The Heterogenous Data

A wide array of heterogeneous sources has constituted the basis of the book.


The character of the source has had a decisive impact upon what we are able to find out about the ceremonial practices.[1] There are two general types of sources: primary and secondary. A primary source consists of information produced either by the ritual performers, the participants or by eyewitness reports. The version of the insider is here presented. Secondary sources are, as revealed by its designated name, information presented by people whom never experienced the events themselves. Being a projection back in time the historical secondary source is regressive or retrospective by either an insider (members of the culture in question) or an outsider (people not belonging to the culture in question). Due to the extant material, two types of information have been employed in the study of the ritual practice of time:

  • 1. Primary sources: Rituals expressed in logosyllabic writing and iconography commissioned by the Indigenous religious specialists of the pre- European/pre-Christian period.
  • 2. Secondary sources: colonial historical reports compiled by Spanish Catholic ethnographer missionaries and to a lesser degree contemporary ethnography.

These sources have diverse functions in communicating information making the analysis of the historical religious ritual practices challenging.

The Primary Sources

No primary sources, except some insignificant data from the almanacs of the Codex Dresden, are available for the explication of the postclassic Yu- catec Burner rituals of a 260-day period.

Primary data to the rituals of the 365-day calendar have been accessible since the New Year ritual of the 365-day calendar is delineated on pages 25-28 in Codex Dresden, on pages 34-37 in Codex Madrid and on pages 19-20 in Codex Paris. But the postclassic Maya codices are ritual guides or manuals, containing short cryptic texts commenting portrayed actions, where deity performers act as instructors modelling how to conduct a ceremony. They do not illustrate or delineate a “human” New Year ritual. Moreover, the manuals only treat aspects of the ceremonies of Wayeb and of Pohp.

No primary written Indigenous historical description, commentary or explanation to the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual is known to exist (but cf. the case of Codex Borbonicus outlined in the secondary sources). Some inconsequential primary sources are, however, presented. Only personal names, toponyms and calendar dates in logographic writing are recorded in pictorial manuscripts and on stone monuments. The information these primary sources can offer is accordingly limited and ambiguous. An episode of the New Fire Ceremony is, however, depicted on lamina 46 of the Codex Borgia. Archaeological excavations of ritual sites do not either provide much data about the philosophy and the ritual proceedings of the 52-year calendar ritual. The manuscripts and other iconographic/written sources of the Nahua/Aztecs can therefore not in the same way as the inscriptions of the classic Maya offer instruction about their ritual practice of time.

Conversely, the study of the rituals of the Long Count calendar of the classic Maya culture has been first and foremost dependent upon primary sources. The logosyllabic writing system is the fundamental source to the knowledge of the religious practice of the classic Maya. But having these unique primary sources available do not imply that the validity is not to be questioned. The monumental stone monuments were the chosen media for recording the Long Count dates and the associated temporal rituals. The preservation of much of the written data is, however, rather poor. Only a fraction of the sources have survived Spanish destructional looting, the environment and self-destruction or classic Maya “rewriting” of history (Stuart 1995: 171-176). The inscriptions are not equally distributed in time or in place. A great part of the inscriptions are from certain cites and derives basically from the late classic period. The textual dimension of the ritual is fundamental. The context of the ritual language influences the interpretation of the inscriptions. In what genre can these scriptures be categorised? The inscriptions were descriptions of rituals but at the same time acted as manuals or instructions of how to perform these ceremonies. There is an intimate interconnection between the rhetoric of the ceremonial narrative, the public display of the inscriptions, and why the rituals were conducted. Some of the ritual inscriptions inform only about the ritual practice of time while others integrate this information within a general narrative. A quantity of inscriptions outlining the ritual practice of time were associated with depicted illustrations of the ceremony, others were not. The iconography and the inscription comprise also in many cases independent narratives. Hence, the inscriptions of the Maya of the classic period do not constitute a single monolithic corpus of information but demonstrate instead variation in time and space. The narrative(s) of a range of inscriptions, frequently with additional images, has been examined carefully in its due context. But as I have previously emphasised, an iconographic interpretation is not sufficient to decide that a ritual practice of time is being performed. Only the appearance of a “period-ending” date- can ascertain that a ritual practice of time is conducted.

A written message creates a normative making it a model (manual) of how to perform a ritual. Insiders, i.e. commissioned by the ritual specialists, recorded the rituals as self-representative. Generally, the delineated ritual practice consisted of short formulae with no interpretation or explanation of the meaning of the ceremonial proceedings by the people involved. The religious specialists whom conducted the rituals and commissioned the monuments are consequently making no philosophical exegeses of the religious practice. But it is quite clear that the religious specialists wanted to communicate a message, by recording the rituals in text and illustrations in public space (they were also manifested in private surroundings), making the written and images of the rituals a symbolic source.

The Secondary Sources

The analysis of the ritual practice of time of the 260-day period and 365-day calendar of the postclassic Yucatec and the 52-year calendar of the postclassic Aztecs—are based almost entirely upon secondary sources. The secondary sources consist, as noted, of accounts by both outsiders and insiders.

The insider secondary sources to the 260-day calendar, the 365-day calendar and the 52-year calendar rituals comprise The Books of Chilam Balam of Yucatan, Mexican Indigenous pictorial documents and Domingo Francisco de San Anton Munon Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin. The Books of Chilam Balam of Yucatan were written by anonymous Indigenous authors in Yucatec but in the script of the Latin alphabet. These books exhibit a profound Catholic influence. It is not easy to understand the content for outsiders since the language is enigmatic. Indigenous pictorial documents were produced by Indigenous people but mainly under the supervision of Spanish priest and missionaries. They can therefore not be considered to be entirely of an inside character. But this does not apply to all the early colonial manuscripts. Lamina 34 of the Codex Borbonicus is a manuscript not made under Spanish Christian control. There is accordingly good reason to assume that these images depict a worldview not of European Christian influence.[2] There is accordingly a question whether to classify it in the category of primary or secondary sources. The colonial Books of Chilam Balam and the Mexican pictorial documents are both fragmented sources providing regressive historical episodic information of a past that had gone. The Nahua of the city Chalco, Domingo Francisco de San Anton Munon Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, contributes limited and incoherent but still vital information about the Aztec 52-year calendar ritual. He therefore represents an Indigenous perspective of a devout Catholic written in Na- huatl.

Only scant information about practice of time rituals can be deducted from ethnography. The Long Count calendar and the 52-year calendar went out of use after the Spanish conquest, so contemporary ethnography cannot make any contribution to the understanding of these calendar systems or their ritual practices. The 260-day calendar and the 365-day calendar have for a long time been in a process of being abandoned. Christian theology has significantly influenced many Indigenous religious ideas. The Catholic liturgical 365-day calendar has to a great extent replaced the traditional Mesoamerican 365-day calendar. The rituals of the traditional calendars are therefore in most (but not all) cases not observed anymore.

It is the Spanish ethnographer missionaries who contribute the most complete data about the ritual proceedings of the postclassic Yucatec 365- day calendar and the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ceremonies. Ethnographer-evangelic descriptions of the Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, between c. 1521 AD - 1700 AD, defined, interpreted, classified and delineated the Mesoamerican religious systems through dictionaries, grammars and accounts of Mesoamerican languages, history and culture. Without their reports practically nothing about the 365-day calendar and 52-year calendar ritual would be known. We lack, however, many Indigenous concepts of the ritual proceedings of particular the postclassic Yu- catec 365-day calendar rituals. Nearly all the ethnographer missionaries wrote in Spanish with an important exception: Fray Bernardino de Sa- hagun. The ethnographer missionaries did not witness the rituals themselves. They relied greatly on their Indigenous informants and assistants. There are also serious problems with the ethnographer missionaries reports due to their evangelical zeal for conversion. Many of the clerics and friars were hostile towards Indigenous religion, in view of the fact that their aim was to replace it with Christianity. Wanting to impose the “truth” (gos?pel) of their own religion made the ethnographer missionaries judgemental and selective. The small amount of recorded information about the crucial 52-year calendar ritual is probably due to the long time span between the ceremonies. The 52-year calendar ritual did not threaten the Catholic mission until the next time it would be observed, i.e. in 1559 AD. The more frequently conducted rituals, as of the 18 veintenas of the 365-day calendar, were therefore more pressing to outline so that it could be identified and eradicated. The interpretation of the Indigenous culture was translated into a Christian European code. Communication with Indigenous informants was a dialogue with questions and answers reflected the power and authority of the new religious order. Another worrying aspect is that the so-called “objective descriptions” are full of erroneous commentaries, interpretations and explanations made by the Spanish clerics. Consequently, it is a challenge for the scholar to not blindly accept the renderings made by the Spanish ethnographer missionaries.

It is rather disturbing that there is only one major secondary source to the temporal ritual proceedings of the 260-day calendar, the 365-day calendar and the 52-year calendar. The Codex Perez and the Book of Chilam Balam ofMani presents only a fragmented account of the Burner rituals of the 260-day period. The New Year Ceremony of the 365-day calendar has first and foremost been recorded by the Franciscan Fray Diego de Landa’s in his book Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan (c. 1566). Fray Bernardino de Sahagun’ account of the 52-year calendar ritual in The Florentine Codex and Primeros Memoriales, written in the native vernacular, is a peerless work owing to the compiled and systematised material collected just a few decades after the Spanish conquest.

In a rather pessimistic assessment, Johanna Broda de las Casas has pointed out several problems with the secondary sources. The Indigenous peoples were educated in a European tradition. It was these people whom either as assistant produced or acted as informants to the ethnographer missionaries. The available written data only represent a fraction of the corpus. The available sources, many of them in a deplorable state, do not really represent the pre-European past but how the early ethnographer missionaries of the colonial period tried to come to grips with Mesoamer- ican tradition and past. Moreover, the Spanish ethnographer missionaries had a limited understanding of Mesoamerican culture. A hybrid culture began to emerge from the middle of the 16th century where the Meso- americans were influenced by Christian European culture and religion thereby corrupting the data to the pre-European/pre-Christian past. The calendar and many of the rituals were annihilated with the demise of the

Indigenous religious specialists and nobility, so that only superficial concepts survived. The Mesoamericans were reluctant to bestow information to the Spanish clerics due to their loyalty to the ancient religion and also because many of them had been converted Christians. Furthermore, by producing and owning ritual-calendar documents, there was a fear of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition (Broda de las Casas 1969: 31-32).

  • [1] For a methodological analysis of sources to Mesoamerican religions cf. Pharo (n.d.).
  • [2] Comment by anonymous reviewer.
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