Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Arrival of the Mam

Though the sacred day 8 B’atz’ (8 Chuen in Yucatec) is the occasion for a vigorous community celebration in many Guatemalan towns, the beginning of the Mayan New Year or “arrival of the Mam” is a much quieter affair, often a simple family event.

While many communities still practice the tzolk’in of 260 days, the haab or ancient Mayan solar year is much less common. Even among the towns that still honor the solar year, there is a great deal of variation. For example, one way of counting the years would assert that this year (2010) is the year 12 Kej (Manik in Yucatec), and that it began on April 3. In Momostenango, a town that has attracted much anthropological attention because of its highly conservative traditions, this is the year 11 Kej, and it began on Feb 22.

In fact, the local elementary school had staged a colorful festival and talent show in honor of the New Year. When I arrived at the Itzep family home on the evening of Feb 21, Don Rigoberto was still engaged with the events at the school, so I sat in the fading light and chatted with his wife Dona Maria.

As we spoke, we suddenly heard the sound of rain pounding and rattling on the tin roof of the house. This was highly unusual, since February is the height of the dry season in the mountains, and any precipitation at all is rare. Maria found it amusing, since the previous year had been 10 Iq’ (or Ik in Yucatec). She laughed and said, “Lord Ik is the year of wind and rain, so as you can see, he is departing from us in his own special way.”

Soon Don Rigoberto arrived, and I gathered with the family in the main room. Don Rigoberto was not prepared to begin the festivities until the sun had completely set. Many Daykeepers in Momostenango assert that the energy of the coming day does not begin to make its presence felt until after sundown. The energy of the new day grows during the night, and comes into its full glory with the next sunrise.

So we waited until dark. Then the candles and the incense were lighted in the shrine room. We sat down to dinner. In the K’iche’ language, the Lord of the Year is called the Mam, which is the common K’iche’ word for grandfather. Any mature man may be addressed as “tat,” while “mam” more specifically refers to one’s grandfather. There are several traditional foods served during the arrival of the Mam. One of them is a special tamale called the tayuyo. This rather impressive-looking dish was made of alternating layers of black corn and white corn. According to the Maya, there are four colors of corn – red, black, white and yellow. These also correspond to the four directions, the four elements, and the four races of humankind. In this particular ceremony, the white layers symbolized heaven, the sky, and the male principle, while the black layers symbolized the rich loam of earth, the spirit of Mother Earth, the feminine principle. A simple tamale became a kind of cosmogram uniting heaven and earth, male and female.

We were also served a cup of a cornmeal drink called atole, though the special recipe used for the Arrival of the Mam is a very ancient one, and not much like ordinary atole. It is made entirely without spices, and can take “some getting used to” for many Western palates.

When dinner was done, we made our way into the shrine room. With Rigoberto and Maria, their four children, and their housemate with her young child, as well as the visiting outsider (me), it was a bit of a tight squeeze.

Now it was time for another mixture of masculine and feminine energies. Don Rigoberto sat in his chair while all the women in the family lined up. One by one they approached him. He tied a red thread around their right wrists and another one around their left ankles. Then Dona Maria took the shaman’s chair, and the men lined up. One by one, we approached her and were tied with a red thread around our left wrists and another one around our right ankles. Since red is the color of life and vitality, this little ritual has the effect of providing us with special power at this most powerful time of the year, as well as mixing the night and day, yin and yang, female and male polarities of the universe.

After we all succeeded in squeezing close to the altar for prayer, the evening ritual was nearly finished.

The final touch in the proceedings was “setting a chair for the Mam.” An empty chair is left sitting overnight in front of the family shrine, so that the Grandfather or Lord of the New Year may enter, sit down, and make himself comfortable.

By the time I walked home to my lodgings, the last traces of Lord 10 Iq’ had disappeared altogether. The rain was gone and the stars were shining. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


This is a difficult topic. If you want to start an argument among scholars, simply raise questions such as: Who originated the Mesoamerican calendars? And: When did they do it? Each academic will espouse her or his favorite theory of origins; in reality, we don’t know for sure.

One fact of which we can be almost certain is that the most important calendars – the 260-day tzolk’in or chol q’ij, the 365-day solar calendar or haab, and the famous Long Count – all took shape in what is now the far south of Mexico, on or near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. There are three principal candidates for the invention of the calendars.


For many years, the Olmecs (1200-400 BCE) – who sculpted the well-known “colossal heads” – have been called “the mother culture of Mesoamerica.” Even this much has become debatable.  We call them “the mother culture” because no earlier cultures have been discovered. Almost all the important traits of Mesoamerican civilization have been attributed to the Olmecs, including the ritual ball game, the ceremonial use of jade, the construction of pyramids, and the worship of Feathered Serpent. It is easy to imagine that they created the 260-day tzolk’in or sacred calendar as well – and it is very possible that they did. But we don’t know for sure. The earliest inscription which is very clearly a tzolk’in date comes not from the Olmec region but from the Zapotecs of Oaxaca in the 6th century BCE. In the same way, it is quite possible that the Olmecs invented the unique Long Count Calendar, though once again the earliest Long Count date occurs elsewhere.


In recent years, the site of Izapa has gained a great deal of attention. Located in the blazing hot lowlands of Soconusco, on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Izapa is an early site which has been called “proto-Maya” – which means that we are not sure whether they were Maya or not. The stelae at Izapa contain some of the first images of stories from the Mayan Creation Epic and can easily be recognized as such by any reader of the Popol Vuh (written some 1800 years later). But without texts, we simply don’t know if the Izapans spoke Maya.

Early researchers into the Mesoamerican calendars realized that 260 is the number of days between one solar zenith passage and another at 15 degrees north latitude. Did the zenith passage play a role in the origins of the tzolk’in? Some scholars have been skeptical; it was long believed that there was no site – Mayan or otherwise – at that latitude which was early enough and sufficiently sophisticated to have made such astronomical observations. But Izapa is at 15 ° north, and it has now been shown that Izapa is much earlier than we thought. The ruins that are visible on the ground date to about 100 BCE, but aerial x-ray photography has revealed that there is an entire city lying underneath what we can see. Archaeologist Garth Norman sank a trench and examined artifacts from the ancient city, which seems to go back all the way to Olmec times, c. 1000 BCE. Based on additional astronomical evidence, Vincent Malmstrom believes that the tzolk’in began in Izapa in 1358 BCE.


Archaeologist Prudence Rice believes that the tzolk’in is actually much older. Some of the names for the days of the tzolk’in change radically from one culture to another. For example, the day sign which is known as Darkness (Yucatec: Akbal) in the Mayan languages is known as House (Calli) in Nahuatl. But there are other day names – notably those of the animals – which remain constant, even in societies which spoke languages from completely different families. Rice speculates that the tzolk’in may have originated before the separation of the Mesoamerican proto-languages. This separation took place before 2000 BCE during the Archaic Period, when the first village societies developed in Mesoamerica. In support of her theory, Rice draws attention to the village of Paso de la Amada, also in the Soconusco and quite close to Izapa. Archaeologists have noted that Paso de la Amada contains structures which date to c. 1650 BCE and were built to measurement units of 13, 52, and 20. The ball court, one of the earliest known, measures 52 x 13. This implies that not only was the tzolk’in kept by these village farmers, but the 365-day year and the 52-year Calendar Round as well.

Rice draws attention to the fact that all the evidence for calendrical beginnings seems to point strongly to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Izapa and Paso de la Amada lie at one side of the isthmus; the Olmec cities lie at the other. All the animals which appear in the names of the days can be found there. But archaeological knowledge of the Isthmus remains incomplete; very little is preserved in such extreme humidity, and the overwhelming heat makes excavation difficult or occasionally impossible.  

In 2010, however, the oldest temple pyramid tomb in Mesoamerica was discovered at Chiapa de Corzo, in the center of the Isthmus. It contained the body of a sacred king, and it dates to 700 BCE, placing it in Olmec times. Clearly, three of the earliest Mesoamerican high cultures – the Olmecs, Izapa, and Chiapa de Corzo – developed on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is still known for its surviving matriarchal societies among the indigenous people.

It is interesting to note that the earliest Long Count date – 36 BCE – was also found at Chiapa de Corzo.

The origins of Mesoamerican civilization are still incompletely known. New research, especially on the Isthmus, is likely to change our picture of the beginnings of civilization in the region. All we can say at this point is that no matter how far back we search, the tzolk’in seems to have been there.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Energies in the Human Body: Ancient Teachings of Mesoamerica

The idea or a central World Tree or World Mountain lies at the heart of the Mayan cosmovision. This is a universal symbol that transcends cultural boundaries – and so is the idea that the central tree or mountain is actually within the human body. There is a precise correspondence between the architecture of Heaven, the macrocosm, and the constitution of humankind, the microcosm. As there is a central tree or axis that forms the pivotal point of the world or the universe, likewise there must be a central axis that forms the pivotal point for man as a spiritual entity. According to Hindu thought, the spinal column is the human analog of Mount Meru. According to Kabbalistic Judaism, the Tree of Life is found not only in the mythical Garden of Eden, but within the human body, where it too corresponds to the spinal column.

Just as the vital energy from within the earth travels up the World Mountain or Tree of Life and the life-giving power of the gods flows down it, there is an equivalent energy that flows in the spinal column giving life to the inner or spiritual man. Hindus call it the kundalini; Kabbalists know it as the Shekinah. To the Classic Maya it was itz, the "dew of heaven."

Though no authentic sources regarding the esoteric nature of the human body remain from the period of the Classic Maya, Aztec sources tell us that, in fact, the people of Mesoamerica had highly developed teachings about the nature of spiritual energy in the human body. The vital force which traveled up and down the World Tree—and, by extension, up and down the spine—was called malinalli in the Nahuatl language, equivalent to the Mayan itz. According to the Aztecs it consisted of two streams; one flowed downwards from Heaven, and the other flowed upwards from the Underworld. The flow of malinalli concentrated itself in three specific centers within the human body. These centers form an obvious analogy to the Hindu doctrine of the chakras, the "subtle centers" or, more literally, "wheels" of psycho-spiritual energy within the body. In Hindu tradition, there are seven such centers, whereas the fragmentary sources surviving from Aztec times mention three.

The first of the three centers has its locus in the crown of the head; the energy associated with it is called tonalli in Nahuatl. The word signifies a warmth that originates in the sun and radiates through each human individual as a link with the solar force. Tonalli is placed in the mother's womb through the agency of the Creator; as the spark of light that links each of us to the gods, it is the locus of our higher individuality, our personal essence.

The second esoteric center is in the heart; the vital force that animates this center is called teyolia in Nahuatl and is the source of emotion, memory, and knowledge. Teyolia is the "divine fire" that shapes our patterns of thought and habit. The teyolia may be transformed into a "divine heart" even in this lifetime. In Aztec tradition those who played the roles of the gods at religious festivals and those who dedicated their lives to the composition of spiritual poetry were believed to be especially filled with teyolia. Teyolia is a substance found everywhere, not only in the heart center. It is present in mountains and lakes, and in temples and pyramids as well.

The third center lies in the liver; its associated force is called ihiyotl. This ihiyotl is like a "luminous gas," a subtle energy that is the source of our emotions: hatred, desire, courage, and love. To examine one's own motivations and thus seek the truth of one's being was a process that the Aztecs called "discovering one's liver." It is the energy called ihiyotl that projects itself to others, creating tentacles of charm and attraction.

What remains to us may be only the rudiments of a much more complex system of human energies. In future articles, I will investigate some of the possibilities.

Note: This article is based on passages in Religions of Mesoamerica, by David Carrasco (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1990). Carrasco’s summary is, in turn, based upon The Human Body and Ideology, by Alfredo Lopez Austin (Salt Lake City, University of Utah, 1988).

Thursday, March 26, 2015


I don’t ordinarily make political predictions. In fact, I avoid it. But this year, I can’t resist trying my hand. In India, the common vehicle for political astrology is the Lunar New Year chart, cast for the moment of the new moon which occurs before the vernal equinox. This year it fell on March 20 at 9:37 Eastern Time . It is cast for the latitude and longitude of Washington D.C., since it is traditional to examine how the yearly influences for a particular nation work out by using the coordinates of that nation’s capital. Here, then, is the chart for 2015. 

To me, the Lunar New Year Chart shows a strong emphasis on economic policies in the US. I have noticed that the usual sources for “Vedic” political astrology, the works of Luthra, are simply “siderealized” versions of late 19th century Western mundane astrology, for example Sepharial and Zadkiel. I have relied instead on the Prashna Marga, written in the south Indian province of Kerala c. 1645. The Asendant or Lagna symbolizes the head of state, and since Saturn, the ruler of the Ascendant, is in the 11th House, which symbolizes the economy of a nation, we can see that Obama will be largely preoccupied with economic matters. But the ruler of the 1st and 2nd in the 11th -- not to mention the fact that Saturn also rules the nakshatra of the New Moon -- does indicate more economic recovery, which is typical in the US of second term Democratic administrations. Nevertheless, Saturn is still Saturn and it’s in an unfriendly sign, so it will be very slow and we can expect much resistance to the economic proposals that are suggested by the executive branch.

One area of American life which is likely to suffer a setback is property value, because the ruler of the 4th House is in that troublesome sector of the sky called gandanta, the borders of water and fire signs -- even though Pisces-Aries or Revati-Ashvini tends to be the least gnarly of the gandantas. But there will be significant recovery in property values before the end of the year due to the presence of the 5th lord Venus in the 4th, creating a raja yoga. Venus rules the creative arts of a nation as well, and the strength of Venus, combined with the fact that the year in general is ruled by Venus, suggests new and powerful artistic movements, much more important than the weary hip-hop, artistic abstractions, and hyper-intellectual novels recommended by the New York Times. This promises something new, exciting, and powerful. As my colleague Barry Rosen has pointed out, the last time we saw this kind of a Venus year was 1955-56, when Nabokov's “Lolita” was published and Disneyland opened. In 1895-96 Oscar Wilde was jailed for his homosexuality and his “Salome” was published.

The relationship issues of a nation are nowhere stated in the Prashna Marga – such matters as relationship issues did not have much of a place in classical Indian society. But in the West, we would place these in the 7th House, and the exalted Jupiter suggests that even though this has been a topic which has recently divided American society, we may see some coming together between formerly hostile interests.

Of course it is hard to miss all that 3rd House action in the chart. The Prashna Marga relies on the works of Varaha Mihira, who calls the 3rd House the house of valor, so in ancient times all military matters were read in prashna or horary charts from the 3rd. If we apply those horary rules to a political chart, the presence of Mars bears out the likelihood of military involvement somewhere, and Ketu suggests that there is something strange or mysterious about these military dealings. I would not be surprised to see an escalation of conflict with jihadist causes, probably even some American presence in foreign lands (since Ketu rules foreign people and places). There will be initial reverses for the US because Mars is gandanta in the 3rd, but antagonists in warfare are said by the Prashna Marga to be shown by the 7th, so the exalted Jupiter promises eventual success, despite Ketu confusion and possible scandals about some military matter.

The ruler of the 9th in the 2nd suggests that trade with foreign nations will be relatively healthy, though Rahu in the 9th indicates some religious difficulties, perhaps scandals involving religious leaders, more hostility towards “foreign” religions, or the introduction of new and “unusual” religious teachings. But Rahu usually does well in Mercury signs, so this ought not to be too traumatic.