Maya Night Skies
By Fathouse Productions
Ancient and modern Maya cultures have their own takes on the constellations of the night sky.
The Big Dipper, for example, is a macaw named “Seven Macaw” (Vucub Caquix) who has long tail feathers in the place of the Dipper’s handle. The seven probably refers to the number of bright stars in the constellation. His wife, Chimalmat or “shield,” is the Little Dipper. In the Popol Vuh, a K’iché Maya holy text, a bird deity named Vucub Caquix is so proud of how bright his jewels shine that he claims to be the sun and moon and the lord of creation. Offended by his pride, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque, the hero twins of the epic, go to battle and defeat the great bird.
Another constellation visible this time of year in Xela is Cygnus the swan, also called the Northern Cross. The tail of the swan is the top of the cross, and the wings of the swan form the crosspiece. To the Maya, this constellation is a stalk of corn, the material that mankind was made from. In some K’iché communities, the first full moon in March means that the brush in the fields is burnt. The ashes are then spread as fertilizer and the maize crop is planted during the full moon of April in anticipation of the rainy season, while later weeding is always done under a full moon.
The Pleiades, too, are linked to corn. The Pleiades are a small, bright constellation that resembles a mini-Dipper. The K’iché refer to the Pleiades as a “handful” (motz) because they see them as a handful of maize kernels. Some Maya communities still observe the Pleiades to regulate their agricultural calendars as the ancients did. When the Pleiades reach the tops of the trees at dawn, some Lacandon Maya communities burn their fields. Some K’iché Maya communities plant high-altitude maize when the Pleiades set with the sun in March. Low altitude maize is sometimes planted when the Pleiades are in conjunction with the sun in May. In Yucatan, the Pleiades are said to rise at dawn on June 13, at the time that the heavy rains are to begin. In some Yucatan communities, the Pleiades are also the rattle of a rattlesnake, whose head is in the constellation of Perseus. In other Maya traditions, the Pleiades mark the eastern head of the Milky Way Cosmic Monster.
In Ancient Maya tradition, the Milky Way was a great celestial reptile that represented the sky and from which other stars were suspended. The dragon had two heads. When the sun passes in front of the Milky Way during the summer solstice it approaches the eastern head, associated with the rising sun, Venus as a bright morning star, and life. The western head is where the Milky Way intersects with Scorpius or Sagittarius during the winter solstice, and symbolizes the setting sun, Venus as a bright evening star, and death. Maya glyphs show that Ancient Maya rulers carried a double-headed serpent bar in their arms that likely represented the Milky Way dragon deity.
In many Maya communities, the North Star is called Xaman Ek, the name of a benevolent god friendly to merchants and commerce. The Maya, along with people everywhere, have long used it to find each other and distant lands.