The Role of Cyclical Fatalism Among the Maya
THE ROLE OF CYCLICAL FATALISM AMONG THE MAYA
©Robert F. Smith
...[T]he Maya preoccupation with cyclical time, when applied to the extant archaeology, can show that, in seeking matters of cause and effect in overall Maya prehistory, ideological factors must be consulted because they often contrapose materialistic interpretations. (Arlen Chase 1991:38)
Cyclic Etiology as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The late Dennis Puleston (1979) was foremost among those making the case for cyclical fatalism as a key factor in understanding certain repeated or oscillatory changes in the fortunes of many lowland sites in Yucatán and nearby areas. The editorial response of Norman Hammond and Gordon Willey to Puleston was that, although "the Maya did have a cyclical view of history," and that there is indeed a significant "series of coincidences" linked to certain calendric cycles, these facts raised more questions than they answered, and were "enough to set a good materialist's teeth on edge" (Hammond & Willey 1979:xv). More recently Patrick Culbert denied that cyclical fatalism had any influence whatsoever (Culbert 1995), while Linda Schele and Nikolai Grube stated that it certainly does (Grube personally to me after Schele's presentation at UCLA, Oct 29, 1995).
In 1980 Willey thought it at least likely that foreign rulers would follow local calendric practice, even if they made some changes (Willey 1987:152-153). He went on later to concede that "self-destructive predispositions of the mind," i.e., the "epistemological error" of the Maya, could affect "even very large human events" (Willey in Flannery 1982:12). Arlen Chase has suggested that, since the archeological data appear to be out-of-sync with the usual "models for the evolution and expansion of Maya society," it would be "more appropriate to view Maya development with a less materialistic [more ideological] approach" (1991:34):
Thus, if the Maya were in fact concerned with cyclical time through-out their history, the impact of such a fatalistic belief in the repetition of events should be visible in their prehistory.
Others have continued to comment on this matter (e.g., Coggins 1979; Edmonson 1982; Edmonson 1985), making the following broad summary and analysis possible:
In his frequency distribution chart of Maya sites with katun-ending monuments (Puleston 1979:64, Fig. 5-1), Puleston began before such monuments existed with the eruption of Ilopongo Volcano in El Salvador ca. 260 A.D. ±85, which most likely took place during katun 13 Ahau, and covered 3,000 square kilometers with an ash-fall which made agriculture impossible and may have led to migration into the Southern Maya Lowlands. The archeological evidence at this lowland Late Preclassic/Early Classic divide shows a "general slump," poor burials, and "an abrupt termination of Tikal's Preclassic relationship with Kaminaljuyu and the initiation of a period of
seemingly dispirited isolation" (Puleston 1979:69-70). The devastating effects have also been described by Muriel Weaver (Weaver 1993:115-116,232-233,283). The Classic period in Central Mexico, on the other hand, began a good deal earlier (Coe 1994:89), not to mention the very advanced million-population Yucatec-Maya city-state of El Mirador (the Kan Kingdom = “Snake Kingdom”) in the midst of the so-called “Formative” and “Pre-Classic,” which was abandoned sometime between 100 - 200 A.D. (Brown 2011:46) – clearly in line with Arlen Chase’s observations about the beginning of katun 8 Ahau of 179 A.D. (22.214.171.124.0), coterminus with the shift in power from Late Preclassic El Mirador to Early Classic Tikal (Chase 1991:34).
The Lord of the West Arrives
Fire-is-Born, Lord of the West (Ochkin Kaloomte; formerly known as “Smoking-Frog”), arrived in Waka, Guatemala (El Perú, on the San Pedro River), on January 8, 378 A.D. He was welcomed by the ruler there, Sun-Faced Jaguar. He came from powerful Teotihuacán in faraway central Mexico. By January 16th, Fire-is-Born had conquered Tikal, executed the king there, and installed the son of his patron (Spear- Thrower-Owl) as the new king – the ancestor of Stormy Sky, who recalled the event 60 years later on Tikal Stela 31. Tikal would later reach out and conquer even Copán, Honduras, in A.D. 426 (Gugliotta 2007:74-85). Maya power and culture was clearly on
the upswing, but the truly horrific consequences would come a cropper hundreds of years later, in A.D. 800 (Gugliotta 2007:96-97). Meantime there would be another hiatus.
The next katun 13 Ahau 1 ends just as the "Hiatus" between two rulers at Tikal begins at 11 Ahau, "viewed as the first katun of the thirteen-katun cycle," and as the base-point of "a new era" (Puleston 1979:68; cf. Schele & Freidel 1990:171). This Hiatus lasted calendrically from 534 to 613 A.D. (Long Count 126.96.36.199.0 to 188.8.131.52.0), and was characterized by "an area wide slump in monument dedications" (Tikal, Altar de Sacrificios, etc.), "poor burials," a change in ceramic styles, "muted artistic 1 The Maya calendric cycle of primary interest to us here is the May, or "Short Count," of thirteen katuns (13 x 20 x 360-day year = 260 tuns = 256 solar years). With thirteen months in twenty named days per tun, it takes 260 tuns to come around to the same numbered day, and every katun-ending would hark back in the Maya mind to the previous katun of the same name 260 tuns before (Willey 1979:xv; Puleston 1979:62; Edmonson 1988). expression," "and economic isolation," but with defensive fortifications (Puleston 1979:68-69, citing esp. Coggins on Tikal). The great city of Tikal was conquered and humiliated in 562 A.D. by Lord Water, ruler of Caracol (184.108.40.206.2; Schele & Freidel 1990:171-174). The Hiatus has been the clear dividing line for archeologists between the Early and Late Classic periods, and for Willey, this slump was a "rehearsal for the collapse" (Puleston 1979:69, citing Willey) which would come 13 katuns later.
However, it should be emphasized that, as Arlen Chase points out (Chase 1991:35-36, and fig. 3), this "Hiatus" actually should be seen as limited to the "core area" around Tikal, while the temporary demise of Tikal allowed a rapid expansion of the "core area ceremonial complex" tradition into the entirety of the Southern Lowlands and beyond. Indeed, Nikolai Grube declares bluntly that there is no evidence for a Maya hiatus (Grube 1995).
The 32nd eclipse station in a table in the Mayan Dresden Codex is dated to 13 Ahau 220.127.116.11.0 (Gregorian Jan 24, 771 A.D.), when an eclipse was actually visible in the Yucatán – an eclipse coinciding with the katun ending, and hence recorded on Quirigua Stele E and in the Mayan Paris Codex.
However, the next katun 13 Ahau (256 years later) ends and 11 Ahau begins as the number of katun-ending monuments are at an all-time peak in the Maya Southern Lowlands, i.e., the height of the Classic period (18.104.22.168.0). Then, with "western or 'Mexican' pressures" as "the most proximate cause," there is a general "cessation of all . . . elite ceremonial center or politico-religious center activity" – although "[t]he far eastern part of the southern Lowlands shows much less evidence of collapse phenomena and foreign incursions than the west," e.g., Lamanai, Belize, "kept right on going" (Willey 1987:3).
Richard E. W. Adams has concluded that the specific "circumstances of the collapse were probably different, perhaps unique, from region to region and even from site to site" (Adams 1973:33). As with the "Hiatus" at Tikal, the immediate decline was not universal. The causes were probably bound up with a combination of problems, including “destructive wars,” “overpopulation, environmental damage, famine, and drought” (Gugliotta 2007:100-101; cf. Brown 2011:46) – exacerbated by an estimated Maya population of ten million in the lowlands, monoculture farming, prolonged drought beginning in the 9th century, a top-heavy elite ruling class, etc. (Gugliotta 2007:104, citing study of lowland lake-bed sediments).
Back to the Hiatus
The portents and katun-prophecies we have are not only negative. For example, of two strong rulers of Tikal who envelope the Hiatus, Stormy-Sky and Ah-Cacaw (=Ruler A), the latter celebrates the same bloodletting ceremony 13 katuns after the former, i.e., Stormy-Sky on June 11, 439 (22.214.171.124.18), and Ah-Cacaw on Sept 17, 695 A.D. (126.96.36.199.18). Indeed, Ah-Cacaw makes war on Calakmul and takes its king captive on "the thirteen katun anniversary of Stormy-Sky's war event celebrated on Stela 31" (188.8.131.52.15), and finally dedicates Temple 1 and buries Stormy-Sky's Stela 31 therein on the final "thirteenth katun anniversary" (Schele & Freidel 1990:27-29,156- 158,164,202-209, and nn. 47,60). This introduces the notion of the "katun of change," katun 8 Ahau, during which these events took place. Puleston was so struck by all these sorts of parallels that he was moved to say that (Puleston 1979:67-68)
it seems undeniable that a thirteen-katun historical cycle was recognized and was of great significance during the Classic Period. Even the katun prophecies which survived in the Post-Conquest period may reflect something of these events which must have already had a rhythm of their own which, like waves on an ocean of time, had a momentum that carried the fortunes of civilization with them.
Katun 8 Ahau
Following Arlen Chase (1991:34), "an ideational" start can be made with the katun 8 Ahau of 179 A.D. (184.108.40.206.0), which, as we have seen, suggests the shift in power from Late Preclassic El Mirador to Early Classic Tikal, whose ascendancy was soon linked with Teotihuacán -- where the Early Classic begins quite early (Coe 1994:89). The next katun 8 Ahau began in 435 A.D., and has been mentioned above in connection with the later "Hiatus" (534-613 A.D.). It was also the beginning of baktun 9 in the Long Count (220.127.116.11.0), and involved the rapid expansion of Classic Maya sites with the full complement of the traditional core ceremonial complex: Copán, Quirigua, Piedras Negras, Altar de Sacrificios, Yaxchilan, Oxkintok, Calakmul, Naranjo, and Caracol. Likewise, Chichen was supposed to have been discovered by the Itza (at katun 6 Ahau). Lord Yax Kuk Mo’, for example, apparently came from central Mexico to Copán, Honduras, with his retinue, took over and began to rule at the beginning of baktun 9 (8 Ahau 13 Ceh, 18.104.22.168.0 = 11 Dec 435 A.D.), and his dynasty continued to rule Copán until the end of baktun 9, four hundred years later, i.e., the dynasty ruled for one baktun (Schele & Freidel 1990:311-313).
The Tikal Hiatus dampened the expansion a bit, but it picked up considerably after that, passing another katun 8 Ahau at 692 A.D. (22.214.171.124.0), when the Itza left Chichen Itza and went to Chakanputun (Tikal gained ascendancy over Caracol at the same time, and Teotihuacán fell – around one Short Count before the Maya Collapse [Coe 1994:105-107,127]). Peak expansion was reached on the eve of the Great Collapse. The next katun 8 Ahau began in 948 A.D. (10.6.0.0.0), and was accompanied by the expulsion of the Itza from Chakanputun and their return to Chichen Itza (probably assisted by the Toltecs). The last monuments had been carved centuries
before, and there was no true recovery of the Lowland core ceremonial complex tradition (Puleston 1979:64-65, citing the Books of Chilam Balam; Chase 1991:34-38; cf. Coe 1994:133-134,143-144,147).
The next katun 8 Ahau began in 1204 A.D. (10.19.0.0.0), and saw a second expulsion of the Itza from Chichen Itza, one group heading to Tayasal, Lake Peten, and the other eventually taking power in Mayapan (126.96.36.199.0). Just before the next katun 8 Ahau, Mayapan was destroyed and abandoned (188.8.131.52.0). This was soon followed by the 16th century Spanish Conquest. The Itza at Tayasal, however, continued undisturbed until forced to flee by the Spanish on March 13, 1697 (184.108.40.206.14) – only 136 days short of the next katun (220.127.116.11.0; Puleston 1979:65- 66).
Katun 6 Ahau
During the katun 6 Ahau (10.7.0.0.0, ending in 987 A.D.), a band of Toltec refugees from Tula (Tolteca-Chichimeca) led by the legendary Kukulcán (=Quetzalcoatl2) entered Yucatán and took over the Puuc culture, including Chichen Itza. At the end of the next katun 6 Ahau, in 1224 A.D. (18.104.22.168.0), however, Toltec power was gone (Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986:134-136; Coe 1994:107,119). 2 The eleventh-century priest-king Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tula/Tollan was an extraordinary leader who established the fundamentals of Toltec culture – later passed on to the Aztecs. His name merely incorporates the name of the great creator-god, Quetzalcoatl (J. Z. Smith, ed., HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion , 704-705).
The waxing and waning of the fortunes of the Itza, the Toltecs, and even the Spanish thus coincide relatively well with specific calendric cycles. Puleston put very little faith in the actuality of some of these accounts (Puleston 1979:66-67), but the late Linda Schele put great stock in them, and used them together with the monuments to reconstruct real Maya history (Schele 1995). Others have examined some quite historical uses of such calendric lore by the post-Conquest Maya as compared with other ethnohistorical data:
Baktun Endings and May Ceremonials
In addition to the 13-katun May, there was the baktun, a 20-tun time measure (=400 x 360 = 394 solar years), which was the largest number in the Olmec-Maya placevalue notation of the Long Count, i.e., 18x203=144,000 days (Edmonson 1988:19-20,194-6; Schele & Freidel 1990:82,430-1,507). The Maya celebrated baktun-endings with major ritual dramatic presentations, as in the 20-act performance at Merida in 1618 (22.214.171.124.0), and as at Mayapan for the previous baktun-ending in 1224 A.D. (126.96.36.199.0; Edmonson & Bricker 1985:51, citing Edmonson "The Baktun Ceremonial of 1618" in Benson, ed., Fourth Palenque Round Table), or for the 13-act Ceremonial of the May in 1824 at Tzimin, in which the Itza and Xiu together began a new 13-katun cycle Short Count, as they had earlier in 1539 in Mayapan and Merida (Edmonson & Bricker 1985:49,53; cf. Wright 1989:338-9). Culbert notes, by the way, that 1539 A.D. is the date correlation with the Maya Long Count (188.8.131.52.0) most commonly used by Mayanists, i.e., the Goodman-Martinez- Thompson (GMT) correlation (Culbert 1973:15; others prefer 184.108.40.206.0).
The May anniversary could also be applied to the timing of warfare, as in 439 and 695 A.D. (Schele & Freidel 1990:156,158,202-3,205,208-9), as we noted above. Of course, baktun 9 began in 435 A.D., and also coincided with the beginning of katun 8 Ahau, the katun of change.
Susanna Ekholm thought that she found archeological evidence for the celebration of the end of baktun 9 in 830 A.D. at Lagartero (Wright 1989:271-2), while Clemency Coggins has suggested "that Chichen Itza was built specifically to celebrate and symbolize" that very baktun 9 ending along with the simultaneous end of a Mexican Calendar Round, apparently to "forestall a cosmic cataclysm at this liminal time" – as foreseen there and then by both Mexican and Maya – Coggins placing the drilling of New Fire on the chest of a Chac-Mool at the zenith of the Pleiades (Wright 1989:342-3).
That a cataclysm could take place is clear from the massacre at about this time (800 A.D.) of the entire royal family, and destruction of all religious and cultural artifacts at lowland Cancuén, which was soon completely abandoned (Maugh 2005; Gugliotta 2007:96-109). Indeed, “the wave of collapse moved across the Maya lowlands from west to east, with the first Maya center to go under being Palenque about A.D. 810. Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras . . . followed soon after (by 825), and Altar de Sacrificios . . . abandoned by 910. Within the next few decades the rain forests of the Petén had swallowed up most of the remaining cities, and what had once been a thriving urban population of perhaps 12 million had fallen to an impovrished rural population of less than 2 million" (Malmström 1994:199, citing Adams 1991:264). A demographic disaster.
Schele & Freidel sum up all these various phenomena as follows (1990:432 n. 57):
All Maya communities would have celebrated the great regularities of the Maya calendars: the hotun (five-year) endings with a katun, the katun (twentyyear) endings, New Year's, the 819-day count, the coming of the rains, important points in the solar year, such as solstices and the zenith passages, and stations in the planetary cycles. But each great city also had its own histories that generated a series of local festivals celebrating the founding of the city, the date associated with its special patron gods, the anniversaries of its great kings and their births, triumphs, and deaths. Thus the system of festivals combined those occasions celebrated by all Maya with a complementary series derived from the individual histories of each dynasty. Both kinds of celebrations appear in the glyphic record.
What Caused the Collapse?
Could a centralized state (like Rome or Teotihuacán) have prevented the Collapse? It may be that social stratification, deliberate balkanization, the encouragement of intersite (ritual) warfare (Grube 1995), and many other centrifugal policies made the formation of a centralized Maya state in the fashion of Teotihuacán impossible – unless the El Mirador “state” actualized it very early, in accordance with the views of Richard Hansen (Brown 2011:44,46). Yet, even in the case of Teotihuacán (and Rome), there was an eventual end to the empire.
Culbert insists that we know what happened to the Maya: Centuries of exponential population growth brought the Lowlands to one of the highest population densities in the world, around 200 persons/km2 (like China).3 Maya culture was complex and wonderfully successful, but such an exponential, upward curve could not continue forever. Whatever the proximate cause (ecological, political, etc.), he says, millions of Maya died in the Classic Collapse,4 even if mainly infants. Within a century, up to 75% of the Southern Lowland population was gone. Most of the remainder was gone in the century after that. A true demographic disaster!
Yet Belize and some Highland sites continued, while the Northern Lowlands recovered and had a strong Postclassic (Culbert 1995; Grube 1995), as at Chichen Itza (Freidel 1995). Other sites continued on for another 200 years before abandonment, e.g., Xunantich (Leventhal 1995). According to the Chases, much of this is overblown, and it is the epicenters which are actually abandoned – not the outer village and agricultural life (Chase 1995). Indeed, Malcolm Webb long ago noted that, even in the decline of 10th century Petén, there is no archeological evidence for overpopulation, nor for climatic change, poor agriculture, peasant revolt, disease, plague, or natural disaster (Webb 1973:367-368; cf. Demarest 1995). It may simply be, according to him, that the Petén was a poor candidate for "secondary state formation" owing to (1) geographical limitations, to (2) "an unfavorable balance of trade," leading to (3) a lack of redistributive resources, and to (4) an inherently unstable theocratic state which could no longer command the faith of the people (Webb 1973:370,374,386-390,393-401).
Anthony Andrews saw a similar problem for Tikal, with a causal focus on the decline and shift in long-range trade, and with similar results (Andrews 1983:126). Richard Hansen saw the abandonment of the massive El Mirador city-state ca. 150 A.D. as caused by systematic deforestation, destruction of the fertile marshes through consequent clay run-off, etc. (Brown 2011:46).
More recently, astronomers led by David Hodell have suggested that a droughtcausing 206-year solar intensity cycle appears to have coincided with the Mayan baktun cycle, including the ca. 900 A.D. Maya Collapse (Hodell, Brenner, and Curtis, 1995:391-394; Kennett, et al. 2012:788).
Whatever the causes, the disaster could not be ignored. Perhaps horrified and humbled by their immediate past folly, elites throughout the Lowlands now tended to cooperate, replacing warfare with diplomacy. Monumental inscriptions became short, and avoided royal biography or war (Grube 1995).
The Maya appear to have been obsessed by their ideology of time, and it pervaded nearly everything they did. Yet Culbert insists that, faced with such overwhelmingly difficult problems, the Maya would have abandoned ideology (Culbert 1995). This will remain a vexing issue for future inquiry, since the Maya themselves had such a thoroughgoing and well-integrated ideology of time:
By any account the calendrical script of the Maya remains quite exceptional in integrating astronomical and social time, cosmology and history, within the same formal and semiotic system from the very start. (Brotherston 1979:248)
Mayan Calendar Reform
Long before all these considerations of good and bad times for the Maya, there was “Maya calendar reform,” which took place in A.D. 48 and entailed the authoritative recalibration at Edzná of the Long Count sequence to make the beginning of their year coincide “with the zenithal passage of the sun over their city” (Malmström 1994:136- 138). One Sothic cycle later (1460 years) Bishop Diego de Landa observed and commented on that same zenithal passage in the Yucatan.
In Our Day
In our own time, because the 5200-year Maya Long Count is winding down and will reset on December 21, 2012 (Gregorian), some criers of doom have been sounding the apocalyptic alarm of coming Armageddon for all of humanity – accompanied by a book and Hollywood film.5 For some of us at least, those latter items are the best indicators of a coming “Collapse” – a collapse of rationality.5
1. The Maya calendric cycle of primary interest to us here is the May, or "Short Count," of thirteen katuns (13 x 20 x 360-day year = 260 tuns = 256 solar years). With thirteen months in twenty named days per tun, it takes 260 tuns to come around to the same numbered day, and every katun-ending would hark back in the Maya mind to the previous katun of the same name 260 tuns before (Willey 1979:xv; Puleston 1979:62; Edmonson 1988).
2. The eleventh-century priest-king Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tula/Tollan was an extraordinary leader who established the fundamentals of Toltec culture – later passed on to the Aztecs. His name merely incorporates the name of the great creator-god, Quetzalcoatl (J. Z. Smith, ed., HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion , 704-705).
3. Arlen & Diane Chase estimate the population of greater Caracol at about 970 persons/km2, and the epicenter at 1100/km2 (Chase 1995).
4 “Collapse,” re Maya of Copán, Honduras (TV episode 8 in Out of the Past series (Pittsburgh: WQED, 1993), due to inability of land to sustain the increasing population. See www.learner.org/channel . Cf. J. Z. Smith, ed., HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, 704 (the Long Count ceasing to appear in Maya architecture).
5. The film is “2012” (opened Nov 13, 2009), and the book is Carlos Barrios, The Book of Destiny: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Mayans and the Prophecy of 2012 (Harper-One,
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