The Linear and Cyclical Structure and Character of Calendar Time

The passage of time is represented in the calendars in different ways, reflecting a range of temporal notions. There are, however, two fundamental cultural concepts of temporality of the calendar where the lapse of time is considered to be either linear or cyclic. Leopold E.A. Howe and Nancy M. Farriss assert, however, that there is not an antithesis between linear and cyclic conception of time in a culture since these two calendar systems do not necessarily exclude one another within the cognitive temporal system. Ethnographic data from the Tzotzil-Maya of Chamula, Chiapas in southern Mexico demonstrates that a linear calendar can coincide with cyclical calendars (Gossen and Leventhal 1993). Cyclicity (repetition) and linearity (irreversibility) constitutes therefore an integrated temporal system. In fact the coexistence of linear and cyclical concepts of time is universal (Howe 1981; Farriss 1987).

Although, the application of the concepts “cyclic” and “linear” is controversial in the anthropological literature I find this abstract dichotomy useful as an analytical tool in examining the ritual practice of calendar time as eschatological or apocalyptical since the concepts linear and cyclic suggests whether time is finally terminated (linear) or has the ability to begin again (cyclic). Moreover, the notions linear and cyclic are defining the temporal character of the calendar and not abstract time. By a repetition of the same dates and numbers time can recur perpetually in the cyclical calendar whereas in the linear calendar time is finally completed and not repeated. A beginning and a definitive end date in a (often distant) future characterise linear temporality, where the reckoning embodies a notion of on going continuous and cumulative progress. Cyclic, or as Geertz calls it, “per mutational” (Geertz 1993: 392), time of the calendar consists a shorter time scale. Cyclic reckoning of time is usually founded upon an observance of ecological and astronomical phenomena. Time is in this context perceived as eternal recurring or as a continuation with a beginning, an end and a new beginning date in a definite sequence. The past, present and future are accordingly fused into an endless cycle as opposed to the finite character of linear time. Conversely, linear time embodies a sequence of unique events with a defined chronology where there is a determined beginning and an (future) end date. The fixed termination of time is definitive in the linear calendar whereas the cyclic calendar can in principle be reproduced forever but still incorporates the possibility that the last date entails a final completion. An eschatological or an apocalyptical philosophy is intimately associated with linear temporality because time is known, through prophecy and/or the logic of the calendar, to be finally terminated. An equivalent conception is, however, also compatible with cyclic calendars since a sense of crisis and anxiety can appear at the end of the calendar cycle where the ritual practice of time operates as a symbolic strategy for survival. A cultural system can therefore comprise not just one but two perceptions of reckoning and measuring time where cyclic time reveals a concept of perpetual repetition and linear time advance towards a finite termination somewhere in the distant future. Howe maintains that linear and cyclic calendars constitutes competing time scales (Howe 1981: 223), with either an emphasis on linear or cyclic time within a cultural system and where “... one concept must be subordinated to or incorporated into the other” (Farriss 1987: 572).

Cyclicity and repetition holds a prominence in Maya worldview reflected in the narrative and discourse structure by couplets and other linguistic parallels (Hofling 1993: 164; 167). The inscriptions record that the classic Maya had a wealth of time (super- and sub-) cycles of various durations. But also chronological statements of dynastic records and (remote) history in the linear Long Count calendar abound in the inscriptions (Farriss

1987: 578).

I will now deliberate whether the classic Maya had an eschatological philosophy where an expected final termination of the linear Long Count time dominate an otherwise temporal cyclical chronovision manifested by their many cyclic calendars, in particular the important 260-day calendar. An associated eschatological or apocalyptical anxiety could well have been expressed in the ritual practice of time if the present Long Count calendar had indeed a fixed completion date.

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