The Year Bearer: A Deified Burden of Time of the Cyclic 365-day Calendar

In part I, I argued against the theory that time was conceived as a burden within the system of the classic Maya linear Long Count calendar. But was the Year Bearers of the cyclic 365-day calendar conceived to carry time as a burden, a cargo that was offloaded with the resignation of the old Year Bearer and being transported again after the inauguration of the new Year Bearer?

The Yucatec concept kuch (cuch) or “burden”;” cargo” is associated with both the k’atun of the Short Count calendar and Long Count calendar and the 365-day calendar. The word for Year Bearer was ah cuch haab in colonial Yucatec, “he, the bearer of haab, or the vague year”. Cuch can in Yucatec be translated as “burden”. The “burden” can represent guilt, a public office, or a heavy weight (Taube 1988: 187). The Yucatec expression for Year Bearer cuch haab “bearer of the year” have synonyms in other Maya languages like Jacalteca (iqum hab:l) (La Farge and Byers 1927: 173-176; 180; Farge 1947: 163), Chuj (kutc-lum haabil), and Ixil (ihyab) (Lincoln 1942: 109-110) according to Thompson (Thompson 1978: 60; 124).[1]

The Maya conceived the Year Bearer of the 365-day calendar carrying the year as a burden on his back, a load which he passes on to his successor at the time of the end of the designated period, thence derives the word “Year Bearer” according to Thompson (Thompson 1978: 125). In the account of the Manche Ch’ol Calendar in the manuscript by Tovilla (Relation, 1635) the four Year Bearers change a carrying of the burden of the month (vein- tena) of the 365-day year. It is declared that: “According to what (the Indians) say, (these four days) are those which take the road and bear the load of the month (Sp. “cargan el mes”), changing in turn” (Thompson 1978: 60). Gossen claims—founded upon his interpretation of a representation of the 365-day calendar by an irregular, rectangular tablet of wood where the individual day was vertically marked by a charcoal—that time was considered to be a burden in the aboriginal 365-day calendar of the contemporary Chamula (Gossen 1974: 27).

No indication is given by Landa that the four Year Bearers (Kawak, Kan, Muluk and Ix) were considered to be a burden of time. As noted, Landa wrote in Spanish applying few Yucatec concepts. Kuch ha’ab, however, designates the four Year Bearer days of the 365-day calendar in Yucatec (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 342; 344). The principle that the Year Bearer of the 365-day calendar represented a “burden of time” did not only apply to the Yucatec of Mesoamerica. Nicholson follows Thompson’s hypothesis, which states that time was carried as a burden by the Maya of eastern Meso- america. He asserts that the tumpline, mecapalli (Nahuatl), formed the “Looped Cord Year” symbol in western Mesoamerica. Hence, a tumpline symbolised the 365-day calendar year. Nicholson provides and discuss evidence of several figures carrying date signs, with the looping cord device, from various cultures of eastern Mesoamerica (Nicholson 1966).[2] Among the Aztecs the Year Bearers were called Calli (House), Tochtli (Rabbit), Acatl (Reed) and Tecpatl (Flint). Evidence from Central Mexico implies that Mexican porters, because there were no beasts of burden in the pre-Euro- pean/pre-Christian period, carried bundles. Date signs are depicted carried as burdens on tumplines on the back. A rabbit Year Bearer is for instance illustrated carrying the year sign 13-Calli (Nicholson 1966; Read 1998: 89-90). I have previously warned against this “pictographic method” in explaining signs of the logosyllabic system of the classic Maya, but the evidence is more convincing in this context since the cited signs do not appear in a logosyllabic (phonetic) context, but stand alone as symbols.

One Rabbit was announced to be a Year Bearer carrying the burden of office in The Florentine Codex (Nicholson 1966: 143-144; Sahagun 1953: Vol. VII: 21-22). Sahagun describe the four Year Bearer signs in relation with the concept of burden (tlamamalli) of the year:

One Rabbit it is said (that this was) the year sign and year counter of the south. For thirteen years it carried, set on its path, took with it and bore the burden (of the year). Always, during each (of the thirteen) years, it was the first, the one which led, began, made the start and introduced as many year signs as there were: Reed, Flint and House (Sahagun 1953, Vol. VII: 21).

Nicholson concludes that archaeological and linguistic evidence substantiates that the four Year Bearers of the 365-day calendar were generally conceived in in different parts of Mesoamerica to have been carried as burdens, often with a tumpline. The tumpline, mecapalli, constituted the symbol for these Year Bearers (Nicholson 1966: 144).

The New Year Pages (25-28) of Codex Dresden illustrates the last day of Wayeb (Seating of Pohp) where the depicted opossum (och) called Kan Way U Mam, Sak Way U Mam, Chak Kan Way U Mam, or Ek’ Way U Mam, as the Year Bearer of the old year, carries a burden (u kuch). On New Years day (1 Pohp), the carried deity of the New Year is portrayed sitting inside a religious structure in front of an “incensario” with burning copal (pom). The old Year Bearer is said to carry the new Year Bearer as a burden (u kuch), hence the evidence of a ‘time (of the 365-day calendar) as a burden’ notion is quite conclusive. The seated figures on the haab signs (T548) on pages 34-37 of Codex Madrid represent the augury or burden of the coming year (Taube 1988: 259-262). The Year Bearers were not only day names. They were, as maintained by Taube, travelling merchants that carried loads of goods. The load of goods symbolised the destiny of the day and the year “— in a counter clockwise transit” (Taube 1988: 187; 216, note 2).

As portrayed in the New Year pages of Codex Dresden, The Year Bearer represented a supernatural being impersonating and ruling time of the 365-day year. It carried time, e.g. the 365 days, as a burden that was to be transferred during the ceremonies of the New Year festival to the next Year Bearer. Thus, the Year Bearer carried the burden of cyclic time, which had been exhausted and accordingly must be renewed. Conversely, linear time does not require this need. Cyclical time of the 365-day calendar was accordingly conceived to be a burden of the Year Bearer that had to be, by the incumbent, offloaded like a cargo or a religious-political office.

  • [1] The survival of the Year Bearers among the contemporary Maya has been summarisedby Tozzer and Villa Rojas (Tozzer 1941: 135, note 631; Villa Rojas 1973: 143-159).
  • [2] Taube has shown through numerous examples of graphic evidence for a concept ofburden of time in Mexico (Taube 1988: 189-191). Cf. a Toltec representation of the Year Bearerwho carries the date 11 Flint from Tula, early postclassic period (Miller and Taube 1993: 193).
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