Eschatology and the Ritual Practice of Time

Primordial time (“Urzeit”) is the time of the beginning or prototype while final time (“Endzeit)” is the time of the definitive end (van der Leeuw 1957). An anxiety of the termination of time, by a philosophy of a pre-destination of the universe, is intimately connected to the character of the calendar. The ritual practice of time has here a predominant psychological disposition. A presumable eschatological Mesoamerican philosophy has been investigated in the ritual practice of time of the various calendars. Whether the calendar was cyclical or linear suggest the ritual practice of time being eschatological. Various interval ritual practices of time within a linear calendar are not eschatological because a definitive end is not recognised in these ceremonies. Time will keep going in a continuum until it is finalised. On the other hand, a cyclic calendar which encompasses calendar ending/calendar inaugurating rituals can potentially be eschatological since time can in principle be ultimately terminated on the last date of the calendar. There is no guarantee that time will be re-introduced in a cyclic calendar.

Time was conceivably symbolised by an aged lighted fire being renewed after 260-days in the postclassic Yucatec Burner ceremonies. An eschatological rationale for performing these ceremonies can, however, not be detected.

The ritual rhetoric of the “period-endings” of the classic Maya Long Count calendar does not contain words for a renewal of time in the inscriptions. They outline that there was a completion of past time at “periodending dates”. Time did not have to be ritually enhanced to keep the linear Long Count computation going. The classic scriptures suggest that the ritual experts terminated a time-period but did not ceremonially create or initiate a new time period, since the ritual language of the inscriptions include words (verbs) for a completion and not for a renewal of time. An eschatological philosophy is therefore not disclosed by the ritual language. The “period-ending rituals” within the Long Count calendar function therefore more as a conclusion than as a new beginning of time units. The ritual practice of completing time intervals, however, also implies an inauguration of the next time interval. There is no reason to believe that there were eschatological or apocalyptical fears that lead the classic Maya to ceremonially observe time units of the Long Count calendar. This was simply because time of the Long Count calendar was considered to last way beyond the lives of the classic Maya and into the remote future. The principle of linear time, which does not finish in the foreseeable future, in contrast to cyclical time, which terminates within calendars of a shorter time span, signify that it does not need to be renewed or recreated by ritual practice. No definitive conclusion date can be recognised but if 13 pik embodied the present Long Count calendar, a time span of c. 5, 200 years, this calendar exposes a linear mentality even when it appears as a cyclic world era. This is because an experience of the historical individual within a given time epoch decides his or her concept of time. For the classic Maya, (c. 200 AD - c. 900 ad), it would take at least 1000 years before the Long Count of the present time age would (presumably) be completed on December 21, 2012 AD. What is certain is that the computation of the contemporary Long Count calendar was to be terminated but only in the distant future. It is in this context important to emphasise that the temporal ritual practice consisted of interval “period-ending rituals”, not calendar-end- ing/calendar-inaugurating rituals, within the calendar. Consequently, the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar was therefore not eschatological since a final completion was not recognised or ceremonially observed. Narratives were constructed in the inscriptions where “periodending rituals” of the past, present and future were combined. The “period- endings” of the classic Maya did not only point backward but also forward in time, which is interesting in connection with the hypothesis of a supposed ritual completing or renewing eschatological time. Why would the classic Maya commemorate past or prophecy future time periods if their ritual practice of time was eschatological motivated? “period-ending” rituals were not just celebrations of completed periods of the past (experienced time intervals of the linear Long Count calendar). That “periodending dates” and rituals of the future were in addition recorded in the inscriptions further undermines an eschatological recreation/renewing hypothesis. A ritual practice is not needed to renew time or to avert an apocalyptical catastrophe when not realised events are already thought of as being inevitably realised.

The liminal five day Wayeb period of the postclassic Yucatec 365-day calendar is reported to be a period of affliction and anxiety.[1] The reason for the “angst” in the Wayeb period is owing to the fact that this five day period was not under rule of a (agricultural) Year Bearer deity. In the tripartite rite de passage schema (separation, transition and incorporation) the five day period of Wayeb correspond to what Turner have called period of “anti-structure” where a time of chaos and inversion reigned. Rituals of transition were being conducted during this period of temporal anarchy to install a new divine ruler of time (i.e. Year Bearer). There was a conducting of offerings associated with agriculture in order to avert calamities in the coming year. Rituals of the New Year were accordingly performed to avert threatening catastrophes of the future agricultural 365-day year (ecological time) and not to avoid an annihilation of time or the world.

The structure of postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual also follows the pattern sequence of a rite de passage. The liminal or marginal period was thought to be dangerous, filled with anxiety and psychological terror. This is quite logical since the cyclical 52-year count was the longest acknowledged calendar of the postclassic Aztecs, which might entail that time could be ended at the completion of this time reckoning. It was therefore imperative for human existence that time was renewed so that a new 52-year calendar could be introduced. In fact Sahagun, in his account and explanation of the ceremonies, diagnoses the 52-year calendar ritual psychologically as an eschatological ceremony. The Aztecs thought that the world might be terminated because the sun would not rise and the super?natural beings called tzitzimime would devour humanity. A complete darkness would ensue and measured time of the calendars would disappear if the sun would not ascend into the sky. The 52-year calendar ritual was then a ritual response by a religious system to avoid cataclysmic annihilation.

I acknowledge and therefore do not discount the anxiety people must have felt during the liminal period of the 52-year calendar ritual. Several indications contradict, however, an apocalyptical or eschatological concept of the 52-year calendar ritual within the religious system of the postclassic Aztecs. Sahagun was the only ethnographer missionary who outlined a postclassic Aztec concert of a threat of a cosmic cataclysm at the termination of the 52-year calendar. It is rather strange that a fear of disease and hunger, similar to the postclassic Yucatec incentive for celebrating the New Year ritual of the 365-day calendar, and not a cosmic calamity is presented by Sahagun, altogether in another context of The Florentine Codex, to be the primary reason for observing the 52-year calendar ritual. Klein has provided convincing evidence that the tzitzimime were demonised by the Spanish friars and ethnographer missionaries after the conquest. Another matter, concerning the tzitzimime, is whether their descent from the sky was believed to have inevitable cataclysmic effects on the world and humanity. Hence Sahagun could have overrated the eschatological role of the tzitzimime since their descent did not necessary entail a cosmic catastrophe. The ethnographer missionary and his converted Christian Indigenous assistants may have interpreted the data with a Catholic apocalyptical or eschatological perspective. The ethnographer missionaries, with their European-Christian perception and evangelic ambition, impact on our available research material must therefore not be overestimated since it contains limited and biased information and commentaries. Neither Sahagun nor his Indigenous assistants, and perhaps not even his Indigenous informants had ever witnessed the last 52-year calendar ritual, which took place in Tenochtitlan in the year 1507 AD (Ome Acatl, 2 Reed). Many of the informants and the assistants of Sahagun were in fact indoctrinated collaborators of the Spanish mission. Burkhart has shown that an effort to find an analogy between the Christian and Indigenous religious system was a strategy of the Spanish mission at the time when Sahagun gathered his data. A triumphant Christian theology had disintegrated the Indigenous aristocratic state religion. Consequently, eschatological interpretations of a calendar that supposedly completed historic time could well have been introduced by the Indigenous informants, assistants or even by Sahagun himself.

We know that a major solar eclipse occurred in the region of Veracruz at the Gulf coast in 1517 AD. This particular solar eclipse did not affect the rationale of the 52-year calendar ritual on Ome Acatl (2 Reed) of 1507 AD. But it is a possibility that an apprehension towards solar eclipses among the Aztecs was afterwards projected back by the informants (who might had experienced the solar eclipse in 1517 ad) and assistants of Sahagun into a pre-European/pre-Christian Aztec eschatological philosophy encompassing the ritual of the termination and renewal of the 52-year calendar count. Sahagun and his Indigenous assistants could have misunderstood and got the information about the sun eclipse and earthquake of a specific year confused with the reason why the Aztecs celebrated the ceremony and thereby explained this ritual as eschatological. Another eschatological idea, conflicting with the notion of a final completion of the world on Ome Acatl (2 Reed), existed within the religious system of the postclassic Aztecs. A massive cataclysmic earthquake was prophesised to terminate the present fifth world (Nahui Ollin, 4 Movement) according to postclassic Aztec eschatology. It was prophesised that the present fifth world will perish by an earthquake, and not by a disappearance of the sun and a descent of the supposedly malign preternatural beings tzitzimime, on Nahui Ollin (4 Movement).[2] It appears then that postclassic Aztec eschatology was complex since it embodied an apocalyptical conception, which constitutes two independent (contradicting) future eschatological events. The sources report quite unequivocally that the beginning date of the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar was Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit) and that it was terminated on Matlactli Omome Calli (13 House). Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit) was a very important Year Bearer date and was considered to be, as the first Year Bearer, the leader of the years of the 52-year calendar cycle. It is then indeed peculiar that a ritual, supposed to terminate and renew time, was taking place not on the first day of the first year, but on the second day of the second year (Ome Acatl, 2 Reed) of the 52-year calendar thus logically contradicting that time of this calendar was exhausted. A presumed calendar reform moving the New Fire Ceremony from Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit) to Ome Acatl (2 Reed) constitutes another bizarre feature of a supposedly eschatological philosophy when the New Fire Ceremony dogmatically had to take place at midnight at the end and beginning of the new 52-year calendar cycle

(i.e. Ce Tochtli, 1 Rabbit).[3] [4] This substantiates my hypothesis of the 52-year calendar ritual as not as an apocalyptical or an eschatological ceremony, since the Aztecs over the years would then have realised that the required (eschatological) date of celebrating the New Fire Ceremony did not, ultimately, hold any vital importance. Nothing happened when the New Fire Ceremony was not performed on the critical date when time and the world could risk too perish. Although history, time, and calendar dates were notoriously liable to be (ritually) manipulated it is not probable that an eschatological date was to be changed.

It is therefore reasonable to deduce that none of the ritual practice of time of the discussed calendar systems were of an eschatological character.

  • [1] Apocalyptical and eschatological concepts in many colonial and post-colonial sourcesare originally Christian ideas. This world shall come to an end with the coming of JesusChrist when the law of the k’atun, u than k’atun, have ended. God will then bring a secondflood, but a fifth creation is not outlined in colonial Yucatec religion (Liljefors Persson 1996:51-52). The Relaciones de Yucatan express that the present world will be exterminated witha fire (Thompson 1970: 34o).The contemporary world will also be annihilated by a fireaccording to the T ojolabal and the Yucatec in the village Komchen (Bolles 1985; Brody 1987:41; 51-53).
  • [2] It is noticeable that the prophesised eschatological incidents could not be evadedby a ritual manipulation.
  • [3] The day and year of the New Fire Ceremony mirrors an adjustment on the emphasisof the date when the earth was created Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit) to the creation of the sun andmoon on Ome Acatl (2 Reed). The calendar reform may thus have meant that the postclassic Aztec, at the beginning of the 16th century, was now more interested in the creation oftime of the calendars (computed by the movements of the sun and the moon) than theprimordial making of space (earth) of their cosmogony. A shift of the date of the New FireCeremony of one year and a day did not affect the observation of the constellation of thePleiades. The spatial and temporal move of the New Fire Ceremony did accordingly nothave an impact on the crucial status and role the Pleiades had in this ritual.
  • [4] Cf. for instance Gurvitch (1963; 1964) and Pronovost (1989).
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