Observations of the sun, moon, planets, and stars played a central role in ancient Maya lifeways, as they do today among contemporary Maya who maintain the traditional ways. This pathfinding book reconstructs ancient Maya astronomy and cosmology through the astronomical information encoded in Precolumbian Maya art and confirmed by the current practices of living Maya peoples.
Susan Milbrath opens the book with a discussion of modern Maya beliefs about astronomy, along with essential information on naked-eye observation. She devotes subsequent chapters to Precolumbian astronomical imagery, which she traces back through time, starting from the Colonial and Postclassic eras. She delves into many aspects of the Maya astronomical images, including the major astronomical gods and their associated glyphs, astronomical almanacs in the Maya codices [painted books], and changes in the imagery of the heavens over time. This investigation yields new data and a new synthesis of information about the specific astronomical events and cycles recorded in Maya art and architecture. Indeed, it constitutes the first major study of the relationship between art and astronomy in ancient Maya culture.
Astronomy in ancient Mesoamerica was not an abstract science; indeed, it was an integral part of daily life, and so it remains today in the more traditional Maya communities. In Precolumbian times, astronomy played a central role in calendars and religious imagery. Art images and companion texts provide keys to understanding the thought processes of the ancient Maya. Rather than focusing on scientific accuracy, many of the best documented astronomical images seem primarily concerned with divination. Maya astronomy is really astrology (Thompson 1972:77), but not in the sense of personal horoscopes. The astrological texts in the codices often deal with cycles of illness, the fate of crops, and weather. We may dismiss them as fanciful, but there is a similar folk tradition in our Old Farmer's Almanac.
People today often cannot appreciate why astronomy played such an important role in ancient civilizations. For many of us, supplying our own food means cashing a paycheck and going to the grocery store. Our indoor environments insulate us from the more profound effects of the seasonal cycle. Our calendars tell us when the seasons will change, and we feel no need to watch the sun and stars as they follow their seasonal course. Indeed, it is often difficult to see the night sky. Light pollution follows electricity, dimming the spectacular beauty of the stars.
Astronomical gods form the core of the Precolumbian Maya pantheon. In the past, some Mayanists have suggested that the Maya did not worship gods; rather they believed in spiritual forces. Karl Taube (1992b:7-8) refutes this position in his study of the Maya pantheon. Stephen Houston and David Stuart (1996:295) point out that Classic period Maya rulers claimed divine status by using the names of gods as their personal names. And Patricia McAnany (1995a) shows that posthumous royal portraits depict rulers merged with gods.
As the most highly developed ancient civilization in all of the Americas, the Maya had a sophisticated astronomy that was integrated with their religion. Like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Chinese, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians, the Maya believed that the celestial luminaries were gods who influenced human destiny and controlled events on earth. Whether Maya artworks show rulers dressed up as gods or the gods themselves is sometimes debatable, but there is no question that the star gods were invoked in Maya art for more than a thousand years. Precolumbian art, calendric cycles, and modern folklore can be integrated to tell the story of Maya astronomy, placing the Maya in their proper position as one of the great civilizations of antiquity.
"This book is destined to become a standard reference work on Maya archaeoastronomy.... [It provides] a basic, sound, and utterly comprehensive introduction to the subject of ancient Maya astronomy."
—Andrea Stone, Professor of Art History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee