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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.1 (2003) 116-117

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The Cosmos of the Yucatec Maya: Cycles and Steps from the Madrid Codex. By Merideth Paxton (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2001) 242pp. $45.00

Like many indigenous cultures of the world, the Maya perceived their earthly and cosmic environment to be divided into four quarters as determined by the path of the sun. Such an understanding of a transcendent order inspired the builders of monumental architecture to locate temples and ancestral tombs within a template governed by these observations. In its absolute role as descriptor of the physical world, the sun also determined and calibrated the experiential dimension of time. Thus, east where the sun rose was seen as the primary direction that marked the beginning of a day, and west its ending; the points between, when traced on the ground, were associated with north and south. The stations of the solar year were marked along the eastern and western horizons as the sun moved between its southern and northern annual extremes, and thus provided a topographical framework for the year.

Throughout the classic period, ca. 250-850 A.D., directions, particularly east and north, were associated with semidivine rulers and their ancestors, but in the late post-classic period—the one discussed in this book—when Maya governors were no longer so powerful, priestly guardians of the calendar maintained the ancient role of the directions as organizers of space and of time.

Paxton hopes to interest a diverse audience, "students of the Maya, historians of science, and casual travelers to Yucatán," in the Maya understanding of the cosmos as evident in the Madrid Codex (xi, xii). This fifteenth-century Maya manuscript, one of only four that survived the antipagan zeal of sixteenth-century Spanish friars, is a compendium of almanacs with directions for the timing and performance of calendrical ritual as compiled in illustrated tables of named days that were to be recycled for reuse. Paxton's focus is the "Madrid Map," a Maltese cross-shaped diagram long known to represent the Maya ritual calendar of 260 [End Page 116] days within a matrix of the four directions. This map specifically equates the directions with the diurnal passage of the sun and with the passage of time by arranging the named days of the calendar in a sequence that proceeds from east to north, to west, to south, and to completion in the east. Paxton associates this circuit with sixteenth-century Maya accounts of the original naming of places on the land by the supreme deity, since the names are listed in a series that proceeded in this same counterclockwise mode that also characterized most ritual.

The four corners of the Madrid Map indicate the four rising and setting positions of the sun at the solstices, and Paxton sees the east as consisting of southeast and northeast, and the west of northwest and southwest. Two figures sit at each of the four sides of the Madrid Map, and two at the center; lines of dots and of footprints mark the four corners that denote the solar extremes. Each direction is clearly identified with its Maya name glyph, and east is placed at the top in position of greatest importance. North is on its right and south to its left; east above and west below are in a line that runs through the framed square center. Paxton identifies all three pairs of aligned figures as the sun and moon deities and as patrons of the two calendars that she demonstrates comprise the map—the 365-day-solar calendar and the 260-day-ritual one, which she equates with the Moon goddess. Paxton sees these deities as the joint creator force, the primeval parents who generate time. The Venus calendar, as found in the contemporary Maya Dresden Codex, is also shown to be associated with the solstitial directions, and with a quadripartition of the Yucatan Peninsula that the author describes as exemplified by the eastern archaeological site of Tulum—location of winter solstice...


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