Made Up of Time

The Mayan Ruins of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras
Mayan Ruins

The Maya, sons of the days, are made up of time," Eduardo Galleano recently wrote. He was referring to two things: their brilliant traditional calendars, products of astronomical knowledge until recently unrivaled by any other culture. And the Mayan ability to endure. The Mayan ruins of central America are from cities that fell into decline long before Columbus. But many of the traditions reflected in the architecture and art from these sites live on in the modern Mayan world.

The ancient Mayan world centered on the Yucatan Peninsula, spilling over to the lowland rainforests of Mexico to the east and Belize in the west, finally climbing up to the Guatamalan highlands through to the Pacific coast of Guatamala. The eastern edges of Honduras and El Salvador were also part of the Mayan world. Today, most Mayan people now live in three areas: the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas state in Mexico, and the Guatemalan highlands. Today's Maya number between four and six million, divided into many different ethnic groups who speak around 30 different languages.

In fact, most traditional Maya do not speak Spanish. The indigenous thatched roof housing is pretty much the same. The old crops (corn, beans, chile, tomatoes and squash) are still being grown using many of the agricultural techniques, including the slash and burn cultivation. The forms of village social organization seem to have survived intact. Mayan medicine is age old, and western medical science is studying many of its techniques, especially the herbal remedies, and finding many useful things.

As well as the technological underpinnings, many of the spiritual underpinnings of the ancient Mayan world endure. Unlike modern industrialized cities, Mayan cities were principally ceremonial sites, less commercial centers. They were the spiritual and magical foci for the decentralized network of farming villages that is still pretty much in place. The sacred symbols depicted on the walls and carved into stone can still be seen in the weaving. Far from engaging in rote copying, the Mayan weavers are very much aware of the symbols' meanings. Offerings are still being made to the same deities in religious ceremonies that can be both very traditional as well as a fusion of Catholic theology.

And, as the daughters and sons of the days, the Maya developed an elaborate and sophisticated system of timekeeping that is still very much in place. The ancient Maya used 17 different calendars based on the cosmos. These calendars were, and still are, calculated by the traditional Mayan priests, and are used to time the planting of crops, and to schedule sacred celebrations and ceremonies. The two most important calendars are the Haab, based on the earth's rotation around the sun, and the sacred calendar, Tzolk'in, based on the cycles of the Pleiades constellation. Much like our own solar calendar, the Haab counts 365 days. But instead of 12 it has 18 months with 20 days in each month, with a special 19th month lasting only 5 days.

The Tzolk'in, the sacred calendar of the Maya, is still being used for divination by the contemporary traditional Maya. It is based on the cycles of the Pleiades constellation The cycle of the Pleiades takes 26,000 years, which the Maya divided by 1,000 to make up years lasting 260 days. Since 13 and 20 were both sacred numbers, the fact that when you multiplied them together you got 260 seems especially auspicious to the Maya.

The stone cities may be abandoned, but they had been abandoned before. Mayan history is typically divided into three periods: the Pre-Classic period lasted from 300 BC to 250 AD, and is when the first Mayan settlements came into being, generally near the coast. During the Classic Period, from 250 AD to 900 AD, the Mayan moved inland, into the rain forest, and their art, architecture, religion and science went from one achievement to the next. A major, and mysterious, disruption occurred about 900. Experts have speculated many reasons for the disruption, ranging from climatic change to epidemic -- but peasant revolt seems to be the favorite. Whatever it was, the cities were abandoned and there appears to have been a sudden loss in technical expertise and artistic excellence, signaling the start of the Post-Classic era, or period of decline. Most of the ancient cities were repopulated by 1000, and continued to have been inhabited until at least 1521, and some of the more remote cities even longer.

After 1521, the Spanish tried to systematically destroy Mayan civilization. They burned the codices, which were ancient bark paper books. This is one of the great crimes of world cultural history. One surviving codex, housed in Dresden, Germany and called, not surprisingly, the Dresden Codex, is a wonder of brilliant drawings and decoration and cryptic hieroglyphics. But the Mayan proved to be a resilient people.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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