Mesoamerican Astrology

Mesoamerican Astrology

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

As in the ancient Near East, astrology and the birth of civilization were coincident in Mesoamerica, today’s Mexico, and northern Central America. During the pre-Classic period, around 600 b.c.e., stone carvings made by Olmec artists are evidence that the key signs utilized in Mesoamerican astrology were already in use. During the Classic period, from about 300 to 900 c.e., the time of the rise and fall of Mayan civilization and the flourishing of Teotihucan in highland Mexico, astrology was a guide to religion, war, and daily life. During this period, ancient Mayan astrologers had considerable power and status, and they devised many sophisticated methods by which to compute planetary and calendric positions. During the post-Classic period, a time during which the Maya were in decline and the Toltecs, and later the Aztecs, dominated the Mexican highlands, the astrological tradition continued to flourish, though it did not develop beyond the high-water mark it had reached in the Classic period. The Spaniards arrived in the early sixteenth century and quickly brought an end to more than 2,000 years of native culture and science.

While the Spanish conquistadors and friars were very thorough burning books and destroying stone inscriptions, the existence of an astrological tradition unique in all the world was not obliterated. From the conquest to the present, an oral tradition among the Guatemalan Maya has kept alive some of the most basic principles of the system. Spanish friars, in their attempts to learn about indigenous practices so as to better eliminate them, described the ancient astrological system in their writings that are today available in college libraries. Archaeologists have translated numerous Mayan inscriptions and also the several surviving Mayan texts, two sources that reveal a deep awareness of planetary cycles and their meanings. Finally, archaeoastronomers have examined ancient ruins with precise instruments and have found numerous astronomical alignments that underscore the importance of celestial phenomena and cosmically inspired ritual to the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica. All of this supports the notion that the astrological tradition in Mesoamerica was a central pillar of native culture, and that it was shared by the several civilizations (Toltec, Maya, Aztec, etc.) that arose in the region. Today, we are able to piece together enough of it to appreciate its high level of sophistication.

Basically, Mesoamerican astrology gives blocks of time the same importance as Western astrology gives blocks of space. The Western zodiac, the aspects, and the houses are all spatial elements in a spatial astrological system. In the Mesoamerican system, blocks of time, with the day being the fundamental unit, serve the same purpose. There are 20 key signs that move in a consistent order, ruling blocks of time that are one day or 13 days in length. An analogy in Western astrology would be the 12 signs of the zodiac and the decans, a set of signs within the signs. In other words, like the zodiac, the 20 key signs of Mesoamerican astrology depict an archetypal evolutionary sequence that is applied to units of time, not to space. Celestial events and births were interpreted according to the symbolism of the block of time in which such events occurred.

The 20 signs of Mesoamerican astrology are grouped in five sets of four. Like the elements in Western astrology, the four directions are important considerations in any evaluation of a Mesoamerican sign. The signs (Aztec names) and their directional compliment are as follows:

Directions and Signs (Aztec Names)

In the accompanying table, each of the signs, called tonally by the Aztecs, rules a single day in the order, from left to right. After 20 days the cycle begins again. Along with these 20 signs run 13 numbers as follows: (1) Crocodile, (2) Wind, (3) House, (4) Lizard, (5) Serpent, etc., to (13) Reed. After that comes (1) Ocelot, (2) Eagle, (3) Vulture, etc. It turns out that there are 20 cycles of the 13 numbers in exactly the same number of days as 13 cycles of the 20 signs. This full cycle is one of 260 days and is called the 260-day astrological calendar; the tzolkin of the Maya and the tonalpouhalli of the Aztecs. Each sign rules a day and is called a day-sign. The signs that are attached to the number one rule the next 13 days and, since there are 20 of these in the 260-day period, they operate like signs themselves, though in a different order than the days. In other words, any given day in the cycle of 260 days is both a day-sign and a part of a 13-day sign. These are only two of the fundamental building blocks of Mesoamerican astrology, and they are a key to both the classification of individual personality and the analysis of celestial events affecting society at large.

Each of the 20 signs was said to be ruled by a specific deity. Correspondences with the Aztec pantheon are known, but the Mayan correspondences have been lost for the most part. Knowledge of the Aztec gods and goddesses is central to an understanding of the signs, just as an understanding of zodiac signs requires a knowledge of planetary rulers. The few books of symbols and glyphs (called codices) that survived the Spanish conquest reveal even other correspondences and hint at a complex body of symbolic knowledge utilized by priests and astrologers when working with the astrological system. From these books, eclipses and conjunctions could be predicted along with the signs (blocks of time) in which they would occur. In the codices, descriptions of the effects of the various combinations are stated alongside the relevant mathematical detail.

Mesoamerican astrology is a complex subject and was not limited to the astrology of individual personality and destiny. Astrologers practiced a kind of electional astrology, evident from the dates chosen for coronations, wars, and treaties—dates on which important planetary conjunctions or stations occurred. There was also a unique mundane astrology that utilized blocks of time of 7,200 days, a period very close to the length of the Jupiter/Saturn cycle, called a katun. The katun was regarded by the Maya as the fundamental unit of time for political and cultural matters. Katuns were grouped in bunches of 13 and 20, and 260 of them made up a creation epoch. Because the Maya were excellent mathematicians and left behind many dates in stone, we are fairly certain that the current epoch began August 11, 3114 b.c.e. and will end December 21, 2112 c.e. The 5,125-year span of 260 katuns (called the Long Count by archaeoastronomers or the Mayan calendar by the new age community) is almost exactly one-fifth of a precession cycle. In Mesoamerican astrology, the passage of the ages is not measured in twelfths of the precession cycle and indicated by signs (as in age of Pisces, Aquarius, etc.); it is divided in fifths that are in turn divided the same way as the 260-day astrological calendar, into 20 units of 13 and 13 units of 20. The Harmonic Convergence of 1987 brought to the world’s attention the fact that we are soon to enter the last katun (½60th) of the entire creation epoch. According to most researchers, this date was April 6, 1993. The Long Count is complete on December 21, 2012, and a new segment of the precession cycle then begins the following day.

Mesoamerican astrologers mathematically worked out the cycles of the visible planets and were able to compute their positions in advance from tables they created. Venus was perhaps the most studied of the planets and its 584-day synodic cycle was apparently both a symbol of the process of cultural evolution and a practical method for determining dangerous periods and cyclic agricultural conditions. The Mayan divided the synodic cycle of Venus into four sections and offered interpretations for each. The first portion of the cycle, the inferior conjunction, which occurs when Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun, was considered extremely dangerous. It was considered to be a time when human errors would lead to disgrace and the high would be struck down. Interestingly, trends like these continue to manifest at the time of the inferior conjunction. The interface between Venus and the Sun (five Venus synodic cycles = eight solar years) was also a component of the larger cycle of 104 years when the cycles of Venus, the Sun, and the 260-day astrological count meshed precisely.

The rehabilitation of Mesoamerican astrology is far from complete. In Mexico and Guatemala today, there is a number of native practitioners who utilize the system in what they believe to be a pure form. In many cases, they reject the work of the academic researchers and devise entirely new rulership schemes. There are also discrepancies over the exact correlation between the ancient pre-Colombian calendar and that of the Christian calendar. However, after much research and painstaking comparisons with colonial documents, oral traditions, and ancient inscriptions, the consensus seems to be that the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation (the GMT), which places the beginning of the present creation epoch (the Long Count) at August 11, 3114 b.c.e., is the correct correlation. The tradition of Mesoamerican astrology is the world’s most sophisticated time-based astrological system, and it may eventually be a major contributor to a world-class astrology of the future.

—Bruce C. Scofield

Sources:

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.
The Book of the Jaguar Priest: A Translation of the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin, with Commentary. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951.
Burland, C. A. The Gods of Mexico. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.
Duran, Fray Diego. The Book of the Gods, the Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Translated and edited by F. Horcasitas and D. Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
Jenkins, John. Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1999.
Sahagún, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Books 4 and 5. Translated by C. E. Dibble and A. J. O. Anderson. Ogden: University of Utah Press, 1957.
Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1990.
Schele, Linda, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1993.
Scofield, Bruce. Day-Signs: Native American Astrology from Ancient Mexico. Amherst, MA: One Reed Publications, 1991.
Scofield, Bruce. “Sex and the Plumed Serpent: Venus Cycles in Mesoamerican Astrology.” The Mountain Astrologer. Issue #94, December 2000/January 2001: pp. 3–10.
Scofield, Bruce. Signs of Time: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Astrology. Amherst, MA: One Reed Publications. 1994.
Scofield, Bruce, and Angela Cordova. The Aztec Circle of Destiny. 2nd ed. Amherst, MA: One Reed Publications, 2002.
Tedlock, Barbara. Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
Thompson, J. Eric S. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.