The Postclassic Yucatec New Year Festival as an Agricultural Ritual

The Mesoamerican 365-day calendar of the Maya is aligned to the solar year. In fact, this calendar reflects a so-called “vague” year. The actual length of the solar year is 365. 2422 days. The vague year or the traditional Mesoamerican 365-day calendar, without leap days, was a quarter of a day or about six hours short of the solar year.

The 365-day calendar was mainly an agricultural calendar adapted to the seasonal or solar cycle. But because of the Mesoamerican the 365-day vague year, due to a probable absence of intercalations, a correspondence with the seasonal/solar cycle over a long time period was not fixed. Extant sources indicate that the Maya, and other cultures of Mesoamerica, did not apply a system of leap-day corrections.[1] Instead, through these books, they recorded the distance between the solstices, on the one hand, and of the New Year and the Half Year on the other. Every 100 years the 365-day calendar lagged behind 25 days and after 1460 AD a whole year constituted the difference. An adjusting of this calendar may as a consequence have been executed by the Mesoamericans to rectify this evident disorder but this has yet to be proven. Johanna Broda de las Casas argue that the agricultural rituals of the 365-day calendar were performed in a complex calendar structure lasting a quite long time span consisting of different rites. Agricultural rituals were conducted through the 365-day year and in addition, under special circumstances, outside the seasonal cycle of ceremonies. A correspondence with the veintena festivals was more indirectly than directly related with the natural or seasonal cycle. This is also suggested by the fact that the 260-day cycle contains agricultural rituals in Mesoamerica (Thompson 1930: 41; Girard 1962: 328-342; Broda de la Casas 1969: 52-54; Bricker and Miram 2002: 40-41).

Spanish ethnographer missionaries report that various deities and social groups held different ceremonies in a fixed veintena of the 365-day calendar in Aztec society[2] Every veintena of the 365-day calendar had rituals connected with agriculture. It is important to bear in mind that the pre- European/pre-Christian Mesoamerican cultures were pre-industrial societies. People were totally dependent on the agricultural crop in order to survive. If the harvest failed the consequences for every social group would be severe. Contemporary ethnographic investigations document a variety of agricultural rituals, of Indigenous religion and Catholicism, observed during the 365-day calendar year in Mesoamerica.

The scenes of the New Year rituals of the postclassic codices illustrate agricultural themes. Taube and Love claims that the New Year pages of Codex Madrid, Codex Dresden and Codex Paris display omens, auguries and prophesies of the welfare of the harvest of the succeeding year. Many of these pages portray the Maize God (God E) (Love 1994: 73-75; Taube 1988: 246-253; 265). Four unidentified directional gods are portrayed planting in the upper right sections of New Year pages 34-37 in Codex Madrid (Taube 1988: 259). The space of the milpa is here ritually defined. Several figures with maize foliage are depicted in the scenes on the same pages. The Maize deity (God E) is one of the seated figures on T548, haab or 365-day year sign, in each scene. On pages 24c and 25c of Codex Madrid the seated Maize god accompany the Year Bearers: Kawak, Kan, Muluk and Ix (Taube 1988: 260-261). The agricultural identity of the deities worshipped in the postclassic Yucatec New Year festival signal the meaning of this ritual.

We have seen that the Maize god was a protagonist in the New Year pages of the codices (cf. Tozzer 1941: 139). The Bacabs, destroyers of the former world age and creators of the present world, were Sky Bearers connected with the four Year Bearers who were worshipped in the New Year ritual. The Bacabs were, as Sky Bearers, each linked with a cardinal direction and a colour (Tozzer 1941: 136, note 632). The section “Creation of the World” from The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel relates that the four Bacabs who had previously destroyed the former world era erected four trees of abundance of the four cardinal directions and a tree in the centre at the creation of the contemporary world age. Each of these trees was associated with a colour. The fifth deity and the overlord of these supernatural beings, Ah Uuc Cheknal (“he who fertilises the maize seven times”)[3], were fecundating the earth, called Itzam-Kab-Ain (Roys 1933: 99-102). The world of the four cardinal directions and a centre were hence linked to the origin of maize (Christie 1995: 116). Time, space and agriculture are consequently intimately connected.

Landa writes that the four Bacabs carried the names Chac-Xib-Chac, Zac-Xib-Chac, Ek-Xib-Chac and Kan-Xib-Chac. These deities are conceivable rain gods set out at the four cardinal directions (Roys 1933: 172).

Various sources confirm that the Bacabs were associated with fertility and agriculture. They were gods of not only wind and rain but also of apiculture and of divination (Tozzer 1941: 135, note 632; Thompson 1934: 216; 1970b; Lopez de Cogolludo 1971: 255, Vol I).

Landa supplies Pauahtun (Pawahtun) as a variant name for the Bacabs. Pawahtun was designed as God N by Paul Schellhas in his classification of the deities recorded in the postclassic codices (Schellhas 1904: 37-38; Taube 1992: 92-99). The four Pawahtuns are each assigned a colour and a cardinal direction. They are further combined with the deities of rain and the four winds, and hence of fertility (Tozzer 1941: 137, note 638). Taube notes that late-classic Pawahtun structures of the Lower Temple of the Jaguar, Chichen Itza, Structure 22, Copan, and an altar temple are associated with maize and the maize deity (Taube 1988: 155-156). Pawahtun is also connected with Chac, the god of rain, lightning, fertility and maize in the iconography of the classic period and according to contemporary ethnographic information (Taube 1992: 96-99). Pawahtun is several places illustrated carrying the Haab sign (Thompson 1934: 477-480), which might distinguish him as a Year Bearer deity. Thompson claimed that Pawahtun is also identified with Mam, an earth deity of the present-day Kekchi and the Pokomchi. A contemporary Yucatec worship of a Kekchi Easter ritual, where an image of Mam is buried during the unlucky five day-period, has been recorded by Thompson (Thompson 1978: 133-134). Lopez de Cogolludo recount, curiously not mentioned by Landa, that the rituals of the Wayeb period included an “idol” of the deity Mam (Lopez de Cogolludo 1971: 4, VIII, 255). Also Pio Perez (Craine and Reindrop 1979: 170-171) associates the “idol” of Mam with the ceremonies of the Wayeb period (Stephens 1843: 281).

This “idol” is only worshipped during the five Wayeb days. The Mam “idols” were, as the Wayeyab “idols” outlined by Landa, first the object of reverence and then removed at the end of the Wayeb period (Love 1986: 200-201). When the Wayeb period was completed the Mam effigies were “... either stripped, discarded or taken away” (Taube 1988: 283-284). Tozzer have compared the “idols”, described by Lopez de Cogolludo and Pfo Perez, to the Wayeyab effigies that Landa describes even given the fact that they are not made of the same material (Tozzer 1941: 139, note 646).

Moreover, the Year Bearer deity in the New Year pages of Codex Dresden is called “Mam” in the inscription commenting these scenes. Taube argues convincingly that the opossum in the New Year pages of Codex Dresden is identified with the Bacab, Pawahtun and Mam whom all represented God

N (Taube 1988: 229-231). Taube supports his argument by comparing the delineation by Landa with the scenes of the New Year pages of Codex Dresden. The opossums, which manifested God N and the Bacab, are named Mam: Kan Way U Mam; Chac Way U Mam; Yax Way U Mam; Ek’ Way U Mam. Two of the Uayeyab figures, outlined by Landa, carry the same load as the opossum Mam on pages 25a and 28a in Codex Dresden (Taube 1988: 285). Mam is the “... the aged god of the old year who was propitiated for the five days of Uayeb” (Taube 1988: 284-285). The old Mam was discarded so that the new Mam (Year Bearer) could reign in the New Year.

The Mam, “grandfather” comprises deities of rain and the mountains assigned to colour and cardinal direction in present day Maya communities (Tozzer 1941: 138, note 639). There are four regents or bearers of time (Year Bearers), Ik’, Kiej, Ee and Noj, called Alcalde or Mam in the K’iche’ 365-day calendar of Momostenango, Guatemala. Ik’, Kiej, Ee and Noj are the deities of the four cardinal directions and are each associated with the four mountains, El Tamanco, El Kilaja, Zocop and Pipilj. The reigning Mam rule the year and the world. The Quekchis and Pocomchis have also this concept of the Mam. The Mam is the deity of fertility according to the Huastecs. He grows old and is rejuvenated, like the solar god of the Ch’orti’, every year (Girard 1966: 281-282). The Mam reigns for 360 days. When this period is over: "’termino su cuenta, complete su ano”’. A San Antonio night ceremony recorded by Thompson (Thompson 1930: 62) is a propitiation of the Mams. From various contemporary Maya groups there are several examples of Mams operating as Year Bearers and where they are associated with mountains. In the postclassic New Year rituals mounds of stone represent symbolic mountains, which were the place of the Uayeyab figure, also known as Mam, Bacab and Pauahtun (Taube 1988: 285-288).

The statue of the deity Bolon Dzacab (God K) or “he of nine generations” appears in the Wayeb ceremonies. An “idol” of the deity Bolon Dzacab was placed in a temple in each of the four Wayeb ceremonies (Tozzer 1941: 142). This deity has been identified by Edward Seler with God K—associated with lightning, maize and agriculture—of the classic period and connected with the rain gods, the Chacs (Roys 1933: 99; Thompson 1934: 227; Tozzer 1941: 140, note 656; Taube 1992: 69-79).

Chac (God B), who is one of the most important deities, is the principal rain god of the Maya (Taube 1992: 17-27) and thereby closely connected to agriculture. The Chacs, as office of religious specialists, are associated with a cardinal direction and a colour in the Wayeb and the Pohp ritual

(Tozzer 1941: 137-138, note 639).[4] [5] Landa (Tozzer 1941: 152-153) narrates that four Chac impersonators were performing various rituals on the first day of Pohp. The Chacs strech a cord between the four corners in the ritual proceedings of Pohp. The four-sided world is conceived as a rectangular house and as a symbolic milpa associated with agriculture and maize in Maya philosophy. The K’iche’ religious specialist, Mother-Father, Andres Xiloj have recognised that creation of the world, sky-earth (kajulew), is compared in the Popol Wuj with a preparing of the four sides of a cornfield or a milpa with a measuring cord (Tedlock 1996: 220). It is said that creation of the four directions of the sky and the earth was a preparation of a milpa (Tedlock 1996: 220; Christenson 2000: 39).

Furthermore, a measuring of the world, after an account of four trees, at the cardinal directions at creation is delineated in the Yucatec Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Roys 1933: 64-65). It is likened to work on a milpa (Taube 1988: 156-158). The cultural space of the world, milpa or maize field is identified with the community (Taube 1988: 159-161). For the contemporary Yucatec and Ch’orti’—as outlined by Redfield and Villa Rojas (1934: 43), Wisdom (1940: 40; 383) and Girard (1966: 29-34)—the four-sided milpa represents a metaphor for the earth. Redfield and Villa Rojas has found that the milpa is associated with the village community conception in the Yucatec village Chan Kom where “... the world, the village and the milpa are thought of as squares with four corners lying in the four cardinal points of the compass and with defined central points” (Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934: 114). The four markers, trees, crosses, stones etc. at the edge of a milpa and the village demark the ordered spatial organisation of world against the antediluvian chaos (Taube 1988: 157-161).

Year Bearers are perceived as deities in the chronometric system. The Year Bearer impersonated and ruled time of the 365-day year. Landa relates that Bolon Dz’acab and the Bacabs, Kan u Uayeyab, Chac u Uayeyab, Sac u Uayeyab and Ek u Uayeyab were worshipped during the Wayeb period (Tozzer 1941: 138-142). The deities of the New Year ritual were called ‘rulers’ (Tozzer 1941: 137, note 636)^8 A worship of deities in Year Bearer ritual of the four first days of the Wayeb period is also recorded in The Codex Perez and The Book of Chilam Balam of Mani (Craine and Reindorp 1979: 98; 170171).

The fertility symbols and the worshipped agricultural deities—Mam, Chacs, Bacab, Pauahtun and Bolon Dzacab associated with the Year Bearers—suggests that the New Year rituals had a particular importance for farmers. Every year and each Year Bearer had its particular omen or augury. Since the New Year ceremonies were held in the five days of the Wayeb of the preceding year the New Year was under the dominance and influenced by the auguries of the previous year. The Codex Perez and The Book of Chilam Balam ofMani outlines that: “The day on which a new year begins will determine what may happen during the year” (Craine and Reindorp 1979: 53).

The seated figures upon the haab signs (T548) on pages 34-37 Codex Madrid represent the augury or burden of the coming year (Taube 1988: 259-262). Each Year Bearer sign contained the omen of the Bacab, which were assigned to a cardinal direction (Tozzer 1941: 136-138, note 636). The omen or “ag^ro” (Sp.) of the coming year (Tozzer 1941: 137-138) decided the character of the ceremonies. The prognostication was associated with one of the four Bacabs, who were connected to one of the four Year Bearers, directions and colours. The Year Bearer shared the power with the Bacab over the year. The prognostication of the coming year was part of the ritual of Wayeb and of Pohp. The worship and sacrifice were conducted during the New Year ceremonies to avoid the calamities of the next year (Love 1986: 194-198). Kan and Muluk were considered to be primary fortunate and Ix and Kawak predominately unfortunate years according to Landa. The evil effects might be mitigated by fashioning additional images of beneficent gods offering them food and incense, and by conducting expiatory rites. Nonetheless, a year had many misfortunes and bad signs even if it was considered to be good. The Yucatecs had to conduct the appropriate rituals in order to avoid hardships (Tozzer 1941: 145). Landa describe rites, which involves the construction of a road or ‘causeway’ where there were placed “idols” at a certain cardinal point outside the city. A new direction was chosen each year in a four-year counter clockwise circuit. Both fortunate and unfortunate omens were associated with every year. Inauspicious auguries were tried resolved by performing expiatory rites (Tozzer 1941: 139-149). Bad omens, of predominantly unfortunate or fortunate years, were ritually addressed in the Wayeb period (Tozzer 1941: 142, note 677).

An omen was determined and a principal religious specialist was elected for every New Year ritual (Tozzer 1941: 139-147). Every ceremony in honour of the deities began by chasing away the evil spirits. There were several procedures to do service to the deities—by prayers, benedictions, worship, offerings and sacrifices (Tozzer 1941: 138)—in order to avoid disaster for the next year. The Yucatecs believed that if they did not observe these ceremonies, they would be sure to get certain sicknesses (Tozzer 1941: 142: 145; 146). But if the ceremonies did not work against the calamities additional rituals were performed during the year (Tozzer 1941: 142). Landa writes of the motivation of conducting the Year Bearer ritual 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 worships 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: 136).

There was an actual threat of disastrous destructions or calamities if not the deities were being served or propitiated with worship and offerings in the rituals of the ending of the 365-day calendar period. As mentioned, it is a do ut des principle.

The Bacabs were, as noted, both Year Bearers and Sky Bearers associated with fertility. It appears that the calamites the Yucatecs feared would occur in the year to come chiefly concerned the crucial harvest. Landa reports that in the year of Muluk the misfortunes could be a scarcity of water and a pest of the maize crop (Tozzer 1941: 145). Ix was considered a bad year for bread and good for cotton. Lack of water, locusts and a burning sun would dry up the fields of maize and create famine (Tozzer 1941: 146147). Kawak was also considered to be a bad year when a hot sun could destroy the fields of maize, ants and birds might devour the sowed seeds (Tozzer 1941: 148). Ceremonies, with offerings, towards the deities were conducted in order to avoid these calamites (Tozzer 1941: 149). Itzamnah was appealed to in the Wayeb period to avert calamities (Tozzer 1941: 146, note 707). The community was ritually exorcised before the Wayeb festival (Taube 1988: 281):69 [6]

In any festival or solemnity that this people celebrated in honor of their gods, they always began by chasing away from themselves the evil spirit .... For celebrating the festival of the new year, this people with great rejoicing and with much dignity made use of the five unlucky days (Tozzer 1941: 138).

The Chac religious specialists afterwards expelled the evil spirit during Poph (Tozzer 1941: 153). The first day of Pohp was the first day of the New Year. Renewal and renovation rituals were performed in the temples and the houses were cleaned and purified (Tozzer 1941: 151-153):

To celebrate it with more solemnity, they renewed on this day all the objects which they made use of, such as plates, vessels, stools, mats and old clothes and the stuffs with which they wrapped up their idols. They swept out their houses, and the sweepings and the old utensils they threw out on the waste heap outside the town; and no one, even were he in need of it, touched it (Tozzer 1941: 151-152).

Later the religious specialists, the Chacs, ignited a new fire which they burned incense to the “idol” (Tozzer 1941: 153). A symbolic renewing of cyclic time of the 365-day calendar year was achieved through the various New Year ceremonial observances.

Song 12, kills tuup yok ultz, “the extinguishing of the old wealthy man upon the hill”, of Cantares de Dzltbalche narrates the vigil and celebration of the New Year at the first of Pohp. The song is called. The rich old man, Kill is identical to the term mam (“maternal grandfather”). Klllz is represented as a column of wood. The night before the New Year is the post (ocom) of Klllz or Mam brought to the gate of the town (u hol cahnalll), which represented the New Year Bearer (of the east). The post is erected on a mound of stones at the eastern entrance where it symbolises one of the four mountains (hultz) surrounding the town and one of the four ceiba trees (yax che) which supports heaven. The personified post represents Pawahtun as the Bacab sky bearer. A stone is placed on the mound of stones in front of the post (the symbolic tree) to symbolise the passing of time as an offering or payment (kex) to the old world bearer. As a result, the community is purified for the New Year (Taube 1988: 292-297).

These sources suggests that the central theme of the New Year celebrations of the 365-day calendar concerned the welfare of the crucial life the destruction or dismissal of the effigy. This figure seems to have partly served as a type of scapegoat in which all events and iniquities of the community were placed in corporal form and then discarded at the advent of the new year” (Taube 1988: 287-288).

giving harvest.[7] [8] [9] A transition ritual symbolise a termination of an old status and the introduction, of the ceremonial subject, into a new status. The transference structure of the cyclic New Year ritual, as a rite de passage, implies that an old status is abandoned and a new status is acquired through a symbolic ceremony of time. Old “idols” of previous years were replaced with new “idols” in the Wayeb period (Tozzer 1941: 141, note 666; 142, note 674, 144, note 688). The Year Bearer of the new Year thus supplants the Year Bearer of the old year.

In addition, Taube argues that the opossum depicted in the Wayeb section of the New Year pages in Codex Dresden is identified with the Bacabs, Pawahtuuns and Mam, who all were representing God N (Taube 1988: 229231). The walking canes and the burdens of the opossum, illustrated on these pages in Codex Dresden, are likened to the Year Bearer of Central Mexico, where the Codex Dresden Mam opossums portray the Year Bearers of the old year (Taube 1988: 228-229). The Year Bearer deities, who were both associated with fertility, rain (i.e. agriculture) and time, ruled not an abstract time period, but “agricultural time”.71 The New Year festival constitute accordingly a calendar ending and a calendar inaugurating ritual of a cycle of 365-days where agricultural time was ceremonially renovated and renewed.72

As noted, the 65-day interval rituals of the 260-day calendar have a division into 4 periods of 65 days in Codex Borgia (lam. 27-28), Codex Vaticano B (fol. 69) and Codex Fejervary-Mayer (fol. 33-34). There is an intimate relation with agriculture, as in the scenes there are four figures of the rain deity Tlaloc irrigating crops. This suggests, although these Mesoamerican manuscripts are not Yucatec, that 65-days temporal interval rituals of the 260-day calendar are connected with agriculture. At the same time, Codex Borgia (lam. 27-28) and Codex Fejervary-Mayer (fol. 33-34) illustrate the attribution of 65-day time units of the 260-day calendar to the four cardinal directions of the 365-day calendar. In Codex Borgia, there is also an interrelation with the 365-day calendar marked by the Year Bearer and the year sign (exceptional in this codex). This enforces the argumentation concerning the agricultural relation between the 260-calendar and the 365-day calendar, and between the time, the Year Bearers and fertility.[10]

  • [1] But cf. Graulich (1987: 293-311).
  • [2] Cf. Sahagun (1950-1982) and Duran (1971; 1980).
  • [3] Translation by Roys (1933: 101, note 3).
  • [4] Pages 29a to 30a of Codex Dresden illustrate four Chacs in a tree at a cardinal direction and a fifth in a cave in the centre. The cave, a midpoint in Yucatec communities, ismarked with a tree or a cross as the symbolic centre (Taube 1988:160).
  • [5] The Year Bearers are among contemporary highland Maya groups conceived asanthropomorphic beings with a special identity (La Farge 1930: 658-659; Lincoln 1942: 109;Oakes 1951: 100; (Tedlock 1992: 100).
  • [6] Taube comments that: “The Mam effigies of the ancient Yucatec and the contemporary Tzutuhil serve as figures to both propitiate and remove evil forces threatening thecommunity. In the accounts of Pm Perez and Cogolludo, the end of Uayeb marked
  • [7] Grana-Behrens has argued that the postclassic Yucatec 365-day New Year ritual wasfundamentally a fertility ritual (“Ein Fruchtbarkeitsritus”) where a cult of the Maize deity(God E) played an essential role (Grana-Behrens 2002: 115-126; 154-155). A prognosis wasmade for the upcoming year expressed in longer passages in Codex Perez and Chilam Balamof Tizimin (Grana-Behrens 2002: 125). Cf. Roys The Prophecies for the Maya Tuns or Years inthe Books of Chilam Balam of Tizimin and Manl. Edmonson (1982: 69-112) has placed thispassage, which meaning is rather difficult to grasp, in Chilam Balam of Tizimin under theheadline “The Anales of Bacalar” (Grana-Behrens 2002: 125, note 48).
  • [8] Cf. Milbrath for the Year Bearer and agricultural rituals in one colonial period andtoday (Milbrath 1999: 17).
  • [9] The Tzutujil and the Kekchi burn an effigy of a Mam deity representing the old year,an act introducing the New Year ceremonies (Thompson 1970b: 472-473).
  • [10] Anonymous reviewer.
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