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Vien Vo
“All with the Naked eye”
When this assignment was given, I instantly thought of the Mayan culture, I always see shows about aliens
or astronomy and the Mayan are always referenced. I decided I wanted to go deeper into the topic, I find
their culture very interesting, and I will discuss their structures and why they were built, and the importance
of astronomy in their culture. After the fall of the Olmec Empire the Mayan culture arose. Inheriting the
Olmec’s writing system as well as their calendar system, the Mayan civilization advanced rapidly. The
writing system often compared to Egyptian hieroglyphs, are classified, as logo syllabic, is a system where
syllabic signs depict a significant role.
The Mayans fascination with the sky led them to further advance their calendar. Their calendar is a
complex system of interlocking cycles that keep time even more accurately than our own. They have many
calendars but their two main calendars were used ritualistically. The Tzolk’in is a 260-day calendar of 20day names, and the unclear calendar the Haab, of 365 days. The calendar had 18 months of 20 days, and
a 5-day month added at the end of the year. They used 20 days a month based on their vigesimal numeric
system, which is a base twenty system. They also used a long-term calendar system that was a count from
day zero, which is controversially known to predict the end of the world.
They believed that the sky is the key to the heavens, and observed them meticulously. They were
very fascinated with the Sun, Moon, Venus and star clusters. An advance in their culture was when they
introduced the number zero, where they were able to calculate the solar year to 365 days. They observed
the Sun and were able to calculate sunrises and sunsets; they referred the sun to a god named Tonatiuh.
The Moon, represented by a female deity had an influence on the Mayans. They identified a
waxing moon as the ideal woman, and a waning moon as an old woman ruling childbirth. They kept track
of synodic- lunation’s (intervals of full moons). They were able to calculate that there were 149 moons in
4400 days of an average of 29.53 days. They calculated that the average lunation was 29.53086 days,
which is very accurate to the real average 29.53059 days.
Venus among the three was an interest to the Mayan, they called it Xux Ek, the “great star”, was
considered to be connected with the major deity Quetzalcoatl. They noticed it was the same object that
appears in the morning and evening three times a year. Determining the synodic period of the planet to be
584 days, very accurate with the actual period of 583.92 days. When Venus rose in the mornings they
would stay inside and block their chimneys, it was considered bad luck. They also used stationary points of
Venus to plan their wars, Venus was considered more important than the Sun.
Mayan also observed Mars and calculated the synodic period to 780 days, accurate to the actual
779.936 days. They used its cycle to predict certain events on their calendar. They observed star clusters,
Pleiades, Orion, to name a few, and also had interest in the Milky Way. Pleiades considered the home of
their ancestors, and the birthplace of the universe. They used it to plan ahead for planting season, and
aligned some streets to the coordinates to position themselves on land. Pleiades or “tzab-ek” was also
used to see the suns alignment with Alcyone, the main star in the Pleiades cluster. Orion or Ak’Ek is
described as a turtle with three stones. They used the three stars (stones) in Orion’s constellation to form
an equilateral triangle called Oxib X’kub (the three stones of hearth.) The Hearth was the foundation of the
Mayan home. The Milky Way was used to identify the equinoxes, referred to as the world tree. They saw
the Milky Way as a road into the underworld. When a planet, the sun, or the moon entered the dark cleft of
the Milky Way in Sagittarius, according to the Maya this was when they have been granted entrance to the
under world or it would take them up to the heart of the sky.
The Mayan had no complex tools for charting positions of celestial objects most observations came
from the naked eye. They had basic tools such as crossed sticks to chart position, but nothing like the tools
of other civilizations. Mayan architecture was also used as an astronomical tool; all Mayan structures are
aligned astronomically. The positioning of observatories and temples were constructed in accordance with
orbits of stars. One example of this was found at Building J at Monte Alban, it was constructed in an arrow
shape, so that the five brightest stars of that time would set at the point of the arrow. A line drawn
perpendicular to the front steps on the building showed that it would point directly to the horizon where the
bright star Cappella would rise. The appearance of Cappella at this position could have indicated the
passage of the sun through the zenith. All Mayan cities have signs of astronomical positioning in the
construction of buildings. Many were observatories with viewing windows set into the walls. Every window
corresponded to a cosmic event, like the setting of the Pleiades or the rising of the star Sirius. All facts
show that the predetermined construction of the Mayan buildings proved the relationship the Mayan had
with the sky, and how significant these buildings were to them. They used these buildings for religious
purposes to connect with the gods, for they viewed the universe as the infinite home of the gods. Other
buildings were used for human sacrifice where they would display heads of victims. All of the ancient cities
had an Acropolis close to the center of the city to house the elite. Highly decorated and consisted of lots of
chambers and levels, the structures were built to take in account the needed functionality required of a
residence as well as decorations to show their residents stature. Somewhere found to be burial grounds of
ancient rulers.
I found that the Mayan wasn’t just a great civilization, but also a very big part of astronomy. The
knowledge that they had about the universe is unparalleled with the great thinkers of our time, not only that
they had no major tools besides their eyes to calculate orbits and such. But they built these buildings in
exact coordinates of their astronomical purpose.
Works Cited
Anthony Aveni “Emissaries To The Stars: The Astronomers Of Ancient Maya.” Mercury 24.1 (1995): 15.
Academic Search Premier.
Anthony Aveni. Ancient Astronomers. Smithsonian Books, 1993.
Anthony Aveni. "Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica." In In Search of Ancient Astronomies, edited by E.C.
Krupp. Doubleday and Company, 1977. 165-202.
Anthony Aveni. "Possible Astronomical Orientations in Ancient Mesoamerica." In Archaeoastronomy in PreColumbian America, edited by Anthony Aveni. U. of Texas Press, 1975. 163-190.
Carlson, John B. “The Margarita Structure Panels [At Copan] And The Maya Cosmogonic Couplet Of
Ancestral Emergance: Redux And Reemergence.” Archaeoastronomy 21. (2007): 76-107. Academic
Search Premier.
Mcgee, R. Jon, and F. Kent Reilly. “Ancient Maya Astronomy And Cosmology In Lacandon Maya Life.”
Journal Of Latin American Lore 20.1 (1997): 125. Academic Search Premier
I have always found the Mayan culture fascinating, ever since I learned about them briefly in grade
school. As I was researching this subject I came to find out a lot of more interesting things I never knew
about the culture. I found it very astonishing for an ancient civilization to know so much knowledge about
something so far away a way from our world. Although not proven true I would have liked to explore the
theories about aliens and the Mayan culture, but I didn’t feel like it was appropriate. I look forward to
learning new things towards the end of the semester. Until then this was a very informative subject to learn