The Philosophy and Religious Ritual Practices of Linear Divine Time

In this section, I argue that that it is not a quantitative but the qualitative experience of time, which contribute to explain the religious ritual temporal practice. Since it was ritualised, time conceivably held, apart from the socio-political function, a deeper philosophical quality or religious value to classic Maya ontology.

Two hypotheses will be examined in order to determine whether they contribute to elucidate the classic Maya philosophy of the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar:

  • 1. Time of the Long Count calendar conceived to be a “burden”.
  • 2. Calendar time deified and ruled by various “time deities”.

Let us first assess the theory that time was conceived to be a burden according to classic Maya temporal philosophy.

Time of the Long Count calendar Conceived as a “Burden”

Thompson (1978) argues that there was a concept of time as a “burden” in Maya temporal philosophy, commonly assumed among by numerous ma- yanists and archaeoastronomists (e.g. most recently by Aveni 2011). If Thompson and his later supporters are proven to be right, this may contribute to explicate the general meaning and significance of the execution of the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar.

The Yucatec expression for “Year Bearer”, cuch haab, has synonyms in other Maya languages as in Jacaltec (iqum habil) and in Chuj (kutc-lum haabil) (Thompson 1978: 60; La Farge and Byers 1931: 180).[1] The Maya are supposed to have perceived the Year Bearer of the 365-day calendar as carrying the year on his back, which is how the designation “Year Bearer” was first introduced. Thompson claims that the same notion applies to the understanding of the different time-units within the classic Maya Long Count calendar:

Thus we find in Tizimin (pp. 2, 9, 10, 12, 13) statements such as tu kin u ch’a cuch, “at the time he takes the burden”, apparently referring to the year bearer 3 Cauac; and u kax cuch katun which probably means “the binding of the burden of the katun”; and again in tu kin u kaxal u cuch ah ho Ahau, “on the day (or at the time) of the binding of the burden of Lord 5 Ahau,” 5 Ahau being the day which gave its name to the current katun .... Each year had his burden with which he traverses his course to pass it at journey’s end to his successor (Thompson 1978: 125).

Thompson asserts that there were divisions of time within the Long Count calendar perceived as burdens which are carried by various divine bearers. These bearers are represented by the numbers distinguished from the different periods of time (i.e. burdens) where: “..; each number carried the period with which he was associated over his allotted course” (Thompson 1978: 59).

As evidence to support this hypothesis Thompson refers to various classic period inscriptions[2] [3] where full-figure signs illustrate deities of numerical coefficients literally “carry” the deity of the time period often with a so-called tumpline known to be used by contemporary Maya carriers of the Highlands of Guatemala (Thompson 1978: 153) (fig. 4 & 5). The signs depict the moment when the time periods and their burdens have arrived at the resting place called lub in Yucatec. But this was only a measurable time of repose before another divine bearer (e.g. coefficient) took up the burden of his predecessor (Thompson 1978: 59-61; 124-125). Thompson describes, rather vivid, the elaborate inscription, on Stela D, Copan, representing various deities of numbers at the moment when their journey of time is over (cf. Thompson 1956: 145).

Not only the posture of these full-figure signs provides support for the theory that time was conceived as a burden. Passages of prophecy in the postclassic Yucatec Books of Chilam Balam, cited in the quotation by Thompson above, apparently corroborates this interpretation of the Maya concept of time. Philological and epigraphic “evidence” presented by Thompson exemplify that concepts of a burden of time and of an unending journey of time were integrated in the religious system of the classic, the postclassic and even the Maya of the early colonial period. These notions had a transcendental importance to the Mayan philosophy of life according to Thompson (Thompson 1978: 63). In addition, the account of the Manche Ch’ol Calendar in the manuscript by Tovilla (Relacion, 1635й9), found by Scholes, the four Year Bearers are described as taking turns the burden of the veintena—i.e. one of the eighteen twenty day-periods of the Mesoamerican 365-day calendar (Thompson 1978: 60).

There are, however, several problematic aspects with the “time as a burden hypothesis” proposed by Thompson. He relies on two categories of data: pictographic and philologic. Thompson interpreted parts of the classic Maya inscriptions as pictographic where certain signs ostensibly reflect time as a burden philosophy. When Thompson developed his theory the phonetic character of the classic Maya inscriptions was not recognised. Since the non-calendar parts were not deciphered, the scholars had a quite limited understanding of the character and the content of the Maya scriptures and accordingly their temporal philosophy. A “pictographic methodology” in interpreting a phonetic system is precarious. The so-called “pictographic bearers of time” do not appear to operate as they were supposed to do if this theory is to be correct. Thompson admits that a full figure “k’in sign”, in the inscription on Lintel 48, Yaxchilan (C3-D4) holds the head representing the coefficient 6 and supports the head for the coefficient 10 on his feet. Who was the bearer and who was the borne in this example? Thompson, however, dismisses this occurrence as a minor detail not affecting the concept of “the journey of a burden of time” (Thompson 1978: 60-61). By exercising a close examination of the full-figure signs, which Thompson referred to in support of his theory, we find that only a minority of these signs represents carriers with a tumpline. The full-figure signs illustrating the numbers and time units of the calendar are actually depicted in different postures. Many of the coefficients are represented lying on the back. Two of these signs show a human being (representing the coefficient) in a conversation with the time unit. Only Stela D, Copan, which—presumably not by coincidence—is the most frequently quoted example by Thompson, appears to represent bearers with a tumpline. But this does not only apply to the calendar section of this inscription. A1-A5 of the inscription on Stela D, Copan contains the calendar date 10 Ajaw 8 Ik’Sihom G9. But B5-B8 of the same inscription, also appear to symbolise “carriers of time”. This section consists of the verb for the “erection” (tz’ap) and “name” (u k’aba’) of the “banner stone” (lakam tun), which refer to Stela D. Consequently, supposedly “carriers of time” signs do not necessarily have anything to do with calendars or any information about time. Furthermore besides the, for Thompson, exasperating representation in the inscription on Lintel 48, Yaxchilan, there are for instance examples of a not deciphered verb, from Drawing 82, Naj Tunich and on Stela 2, Ixkun, which illustrates a full-figure “fire-bearer” with a tumpline. These signs can clearly not refer to a concept of time since the full-figure sign in the syntax does not represent a calendar number or a date but instead a verb. A “pictographic interpretation” of a philosophy of time represented by the signs of the classic Maya inscriptions can therefore not be sustained.

The philological component of Thompson’s argument is founded upon his (and Ralph Roys’s) translation of the expression cuch as “burden” or “cargo” with the calendar notation “k’atun” (cuch k’atun) in various passages from the Yucatec colonial books of Chilam Balam. A calendar station or time unit was associated with the notion of a “burden”. I shall consider the issue of the meaning of the word cuch in this context. But first let us look at epigraphic data from the classic period where presumably the same formula appears. It has been claimed that stones, which symbolised time units, were called kuch tun, “burden stone”, in the classic inscriptions. Stuart has argued that this collocation and the stone discs engraved with ‘X Ajaw signs’ represent “period-ending dates” which symbolise “burdens” of the current Long Count, fortify Thompson’s theory of a Maya notion of a burden of time (Stuart 1995: 110). The reading of the sign T174 as kuch in the classic inscriptions remains inconclusive, since to my knowledge, no irrefutable epigraphic evidence has been presented for the phonetic value of this sign.[4]

Now back to Thompson’s more substantial argument of the notion cuch (kuch) as a “burden” or “cargo” of the k’atun (winikhaab) calendar notation cuch k’atun in various passages from The Books of Chilam Balam. Philological data from the colonial dictionaries undermine a burden of time hypothesis. The term kuch or cuch (associated with a k’atun (winikhaab) designated with one of 13 Ajaw dates of the Short Count calendar) occurs in the colonial dictionaries where it is not exclusively translated with “burden” or “cargo”. Kuch has various additional connotations as Looper (1995: 6) has stated for the classic inscriptions not only the meaning of “burden” or “cargo”, but that of “seat” (Sp. “asiento”) and “government” (Sp. “gobier- no”) (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 342-343).

A symbolic seating (chum) of a date or time period is a well-known formula in the classic Maya inscriptions. A seating of a time unit, symbolised by the computing stones, could be declared erected in a particular Maya city in the classic and postclassic period. As noted, the Maya record- keepers referred to seated or erected numbered “stones” that represented periods of time. The formula cuch k’atun (“seating of the k’atun”) from the Yucatec colonial Books of Chilam Balam parallel, symbolically, the classic Maya expression chum tun, “seating of stone”, i.e. the termination of a time unit of pik, winikhaab, or haab of the Long Count calendar. Cuch k’atun did probably refer to a seating (i.e. completion) and not burden of the Ajaw k’atun in The Books of Chilam Balam since these books were careful to imply where the k’atun was terminated. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chu- mayel recounts that on:

  • 12 Ahau. The stone was taken at Otzmal.
  • 10 Ahau. The stone was taken at Zizal.
  • 8 Ahau. The stone was taken at Kancaba .
  • 6 Ahau. The stone was taken at Hunacthi.
  • 4 Ahau. The stone was taken at Atikuh. This was the katun when the pestilence occurred. It was in the fifth tun of Katun 4 Ahau.
  • 2 Ahau. The stone was taken at Chacalna.
  • 13 Ahau. The stone was taken at Euan.
  • 11 Ahau. On the first day the stone was taken at Colox-peten
  • (Roys 1933: 142).

The verb ch’abi (ch’a), “to take”[5] [6] [7], may convey the meaning “to carry” [a burden] (Thompson 1978: 61). The Books Chilam Balam of Chumayel also employ the expression: u hetz’k’atun, “a seatingM2 or establishment of the k’atun” in a named city. Thompson interprets this as a “symbolic adjustment of the burden of the katun of the bearer’s back”. The burden was possibly transferred from the back of a set of divine beings (ceremonial impersonators) to another group (Thompson 1978: 61). But Thompson admits that these explanations are purely conjectural.

A similar passage of a setting up (seating) and binding stones at k’atun- endings can be found in The Codex Perez and The Book of Chilam Balam of Mani, a traditional practice the Maya had to abandon when the Spaniards arrived:

  • 1 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Izamal.
  • 12 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Zizal.
  • 10 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Kuldche.
  • 8 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Hunucma
  • 6 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Chacalaa.
  • 4 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Tixkulcha.
  • 2 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Euan.
  • 13 Ahau, its stones were wrought in Colop Peten.
  • 11 Ahau, the Spaniards arrived, its stones were not wrought ....143
  • (Craine and Reindorp 1979: 92).

Not only The Books of Chilam Balam but also other colonial sources outline a founding of stones in certain towns and cities at the end of the k’atun. The History and the Chronicle of Chacxulubchen, written by the Maya Nakuk Pech, c. 1562, from the ancient documents, Documentos de Tierra de Chicx- ulub, collected by Pio Perez (Brinton 1882: 189-190) outlines K’atun town stones (Brinton 1882: 227).[8] [9] [10]

The “seating” can be associated with cargo and government (kuch) of time periods. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel announces: “11 Ahau katun is seated on the mat, is seated on the throne” (Luxton 1995: 24-25). Fray Andres de Avendano y Loyola, who at the time apparently received information from books written in logosyllabic inscriptions from the independent Itza, asserts that thirteen k’atun were ascribed to each of thirteen provinces in turn (Means 1917: 141; Roys 1933: 142, note 5; 184; Avendano 1997: 42). Moreover, deities of various time k’atuns (winikhaabs) could be seated (cf. section below about time deities). Time units were under the rule of a deity whom bore the name of the governed calendar period. As we shall see this has consequences for how we understand the concept of kuch (cuch).

I will now analyse the phrases containing kuch (cuch) in relation to calendar dates of the Long Count (or Short CountM5) calendar from The Books of Chilam Balam cited by Thompson. In this specific context, I suggest that cuch rather had the meaning of the related notions “seating”, “government” or “reign” than merely “burden”.i46 As mentioned, the calendar notation is designated by the name of the k’atun (winikhaab), identified by one of the 13 possible Ajaw-ending dates.

  • 1. Thompson cites Ralph Roys quoting from one of the Books of Chilam Balam: “He [Katun 5 Ahau] gives up his mat, his throne. There comes another cup, another mat, another throne, another reign. It is announced that “the burden of Lord 5 Ahau falls” (u lubul u cuch ah ho ahau) and tu tz’oc u cuch katun, “at the completion of the burden of the katun” (Thompson 1978: 60). As an alternative, I propose the fol?lowing translation: “it was fallen[11] [12] [13] [14] [15] seated, (the reign) of 5 Ajaw” and “at the completion148, it was the seating/government of the k’atun”.
  • 2. In the Chumayel appears the phrase: u cuch u ximbal katun, translated by Thompson as “the burden of the journey of the katun” (Thompson 1978: 60). I prefer to translate this formula as: “it was the seating (i.e. end) of the journey^ of the k’atun”, meaning that the old k’atun was completed and a new was to be installed.
  • 3. In Tizimin (page 9) and also in Mam it is said: “lai u lukul cuch... hoote u cuch ca ti luki tiyahaulil’ rendered by Roys as “This is the removal of his burden ... five is his burden, and then he departs from his reign”, which alludes to K’atun 5 Ajaw (Thompson 1978: 60). Thompson does, however, not reproduce the complete sentence. Replacing the translation of cuch by “burden” with instead of “government” or “seating”. I translate this passage as: “This is the removali50 of the seating” or “government”, which means that the old k’atun was no longer in reign. “The five was the seating and then he is liberated from his reign”.
  • 4. Page 9 of the Tizimin: “u kax cuch katun ti ho ahau katun u lubul uale tu hunte uil katun” or (in Roys’ translation) “the binding of the burden [of] the katun in Katun 5 Ahau. It would fall in the first Katun” (Thompson 1978: 6o).i5i The translation of the term kax as “binding”, in: “a binding of the burden of the k’atun”, is disputable in this frame of reference. One could of course imagine, like Thompson, that the k’atun was physically tied as a tumpline on the back of a carrier. But who was going to bear the numbered k’atun? The phrase “a binding of the government of the k’atun” conveys that the reign of the old k’atun was completed and is accordingly, in the light of my argument above, a plausible theory. Another alternative rendition is “to cross” or “to pass”, conveying that the k’atun was passed or terminated.

Wichmann notes that k’ax (modern orthography) can be translated as “to settle” giving u kax cuch k’atun, “it was the settling of the reign of the k’atun”. If this is an accurate translation there is a parallel to the expression u lubul, which we have seen appear in the context of kuch k’atun. Lub’ul and k’axal can then conceivable both be rendered as “settling” (Wichmann, personal communication, 2005). Hence, the government of the k’atun was declared to have fallen (settled) or being completed.

Considering the connotation of kuch as “burden”, the theory of Thompson (and Roys) is not unreasonable when applied to the postclassic Yucatec Maya. But also “government” and “seating” were associated notions subsumed under the term kuch. In the present context, I argue that kuch alludes to a “seating” of a time unit and simultaneously sovereignty (K’atun X Ajaw) symbolised by a stone regularly associated with a specific city among the Yucatec in the postclassic and the colonial period. As I shall elaborate in the next section, every k’atun was perceived to be under the reign of a deity (K’atun X Ajaw). “To govern” is associated with taking a “cargo” or “burden”. Time was not conceived to be a purely abstract burden in postclassic Yucatec Maya temporal philosophy, as Thompson asserted. The concept of the cargo or burden rather symbolised the reign of different k’atun (winikhaab) gods. Time deities, controlling time units, took turns in the office (kuch) of a time period. I hypothesise that there was a ceremonial homage to “idols” of these time deities at the change of a time interval through what have been earlier designated as a ritual practice of time. We can surmise that the same temporal philosophy also applied to the classic Maya.

  • [1] Cf. elaborate discussion of the concept of the Year Bearer of the 365-day calendarin part III.
  • [2] Stelae D, D’, W and The Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copan; Steale B, D and Altar O ofQuirigua; Lintel 48 of Yaxchilan, and The Palace Tablet from Palenque.
  • [3] Taube has provided the date and title of this manuscript (1988: 187).
  • [4] Cf. a recent, but not epigraphic methodologically substanstiated, interpretation ofT174 by Stuart (2005: 96-98).
  • [5] Ch’a, “tomar, traer, llevar, usar, recibir, apropiarse” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 119).
  • [6] Bets’, “asentar” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 204).
  • [7] Cf. Roys for the location of these place names (1933: 142, note 5).
  • [8] Cf. Cronica de Chicxulub from the sixteenth century (Stuart 1996: 150), Diego deCollogudo’s Historia de Yucatan (Cogolludo 1971: 242, Vol. 1), Diego de Landa’s Relacion delas cosas de Yucatan (Tozzer 1941: 37-39), Fray Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar Informe contraidolorum cultures del Obispado de Yucatan (1639; 1892: 96) (Barrera Vasquez 1965: 72, note17). Also The Codex Perez and The Book of Chilam Balam of Mani accounts that stones wereseated at the termination of time periods (Craine and Reindorp 1979: 126-127).
  • [9] A Short Count calendar comprises 13 k’atun (winikhaab) or c. 256 years.
  • [10] Kuch, cargo que trae el oficio y el mismo cargo y oficio, carga, culpa, cargo, gobierno(Barrera Vasquez 1980: 342).
  • [11] Lub is translated as “caer” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 463) or “to fall”.
  • [12] Ts’ok is translated by “acabarse” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 887) or “to complete”; “toterminate”.
  • [13] 149 Ximbal, “paseo”; “andar”; “caminar” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 944). Thus “journey” is aquite good translation.
  • [14] Luk’, “quitar, librar, escaper, partir” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 465) or “to remove”.
  • [15] Also page 10 of the Tizimin [“ti ah oxil kan tu hunte pop u kax cuch katun”, “On Lord3 Kan on 1st of Pop the binding of the burden [of] the katun” (Thompson 1978: 60)], page11 of the Tizimin [“tu kin u kaxalu cuch ah ho ahau”, “On the day of the binding of the burdenof Lord 5 Ahau” (Thompson 1978: 60), and the sentence: u kax cuch katun “the binding ofthe burden of the katun” and tu kin u kaxal u cuch ah ho Ahau, is translated as “on the day[or at the time] of the binding of the burden of Lord 5 Ahau” (Thompson 1978: 125) incorporates a concept of “binding” (kax[al]) according to Thompson.
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