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Solar Eclipse Was a Potent Time for the Mayas.
The ancient Mayas were the most advanced astronomers of their time. They calculated the solar year, lunar cycles, periodicity of the planets, solstices and equinoxes with amazing accuracy. They were able to readily predict lunar eclipses, and had calculated a pattern of dates for solar eclipses, including predicting the solar eclipse of 1991. (Bricker & Bricker)
Solar eclipses were known as chi’ ibal kin to ancient Mayas, translated as “to eat the sun.”
This phenomenon was depicted in the Dresden Codex as a serpent with huge open jaws about to devour the solar eclipse glyph. Although modern experts believe eclipses were a cause of distress for ancient peoples, terrifying because they did not understand the science behind such phenomena, this was not true for the Mayas. With their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, the Mayas understood the movements of celestial bodies and how the moon moving between the sun and earth caused a brief blacking out of sunlight. To the Mayas, this held profound symbolic meaning, signaling a major shift of cosmic influences upon earth. Such potent occasions were prime time for ceremonies and invoking celestial powers into human actions.
In the story of K’inich Janaab Pakal, most famous Maya ruler who reigned in Palenque from 615-683 CE, the power of a solar eclipse was used to increase potency of a most important ritual. His prophesied mission was to restore the spiritual charter of his city, and resurrect the Jeweled Sky Tree that formed a portal to communicate with the Gods and ancestors. This version of a World Tree, called Wakah Chan Te by the Mayas, had its roots in the Underworld, its trunk rose through the Middleworld of earth, and its
branches soared into the Upperworld of the cosmos. In Palenque, Pakal built a new temple in which to raise the Jeweled Sky Tree, since the original shrine was destroyed and desecrated in an enemy attack by Kalakmul during his childhood.
Although the history of Palenque’s defeat by Kalakmul is well known (Stuart & Stuart), and Pakal’s mandate to restore the damaged portal to the Upperworld has been described (Aldana), the actual process of resurrecting the Tree is a mystery. My task as an author of historical fiction was to use informed imagination to envision this process. This I did through the character of Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau (Lalak in my story, called The Red Queen), whose training in sexual alchemy brought the immense power of life creation to join with Pakal in “conceiving and birthing” a new Wakah Chan Te. (Martin) To further enhance the potency of this event, the ceremony was enacted during a solar eclipse.
Historical records show there was a solar eclipse that crossed over Guatemala and southern Chiapas on February 2, 650 CE. Palenque, located in Chiapas, would have experienced at least partial solar eclipse between 1:00-4:00 pm that day, which worked perfectly for the ceremony done by Pakal and Lalak and resulted in the climactic moment of their story.
Read the historical fiction story of Pakal, his wife Lalak–The Red Queen, and the solar eclipse ritual to resurrect the Wakah Chan Te:
How the Mayas predicted solar eclipses.
Predicting lunar and solar eclipses is more complex than determining sunrise, sunset, solstice, and equinox. Movements of the earth, the sun, and the moon all must be taken in to account because this involves correlating the synodic lunations with the solar calendar. Because the orbital plane of the moon is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of earth’s orbit, eclipses do not happen at every full and new moon. Rather, they take place only when the moon enters the ecliptic plane at the same time that it is in correct position between the sun and earth.
Maya astronomer priests were able to determine the nodes when the paths of moon and sun cross, which occurs every 173.31 days. In this time period, eclipses may occur within 18 days of the node. Most would result in lunar eclipses; the Dresden Codex contains eclipse tables made of columns and rows based on the numbers 177 (6 lunations), and 148 (5 lunations). The Codex is a
folding bark-paper book with pages coated in thin stucco, with glyphs painted in red and black and many symbolic figures. There are tables containing predictions of the phases of Venus over a 104-year interval, and predictions of lunar phases for 33 years. The Mayas used these to calculate solar eclipses.
The average interval between solar eclipses is 153.79 days. They had calculated a synodic lunar period as 29.533 days (modern value 29.530 days). Since the Mayas did not use decimals, they varied between 28 and 29 days for lunations. A grid of dates in the Codex linked Venus phenomena with lunar nodes to predict solar eclipses. Using the derived multipliers they were able to determine solar eclipse intervals that varied by +7 and +8 days. Combining an inferior conjunction of Venus with the predicted solar eclipse gave better accuracy.
The Dresden Codex is one of only four Mayan manuscripts that escaped destruction by the Spaniards when they invaded Mexico in the 16th century. The surviving codices are 11-12th century copies of older Mayan books. When researchers recently compared dates of Mayan calendars with our current one, then used modern data on planetary orbits and cycles, they found the Maya’s data was surprisingly accurate. The Maya astronomical calendar correctly predicted a solar eclipse to within one day in 1991, centuries after Classic ancient Mayan civilization ended. (Bricker & Bricker)
Had the Classic Mayan civilization continued, undoubtedly they would have predicted our current eclipse occurring on August 21, 2017.
More about Leonide Martin’s Mayan Queen books: www.mistsofpalenque.com
Aldana, Gerardo. The Apotheosis of Janaab’ Pakal. University of Colorado Press, 2007.
Bricker, Harvey & Bricker, Victoria. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, 2011.
Martin, Leonide. The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. Made for Success Pub., 2015.
Stuart, David & Stuart, George. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Palenque’s Creation Myth Recited by Yohl Ik’nal.
In her transformation to adulthood ceremony, Yohl Ik’nal recited the creation myth of B’aakal, her people and land. She correctly recited from memory, and was acknowledged as “bearer of the sacred royal blood” by the ruler of Lakam Ha. She became the first woman ruler of Palenque, ruling successfully for 22 years.
From The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque. Book 1, Mists of Palenque Series.
“It was before the Fourth Creation, in times long ago
Ix Muwaan Mat was born.
Of her birth it is said, she entered the sky
On the Day of Lord (Ahau), Month of Conjuring (Tzek),
For she was to bring the new creation.
Seven tuns after her birth came the new Creation,
When all counts of the long calendar returned to zero.
The Gods of the sky, of the earth, of the underworld
Knew what they must do.
They did three stone-bindings in the sky:
The Jaguar Throne Stone at the 5 Sky House;
The Water Lily Throne Stone at the Heart of the Sky;
The Serpent Throne Stone at the 13 Sky Earth-Cave.
These three stones formed the First Hearth Place,
Patterned the stars so homes on earth would have hearthstones.
The ancient Maya city Palenque (Lakam Ha) had a unique creation myth that linked the origins of their ruling dynasty to primordial goddesses and gods.
All the Maya regions in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras shared a common creation myth about the Hero Twins and how they outsmarted the Death Lords of Xibalba and resurrected their father, securing life on earth for their people. This legend is recorded in the Popol Vuh, an 18th century copy of the original codex rendition that has been lost. Palenque’s unique myth incorporates deities widely known in their region, but nowhere else honored in the same way. The Triad deities were the patron gods of ancient Lakam Ha, bringing the blessings of abundance and prosperity when properly attended and worshiped. The ruling dynasty was believed to be descended from these gods and their mother, Lady Cormorant (Muwaan Mat in the Mayan language). (more…)
The movements of the sun were particularly important to the ancient Mayas.
The sun god, represented as the K’in glyph in Classic times, had a Roman nose, central notched tooth, and crossed eyes with square pupils. Considered a male deity and addressed as Father Sun, he was ruler of time and space, and oversaw the seasonal agricultural cycles. K’inich Ahau—Sun-Faced Lord—was identified with ruling lineages and connected with the Maize God, bringer of fertility and renewal. In the late Classic many Maya rulers added K’inich to their names, signifying their oneness with the sun deity. To demonstrate this unity, rulers needed astronomical knowledge to predict exact timing of the sun’s annual cycle. Through this they directed farmers when planting and harvesting should take place. The sun’s arrival at important stations during the year was celebrated with rituals, and correct timing was essential. The ruler’s sacred duty required properly performing these rituals, offering the deities suitable gifts, and thus maintaining beneficent relations between Gods and humans. (more…)
Silver Medal Winner of the 2016 Global Ebook Awards
The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque receives award in Fiction-Historical Literature-Ancient Worlds.
It was an exciting moment when I received the notice in August that my book won a Silver Medal in the Dan Poynter Global Ebook Awards for 2016!
Book awards mean a lot to authors. They validate our efforts and help bring our books to the attention of readers and booksellers. The Mayan Red Queen has been given favorable reviews in The Midwest Book Review (2016) and by Writer’s Digest (2016), but this is her first award. So, I am very happy and invite you to share the moment by recalling the story if you’ve read it, or reading the book if not.
“The Mayan world and its underlying influences come alive, making for a thriller highly recommended for readers who also enjoy stories of archaeological wonders.” The Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan, Editor and Senior Reviewer.
“The quality of this novel is top notch . . . beautifully written. The plot was interesting and very unique. The author’s best skill is in crafting believable yet mythical characters that carry the story almost effortlessly. . . fans of complex world building will be absorbed by this one–with pleasure!” Writer’s Digest 3rd Annual Self-Published e-Book Awards
Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
Early explorers: Del Rio, Armendariz, Dupaix, Waldeck, Walker-Caddy
In the 1780s, a couple of Spanish expeditions came to Palenque and made crude drawings of structures and art. The King of Spain was interested in the geography and history of his overseas colonies, and dispatched Artillery Captain Antonio del Rio from Guatemala to bring away samples. Del Rio removed stucco hieroglyphs, parts of figures and small panels that now reside in Madrid’s Museo de America.
Numerous drawings by artist Ignacio Armendariz from this expedition were the first reasonably accurate reproductions of Palenque’s huge array of art.
Another Spanish expedition in the early 1800s produced 27 drawings of panels and tablets, floor plans, and sketches of buildings, a bridge and aqueduct. Guillermo Dupaix, Dragoon Captain stationed in Mexico, and artist Jose Luciano Castaneda took a 50-mile trek from Ciudad Real (now San Cristobal de las Casas) to Palenque that required eight days on a trail winding through mountains that were “scarcely passable by any other animal than a bird.” Unfortunately, the work of these two Spanish artists got confounded and appeared in a book by Alexander von Humboldt in 1810 labeled as “Mexican reliefs found in Oaxaca,” a city nowhere near
The flamboyant artist, traveler and antiquarian, self-styled “count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck adapted Armendariz-Castaneda’s art with his own embellishments of musculature and costumes that gave a distinctly Roman look. Waldeck, like some other early explorers, believed the people who built these cities came from the “old world,” perhaps Rome, India or Egypt. This art appeared in an 1822 publication of the del Rio report, with many images copied into Lord Kingsborough’s sumptuous volume the Antiquities of Mexico in 1829. Waldeck resided at Palenque in 1832, building a pole-and-thatch house near the Temple of the Cross and recruiting a local Maya girl as his housekeeper. The structure called Temple of the Count is named for him. He made numerous drawings of reliefs and glyphs, some were careful reproductions but many were fanciful with evocative views of buildings and romantic landscapes used later for paintings and lithographs.
I can forgive Waldeck for many of his absurdities, such as including elephant heads and Hindu designs in renditions of Maya art. But I cannot forgive him for partially destroying one of Palenque’s loveliest stucco sculptures, the “Beau-relief” that once adorned the Temple of the Jaguar. It depicts a graceful figure with flowing headdress and geometric-patterned skirt, seated on layered cushions upon a double-headed jaguar throne. The figure’s arms and legs hold elegant, ballet-like poses. Waldeck did draw the figure first, as did Armendariz half-a-century earlier. Why he destroyed it is a mystery.
These drawings were reproduced in a number of books and magazines, and caught the attention of two men in the United States who really “put Palenque on the map;” John Lloyd Stephens, American popular travel writer and Frederick Catherwood, English architect and illustrator. Intrigued by the fantastic images and cities depicted, they determined to travel in search of Maya ruins and publish a book with illustrations about these wondrous things. They went first to Belize to visit Copan (now in Honduras), and then planned visits to Uxmal, Palenque and other sites.
Belize was under British control then, and some international competition got sparked. Patrick Walker, aide to the superintendent of British Honduras, and Lt. John Caddy of the Royal Artillery heard about Stephens and Catherwood’s plans to visit Palenque. Irked that the American expedition might reach Palenque before the British, Walker and Caddy quickly put together their own expedition. The Britons planned to reach Palenque first by going due west along the Belize River and across the Peten in Guatemala. They endured a grueling journey through swamps and jungles, arriving two months ahead of the American team.
Walker and Caddy made some quite accurate drawings of figures, panels and buildings and produced a report that remained unpublished for over 125 years. Their primary goal seemed to be winning the race
with the American team, and Walker’s greatest interest was hunting game along the way. Caddy’s report did make prophetic observations; saying that the massive buildings, elegant bas reliefs, and beautiful ornaments prove that in ancient times the city was inhabited by “a race both populous and civilized.” He also concluded that many more buildings once stood at the site that extended for several leagues. One entry remarked on a Spanish manuscript from around 1796, in which the local priest claimed that he “discovered the true origin” of these ancient people because of their “perfect knowledge of the Mythology of the Chaldeans.”
Excerpt taken from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque.
These excerpts taken from the Archeological Field Journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, a fictional archeologist in my books, describe the history of archeological exploration at Palenque. I’ll be doing several posts taken from her journal in the first 3 books in my “Mists of Palenque” series.
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The ancient Mayas built thousands of cities throughout their 125,000 square mile realm. Ruins of huge Maya cities have been dated back to 300-400 BCE. No doubt smaller cities were being built centuries before, but the fragile wood and thatch building materials degraded over time. By the Late Preclassic Period (400 BCE—250 CE) the technology for building stone structures had been perfected. This technology created tall pyramids, expansive palaces that reached five stories, and complex residences with interlocking passages and plazas. These strong and durable structures were able to withstand 3,000 years of harsh environment, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Even the encroachment of jungle roots and vines since the great cities were abandoned around 1,000 CE could not bring down most of these buildings. Hundreds of high-rise Maya cities remain standing today; a tribute to their building technology.
What substance was strong enough to “glue” the building stones together for so many centuries? The answer is found in Maya cement. Maya technicians invented a method for producing hydraulic cement from native limestone before 250 BCE. How they discovered this process is a mystery, since it requires extremely high temperatures in a type of “blast furnace” to convert limestone into cement. Archeologists surmise they used trial-and-error over many years, perhaps a millennium, to get the formula right. We can imagine ancient Mayas watching a huge conflagration from lightning strikes in forests, or set off by volcanic flow or cinders, that created super-heated fire. After the burning was reduced to coals and ashes, they saw peculiar round globules sitting on top, where before there were chunks of limestone. As rain moistened the globules, they puffed up into a grey-white powder. Curious, the Maya collected the powder and started experimenting with its properties. After mixing it with pebbles or clay or other substances, and adding water, they found that it made a very hard, durable bonding material. Claro que si! Cement was converted to concrete.
Maya cement was used for making cast-in-place concrete, the “glue” that held together their stone buildings and the base material for stucco that coated Maya structures, roads, cisterns, and plazas.
Hydraulic cement – the Mayas made true hydraulic cement, first used by the Romans. This cement reacts with water to form silicate hydrate crystals; these grow and interlock creating a bond between aggregate mixtures (pebbles, ground limestone, clay) to produce hard, durable construction material called concrete. The cement paste glues together the aggregate mixture, fills voids, and increases strength as it stiffens, called “setting up.” As the concrete hardens, it continues increasing in strength and durability. Maya cement is similar in chemical makeup to modern Portland cement, which is the current standard.
Maya cement kiln – the Maya cement firing kiln has similar thermodynamic and chemical properties to a blast furnace. Calcium is the essential chemical component for cement, and the Mayas had an abundant supply of limestone. When heated to 1450-1600 degrees C (2642-2912 F) the limestone melts, inducing a chemical reaction to form calcium silicate. These take the shape of globules called “clinkers.” Wood was the Maya fuel source, and generally it does not produce high enough temperatures, normally
reaching 300-400 degrees C (572-752 F). Learning that a higher temperature was needed, the Mayas invented a kiln. They stacked wood in a circular design set on an elevated platform of spaced rocks. The center of the circle was left open. The kiln diameter was around 6 meters (19.7 feet) across and 2 meters (6.6 ft) height. Logs were stacked horizontally in a radial pattern, larger logs filled in with smaller ones and chinked solid with chipped wood. A vertical shaft was left open up the center, 8 inches diameter, extending from ground level to the top of the pile. To keep the kiln burning the required 24-30 hours, the wood had to contain enough moisture. It was either green wood or it was moistened with water. Readily combustible material such as dry leaves and dry decayed or resinous wood was put at the shaft base to ignite the kiln.
Raw limestone was cut into small blocks and stacked on top of the wood pile, to a height of 0.75 meters (2.5 ft.). The dry tinder was set afire, and its rapid burning sucked in cool, oxygen-rich outside air through the elevated base of the platform. As this air entered it increased the temperature in the center core while reducing ambient pressure. In turn, the reduced pressure induced a rapid flow of cooler, oxygen-rich air which then increased the temperature even more. This super-heated air was exhausted upward into the limestone, in a chimney-like effect. This cycle kept raising temperature and burning the stacked wood at temperatures that reached 1600 C (2912 F). When the kiln was at peak operation, a narrow tongue of flame soared skyward to a height of 30 meters (98.4 ft.). As heat increased, the flame color changed from red to orange, then yellow and finally to blue, which indicates 1600 C.
When the burn was complete, a collection of clinkers sat upon a pile of cinders. These were allowed to cool. Exposure to dew and rain caused the clinkers to expand into a dome of fluffy grey-white powder, 5-6 times the bulk of the limestone. This powder was hydraulic cement, and could be ground finer as needed. The cement was combined with the aggregate mixture and water to make cast-in-place concrete: one part cement, 3 parts loosely ground limestone or other aggregate, and water. Five tons of wood were required to produce one ton of cement.
Weather conditions had to be just right to make cement: clear weather with zero chance of precipitation, and no wind. Wind would cause higher burn rates at the windward side leading to collapse of the kiln structure.
Rituals accompanied the kiln burning. Women were not permitted near the kiln during the burning, since the kiln, considered to be feminine, would become jealous and refuse to operate properly.
Studies have shown that Maya cement has almost the same chemical composition as Portland cement, meeting strict international standards for manufactured cement. Maya cast-in-place concrete has higher strength than needed by the loads superimposed on Maya structures. It has remarkable ability to resist severe environmental exposure. Its high compressive strength is greater than building materials of any other ancient American culture.
Conclusion: Maya cement is a true cement, a building material very similar to modern cement. Its properties produce concrete with a strong matrix, similar to modern concrete.
James A. O’Kon, PE. The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology. Career Press: New Page Books, Pompton Plains, NJ. 2012. In depth explanations of many types of Maya technological achievements, by an “archeoengineer” who spent 40 years investigating at over 50 remote Maya sites.