Cosmogony and the Ritual Practice of Time and Space

Not much detailed data of the postclassic Yucatec cosmogony are available. The exact locations of creation and the site of the New Year ceremonies are not known so that a symbolic ritual in this manner cannot be established. Neither do the ritual actors or the dates of creation correspond with the New Year festival. The ritual performers did not impersonate or imitate the creator deities in the New Year ritual.

An intimate relation of the creation story, cosmology and the calendar in postclassic Yucatan philosophy is narrated in The Books of Chilam Balam.^6 A story of a deluge introducing the present world era was recorded to have happened k’atun 11 Ajaw in The Chilam Balam books of Tiz- imin (Edmonson 1982: 40-41), Manl(Craine and Reindorp 1979: 118-119) and Chumayel (Roys 1933: 99-100).[1] [2]

The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin (Makemson 1951: 40; Edmonson 1982: 40-41, 45-48), of Mani (SoHs Acala 1949: 230-233; Crane and Reindorp 1979: 118-119) and of Chumayel (Roys 1933: 99-100; Edmonson 1986: 153-156), agree in the date and the destruction of the world by a great flood, which lead to the creation of the present world (Taube 1988: 135-136).[3] The deluge is considered in The Books of Chilam Balam as both the beginning and the end of the calendar cycle. The phrase lai hunyecil bin tz’ocebal u than katun, “that is a flood which will be the ending of the word of the katun” is expressed in the Tizimin (Edmonson 1982: 41) and in the Manirelated with a cycle of 18 four hundred years (uaxaclahun tuc bak u haabil), which was in the 17th count according to Taube “..., evidently a Mayan version of the eleventh hour” (Taube 1988: 148-149).

The Bacabs were active in the annihilation of the former world era and the creation of the present world. They caused the flood and later set up the four trees of abundance at the four cardinal directions (Roys 1933: 98107). After the flood the creation was completed with five trees being erected at the four cardinal directions and in the centre, as told by The Books of Chilam Balam. The trees are described as the sign (chicul) of the destruction of the preceding world (haycabit). In the accounts of Maniand the Chumayel the trees were associated with the Bacabs. They, as Sky Bearers, are supporting the world after the flood destroyed the previous world (Roys 1933: 99-100; Taube 1988: 138; 142-143). The contemporary Ch’orti’ creation story, reflect this theme, by the story of the four ?anhel who caused a flood by shaking the beams which supported heaven at the four cardinal points of the world (Fought 1972: 377-378; Taube 1988: 138).

The k’atun terminates on the day Ajaw and begins on the day Imix of the 260-day calendar. In the Chilam Balam books of Tizimin and Mani, the cosmogonic flood event occurred in Katun 13 Ahaw, the last k’atun of the Short Count calendar. The trees erected after the deluge are designated as Imix Che (Imix trees), which presumably refers to the first day of a new k’atun cycle (Taube 1989: 9; 1995: 72). The Chumayel relates that the four Bacabs created the fourth world. These four deities placed a world tree associated with a colour and a perching bird in each of the four cardinal directions. A great tree was also erected in the centre. The plate of the k’atun was set up and the Piltec tree was erected in each of the cardinal directions. Ah Uuc Cheknal fertilised the earth represented by Itzam Cab

Ain, The Giant Fish Earth Caiman. There was no day or night, “creation dawned upon the world”. The vigesimal counting system is created and the world was organised in four cardinal directions (Roys 1933: 99-102).

We learn from the “The Rituals of Angels” of the Chumayel that four deities, Pawahtun’s apparently classic equivalents of the Bacabs, with a distinctive colour each are set up at the four cardinal directions respectively:

(These are) the angels[4] of the winds which were set up while he created the star; when the world was not yet lighted, where there was neither heaven nor earth: The Red Pauahtun, The White Pauahtun, the Black Pauahtun, the Yellow Pauahtun (Roys 1933: 110).

Before his commentaries and outline of the New Year rituals, Landa introduces an account of the creation story of the four Bacabs of the destruction of the former world age by a deluge and the creation of the current world:

They said that they were four brothers whom God placed, when he created the world, at the four points of it, holding up the sky, so that it should not fall. They also said of these Bacabs, that they escaped when the world was destroyed by the deluge. They gave other names to each one of them and designated by them the part of the world where God had placed him, bearing up the heavens, and they appropriated to him and to the part where he stands one of the four dominical letters. 'And they distinguished the calamities and fortunate events which they said must happen during the year of each one of them, and of the letters, which accompany them. And the devil, who deceived them in this as in everything else, informed them of the worship and offerings, which they were to make to him in order to escape the calamities. And so the priests said, when no calamity happened to them that it was on account of the services, which they had offered to him; and in case misfortunes came, they made the people understand and believe that it was owing to some sin or fault in the services or in those who performed them (Tozzer 1941: 135-136).

That the story of creation was connected to the ritual practice of time of the 365-day calendar may not be a coincidence. There are otherwise few allusions to stories in the Relacion. Creation is thereafter combined with a threat of disastrous destructions or calamities if not the deities are being served or propitiated with worship and offerings in the rituals of the ending of the 365-day period. Landa employ the derogatory word “devil” and thereby gives the impression that the religious specialists of the Yucatec manipulate the people to believe in the threat of their “pagan” deities. The problematic translated concepts “sin” and “fault” from the creation account of Landa are to be understood, not in a Christian theological paradigm, but as a failure to observe ritual service towards the deities. A “do ut des” principle is here at work. One have to perform ceremonies and sacrifices to alleviate the deities thereby avoiding their wrath, which would cause “calamities” and “misfortune”.

After this discourse Landa begin a rather lengthy relation of the four Year Bearer ceremonies of the Wayeb period succeeded by a narration of the incorporation rituals of the first veintena of the year, Pohp (Tozzer 1941: 136-152). A demolition and re-creation of the world story preceding a narrative of the New Year rituals appears not only in Landa’s account but also in the postclassic codices.[5] Taube has detected that in the three surviving Maya codices a story of the flood is being related before the New Year pages (Taube 1988: 273-274). The cataclysmic deluge scene on pages 32 and 33 come before the New Year pages of 34-37 in Codex Madrid. The flood scene on page 21 in Codex Paris also seems to introduce the New Year pages of this codex. Pages 69-74 of Codex Dresden, which represents the destruction of the world by a flood and its renewal by an erection of the four world directional trees, heralds the New Year pages and the New Year rituals as described by Landa, in the originally pagination (Taube 1988: 143-152; 265-266; 1995: 72-73). The annihilation and re-creation of the world thus adjoin the New Year ceremonies in the codices. A re-creation of the world and renewing of time might therefore be the central theme and motivation for conducting the New Year Ceremony of the 365-day calendar where the New Year celebrations were annual ritual re-enactments of and protection against the destruction and creation of the world (Taube 1988: 310-311; 1995:


A common theme of the creation of the present world in the accounts of the codices, The Books of the Chilam Balam and Landa’s Relacion was the erection of four trees at the four cardinal directions. The creator deities thus symbolically made the earth, e.g. space. But it appears that the 365-day calendar ritual did not contain an eschatological or apocalyptical philosophy. The sources and the order and manner of the ritual proceedings do not corroborate Taube’s theory of possible forces of darkness, destruction, and chaos threatening the postclassic Yucatec at the end of their 365-day calendar.

Such a cosmological interpretation needs to be modified to apply to a ceremonial renewal or re-structuring of the 365-day agricultural year. Space, e.g. the earth or the world, was not ritually-symbolically redefined in the New Year ritual of the 365-day calendar because of the structure of the ritual proceedings. Hence space cannot be said to replicate the creation events in the New Year rituals. I will illustrate this essential feature of the ritual by showing how space is related to time in the 365-day New Year festival in only a moderately spatial-temporal, but not a symbolically emulated quadripartite, fashion.

  • [1] Cf. Paxton about postclassic Yucatec cosmology.
  • [2] Cyrus Thomas found that 11 Ajaw appear at the beginning and 13 Ajaw at the end ofthe thirteen k’atun cycle recorded on pages 71 to 73 in Codex Dresden (Taube 1988: 149).
  • [3] The sources of the account of the flood story and the destruction of the previousworld, has been summarised by Taube (1988: 135-152).
  • [4] Cangeles ik (Roys 1933: 110, note 3).
  • [5] The Yucatec story of the cataclysmic deluge has been analysed by Taube (1988: 135151). See also Thompson for an account of the flood story in Mesoamerica creation accounts(197o: 330-348).
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