The Mystery Of Time


One of the most fascinating of all the mysteries left for modern man by the original inhabitants of North America is the largely indecipherable record, carved on stone by a stone-age people, of the fabulous civilization of the Maya Indians. In the jungles of Yucatan and Central America are the imposing ruins of fantastic cities or ceremonial centers, many of them dating back to the early years of the Christian era, all of them reflecting the development and the activities of a unique society whose origins lie even farther back in the past. This society had gone into a cultural decline before the first Europeans arrived, and most of its finest centers had been abandoned. For four centuries men have been trying to reconstruct its history from data that are frequently confusing and always inadequate.

It has been said that there can be no history without documents. The Maya left plenty of documents, or at least inscriptions. The trouble lies in reading them. Maya hieroglyphs have been deciphered only in part. Enough is known to give a tantalizing glimpse of the spiritual and intellectual achievements of a truly remarkable people, but we still know only a portion of the story which was so carefully recorded many centuries before Columbus. There will never be a Rosetta stone to solve the riddle. Fuller knowledge comes from the slow, laborious work of scholars who work step by step at the breaking of a code devised by men whose concepts were profoundly unlike those of today.

One of the most distinguished and persistent of these scholars is J. Eric S. Thompson, who has spent many years in a study of the Maya and who has done as much as anyone to gain an understanding of their inscriptions. In Maya Hieroglyphic Writing he details the steps by which the glyphs are interpreted, and, in the course of it, sheds fascinating light on the spirit which animated the age that produced them.

Essential to any study of these gyphs is a detailed knowledge of Maya theology and myth, which were extraordinarily complex. Maya writing seems to have been concerned very largely with recording the passage of time and with determining the specific dates on which various solar, lunar, and astronomical periods would end, or begin. This was to the Maya a matter of deep religious significance, the very heart and center of what they believed about life and about the universe. Their calendar, the astronomical knowledge on which it was based, the days and months and years which composed it, the numerical system used to record it—these were not so much religious matters as religion itself. Never was there a people so completely given over to what Mr. Thompson calls a “strange, poetic absorption in the passage of time.”

Maya Hieroglyphic Writing by J. Eric S. Thompson. University of Oklahoma Press, reproduced from the first edition published in 1950 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. 347 pp., plus plates. $10.

The Maya, to begin with, were astronomers and mathematicians of great skill, a good deal farther advanced in both of those fields than their European contemporaries. They were also excellent architects and they produced artists of uncommon sensitivity and sophistication, and Mr. Thompson believes that one of the things which make their glyphs so hard to decipher was the fact that they were poets as well, using seemingly redundant or tautological locutions simply for literary effect. Basically, indeed, their concept of the universe was a poetic concept. As Mr. Thompson remarks, “Man can hardly fail to be moved in spirit as he gazes into the ever-receding past, or ponders the immeasurable future. He faces eternity whichever way he turns.”

To help him face eternity the Maya had devised an exceedingly intricate calendar. He had two years going at once—one, a more or less normal g65-day solar year (he knew about leap year, but he refused to have one; he simply made corrections, kept himself perfectly in tune with solar time, but let the g65-day year run), and a special year of 260 days, which had nothing to do with any movement of stars, sun, or moon but which was extremely important to him. This special, 26o-day year came because the Maya had twenty days, given interesting names like Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Manik, and so on down to something named Ahau. These days were numbered only up to thirteen, which meant that the same day and the same number would not meet again until 260 days had elapsed. When that happened this particular year was over. Meanwhile, of course, the solar year of 365 days was going on, not to mention an extra year of 584 days, which had to do with the synodical period of the planet Venus. Every 104 solar years all three of these special years would come out even, which meant that the entire procession had to start over again; meanwhile, the periods of twenty solar years, known as katuns, were considered highly important, and the Maya tended to reckon time by katuns much as we reckon it by centuries.