The “Enigma of Anteriority” and of Origin: Continuation of Linear Time

A structural analysis of the pattern of the world ages sequence in various Mesoamerican creation stories has been preparatory to the investigation of the hypothesis of the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar as a regeneration of cyclic time and/or a recreation of the world or earth (space). The existence of various previous Long Counts suggests that the world and/or time were not renewed through the rituals of time. How are we to understand ritual practice of time when it is apparently no ultimate temporal beginning ex nihilo?

Paul Ricoeur concept of “the enigma of anteriority” may explain classic Maya temporal thinking. Ricoeur distinguish between a beginning in a dated chronology—i.e. 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl (Kumk’u) in the classic Maya Long Count system or the year zero according to the Christian Gregorian calendar—and the mysterious origin—the previous Long Counts period— which cannot be determined. He writes:

... before the moral law, there is always a moral law, just as before Caesar, there is always another Caesar; before the Mosaic law, there are Mesopotamian laws, and before these yet others, and so on. Here we find a sort of always-already-present, which causes any effort to discover a dated beginning to fail as it encounters the perspective of the origin. It as though there were a dialectic of the origin and the beginning; the beginning should be able to be dated in a chronology, but the origin always slips away, at the same time as it surges up in the present under the enigma of the always- already-there (Ricoeur 1995: 151; 222-223).[1]

The date 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl (Kumk’u) do not signify an origin of time but a beginning of a novel Long Count computation simply because there is no calculation from a zero date but from a former Long Count calendar representing an “enigma of anteriority” (Ricoeur 1995) of time. As we now shall see there are various indications of this Maya temporal philosophy, which has consequences for the philosophy of the ritual practice of time.

Certain regular expressions—tzutziiy uxlajun pik, “13 pik was completed” or that only the Calendar Round date is proclaimed as having been ended; chan ajaw waxak ohl tzutziiy, “4 Ajaw 8 Ohl was completed”—are stated in numerous classic Maya creation inscriptions. The formula tzutzaj, “it was completed” refers to the termination of the 13 pik period of the former Long Count. It is not mentioned in these inscriptions that time was renewed or recreated. But it is implied, without being said explicitly, that a new time era or Long Count had thereby been initiated. The inscription describing the performance of the seven (K2796) and eleven deities (K7750) may contain a verb that points to the idea of commencing time of the current Long Count calendar. On the vessels K2796 and K7750 the origination of the new Long Count on 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl (Kumk’u) is presented in the inscription as happening at Ek’-Tan. The verb tz’ak possibly allude to a new computation of time. It is interesting that the sign T573, which reads tz’ak, also function as the Distance Number Introducing Glyph (DNIG) and successor sign in calculations of time in the Maya inscriptions. It announces the Distance Number calculation of time either backward or forward to a new date. Tz’ak is applied in this context of giving calendar information. The term tz’ak has the relevant meanings of “change”; “succession”; “was put in order”; “was counted”; “was increased”; “accumulated”; “bring into existence” or “measure a milpa” (Freidel, Schele and Parker 1993: 416-417, note 11).[2] Associated with the date 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl (Kumk’u), it can be interpreted as to put into order or bring the new Long Count into existence. We must also bear in mind that the many connotations of the word tz’ak, as “was put in order” could be associated both with the making of new Long Count time and of space[3]

David Freidel, Linda Schele and Joy Parker have forwarded the theory that linear time of the Long Count calendar “unfolds in a cyclic structure”:

To the Maya, time only appears to move in a straight line. The creation date

is a point on ever larger circles within circles within circles of time (Freidel,

Schele and Parker 1993: 63).

The present Long Count is to be perceived as a linear continuum of former Long Counts where there is no final date, also revealed by the fact that the creation date of the contemporary Long Count was not a zero date but 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl (Kumk’u), i.e. the last date of the previous Long Count. According to the extant sources, there is no clear conception of the origin of time but only the beginning of a new Long Count computation in classic Maya temporal philosophy.[4] [5] More importantly for the present analysis concerning the temporal rituals, a notion of a not determined origin of time implies that a creation of time or the cosmogony had no importance for the meaning of celebrating the ritual practice of time.

  • [1] David Carrasco (Harvard University, 2010).
  • [2] Colonial Yucatec: Ts’ak, nudo, juntura o anadidura. Ts’akal, anadidura’ Ts’ak, aumen-tar, anadir. Ts’ak, contar (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 872).
  • [3] Kerry Hull maintains that tz’ak should be, in this context, translated as “to order”.He proposes the following interpretation of the creation inscriptions on K2796 and K7750:“On 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl was creation ‘ordered’ by the deities” (Hull 2003: 436). Stuart has, however,found that the word in Proto-Ch’olan signifies “complete” or “whole”: Tz’ak, “complete”;“whole”; “enough” (Kaufman and Norman 1984: 134). “Within the context of the DistanceNumber Introducing Glypy, the tz’ahk root indicates that the elapsed time of the DistanceNumber establishes a temporal whole, suggesting that time is ‘complete’ once it has reachedits end-point (Riese 1984)” (Stuart 2003b: 3).
  • [4] Callaway argues that p. 61 and 69 of the non-Christian and non-European postclassic manuscript Codex Dresden narrates the making (pahtaj) of the piktun and the winik(winal) at the day of creation: “He of twenty (the winal/winik) was formed (pahtaj), 19 andhe of zero (ajmik’in) day or 20 days, 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u” (Callaway 2009). The inscriptionsoutline quite a few previous Long Counts, the winal (uinal) or the twenty-day unit (thefundamental coefficient in the vigesimal counting system) is more likely to have been setin motion (“formed”) for the contemporary Long Count and not created for the first time.
  • [5] Leach writes that this “... myth is a creation myth, not a story of the beginning theworld, but a story of the beginning of time, of the beginning of becoming” (Leach 1968: 131).
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