In the Beginning was the Number
The following is excerpted from from 13 B'aktun: Mayan Visions of 2012 and Beyond, translated by Robert Sitler and published by North Atlantic Books.
We can observe how some myths can be "translated" and converted into mathematical diagrams that express astronomical relationships and allow for the reconciliation of different calendars ... All this study has a connecting thread: to try to reconstruct, as much as possible, the Mayan people's elementary school of mathematics and astronomy because for them, like for the Pythagoreans, "in the beginning was the number."-- Alejandro Jaén.
The concept of time was apparently one of the most interesting to our Mayan ancestors; they dedicated a good part of their efforts to it. We've left behind so many elements of our culture, including numerous observatories and vestiges of the Mayan work on time. We have become completely disconnected from many of them. One is the profound significance that time had in Mayan consciousness in the context of its mythology, thought, and holistic vision of the world in its cultural development. There have been many researchers, especially from other cultures, who investigated this fascinating theme of Mayan time. In summary form, we can state that time is the duration of things subject to change, or that which is measured by the movement of stars and planets. But the authors themselves have recognized their limitations regarding the great mysteries of our ancestors. J. Eric Thompson refers to it like this: "Our outlooks are too far removed from those of the Maya and, on top of that terrible handicap, there are so many aspects of the problem which are imperfectly known or completely unknown to us."
In the foreword to León-Portilla's Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya, Thompson indicates that in spite of being an authority on the subject, "I fear that we shall never attain a corner of the canvas," referring to the broad knowledge of the Mayan "philosophy of time," as some call it.
Numerous contemporary academic researchers have dedicated their efforts to investigation of the Maya with relation to time. It's worthwhile listing some of those who have ventured into this vast field: Schele, Vogt, Edmonson, Tedlock, Villa Rojas, Gossen, Bruce, Carlson, Tichy, Aveni, Broda, Carmack, Farris, Brotherson, Coggins, Bricker, Förstermann, Goodman, Seler, Spinden, Beyer, Teeple, Morley, Berlin, Barthel, Satterthawaite, Thompson, etc.
Time in Mayan is q'in, an abstract concept that leads us to consider the relationships among three dimensions simultaneously: time, space, and life. In Q'anjob'al Maya, q'in also is a synonym for "festival" and "happiness." In some way, for Mayan people, time is the dynamic of life in space. Thus, if there were emptiness or total stillness somewhere, movement would not exist and life would not happen. Without time, life would be immortal. There would be no aging. Perhaps that's what eternity is: frozen time in which life doesn't move and the beings confined to that context are eternal. Perhaps that is what motivated the Maya to dedicate so much of their time to time. For our ancestors, the passage through our state in this dimension to the state of death invited desire for immortality or the negation of kamich. Why were our ancestors eager to conquer those planes and why their obsession concerning time and space? Apparently they progressed quite a bit concerning knowledge of this mystery through their philosophy. Like all that is mortal on the Earth, they were anxious to achieve prolongation of life through control of time in fulfillment of the command received from the Creators. It is assumed that time has no beginning but instead has always existed as part of the deity's nature. They conceived of time as something without beginning or end, which made it possible to project calculations about far-off moments in the past without ever reaching a starting point.
Given that the movement of stars in space establishes a measurement of time, and that lack of movement would mark a dead point in time, what relation is there between time and space? Similarly, if transcendence did not exist, awareness of our own existence would end up reduced to a simple fantasy or dream, a product of our imagination and our desire to endure. We'd be mere images of our own creation that terminate upon waking up from the dream at death's threshold. Thus, that which we think we perceive here and now would be a mere product of our illusions as creatures continually anxious to remain in time, even without knowing in what space. All cultures, all religions, and all human philosophies are in pursuit of that goal: the search for enduring existence and happiness.
Kawil-yib'an-q'inal (life-space-time) is the current linguistic formula of this three-dimensional concept. It defines the aspirations of Mayan culture, of our civilization's philosophy, and of a being that exists, reflects, and becomes aware of his or her location at a point in time and space, a being aware of its exact location on Earth, that which modern science knows as degrees of latitude and longitude, except in a cosmic and broader sense in the vast universe. Starting from a person's location, projections radiate out toward other dimensions that are well-defined within his or her philosophical concepts. In this way, we construct our numbering and mathematics: the txolq'in or sequential ordering of time in a profound and systematic way, the study of space using numerical formulae, and the control of life in the present and future.
The awakening of Mayan people's awareness concerning their role as a creature located amidst the two realities of time and space motivates them to start searching for their origins, the reason for their existence, and the goal of their journey through time and infinite space, and also to make a mental effort to systematize their studies until discovering the important aspects that will allow them to organize their own existence on Earth.
To understand how our ancestors studied time, I'll start with a person's birth. My son is named Kab' Iq', Two Wind, because he was born that day on our ritual txolq'in. It's different than the date of his birth on the Gregorian calendar. He was probably conceived on 7 Ix, a date foreseen in the wisdom of the gods that determines the future and personality of each individual. This calendar day radiates its influence over the life, the work, the soul, the science, the religion, and all that relates to the existence of a person, both in the present and future. Time acts on the lives of plants -- the times for planting, the harvest -- the raising of animals, the fertile times of living beings, the cycle of rains, droughts, hunting and fishing, the time for celebration of festivals and the time for meditation, etc.
There were no telescopes, no satellites, nor any instruments as in the present. But there was intelligence and there were methods of observation in combination with mathematical and astronomical calculations. On the basis of many years, perhaps many centuries, of observing the phenomena of sky and earth -- hurricanes, eclipses, earthquakes, the passing of comets in the firmament, lunar and solar cycles, stars that appear and disappear, the rainy and dry seasons, cold and hot, the migration of animals, the fertility of the Earth, the longest and shortest days, the phases of the moon -- Mayan people managed to train their minds to know intimately the movement of time and space, the effects that cause everything concerning the beings and elements of the Earth. Based on this, they established a culture of corn, control over the births and lives of plants and animals, and systematic measurement by means of calendars for different uses. The movements of heavenly bodies such as Mercury, Venus, Uranus, Sirius, and Neptune are recorded in the few documents that remain after the book burning carried out by the invaders. We still have four of these codices in different parts of the world, but so much must have been lost in that fateful act of burning the complete library where the wisdom of our ancestors was written.
The ordering of time best known by the people is the Komam Ora (txolq'in) that here we will call the "ritual calendar" since this is the one guiding obligatory observation by all members of society, especially for ritual purposes. Within it, one is born and one dies, and there is the recording of events in a "year" that has 13 rounds of 20 days. Landa indicates to us that the ancients had a name for each period of the day and of time: "During the day they had terms for midday, and for different sections from sunrise to sunset, according to which they recognized and regulated their hours for work ... They had their perfect year like ours...."
This txolq'in is made up of 20 days, each one assigned a numeral from 1 to 13 that indicates the degree of importance in ranking it occupies on the scale across time. (On the 14th day, the count starts at 1 again. There are 260 possible combinations.) It begins with the day Imox and ends with Ajaw, which is the quintessential deity whose name means "Lord," as already explained. Once the first 13 days are completed, the numbers begin again with the number 1 and the Lord of the day that follows until completing all 20 day names, and in this way you get 260 days of the ritual year, that is, 13 "months" of 20 days. The following day is the ritual new year, which is variable.
The origin and meaning of the txolq'in are complex since it arose as a result of the observations mentioned earlier. The 260 days arise from the 13 levels of the universe. Five Venus "years" (5 x 584 days) is equal to eight Earth years (8 x 365), and adding those together also gives 13. Multiplying 13 by the 20 Lords that are the basis for the vigesimal numerical system gives us 260 days. One modern investigator considers that the "great finding in this case was discovering that the indigenous people had not thought just in terms of time but also of space. Curiously, on incorporating space an extraordinary phenomenon was produced, [and] the legends began to transform themselves into mathematical diagrams."
Numerical relationships are not coincidental; they are conclusions that Mayan people arrived at for utilitarian purposes in orienting life and the future. For example, there are 52 influences that the txolq'in can project on any particular day through numerical combinations. There are the 13 degrees of the txolq'in under each of the cosmic cross's four world supports, the Year-bearers. At the same time, the number 13 is one-fourth of 52 years, half of a calendar wheel of 104 years.
Some researchers, such as R. Girard, believe that Mayan numbers have a relation to cosmogonic and astronomic aspects, especially the passage of the sun through the zenith -- that is, the highest point in the sky over the Earth -- which occurs on either April 30 or May 1 at a latitude of 14 degrees, 35 minutes, and 24 seconds. This is a sort of "equinox" in the Pacific area of Guatemala, the place of origin for the calendar as a cultural element for Mayan people.
In creating the ritual calendar, science is complemented by mysticism and philosophy in view of the fact that the txolq'in has a strong relation to the spiritual beings known as the twenty Lords that were created at the beginning of time and who represent the elements of the visible realm as well as the supernatural world.
The Lords of the Days
The Lords are supernatural beings that serve as intermediaries between Ajaw and humans and all creation. As different manifestations of the one Great Energy, they adopt the nature of physical and spiritual elements with powers that come from the Heart of Sky to help in the development of life on Earth. They are not gods; they are visible and invisible elements that collaborate in the mediation of life's development in time and space from the viewpoint of Mayan culture. Through them, the human being can order its relationship with the Supreme Being.
Copyright © 2010 by Gaspar Pedro Gonzàlez. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Image by ramonbaile, courtesy of Creative Commons license.