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Star Gods of the Maya

Star Gods of the Maya
Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars

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.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

January 2000
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382 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 48 figures, 22 b&w plates, 7 tables |

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.

  • Introduction
    • The Mesoamerican Calendar
    • Decipherment of Maya Glyphs
    • Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy
    • Overview of Contents
  1. Contemporary Maya Images of the Heavens
    • The Seasonal Cycle
    • The Solar Calendar
    • Modern Maya Cosmic Diagrams
    • How the Sun Moves and Transforms
    • The Sun God
    • Images of Eclipses
    • The Lunar Rhythms
    • Lunar Agriculture
    • The Celestial Pair
    • The Moon Goddess
    • Venus among the Contemporary Maya
    • The Planets among the Contemporary Maya
    • Stars and Constellations
    • The Milky Way
    • Other Celestial Phenomena
    • Contemporary Maya Astronomy in Cultural Context
  2. Naked-Eye Astronomy
    • Tracking the Solar Seasons
    • Lunar Positions and Phases
    • Eclipses
    • The Planets
    • The Stars and the Seasons
  3. Precolumbian and Colonial Period Maya Solar Images
    • The Seasonal Cycle and the Solar Calendar
    • Solar Orientations in Architecture
    • The Sun in Precolumbian Maya Cosmic Diagrams
    • Concepts of the Sun's Motion
    • The Precolumbian Kin Glyph
    • The Sun God in the Colonial and Postclassic Periods
    • The Sun God at Chichén Itzá
    • The Sun King
    • Classic Maya Images of the Sun God and Earlier Prototypes
    • The Monkey's Sun
    • The Solar Bird and Solar Fire
    • The Sun and Felines
    • Hunahpu and Hun Ahau
    • GIII: The Sun as the Middle Brother
    • The Sun in the Precolumbian Maya Worldview
  4. Precolumbian and Colonial Period Lunar Images and Deities
    • Lunar Calendars
    • Colonial and Postclassic Eclipse Imagery
    • The Dresden Codex Eclipse Table
    • Classic Period Eclipse Imagery and Events
    • Maya Moon Glyphs and Symbols
    • Lunar Symbolism of Fish, Frogs, Toads, and Shells
    • The Moon and Rabbits
    • The Water-lily Jaguar
    • The Jaguar War God
    • The Jaguar Paddler: The Moon Paired with the Sun
    • The Lunar Twin: Xbalanque
    • The Classic Period Moon God in Monumental Art
    • The Young Moon Goddess in Colonial and Postclassic Times
    • The Aged Moon in Colonial and Postclassic Times
    • The Moon in the Postclassic Murals at Tulum
    • Lunar Deities at Chichén Itzá
    • The Classic Maya Moon Goddess
    • The Ever-changing Moon
  5. Venus and Mercury: The Body Doubles
    • Venus Observations among the Precolumbian Maya
    • Venus in the Popol Vuh
    • Colonial and Postclassic Images of Venus
    • The Dresden Codex Venus Pages
    • The Layout of Pages 46-50
    • The Seasonal Aspects of Venus
    • Regents and Victims in the Venus Pages
    • Quetzalcoatl-Kukulcan: The Venus God from Central Mexico
    • Central Mexican Venus Symbols in the Maya Area
    • Maya Glyphs and Symbols Representing Venus
    • Venus Warfare
    • Lineage Founders and the Venus Cult
    • Tlaloc and the Storm God
    • Chac and God B in Colonial and Postclassic Yucatán
    • Classic Period Images of Chac
    • Chac and GI in the Classic Period
    • The Sidereal Position of Venus
    • Venus and the Moon
    • Mercury in Maya Imagery and Calendrics
    • The Inferior Planets in the Maya Worldview
  6. The Celestial Wanderers
    • Colonial Period Images of the Superior Planets
    • Mars among the Precolumbian Maya
    • Monkey Deities and the Planets
    • God K in the Colonial and Postclassic Periods
    • The Classic Period God K and GII
    • Jupiter Events and God K on Classic Maya Monuments
    • Classic Period Calendar Records Relating to the Superior Planets
    • Assembly of the Gods
    • The Celestial Wanderers as Planetary Gods
  7. Stars, the Milky Way, Comets, and Meteors
    • Comets, Meteors, and Supernovas
    • Images of Stars
    • The Maya Zodiac
    • The Pleiades
    • The Scorpion and Skeletal Snake Constellations
    • Orion and Gemini
    • The Peccary Constellation
    • Bird Constellations
    • Cross Constellations and Stellar Trees
    • The North Star and the "Dippers"
    • Central Mexican Images of the Milky Way
    • The Cosmic Monster and the Milky Way
    • Serpent Forms of the Milky Way
    • Four Roads in the Sky and Four Itzamnas
    • Classic Period Monuments with Images of the Milky Way
    • Rotating the Milky Way
    • The Maya in the History of World Astronomy
  • Appendix 1. Guide to Astronomical Identities
  • Appendix 2. Table of Classic Period Dates and Associated Astronomical Events
  • Appendix 3. Table for Calculating the Tzolkin Intervals
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Plates

Susan Milbrath is Curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History and Affiliate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida.


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


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
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