Posts Tagged ‘precession’

The Mesoamerican Calendar(s)

April 1, 2010

There is not a single calendar used by the Maya, there were several. The tzolkin is the augury calendar, the haab is their solar calendar, and the Long Count is the one with the rapidly approaching end date. And there were other minor calendars and cycles they kept track of over the centuries.

There is no problem with the tzolkin. It ends every 260 days (less than nine months) and a new one starts, just like our calendars. The end-date for this calendar is nothing to worry about.

The haab likewise begins anew at the end of every year without dire circumstance.

The “Calendar Round” is a larger calendar cycle. The tzolkin and the haab run in parallel and end together on the same date every fifty-two years. This marks the time when they usually had their fire ceremony: putting out the fires in all the surrounding villages and waiting until the dawn, the appearance of the Sun again, to start a new fire in the city and carry the new flame to all the countryside. Apparently, they feared the Sun would not return that night. But why?

That still leaves us with the Long Count. Where did it come from? And for what purpose would they need to keep track of such long periods?

According to most theorists, the creators invented the calendar in the second century BCE and simply ‘back-dated’ the beginning from some mythical point. Some claim it dates from the birth of the planet Venus.

Jenkins and others think it was nothing more than the first rising of the planet Venus following some other event, as yet undiscovered. It seems like a rather lame start of an exhaustive enterprise to back-date the start of the Long Count to something so minor. It would lead one to believe that the ending of the calendar will be something as equally insignificant.

The Maya also understood precession of the equinoxes. This is the slight wobble of the pole of the planet which moves at a certain rate. The North Pole currently points at Polaris, the North Star, and in the past pointed elsewhere; in describes a circle in the sky over a period of about 26,000 years. But why is precession important? Other than show the mechanics of our rotating world in the cosmos, does it actually do anything for us?

Some theorize that the precessional cycle is a major cycle the world goes through. Although the numbers do not match up with any culture’s mythology it is an attractive idea.

But since the Maya understood precession, why didn’t they say the Long Count was aligned in some manner to the precessional cycle. Unfortunately, they do not. That is the idea of modern theorists on the subject.

Heavenly Obsession

January 20, 2010

The ancients were obsessed with the heavens. Their gods were up in the heavens above – many were planets, for some strange reason – and they kept a keen eye on their movements and the portents above. As the planets are not visible during the day, this had to have been a nocturnal activity. They must have been insomniacs and there must have been some important reason for their sky-watching rather than some idle whim. The basic struggle to survive lent little time for such “academic” pursuits on anything but a modest scale. There must have been some worldwide pressing need to keep such a vigilant watch.

Again, historians aid our understanding by pronouncing it superstitious fear. They tell us Stonehenge was built for this reason: they feared the Sun was disappearing, going away southward, and needed some reassurance it was returning.

(I don’t know where anyone got this notion. Surely the ancients, more in tune with their environment than most modern mankind, would have noticed that the Sun came back every year. And without the intercession of a priest. How could anyone convince them otherwise? Perhaps if they had just crawled out of some hole and never witnessed the seasons… No, probably not.)

Obsessed, though, they were. They could see the planets moving independently of the background star-field and were able to plot their courses, predict their future positions, as if they had nothing better to do. Why go to the bother if there is no pressing reason?

Fear is a good motivation. Not some hypothetical superstitious fear but something tangible. For us, Friday the 13th is a symbol of bad luck; for the Templars it was a deadly reality. Many today still fear the 13th but it lacks the punch.

We find it remarkable that the ancients understood precession – use it, in fact, as a standard for intelligence – but how important is it, really? How does it impact our daily lives? Most people would be hard pressed to define what it is and even fewer could say if it had any bearing on anything.

Precession is the by-product of the slow wobble in our planetary axis. Astronomers think the entire process takes a little longer than 26,000 years to complete the circuit. As this wobble progresses, the equinoxes (spring and autumn) appear to move backward through the signs of the zodiac. Hence the term: precession of the equinoxes.

Many think this slow progress through the zodiacal houses is the mechanism the ancients defined the “world ages” of the past. But for the variation in the equinox there is nothing that actually affects the world and the people on it. Why would the changing of the positions of the equinoxes be any matter of importance to the ancients unless there was a momentous event attached to the change? Easter and Thanksgiving fall on different dates each year and yet very few people could describe the mechanism for the change. It is merely a calendrical appointment and nothing to require the changing of an age.

Precession is, in essence, nothing of any great importance to our day-to-day world. From its study over the centuries, observers have come to understand that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Precession shows us the motions of the solar system on a grand scale. Any effect on us is miniscule. It is a mechanism for denoting the passage of time not unlike the rotation of the planet or the length of revolution of the Moon around our world or the Earth around the Sun.

So that could not have been the change in the heavens watched so carefully by the ancients. They tracked the planetary motions and something more as well: they seemed to know features about some of the planets they should not have. Jupiter’s red spot and Saturn’s rings were known to the ancients even though they could not have seen these features without the aid of a telescope.

Scholars scoff at the notion that the ancients had such intimate knowledge of the planets but the facts speak for themselves. Cultures around the globe mention these features. Were they simply lucky guesses? Incredibly so to be made in diverse localities.

Can the ancient world have been so different from our own? And what might these changes have meant to the people in the world, like the Maya? Certainly it would have affected their world view, their philosophy, and the priorities of their culture. By studying their histories and artifacts we might come closer to understanding.

Studying the modern Maya may help in our understanding but one should not confuse them with their historical counterparts. How many Catholics today would relate to their Church in the ninth century?

Grasping at Straws

December 11, 2009

John Major Jenkins, the premier writer on the 2012 phenomenon, claims that it has to do with an alignment of the Earth with the Sun and the center of the galaxy. He thinks this alignment will usher in the spiritual enlightenment of the planet. Exactly how aligning with a theoretical black hole will cause this to happen is open to interpretation.

Anyway, he says this alignment will be “exact” on the winter solstice in 2012, that is on December 21st, 2012, and therefore coinciding with the Mayan End-Date. What amazing luck, no? But, no, he furthermore says that the Maya set up their Long Count to point to this one date. In other words, around 1000 BC they constructed a calendar to show us the End-Date but it was organized in such a way that it could not start from the date they created it; its start was pushed back in time to some arbitrary date in the past. Why it had to be started at some random date in the past he is a little unclear.

Later, he pointed out that the length of the “sun” was one-fifth the length of the precessional cycle and so the group of “five suns” mentioned by the Maya was nothing more than emphasizing the last time this alignment occurred, 25,900 years ago! So, in actuality, they were pointing out the 21st of December in 2012 by anchoring the start of their calendar to a point nearly 24,000 before their time!

[If they had actually started their calendar to point out the return of this particular alignment after its previous occurrence so long before, what had happened when it occurred last time? Did we enter a “spiritual enlightenment” then – and why didn’t it last?

Jenkins’ claiming that the Mayans were so exacting in their practices should have checked the math first. The five sun cycles would bring us to a total of 25,625 years, short by some 275 years of what his theory requires.

While it is an amazing feat for the Maya of 1000 BC to come so close, what if it means their calendar’s End-Date is off by those 275 years? Is the End-Date really December 21st, 2287? Or perhaps even further off? If they were off at all, why not by a thousand years? Who knows?

So, while Jenkins’ idea is somewhat compelling, I do not think it holds up to scrutiny.

Beyond this one interpretation, did the Maya speak elsewhere their mythology about precession? No, not that anyone has discovered yet. So, perhaps this instance has nothing to do with precession either.

And what was the importance of the number five in their cosmology that they should divide the precessional cycle into five suns? No importance has been discovered on this mystery either.

And to top everything off, the exact alignment Jenkins proclaims for 2012 – the alignment with the theoretical black hole in the galactic center – actually occurred in 1998, according to astronomers.

So, Jenkins is either saying the Maya botched their calculations greatly – and on many levels – or his theory is full of holes.

Personally, I do not think it was the Mayans who erred.

More on Precession

July 3, 2009

Another note on the Precessional hypothesis of Jenkins: why would the Sun lining up with the center of the Galaxy on the Winter Solstice mean anything to the Maya?

If they were really only pointing their calendar to this “all-important” even, why not just have their calendar start at 300 BC when the first Long Count record was made? Why go to the unnecessary extreme of having it start 3114 BC? Were they simply playing math or mind games?

None of this really adds up except in the mind of Jenkins.

His correlation of the theoretical Black Hole at the center of the galaxy (and let’s face it, the Black Hole is still just a theory) with any part of Maya cosmology is unsupported by any scholar in the field of Mayan studies. The idea that it is somehow the Mayan Road to the Underworld is hypothetical.

A theory based on a theory of an hypothesis garnered from yet another theory is tenuous at best. I think we should try and understanding the Maya rather than creating a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo.

Ooooh, Precession!

July 2, 2009

It seems a lot of historical scientists (or is that ‘scientific historians’?) use the measure of precession as the yardstick of intelligence for ancient astronomers. If they can show knowledge of precession, then they must have been intelligent.

But what IS precession, really? Oh, a lot of writers will give you the technical details and the mathematical formulae for the mechanics, but what bearing has it on us? On our day-to-day world? On anything in history, for that matter?

Well, nothing. It really has no bearing on anything except calendars. And then, only on calendars spanning very long periods.

Nerds in the past noticed it as much as the nerds of today, but has it any bearing on the calendar? Other than showing us that the ancient Maya knew about the mechanism and could calculate the rate of change, it really has no bearing on the End-Date or anything else of importance.

Carrie Kozikowski (see earlier post) thought the Mayan Calendar showed precession was speeding up. Jenkins seems to think that precession is not only a constant (like most things astronomical, either constant or lasting unchanged for billions and billions of years) but is in fact the BASIS for all of Mayan cosmology. He thinks they based their entire calendar on the winter solstice Sun crossing the Galactic Center.

Which would mean the starting point of their calendar in 3114 BC was meaningless. Moreso because they had four previous periods wrapping around the entire precessional cycle.

But does that construction really make any sense? Why not just make the calendar 26,000 years long and stretch the start date back to 23614 BC?

Previous Ages

June 28, 2009

There are several interesting articles on the earlier “ages” (or, as they called them: “Suns”) of the Maya. One of the better articles online I have found is a paper by Carrie Kozikowski.

She says “The Maya split history into 5 Suns or Ages.” Like most other authors, she confuses “Suns” with “Ages” as if they were one and the same — but they were far from it! The sooner you can get that confusion out of your mind, the sooner you can understand what the Maya were talking about. They did not call them “Suns” without reason.

She goes on to list the durations in years of all these earlier periods (taken from the Aztec records): 4,008 years, followed by 4,010 years, then 4,081 years, and 5,026 years for the Sun just finished. The present Sun will last 5,125 years. So it would appear the durations are getting longer — if the Aztec records are correct.

Carrie then follows the John Major Jenkins’ error of saying the current period at 5,125 years is exactly one fifth of the precessional cycle. Most scientists are not certain of the exact duration of the cycle but the usual estimate is 26,600 years of which 5,125 is nowhere near “exactly” one fifth.

She then theorizes that the precessional cycle must be speeding up. This is a novel suggestion and I think it is worth looking into. Even though she is assuming that the Maya were actually talking about the precessional cycle (a dubious idea at best), I found her article both interesting and thought-provoking though I picked a few portions to take to task.

[her article can be found at: “”%5D