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Cyclic Fatalism Among the Maya

Cyclic Fatalism Among the Maya

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Published by Robert F. Smith
The ancient Maya had an enormously complex calendar, and believed that recurring cycles of time could bring disaster or success. Was this a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The ancient Maya had an enormously complex calendar, and believed that recurring cycles of time could bring disaster or success. Was this a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Robert F. Smith on Dec 05, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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by©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 materialisticinterpretations.(Arlen Chase 1991:38)
Cyclic Etiology as Self-Fulfilling ProphecyThe late Dennis Puleston (1979) was foremost among those making the case for cyclical fatalism as a key factor in understanding certain repeated or oscillatory changesin the fortunes of many lowland sites in Yucatán and nearby areas. The editorialresponse of Norman Hammond and Gordon Willey to Puleston was that, although "theMaya 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 thanthey 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 anyinfluence whatsoever (Culbert 1995), while Linda Schele and Nikolai Grube stated thatit certainly does (Grube personally to me after Schele's presentation at UCLA, Oct 29,1995).In 1980 Willey thought it at least
that foreign rulers would follow localcalendric practice, even if they made some changes (Willey 1987:152-153). He wenton 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" (Willeyin 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 lessmaterialistic [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 bevisible in their prehistory.
Others have continued to comment on this matter (e.g., Coggins 1979; Edmonson1982; Edmonson 1985), making the following broad summary and analysis possible:First Hiatus?In his frequency distribution chart of Maya sites with
-ending monuments(Puleston 1979:64, Fig. 5-1), Puleston began before such monuments existed with theeruption of Ilopongo Volcano in El Salvador ca. 260 A.D. ±85, which most likely tookplace during
katun 13 Ahau
, and covered 3,000 square kilometers with an ash-fallwhich made agriculture impossible and may have led to migration into the SouthernMaya Lowlands. The archeological evidence at this lowland Late Preclassic/EarlyClassic 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 havealso been described by Muriel Weaver (Weaver 1993:115-116,232-233,283). TheClassic period in Central Mexico, on the other hand, began a good deal earlier (Coe1994:89), not to mention the very advanced million-population Yucatec-Maya city-stateof El Mirador (the
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. (, coterminus with the shift in power from Late Preclassic El Mirador to Early Classic Tikal (Chase 1991:34).The Lord of the West ArrivesFire-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 frompowerful Teotihuacán in faraway central Mexico. By January 16th, Fire-is-Born hadconquered 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 60years 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 onthe 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.Next HiatusThe next
katun 13 Ahau
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 thebase-point of "a new era" (Puleston 1979:68; cf. Schele & Freidel 1990:171). ThisHiatus lasted calendrically from 534 to 613 A.D. (Long Count to,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
The Maya calendric cycle of primary interest to us here is the
, or "Short Count," of 
s (13 x 20 x 360-day year = 260
s = 256 solar years). With thirteen months intwenty named days per 
, it takes 260
s to come around to the same numbered day, andevery
-ending would hark back in the Maya mind to the previous
of the same name260
s before (Willey 1979:xv; Puleston 1979:62; Edmonson 1988).

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