Sacred Astronomy and the Modern Maya

People often ask me how much “sacred astronomy” is still remembered by the Maya. All I can do is to share a few of the experiences I had while living in Momostenango.

First of all, despite the predilection of anthropologists to describe everything as some sort of “sun god,” I never heard anyone actually refer to the sun as a god. Most people used the Spanish word “Dios” to describe the divine power, even though many Momostecans feel only a remote connection to the Catholic Church, and in some cases their understanding of the word Dios may be quite different than anything that would be recognizable to the pope. Some people actually use the word Ajaw (Yucatec: Ahau), the ancient, pre-Christian word for the divine. But the sun? No.

It is not the same when it comes to the moon. This luminary was often called Qati’t Ik’, which means “Grandmother Moon.” It is generally agreed among scholars that Xmucane, the “First Grandmother” in the K’iche’ Pop Wuj or Mayan Creation Epic, represents the waning moon, and that this is the same deity as Ix Chel in Yucatec lore. In both K’iche’ and Yucatec mythology, Grandmother Moon is a healer and a midwife. Here the connection between the ancient and modern Maya remains strong and very much alive. Victoria Qiej, who is both a healer and a midwife, always conducted her herb-gathering expeditions on the full moon.

The juncture of our Western constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, which also marks the Galactic Center and which has gained much attention through the writings of John Major Jenkins, is the crossroads in the sky which marks the entrance to Xib’alb’a, the “awesome place,” the ancient Mayan Otherworld. It is also the place where the Milky Way crosses the path of the ecliptic – this is what makes it a crossroads. Many contemporary Maya from Momostenango can still point to this part of the sky and tell you that this is the road to Xib’alb’a.

The opposite point in the sky – which is to say, the other crossing of the Milky Way and ecliptic – is in the constellation we call Orion. During the Mayan Classic period, this was the “creation place.” It symbolized our entry into life, just as its opposite point, the Galactic Center, symbolized our entry into the Underworld. It is said that here the first “three hearthstones” were laid out in the sky during the act of creation. I was surprised to discover that this corner of the sky is very well remembered. Some people are under the impression that the hearthstones are formed by what we call the Belt of Orion; this isn’t quite true. The three hearthstones are a triangle; the belt is a straight line. The actual three hearthstones are formed by the central star in Orion’s Belt as well as his two feet. I am unlikely to forget this, as it was pointed out to me while rattling along a mountainous dirt road in the back of a pickup truck late at night. There is a nebula in the center of the triangle; this represents the hearth fire, although you need a very good eye (better than mine) to see it.

In Momos, most of the Maya still cook on wood stoves. In very traditional houses, three stones are laid out upon the top of the stove, and the family comal or tortilla griddle is placed on the stones, which are likewise referred to as “the three hearthstones.” Don Rigoberto Itzep’s wife Maria cooked all our tortillas on a comal perched upon three hearthstones. I don’t quite remember whether it was Rigoberto or Maria who told me that “with the three hearthstones, the cosmos is present in your own kitchen.” Maybe it was both of them.

This, then, is what I remember being told about the sky. On some future journey, perhaps I can learn even more.