calendar "ends" on December 21, 2012 (the winter solistice), and coincidentally for the Gregorian calendar system, on the date "12/21/2012."  

So did the Maya know something we don't?  I am working on putting together a presentation that discusses just that.  It's an interesting look at multiple calendar systems, astronomy, and a culture that was more advanced than the Europeans were at the time.  It definitely is some interesting stuff - but nothing to be alarmed over.  Let's just say: Don't spend all your retirement account money by the end of this year.

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.