For the Maya, solar eclipses were a sign of celestial combat – and their astrologers kept sophisticated records to predict them.

We live in a light-polluted world, where street lights, electronic advertisements and even backyard lighting block out the brightest celestial objects in the night sky. But travel to an officially protected “Dark Sky” area, look up at the sky and be amazed.

This is the view of the heavens that people have had for thousands of years. Pre-modern societies looked to the sky and created cosmographies, maps of the skies that provided information for calendars and agricultural cycles. They also created cosmologies, which were, in the original use of the word, religious beliefs to explain the universe. The gods and the heavens were inseparable.

The skies are orderly and cyclical in nature, so watch and record long enough and you will determine their rhythms. Many societies have been able to accurately predict lunar eclipses, and some can also predict solar eclipses – like the one that will occur over North America on April 8, 2024.

The path of totality, where the Moon will completely eclipse the Sun, will cross into Mexico on the Pacific coast before entering the United States in Texas, where I teach the history of technology and science, and will be seen as a partial eclipse on throughout the lands of the ancient Maya. This follows the eclipse of October 2023, when the “ring of fire” around the sun could be observed from many ancient Mayan ruins and parts of Texas.

Thousands of years ago, two such solar eclipses over the same area within six months would see Mayan astronomers, priests and rulers jump into a frenzy of activity. I’ve seen a similar frenzy – albeit for different reasons – here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where we’ll be in the path of totality. During this period between the two eclipses, I had the privilege of sharing my interest in the history of astronomy with students and the public.

Ancient astronomers

It could be argued that the ancient Maya were one of the most sky-watching societies. Accomplished mathematicians, they recorded systematic observations of the motion of the Sun, the planets and the stars.

From these observations, they created a complex calendar system to govern their world – one of the most accurate in pre-modern times.

Astronomers looked closely at the Sun and made aligned monumental structures, such as pyramids, to track solstices and meridians. They also used these structures, as well as caves and wells, to mark the solstice days – twice a year in the tropics where the Sun is directly overhead and there was no shadow from vertical objects.

The Maya scribes kept accounts of the astronomical observations in codices, hieroglyphic folding books made of fig bark paper. The Dresden Codex, one of the four surviving ancient Maya texts, dates to the 11th century. Its pages contain a wealth of astrological knowledge and religious interpretations and provide evidence that the Maya could predict solar eclipses.

From the astrological tables of the codex, researchers know that the Maya tracked the lunar nodes, the two points where the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic – the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which in our opinion is the path of the moon. the sun through our sky. They also created tables divided into seasons of 177 solar eclipse days, marking days when an eclipse was possible.

Heavenly battle

But why invest so much in tracking the skies?

Knowledge is power. If you kept accounts of what happened at the time of certain celestial events, you could be forewarned and take appropriate precautions when the cycles repeat themselves. Priests and rulers would know how to act, what rituals to perform and what sacrifices to make to the gods to ensure that the cycles of destruction, rebirth and renewal would continue.

In the Mayan belief system, sunset was associated with death and decay. Every evening the sun god, Kinich Ahau, made the perilous journey through Xibalba, the Maya underworld, to be born anew at sunrise. Solar eclipses were seen as a “broken sun” – a sign of potential cataclysmic destruction.

Kinich Ahau was associated with prosperity and good order. His brother Chak Ek – the morning star, now known as the planet Venus – was associated with war and discord. They had a hostile relationship, fighting for supremacy.

Their battle could be seen in the heavens. During solar eclipses, planets, stars and sometimes comets can be seen during totality. If it is positioned correctly, Venus will shine brightly near the eclipsed Sun, which the Maya represented as Chak Ek on the attack. This is indicated in the Dresden Codex, where the god of diving Venus appears in the solar eclipse tables, and in the coordination of solar eclipses with the cycles of Venus in the Madrid Codex, another Mayan folding book from the late 15th century.

As Kinich Ahau – the Sun – hid behind the Moon, the Maya believed he was dying. Rituals of renewal were needed to restore balance and set him back on course.

Nobles, especially the king, would make blood sacrifices, piercing their bodies and collecting drops of blood to burn as offerings to the sun god. This was the “blood of the kings” the highest form of sacrifice, meant to strengthen Kinich Ahau. Maya believed that the gods of creation took their blood and mixed it with maize paste to create the first humans. After that, the nobles gave a small part of their own life force to feed the gods.

Time stands still

Before the April eclipse, I feel as if I am completing my own personal cycle, taking me back to earlier career paths: first as an aerospace engineer who loved her orbital mechanics classes and enjoyed backyard astronomy; and then as a doctoral student in history, studying how the Maya culture survived after the Spanish conquest.

Íomhá den dia ghrian Maya Kinich Ahau, a rinneadh idir an séú agus an naoú haois, atá lonnaithe anois in Ard-Mhúsaem Meicsiceo na hAntraipeolaíochta.  <a href=DeAgostini/Getty Images” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY1MA–/ ” />

For me, just like the ancient Maya, the total solar eclipse will be an opportunity not only to look up but also to think about the past and the future. Observing the eclipse is something that our ancestors have done since then and will do long into the future. It is awesome in the original sense of the word: For a few minutes time seems to stop, as all eyes turn to the sky, and come together, as we take part in the same show as our ancestors and our descendants.

And whether you believe in divine messages, battles between Venus and the Sun, or the beauty of science and nature, this event brings people together. It’s humbling, and it’s very, very cool too.

I hope that Kinich Ahau will grace us with his presence in a cloudless sky and will once again rule over Venus, who is the morning star on April 8.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Kimberly H. Breuer, University of Texas at Arlington.

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Kimberly H. Breuer does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article this article, and did not disclose any relevant connections beyond their academic appointment.

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