Methodology of Analysing the Ritual Practice of Time of the Long Count calendar

Despite David Stuart’s (1995; 1996) and Jessica Joyce Christie’s (1995) research, a systematic investigation of the ritual practice of time of the classic Maya Long Count calendar has not been conducted within a theoretical model of history of religions. Stuart’s recently published book summarise the state of the art about the concept of classic Maya time according to epigraphic research (cf. Stuart 2011). It is now due, also because of the substantial advancement of epigraphy that has taken place since Stuart and Christie’s investigations, to conduct an analysis of time as part of the pivotal classic Maya religious temporal practice.

The dates and descriptions indicating the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar are only recognisable in the Maya inscriptions. It is the calendar position of the inscriptions that serves as the fundamental indicator—the ceremonial undertaking must be stated to occur on a so- called “period-ending date”—whether the outlined ritual practice was intended to be concerned with time. The “period-ending” time stations indicated with the coefficient zero of at least one of the time notations of the Long Count calendar can only fall on the twentieth day, Ajaw, of the 260-day calendar because 144, 000, 7, 200, 360 and 20 are divisible by 20 (cf. Taube 1992). I will return to this remarkable fact since I hypothesise that the 260-day calendar plays a significant role in the temporal philosophy of the Long Count calendar. Moreover, a plethora of formulas in the classic Maya inscriptions conveying the end of a passage of time have been recognised by various epigraphers.[1] Archaeological primary sources—i.e. material objects and structures—and iconography or narrative visual systems can only to a limited extent be of assistance. Besides history of religions, the fundamental method of this investigation is philological. I have accord?ingly principally examined the inscriptions and not the depictions because images alone cannot signify that a ritual of time was being conducted. The analysis will therefore only consider the iconography where one can establish an unequivocal relevance to the religious ritual practice of time.

Religious calendars are in particular difficult to interpret and analyse since they comprise cognitive categories belonging to different and sometimes ancient cultural systems of philosophy, symbols and ritual practices which in many instances are unfamiliar from the experience and world view of the scholar. The extant inscriptions on the stone monuments comprise, alas, only short, formulaic expressions. The Maya scribes and the religious specialists, the latter conducted the rituals and in many cases commissioned the inscriptions and the monuments, made no exegesis or interpretation of the religious temporal practices in the extant inscriptions. The texts do not therefore contain any transparent information from the Maya about the purpose of celebrating the rituals of time of the Long Count calendar. In addition, it is quite difficult to interpret the ritual actions because some inscriptions are not accompanied by iconography or a narrative visual system. A narrative coherence between the inscription and the iconography in the ritual language of the “temporal” ceremonies is, however, often absent. In many cases, the inscriptions refer to rituals that have nothing to do with the iconography. The image and the text may constitute two or several independent narratives. Accordingly, no necessary consistent pattern of relations exists between text and image.

The interpretation of the primary written sources (i.e. the logosyllabic inscriptions) will nonetheless be supported by iconography, archaeology and comparative colonial data (and to a quite limited degree, contemporary ethnography). Although a use of information from the colonial period (and postcolonial ethnography) from different Mesoamerican cultures is problematic as a secondary comparative historical source to a pre-European and pre-christian religious system of the pre-European period, this method has become established as a part of the accepted methodology in research of Indigenous cultures and philosophies of the Americas. This is because quite a few pre-European/pre-Christian elements to some extent, not without modifications, have been preserved by many cultures. However, the Long Count calendar system fell into disuse sometime during the colonial period. I therefore emphasise that I employ colonial sources, which do not derive from what we know as the classic Maya culture, with considerable caution—given the fact that they play no essential part in the analysis of the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar.[2]

  • [1] Cf. survey in Mongomery 2002 and Pharo 2006.
  • [2] Prudence M. Rice employ a method of extrapolation of data from the postclassic andthe colonial period at Yucatan and contemporary ethnography combined with classic Mayaepigraphy in order to reconstruct classic Maya history. Rice hypothesise that the k’atun (c.20 years) and the may (20 k’atun or c. 256 years) “structured” the geopolitical and religiousorganisation of the classic Maya (Rice 2004). The theory that the cities were respectivelycentres for rotating “may-periods” and ceremonies in the postclassic and early colonialperiod at Yucatan—apparently outlined in The Books of the Chilam Balam—has yet to becorroborated by solid evidence. Rice’s methodology of “direct-historical approach” represents indeed a failing to ignore the crucial difference of primary and secondary sources inhistory (of religions) (Cf. Pharo 2008).
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