By Ralph Graves
March 2005 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 21, Number 7
you know which sign you were born under? Have you checked your horoscope
lately? If you believe the heavenly bodies influence your daily life
and future, you have a lot in common with the ancient Mexicans. Their
celestial observations foreshadowed today’s astrology, astronomy
and the modern calendar.
From darkened observatories, without the
aid of telescopes, the early Mayans and other pre-Hispanic cultures
measured, calculated and mapped the movements of the sun, moon and stars
utilizing a variety of methods. Lines of sight were devised and stone
structures erected to serve as anchor points. The careful measurement
of shadows and a refined numbering system were other important elements
in early astronomy. These early scientists not only devised a yearly
calendar of 365 days, but knew how to correct it periodically, much
as we do with our leap years.
As with ancient cultures elsewhere, the
study of the heavens in early Mesoamerica grew from the need to plan
the sowing and harvesting of crops. The growing of corn, beans, squash
and chile peppers in a harsh environment required a knowledge of the
cycles of Mother Nature, so the early Mexicans looked to the heavens
for guidance. What ensued was an intensive study of the skies and ultimately,
a correlation of the movements of celestial bodies with the regular
cycles of time. Planting, harvesting, even fishing and hunting became
linked with prominent astronomical events.
Such vital information soon became the
sole province of the religious class. Observatories began to form an
essential element in the many religious centers of the time and in the
hands of the priests, guidance on practical matters, such as when to
sow and reap, became intermingled with invocations to the gods, sacrificial
ritual and seasonal celebrations.
Recurring celestial events, including
the appearances of comets and meteor showers, were believed to be under
the influence of specific deities.
Tables were devised of these occurrences,
leading to an annual calendar. The year itself was partitioned to coincide
with the cycles of agricultural activities, and the months and even
the days were assigned to specific gods.
The Mayan calendar of 365 days was grouped
into eighteen 20-day months plus a five-day “correction”
period at the end of the year. This left-over period was regarded as
useless at best, and thought to be unlucky. Some later cultures regarded
these days as a period of evil when any misfortune in a person’s
personal life would become permanent. It was believed those born during
this period were destined to be plagued with bad luck and would grow
up to be poor and miserable.
According to the Spanish Conquistadores,
the Aztecs observed the end of the five-day period with a cleansing
ceremony of fire. During the period, the citizens of Tenochtitlan would
clean their houses, smash old pottery and discard various household
items. All fires were extinguished and images of the gods were destroyed
or tossed into the lake. On the eve of the new year, priests would dress
up in the vestments of the gods and parade up a mountain overlooking
the city where they would attempt to make fire by rubbing sticks together.
At midnight, all eyes were focused on the mountain top, for if the priests
failed, it would surely signal a coming disaster.
As soon as the new fire was made, a huge
bonfire was lit, which could be seen for miles in all directions. Teams
relayed torches lit from the fire to various temples throughout the
city where the people could come and light torches for their new household
fires. The days following were celebrated with feasting and the preparation
of new clothes, jewelry, household goods and religious icons.
As they became more skilled in astronomical
observation and time recording, the early priests began to interpret
special combinations of day signs and numbers to be of religious significance.
Thus the ancients came to believe their everyday lives were influenced
by the cosmos. Some days were good days and others were evil. The day
a person was born determined his or her temperament, disposition and
behavior throughout a lifetime. Astronomy became an integrated system
linked with religion and it touched every aspect of life, from daily
routine to solemn rituals.
In effect, these early Mexicans had developed
their own version of the zodiac, perhaps much more complicated than
that of today, but no less meaningful. So, if you are a follower of
the zodiac and believe your destiny is dictated by the heavens, you’re
continuing an age-old tradition. Good luck.