An Ordering and Structuring of Deified Calendar Time in Polymorphous, Poly-semantic and Poly-functional Ritual Practices

The limited extant data indicates that a culture did not only observe time ritually of simply one but of several co-exisiting calendars. Hence a poly- chroni of ritual practices of calendar time could be conducted within a cultural context.

The Long Count calendar of the classic lowland Maya is signified being an interval ritual practice of linear political-historical time, the 260-day calendar of the postclassic Yucatec is marked by a ritual practice of interval quadripartite cyclical time, the 365-day calendar of the postclassic Yucatec was associated with a ritual practice of calendar ending/inaugurating spatial cyclical agricultural time and the 52-year calendar of the postclassic Aztecs was determined and re-introducted by a ritual practice of calendar ending/inaugurating, quadripartite cyclical and political-historical time.

As in the case with most religious ritual practices, the ritual practices of calendar time are complex (polymorphous) multifunctional and poly-semantic ritual-symbol undertakings. There are also various perspectives of the meaning and function of the ritual from the point of view of the participant and the performer. Different beliefs and practices by estate, gender, ethnicity and occupation within a cultural and religious system make a substanial impact upon the ritual practice.

The ritual practice of calendar time cannot be reduced to serve only one defined strategy, function or significance. I have established that the ritual practice of time can operate as a political and a social ritual, a ritual of the elite and/or the community, an interval or calendar-ending/calendar inaugurating ritual, as a rite de passage (a termination, renewal and re-creation of time), a commemoration ritual (of mythic-historical time and the cosmogony), an agricultural ritual, a (quadripartite) spatial-temporal ritual (the practice of time and space) and possibly as an eschatological/apoca- lyptical ritual.

Many essential discrepancies can exist between the different calendar systems. The primary function of the 260-day calendar and the 365-day calendar were not to measure historical time unless they were combined in the 52-year calendar cycle (The Calendar Round). The 52-year calendar, the Short Count calendar and the Long Count calendar were in contrast designed to record large time periods. Consequently, the highest chronological units, the Long Count or Short Count of the Maya and the 52-year calendar of Central Mexico, were applied to record history and prophesy.

Time is perceived as both cyclic and linear in Mesoamerica. The present and the future are dependent upon established patterns of the past. Many dates of the Long Count calendar and the 52-year calendar refer to what Nicholson has designated as ‘pattern history’ of like-in-kind events of the mythical and historical past. But history does not repeat itself even when the same pattern inevitable appears again. Extraordinary actions and incidents occur but they are consigned to the pattern of the past. In this way history is recorded. Tedlock has classified this Mesoamerican philosophy of time as “cumulative” (Tedlock 1992: 202-206). The ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar and the 52-year calendar did not recreate time by alluding to pattern dates.

The linear Long Count calendar recorded dates of the past, the present and the future. A lord frequently inscribed commemorations of temporal rituals of the Long Count calendar, celebrated in the past. Different narrative strategies were employed by the individual city, but principally the Initial Series of the Long Count calendar opens with a date of the present and then go back to the past or the Initial Series begins the story with a past event and chronologically move into contemporary time. The present is, in this manner, connected to the (remote) past and the (remote) past to the present. I have accordingly classified the commemoration of previous ritual practices of time intervals of the Long Count calendar into four categories:

  • 1. A commemoration of celebrated antecedent temporal ceremonies within the reign of a lord.
  • 2. Ritual practice of time of previous rulers could be linked to ritual practice of time of the present k’uhul ajaw (who in most cases was the ritual specialist and the one who commissioned the stone-monument and the inscription).
  • 3. A recollection of ritual practices of time by deities or ancestors or founders of the dynastic lineage in remote historical time, i.e. at the beginning of the contemporary Long Count calendar.
  • 4. The ritual practice of time of previous Long Counts of the distant past by supernatural beings or deities.

The structure of Aztec history is determined by the cyclical 52-year calendar. History was perceived by the Aztecs, despite the cyclic character of this calendar, as a continuum. The New Fire Ceremonies of the 52-year calendar rituals were important in the historiography of the Aztecs since they functioned as fundamental features of a commemoration of the past. Here is a parallel between the classic Maya and Central Mexican traditions, despite their different calendar systems, of assembling the pivotal “periodending dates” and associated rituals within the structure of the historiography. Cardinal events of the history of the Aztec nation and the life of the ruler were commemorated. The New Fire Ceremony of the 52-year calendar ritual brought order, harmony and balance to the various 52-year cycles. The ritual practices of time created order and structure of historical linear time. Time was accordingly conceived continued as an unbroken historical sequence.[1]

It is in this connection we arrive at the common rationale or fundamental feature, a deeper philosophical meaning, of the various calendar systems explaining why time was such an essential religious and sociopolitical constituent associated with an exceptional ritual practice. Despite the various meanings and functions of the ritual practices of time, a general concept constituted the temporal onthology of this practice. Behind the ostensible confusion of ideas and practices of the diverse “period-ending” ceremonies of the various calendar systems, two related concepts can be pointed out to inhabit the core of a common philosophy of time. Burkhart points out that a ritual observation of time was a moral obligation in Mesoamerica. Owing to the fact that the animals of the Popol Wuj could not keep the days they were considered useless by the deities and driven out to the periphery. It was the religious specialists whom had the cardinal task of upholding the order of time and to avoid a timeless cosmic chaos (Burkhart 1989: 73).

In this book, I have advocated that the ritual practice of time created order (structure) out of disorder (anti-structure) of deified time. Calendars and the numbers were not lifeless, abstract or purely mathematical but derived from and were pervaded by supernatural beings. The veneration of the deities of time means that this primordial reality was a cardinal part of the cosmovision or chronovision of MesoamericaA notion of dialec2

tic of order and chaos, structure and anti-structure of time was a cardinal feature of the religious systems of Mesoamerica. The ritual practice was the chronometer of the calendar because ceremonial undertakings demark time. These rituals were conducted to complete old and introduce new units of sacred linear and cyclical time. Rituals create orientation and thereby functions as a map. Thereby the cosmic order is preserved. Rituals of transition are being conducted during a period of temporal anarchy to install a new divine ruler of time. Order (structure) is accordingly restored out of disorder (anti-structure) by the ritual practices of the linear and cyclical calendar.

  • [1] But the 52-year calendar was fundamentally a cyclic temporal unit so that the NewFire Ceremony celebrated a completion, renewal and structuring of cyclical time.
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