Saturday, October 10, 2009

Annihilation Of Thousand Maya Books By Spaniard Conquerors.

In the New World, there were ancient people who, like the Chaldeans and the Chinese, used writing to record eclipses and from these records detected a rhythm by which they could predict them or at least warn of their likelihood. Those people were the Maya, and we know of their achievement through one of their books—one of only four that survived the Spanish conquest and its zealous destruction of the religious beliefs of the native peoples.

All that we know of Maya accomplishments in recognizing the patterns of eclipses comes from the Dresden Codex, written in hieroglyphs and pictures in color paints on processed tree bark with pages that open and shut in accordion folds. The book dates from the eleventh century A.D. and is probably a copy of an older work.
We can only wonder what was lost when the conquering Spaniards destroyed by the thousands the books of the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples. What remains is impressive enough. The Maya realized that discernible eclipses occur at intervals of five or six lunar months. Five or six full moons after a lunar eclipse, there was the possibility of another lunar eclipse. Five or six new moons after a solar eclipse, another solar eclipse was possible.

The Maya had discovered in practical, observable terms the approximate length of the eclipse year, 346.62 days, and the eclipse half year of 173.31 days. The interval for one complete set of lunar phases is 29.53 days. Six lunations amount to approximately 177.18 days, close enough to the eclipse half year (173.31 days) so that there is the "danger" of an eclipse at every sixth new or full moon, but not a certainty. After another six lunar months, the passing days have amounted to 354.36, nearly 8 days too long to coincide with the Sun's passage by the Moon's node.

An eclipse is less likely. As the error mounts, the need increases to substitute a five-lunar-month cycle into the prediction system rather than the standard six-lunar-month count.

Some great genius must have noticed after recording a sizable number of eclipses that major eclipses were occurring only at intervals of 177 days (6 lunar months) or 148 days (5 lunar months). Using the date of an observed solar or lunar eclipse, it would then have been possible to predict the likelihood of another eclipse, even though in some cases an eclipse would not occur and in others it would not be visible from Mesoamerica.

In the Dresden Codex there are eight pages with a variety of pictures representing an eclipse. Each depiction is different, but most show the glyph for the Sun against a background half white and half black. In two of the pictures, the Sun and background are being swallowed by a serpent. Leading up to each picture is a sequence of numbers: a series of 177s ending with a 148. Each sequence adds up to the number of days in well-known three- to five-year eclipse cycles. At the end of each burst of numbers stands the giant, haunting symbol of an eclipse.

From the Maya, we have the numbers that demonstrate one of the greatest of their many discoveries about the rhythms of the sky, but we have no account of the emotion the astronomer-priests or the common folk felt when they observed an eclipse. Perhaps the closest we can come is a passage in the Florentine Codex of the Aztecs, who inherited and used the Mesoamerican calendar but apparently knew little of the astronomy discovered by the Maya a thousand years and more before. Alan Benson


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