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The Maya and Solar Eclipses: Celestial Clashes and Predictive Prowess

In our modern, light-polluted world, the brilliance of the night sky is often obscured by artificial lights. However, when you venture into a designated "Dark Sky" area and gaze upwards, you'll be treated to a celestial spectacle that has captivated humans for millennia.


Maya and Solar Eclipses
Maya and Solar Eclipses

Before the advent of modern technology, societies observed the sky meticulously, creating cosmographies - sky maps that informed their calendars and agricultural cycles. They also developed cosmologies, religious doctrines that sought to explain the universe, intertwining the divine with the celestial.


The heavens operate in an orderly and cyclical manner. With enough observation and record-keeping, one can discern these rhythms. Many ancient societies could accurately predict lunar eclipses, and some, like the Maya, could also forecast solar eclipses - such as the one set to occur over North America on April 8, 2024.


The eclipse's path of totality, where the Moon will completely obscure the Sun, will traverse Mexico from the Pacific coast before entering the United States in Texas. This event will be visible as a partial eclipse across the ancient Maya lands. This follows the October 2023 annular eclipse, during which the "ring of fire" around the Sun was observable from numerous ancient Maya ruins and parts of Texas.


A millennium ago, two such solar eclipses occurring over the same region within six months would have sent Maya astronomers, priests, and rulers into a flurry of activity.


The Ancient Maya: Pioneers of Astronomy


The ancient Maya were arguably among the most accomplished sky-watchers. As skilled mathematicians, they systematically observed the movements of the Sun, planets, and stars.

These observations led to the creation of a sophisticated calendar system that regulated their world - one of the most precise in pre-modern times.


Maya astronomers closely monitored the Sun and aligned monumental structures, such as pyramids, to track solstices and equinoxes. They also used these structures, along with caves and wells, to mark zenith days - the two times a year in the tropics when the Sun is directly overhead, and vertical objects cast no shadow.


Maya scribes recorded astronomical observations in codices, hieroglyphic folding books made from fig bark paper. The Dresden Codex, one of the four surviving ancient Maya texts, dates back to the 11th century. Its pages are filled with astronomical knowledge and religious interpretations, providing evidence that the Maya could predict solar eclipses.


The codex's astronomical tables reveal that the Maya tracked the lunar nodes - the two points where the Moon's orbit intersects with the ecliptic, the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. They also created tables divided into 177-day solar eclipse seasons, marking days when eclipses were possible.


The Celestial Battle


Why did the Maya invest so much effort in tracking the skies? Knowledge is power. By keeping records of events that occurred during specific celestial phenomena, they could prepare and take appropriate precautions when these cycles repeated. Priests and rulers would know which rituals to perform and which sacrifices to offer to the gods to ensure the continuation of the cycles of destruction, rebirth, and renewal.


In Maya belief, sunsets symbolized death and decay. Every evening, the sun god, Kinich Ahau, embarked on a dangerous journey through Xibalba, the Maya underworld, to be reborn at sunrise. Solar eclipses, seen as a "broken sun," signaled potential cataclysmic destruction.

Kinich Ahau represented prosperity and order, while his brother Chak Ek - the morning star, known today as the planet Venus - symbolized war and discord. They were rivals, battling for supremacy.


Their battle played out in the heavens. During solar eclipses, planets, stars, and sometimes comets become visible during totality. If positioned correctly, Venus will shine brightly near the eclipsed Sun, which the Maya interpreted as Chak Ek launching an attack. This is suggested in the Dresden Codex, where a diving Venus god appears in the solar eclipse tables, and in the coordination of solar eclipses with the Venus cycles in the Madrid Codex, another late 15th-century Maya folding book.


With Kinich Ahau - the Sun - concealed behind the Moon, the Maya believed he was dying. Renewal rituals were necessary to restore balance and set him back on his proper course.

The nobility, especially the king, would perform bloodletting sacrifices, piercing their bodies and collecting the blood drops to burn as offerings to the sun god. This "blood of kings" was the ultimate sacrifice, intended to strengthen Kinich Ahau. The Maya believed that the creator gods had given their blood and mixed it with maize dough to create the first humans. In turn, the nobility offered a small portion of their own life force to nourish the gods.


A Moment Outside of Time


For me, just like the ancient Maya, the total solar eclipse will be an opportunity to not only look up but also to contemplate both the past and the future. Viewing the eclipse is something our ancestors have done since time immemorial and will continue to do far into the future. It is awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word: For a few moments, it seems as if time both stops, as all eyes turn skyward, and converges, as we participate in the same spectacle as our ancestors and descendants.


Whether you believe in divine messages, battles between Venus and the Sun, or in the beauty of science and the natural world, this event unites people. It is humbling, and it is also very, very cool.

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