The Politics of the Ritual Practice of Time

The ritual practice of the politics of time is intimately related with the religious and socio-political structure. Politics is associated with power, rulership and the organisation and administration of a city or a state. In stratified societies elite groups aspire to sustain and validate their favoured status and authority by insisting to possess exclusive qualities and functions essential to the society at large (Cohen 1981: 1). The concept of time and its ritual practice reflects the prevailing view of the existing sociopolitical system. The ideology of the political, socio-economic and military elite creates the social patterns and the fundamental understanding of time. Consequently, time not only reflects social structure and behaviour but the political system as well. Time can, as a cultural and social product, be organised and systematised in calendars to exercise political and social control. Political rituals have been defined by Catherine Bell as ceremonial practices that “construct, display and promote the power of political institutions (such as king, state, the village elders) or the political interests of distinct constituencies and subgroups” (Bell 1997: 128). Political rituals transmit, express, construct and define power by applying symbols and symbolic action to display a group or community as coherent or ordered sharing the same ideology. This ideology is justified by its sanctity of the supernatural order and beings. Political rituals are as public display a cosmological ordering in a theatre style where a dramaturgy of power sanctioned by the deities and the cosmic order is executed. The monarch and the establishment are here raised above other groups in the ritual system (Bell 1997: 129-130; 187).[1] The mythic-ritual complex may validate society.

Human social needs are related to supernatural and mythic prototypes. The symbolic rituals evoke and enforce social confirmation while the institutions and organisations obtain justification and consensus (Doty 1986: 48). To control and dominate time is essentially to exercise power. The calendar, as time-discipline, is as a technology of time an effective instrument for creating power. The calendar can then serve as a temporal instrument controlled by the elite and their religious and political ideology. Gurvitch (1963) asserts that “specific gradations of time” are associated with different levels of the socio-political hierarchic structure. Innis[2] and Bourdieu[3] maintain that the calendars are instruments of socio-political hierarchies and centralisation. They reflect the ideology of the religious and political elite (Rutz 1992: 1-2; 4-6). In the view of Rutz

A politics of time is concerned with the appropriation of the time of others, the institutionalization of a dominant time, and the legitimation of power by means of the control of time. And above all, a politics of time is focused on the struggle for control and forms of resistance or acquiescence (Rutz 1992: 7).

Knowledge creates (temporal) ritual authority and control. The calendar makers form a special group of religious specialists whom observe, interpret and regulate the calendar. In some culture the sovereign takes charge of the calendar. Calendars are indeed socio-political constructions. The notion of time and its ritual practice reflects therefore the prevailing view of the existing socio-political system. Consequently, time and temporal epistemology not only mirrors social patterns and behaviour but moreover the political system. Time can, as a cultural and social product, be organised and systematised in calendars to exercise political and social control. Politics is associated with power and authority and of how the system of decision making of a society operates. Religious rituals can justify and institutionalise political authority. Authority may be constructed through religious practice if executers of political, military and social power are the executors. The religious rituals can thereby define power and the political, social and religious institutions. The head of state or city could take charge of the calendar and its rituals as instruments and symbols of his/her force. The charismatic leader can be the master and measurer of time through the medium of calendars. He/she dominates by recognising, perceiving and symbolising time through conducting, by monopoly, the time-ceremo?nies. Hence the ruling lord can execute a social and political control of time. Leach has designated the phenomenon “political time” (Leach 1965) or “politics of time” where political and military leaders controlled the organisation and computation of time. The concepts “political time” (Leach 1965) or “politics of time” (Rutz 1992) reflects moreover that time is an object of power and power relations where authority is legitimised through symbolic actions of social temporality (i.e. the ritual practice of time). The lord could take charge of the calendar and its rituals as instruments and symbols of his/her force. Hence he/she executes a social and political control of time. The calendars are the first rational scales of time. The seasons and astronomical observance of the heavenly bodies and the religious ceremonies and festivals establish a measurement of time. But also religious observance of fixed points or stations in the calendar marks series or divisions of the calendar. Time is not regulated by the phases of nature in the Long Count calendar. It is reckoned and determined by the sovereign or a calendar maker. It is the regent or calendar specialist whom possesses the knowledge of time. In this connection Martin Nilsson maintains that within a culture “The further the calendar develops, the less does it become a common possession” (Nilsson 1920: 349). In many societies there are religious offices associated with observing the official calendar, compute time and determine the ceremonies. Power is associated with time when the sovereign is the calendar specialist. He/she is the organiser of time because he/she elaborates the calculation of time. We can thus speak of not only a cosmocratic but also a chronocratic rulership where the epistemology of time is part of the political philsophy. Political and military leaders establish the scales of time in the official structure of charismatic theocracies. A unification of the state or city and religious institutions are incarnated in the ruler. The autocrat and the aristocratic dynasty, that master time may also be perceived by the subjects to hold supernatural power founded on their exclusive ceremonial practice. The charismatic leader is the “first cause”, caught at the same time, in the chain of immanent and transcendent movements of which he/she is only a link (Gurvitch 1964: 110). But the ruling lord is also the master and measurer of time through the medium of calendars. It is the political and military leader who conceptualise time and has the awareness of time and the time scales. He/she dominates time by recognising, perceiving and symbolising time through conducting, by monopoly, the time ceremonies (i.e. the ritual practice of calendar time).

Due to the poor condition of the sources we do not know whom conducted the rituals or exactly when and where the postclassic Yucatec

Burner rituals of the 260-day period transpired. The religious and political context is therefore obscure and have hence not be analysed in relation with these ceremonies.

Building on the scarce information provided by Landa, which is the only data we have of identifying the conductors and participants of the postclassic New Year festival of the 365-day calendar, it is quite safe to assume that the postclassic Yucatec New Year Ceremony can be defined as a predominately community ritual, although executed by religious specialists and the nobility. The New Year rituals were, hence, not dominated and manipulated by a political leader to legitimise and strengthen his authority. A transfer of a political and a religious office, a yearly exchange of the burden of a public cargo, is observed in the 365-day calendar New Year ceremonies by various contemporary Maya groups. Owing to the incomplete extant written data on the religious and socio-political pre-European/pre-Chris- tian systems in Mesoamerica one can neither dismiss nor verify the theory of a yearly shift of a religious-political office (cargo) as a ritual tradition in the New Year ceremonies of postclassic Yucatan.

In contrast with the postclassic Yucatec 260-day calendar ritual and the 365-day calendar rituals, the ritual practices of the Long Count calendar of the classic Maya and the 52-year calendar ritual of the postclassic Aztec has a prominent political character.

The classic period of the Maya was characterised by the political-religious institution of an autocratic lord, a political and military leader, who had a special affiliation with the deities and the divine world. In the ‘theatre city-states’, the k’uhul ajaw was predominant in the celebration of the end of time intervals of the Long Count. The religious ritual practice in public display on stone monuments was central as ideological propaganda, to legitimise the institution, and as a source of power of the k’uhul ajaw in the late classic period. The political power and authority of the k’uhul ajaw, who by acclaimed ritual practices placed himself in the centre, was thus sanctioned by a supernatural authority. The supremacy of the ruler had a ritualistic nature. The k’uhul ajaw could ritually mediate between the outgoing and the incoming time intervals and assume the burden of responsibility of presiding over the beginning time period accordingly emulating the time deities. The regent demonstrated in the inscriptions that he/she controlled the passage of time, through the ceremonial practice, while also being occupied with more mundane matters. The ritual is ‘textualised’ in the inscriptions of the Long Count calendar. The rituals were recorded as messages on public stone monuments directed towards the segments of society whom were able to read, i.e. the growing and challenging upper aristocracy of the late classic period. The ritual practice of time was therefore not only religious cult acts of observance towards the deities but also for political means as to public display the ritual-symbolic power of the k’uhul ajaw over his subjects, e.g. those who witnessed his ceremonial and those who could read about it later. The public iconography was meant to keep the subject in awe of the authority of the k’uhul ajaw and the aristocracy despite the (presumed) unknown meaning of the additional text.

A literate social group provides ramifications for the ritual practice, a sense of tradition (a historical consciousness) and of ritual authority. Writing makes the ritual proceedings normative and prescriptive. The inscriptions operate as a canon of guidelines or ritual manuals. This creates complex institutions and ritual experts whom present instructions to the rest of the people and therefore strengthens social stratification, socioreligious authority and tradition. Philsophy becomes universal and centralised at the expense of local traditions through a “textualization” of ritual. Dogma is here codified and orthodoxy is formed versus heterodoxy (Bell 1997: 203-205). But as we have seen, other socio-political groups could participate in and conduct rituals of time besides sharing other ‘temporal attributes’ with the k’uhul ajaw. One fundamental political-religious question remains here to be answered. Due to the lack of written and archaeological data we cannot be sure whether the religious specialists and the socio-political elite simply usurped the religious authority of the k’uhul ajaw or whether they were entrusted to perform this principal ritual on his/her behalf.

An assembly of various religious specialists supervised and conducted the various rites of the 52-year calendar ritual of the postclassic Aztecs. The New Fire Ceremony was a symbolic reaffirmation of the religious, political and social structure and system of Tenocthitlan and the empire. This New Fire rite represented the political-social stratification and thus justified the structured inequalities between the different groups of not only the capital (center) of the empire but moreover of the provinces (periphery). The religious and socio-political elite decided how time was computed and ritualised on the behalf of the common people. This gave them an influence and power, which legitimised the regime. The 52-year calendar ritual had undergone a historical development as the Aztec empire became dominant in Central Mexico. From at least 1506 AD - 1507 AD the New Fire Ceremony in Tenochtitlan, which was at this time the principal centre of the Triple Alliance, became a political ritual. The aristocratic religious specialists and the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan accordingly exercised an authority of the cal?endar and the 52-year calendar ritual. The 52-year calendar ritual was displayed in order to religiously consolidate the political and military hegemony of Tenochtitlan in Central Mexico. The imperial ideology of the 52-year calendar ritual of 1507 AD was manifested by its symbolic location. The ceremonial space was relocated from Tenochtitlan to the hill Huixach- titlan. From that time on, not only the commoners in Tenochtitlan but also the people of many subjugated provinces could witness the display of the New Fire Ceremony. This demonstrates not only the military, economic, political but also the symbolic power of the Aztec empire. We can therefore assume that at least by 1507 AD the 52-year calendar ritual had turned into a symbolic manifestation of Aztec imperial ideology. Despite that, the Aztecs controlled the 52-year calendar ritual at the end of the 15th and at the and beginning of the 16th century, manifesting the calendar power of the political and military centre over the periphery, it is a question whether this ritual practice was totally monopolised by the Aztec empire by 1507 AD. There is no evidence for a participation of the tlatoani in the major ritual event, i.e. the New Fire Ceremony. But the authority and supervision of the tlatoani can be recognised through all aspects of the ceremony. Chimalpahin has supplied intriguing information about the contribution of the tlatoani Nezahualpilli of Texcoco (of the Triple Alliance) in the 52- year calendar ritual. He is, indirectly, said to participate in the ceremonies on an equal footing with Motecuhzoma [II]. This indicates that Tenochtitlan was not alone in observing and leading the 52-year ritual in 1507 AD and that the lord of Tetzcoco played a significant religious and ritual-symbolic role.

  • [1] Cf. Geertz (1980) on the concept of political ritual.
  • [2] Cf. Innis, Harold. “A Plea for Time”. The Bias of Communication. 61-91. Toronto:University of Toronto Press. 1951.
  • [3] Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977.
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