Susan Milbrath reports that astronomy was an integral part of ancient Mesoamerican daily life.

Susan Milbrath

Susan Milbrath, Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 1

University of Texas Press
Susan Milbrath
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Astronomy in ancient Mesoamerica was not an abstract science; indeed, it was an integral part of daily life, and so it remains today in the more traditional Maya communities. In Precolumbian times, astronomy played a central role in calendars and religious imagery. Art images and companion texts provide keys to understanding the thought processes of the ancient Maya. Rather than focusing on scientific accuracy, many of the best documented astronomical images seem primarily concerned with divination. Maya astronomy is really astrology (Thompson 1972:77), but not in the sense of personal horoscopes. The astrological texts in the codices often deal with cycles of illness, the fate of crops, and weather. We may dismiss them as fanciful, but there is a similar folk tradition in our Old Farmer’s Almanac.

People today often cannot appreciate why astronomy played such an important role in ancient civilizations. For many of us, supplying our own food means cashing a paycheck and going to the grocery store. Our indoor environments insulate us from the more profound effects of the seasonal cycle. Our calendars tell us when the seasons will change, and we feel no need to watch the sun and stars as they follow their seasonal course. Indeed, it is often difficult to see the night sky. Light pollution follows electricity, dimming the spectacular beauty of the stars.

Astronomical gods form the core of the Precolumbian Maya pantheon. In the past, some Mayanists have suggested that the Maya did not worship gods; rather they believed in spiritual forces. Karl Taube (1992b:7– 8) refutes this position in his study of the Maya pantheon. Stephen Houston and David Stuart (1996:295) point out that Classic period Maya rulers claimed divine status by using the names of gods as their personal names. And Patricia McAnany (1995a) shows that posthumous royal portraits depict rulers merged with gods.

As the most highly developed ancient civilization in all of the Americas, the Maya had a sophisticated astronomy that was integrated with their religion. Like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Chinese, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians, the Maya believed that the celestial luminaries were gods who influenced human destiny and controlled events on earth. Whether Maya artworks show rulers dressed up as gods or the gods themselves is sometimes debatable, but there is no question that the star gods were invoked in Maya art for more than a thousand years. Precolumbian art, calendric cycles, and modern folklore can be integrated to tell the story of Maya astronomy, placing the Maya in their proper position as one of the great civilizations of antiquity.

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